The city that can’t forget the war: Why Volgograd hopes the World Cup can help it enter a new era

As England heads to their first game of the World Cup, in the city once known as Stalingrad history runs painfully deep, and those with three lions on their shirts have been warned by British police to be respectful

Oliver Carroll
Monday 18 June 2018 08:22 BST
Mother Homeland statue at the Mamayev Kurgan World War Two memorial complex in Volgograd
Mother Homeland statue at the Mamayev Kurgan World War Two memorial complex in Volgograd (AFP)

A group of ragtag performers with middling language skills are re-creating one of the most fateful scenes of the Second World War: The moment Nazi general Friedrich Paulus surrenders Stalingrad to Soviet commanders, almost 200 days after the beginning of the battle.

The re-enactment is one of many performed by the group of military enthusiasts who go by the name of Pekhotinets (the infantryman). From their base outside of the city, the group of 50 volunteers have rebuilt a whole depository of tanks, weapons and artefacts using materials sourced from the era. They speak of a wider longing to be transported back in time.

It may be more than 70 years since the end of World War Two, but if you are in Volgograd, as Stalingrad is now known, you probably wouldn’t know it. Like many a decorated war veteran, the city is most energised when talking about the war; it is most depressed and agitated in the present.

It isn’t hard to understand why that past retains such a presence here. Roughly 1 million soldiers and civilians died in the battle for the city. That is more than the total losses of the US and Britain put together.

Vladimir Putin speaks ahead of Russia 2018 World Cup

The grim clash was fought first from the air, then in the streets and in the sewers. The Germans called it the battle of the rats. It was the war’s most destructive, and decisive battle.

Today, you are never far away from the signs of that battle.

The bones are not quite as easy to find as they were 15 years ago, says Denis Solviev, a coordinator of one of the digging teams. Then, they practically stuck out of the topsoil.

But even now, every so often, there are major new discoveries. Work was even stopped at the new World Cup stadium after diggers found the remains of two Red Army soldiers.

“The bones were found on the riverside, inside what was likely a former trench,” says Soloviev.

“It was part of the thin slice of the banks that Soviet forces controlled even in the darkest days of the war.”

The new stadium, where England will play their first group match on Monday, is attractive enough. Incomplete, but rushed to a usable state for the match, its lattice construction resembles Beijing’s Nest Olympic stadium.

The Volgograd arena stadium
The Volgograd arena stadium (Getty)

But it is the location that really counts. Volgograd could hardly have offered a more revered spot for a football stadium, next to the Mamaev Kurgan, the site of one of Stalingrad’s bloodiest battles.

Mamaev Kurgan, a strategic hill offering views of most of Stalingrad, was a major military prize.

Even during the winter months, the mound was blackened from the soot of munitions, and for years afterwards, there was no grass. The grass is there now, but it covers a burial site containing between 35,000 and 40,000 soldiers.

Since the 1960s, Mamaev Kurgan has been topped by a magnificent statue called the Motherland Monument. The dramatic structure is taller than the Statue of Liberty, as per the instructions of then-leader Nikita Khrushchev. It has become main calling card of modern-day Volgograd.

The other cards would be poverty and post-industrial decay, suggests local journalist Alexander Akulinichev.

“The city was a showcase for the Soviet Union,” he says. “But neither tourism nor industry survived past 1991.”

The achievements of that golden era of Soviet investment are still visible.

The city was a showcase for the Soviet Union. But neither tourism nor industry survived past 1991

Alexander Akulinichev, local journalist 

If you can look past Volgograd’s pompous Socialist Classicism style of buildings, constructed immediately after the war, you can see minor masterpieces of Soviet modernist architecture built later: the university, library, court, youth centre and printing house. Like the Motherland Monument, they were built around the time the Soviet Union began celebrating Victory Day annually.

In the early 1980s, authorities also opened a stunning museum dedicated to the Battle of Stalingrad.

Built next to the old battle-marked mill, which is practically the only building surviving from the wartime city, Volgograd’s Panorama museum is decades before its time. With interactive displays and cutting edge projection, it showed how much the Soviet leadership were invested in historical memory and the city.

That boom is now over, and not only in tourism. Much of the city’s industrial identity is now shuttered. Stalingrad’s celebrated tractor plant, which produced tanks for most of the war – despite the bombs – closed its doors for a final time last year. Ditto the chemical plant, conserve factory and medical equipment factory.

And factory closures are, once again, in the news.

Last week, workers from the Red October steelworks announced a walkout for the day of the England match. They were upset at delayed wages and the prospect of no wages while the plant shuts down for the duration of the tournament. As in other host cities, major factories have been asked to take time off, for unspecified security reasons.

They wrote a letter to the president to complain. Initially, there was no response, but then the press began writing about it.

The Independent spoke to one of the steelworkers, Anton, outside of the plant.

People in Volgograd are beginning to walk tall again, and you cannot overestimate how important that is

Denis Solviev, local archaeologist 

He was too frightened to give his second name, but said the factory’s management had responded to the national scandal. They were given new wage slips on Friday, he confirmed, which promised they would be paid: “They’ve given us the slips before, but it’s enough to avoid a strike.”

Anton said the workers hoped that the World Cup would put the city in the spotlight. Maybe it would provide more investment for the city and perhaps even prevent the prospect of the crisis-ridden factory closing down completely.

There are some reasons to be optimistic that the city consumed by its past may actually have a future too. This year, nearly 200,000 people are expected to visit Volgograd – which if not comparable to the millions who visited under the Soviet Union is a record for the last decade. The city has also been given a cosmetic makeover: spruced up, cleaned and primed for the arrival of Fifa.

“Football has given our city a push,” says the digger Soloviev. “People in Volgograd are beginning to walk tall again and you cannot overestimate how important that is.”

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