Stalingrad blade blunted by time: The sword Churchill gave Stalin is gathering museum dust

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The Independent Online
THE CIVILIANS were shabby and grubby. Some munched 'Woolton Pies'; others sucked cigarettes made of the sweepings of canteen floors. As they reached the abbey church . . . all fell quite silent, as though they were approaching a corpse lying in state. The sword they had come to see stood upright between two candles.

Unconditional Surrender

by Evelyn Waugh

THE SWORD they came to see exactly 50 years ago in Westminster Abbey now stands wedged in perspex in a museum case in Volgograd, no longer upright, and sharing what scant attention there is with a hard hat from a Czech factory, a pennant from East Germany, and a porcelain grizzly bear from Denmark.

It is unvisited except by a few old men, the chests of their jackets as shabby as those seen in Westminster Abbey on that dank autumn day in 1943, sewn with faded strips of ribbon, and who, were it not for a No Smoking command on the wall, would be sucking cardboard stems of Belamor Canal, cheap Russian papirosy as fragrant as a wartime canteen floor.

The sword was George VI's gift to the 'steel-hearted citizens of Stalingrad', a dedication engraved on the still bright blade. But, like much else in this 'Hero City' (a designation granted to only one other, Leningrad), the aura that surrounded it in the 1940s has been scythed to a puny size by more quotidian trials of the present.

The guardian of the Sword of Stalingrad today is Boris Usik, a 49-year-old colonel who runs the military museum in Volgograd (as Stalingrad has been called since 'Uncle' Joe was revealed as a monster). He says he knew nothing of the British or American role in the Great Patriotic War until he came across a translation of Churchill's account of the Second World War. They seemed to be two different events.

It is true that Russia lost more soldiers at Stalingrad - 451,158 according to the Military History Institute in Moscow - than Britain did in the entire war; and as many again were wounded. Civilian casualties were also horrendous: at least half a million died.

But that was half a century ago. Nowadays in Fallen Fighters Square, Volgograd, a jaunty billboard advertises a new trading firm, 'New Times, New People, New Kinds of Co-operation'. Another promotes a casino. The grandson of Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, whose Sixth Army led the Nazi attack on Stalingrad, works in Moscow for a German supermarket chain. The Dzerzhinsky tractor factory, scene of some of the most ferocious fighting, this year became the first big industrial plant to be sold by auction.

Of the 125,000 exhibits now under Colonel Usik's charge, the sword from George VI is one of the few he can be sure about: Buckingham Palace is unlikely to ask for it back. The same cannot be said of the letters taken from frozen corpses, medals donated in what is now regarded as a fit of unfathomable fervour,and even the rusty artillery pieces lined up outside.

Colonel Usik sympathises with an aged Austrian who spotted his own name scrawled on the envelope of a letter written from a Nazi dug-out in the winter of 1942 - never posted because the author died. But he sees only greed in 12 claims filed: the museum has had to hand over two sets of medals already.

'They just want to sell them,' he spits. 'We are losing things. At the moment, it is Russian medals that leave the country. They have market value. Then it will be helmets. Soon prices will be set for our old guns and tanks, too.'

Volgograd is a national shrine. Its core used to be communism. 'Long live the Party of Lenin, inspiration and organiser of all our victories,' reads the inscription at a gargantuan memorial complex opened by Leonid Brezhnev in 1967. President Yeltsin now invokes the 'spirit of Stalingrad' to ameliorate the misery of reform and keep alive the hope that all will come right in the end; his enemies holed up at the White House did the same to convince themselves that their cause was not doomed.

The city's main thoroughfare, Lenin Prospekt, is dotted with T-34 gun turrets mounted on concrete. They mark the line where the 62nd Army of Vasily Chuikov held firm. It was here that the tide of Second World War turned, where the great dictators of the century, Stalin and Hitler, fought for Europe, inch by savage inch. The Volga river was never crossed.

And it was for this that Tom Beasley, an octogenarian swordsmith from Acton, west London, was stirred from his bed in the spring of 1943 to meet one final order from George VI. The result was the Sword of Stalingrad. Like a religious relic, his handiwork held Britain spellbound as it toured the country: Cardiff, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and, finally, 50 years ago last week, Westminster Abbey. Few noticed or minded that the royal crest was upside down on the blood-red leather scabbard, studded with rubies.

Then the sword was taken to Tehran where, with an already ailing president Roosevelt looking on, Winston Churchill presented Mr Beasley's work to Stalin, before sitting down to promise that he would open the Second Front, which Moscow believed was long overdue.

With British troops stalled in Italy, Russia's triumphs at Stalingrad, Kursk and other battles 'suffused the people with gratitude to their remote allies', Evelyn Waugh wrote in Unconditional Surrender. 'They venerated the sword as a symbol of their generous and spontaneous emotion.'

Although it never mesmerised Russia in the same way, the sword did inspire a series of tales. One enduring legend was that Stalin, surprised by its weight, dropped it on the floor after he took it from Churchill. The translator, Valentin Berezhkov, who witnessed the exchange, records that Stalin took the blade to his lips and kissed it. Russian documentaries of the war feature grainy black and white film of Mr Beasley, his head covered with what looks like a floppy chef's hat, hammering away by his furnace.

But around the sword also swirled the mistrust of the Cold War years. Three times since the war, it has been sent back to tour Britain, and each time it returned to Stalingrad, a special commission was set up to check that it had not been switched. Rarely has an international gift horse been so thoroughly looked in the mouth.

In an essay in contrasting national styles, however, it is impossible to overlook the Russians' own Stalingrad Sword. Not far from the museum rises Mamaev Kurgan, a hillock overlooking the Volga chosen centuries earlier by the Tatar Khan Mamai for his encampment. On top of this mound soars an extraordinary figure - a statue of Mother Russia, 270ft high and holding aloft a 14-ton steel sword, so big it had to be fitted with red lights to warn aircraft at night.

Beneath Mother Russia, in the Hall of Military Glory, two soldiers stand guard with fixed bayonets before a gigantic stone hand, holding an eternal flame. A third guard at the entrance hawks military badges for dollars 1 a time. A few yards away, sealed in concrete, lies a capsule due to be opened on 9 May 2045, the 100th anniversary of the end of the Second World War; it contains 'the words of veterans to future generations'.

What their words are is unknown. But as the demons of racism return to Western Europe and ethnic hatred to the former Soviet bloc, the real question is whether anyone will bother to listen.

(Photograph omitted)