Letter from Stalingrad: Volgograd goes back in time as it remembers its darkest hour

Every year, Volgograd takes on its former title as the city remembers the terrible battle that won the war

6 February 2018
Text and image Matthew Luxmoore

Bella Markaryan, who was a five-year-old child in Stalingrad when the battle began

Bella Markaryan was five years old when German planes blotted out the sky over Stalingrad. On 23 August 1943, Hitler’s forces launched an air raid aimed at bombing the city to submission — 10,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on it in the space of 48 hours. This would mark the start of the Battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest in the history of warfare and a key turning point in the Second World War.

Markaryan spent nights hiding with her mother and two sisters in basements around the city centre. Her house had been reduced to rubble, and her father was away at the front. During the day, knees bloodied from contact with the shards of glass that littered the ground, they ran. Markaryan ran with her sister Lilya, then eight. Her mother Nina ran with three-year-old Larita in her arms.

In the basement of a bombed out maternity home lay new-born children, left to fend for themselves. Markaryan spent several nights there with other survivors. They made dashes to a ruined nearby store and brought back bottles of juice to quench the thirst of the screaming children. “I remember darkness, total and constant darkness,” she recalls today. “What remains from my childhood is a fear not of bombs, not of explosions, but a fear of panic, of screams and of weeping.”

A census conducted after the battle found that fewer than 10,000 civilians were left in the city. Of the 994 children, only nine were reunited with their parents. Markaryan was one of the lucky ones. She was spirited away from Stalingrad during the fighting aboard a ferry carrying wounded Soviet soldiers. She last saw her father in December 1944. 75 years on, she sits rifling through old photos inside a brightly lit kitchen, steps from where her childhood home once stood. With few survivors of that catastrophic siege still alive, it falls upon people like Markaryan, now 80, to serve as living witnesses. This year, she decided to tell her story for the first time.

A census conducted after the battle found that fewer than 10,000 civilians were left in the city. Of the 994 children, only nine were reunited with their parents

The bustling million-strong metropolis of today is unrecognisable from the ruined city she returned to in 1948. In 1961, in an effort to erase Stalin’s personality cult, the city was renamed Volgograd, after the Volga river that runs through it (before 1925 it was known as Tsaritsyn). A four-lane highway now speeds visitors to and from the international airport, set to open a new terminal in time to welcome football fans to Volgograd’s neon-lit new stadium, one of 11 hosting this summer’s World Cup.

But the legacy of Stalingrad is ever-present. Each year, hundreds of soldiers’ remains are dug up in the area around the city, adding to the death toll in a battle which claimed over a million lives. Last November, a 30-tonne gunboat that sunk in 1942 was lifted out of the Volga river in three pieces. It was discovered two years ago by an amateur diver, and is now on public display in Volgograd just like thousands of other artefacts of the war.

Such reminders of Volgograd’s wartime history meld symbols of its modernity with relics of its heroic past. That past subsumes the present several times each year, when the city reverts in name to Stalingrad and commemorates key episodes of the Second World War. Chief among these is 2 February, the day the Stalingrad Battle ended.

So, last Friday, the city again travelled back in time. Tanks rolled through the Square of Fallen Heroes, headlining a military parade which delights throngs of onlookers each year. Over their heads, fighter jets soared through the air, continuing to deafen the city as they circled the skies in the hours that followed. Waitresses in Red Army berets bustled around at restaurants where archive radio reports brought news from the front on a loop. War songs blared from speakers mounted by the roadside. And everywhere, the booming voice of Yury Levitan, the Soviet Jewish radio announcer who proclaimed victory over Hitler from a studio in the Urals, could be heard.

Inside a packed shopping mall on the city’s southern outskirts, children from schools across Volgograd performed Second World War-themed songs. “Great-grandfather, he risked his life so that birds could once again sing in the sky,” sang a group of 25 seven- and eight-year-olds, as they marched on the spot holding the colours of the Russian flag. “So that the sky would be blue, so that laughter would not fade, and so that I could be born into this world.”

Teacher Irina Kirpikova watches as her pupils perform war-themed songs and dances in a shopping mall

From a vantage point in the audience, their teacher, Irina Kirpikova, waved her arms about like a conductor as she gave cues to the children. Once the song had ended, she rushed off in tears to relay her excitement about the performance to fellow teachers from school 140. The school, like most in Volgograd and across Russia, hosts so-called cadet groups, which offer studious pupils military training and extra-curricular activities. Becoming a member is a distinction, affording a chance to perform on war anniversaries. Most families in Volgograd lost a relative in the war, and schoolchildren are socialised in a calendar of war commemoration. Veterans traditionally give so-called “lessons in courage”, but with time participants of later wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya are filling in as the number of survivors of the earlier war dwindles.

Most families in Volgograd lost a relative in the war, and schoolchildren are socialised in a calendar of war commemoration

Alexander Kolotushkin is one of the few that remain in Volgograd. He was called up to serve in December 1943, ten days before his 17th birthday. With the German army surrounded in Königsberg, today’s Kaliningrad, Kolotushkin’s regiment fired at Luftwaffe planes bringing supplies to Hitler’s embattled forces in the city. After Königsberg had surrendered, he took a walk through the city and came across a headless, one-armed statue of Emmanuel Kant, only the plaque with the philosopher’s name intact.

At 91, he still recalls marching past Stalin at the victory parade held in Moscow on 24 June 1945. He now heads up a club in Volgograd for participants of that parade. In 2000, he says, there were 128 of them left in the city. Now there are just five.

In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed holding a referendum on reverting the city’s name to Stalingrad. The gesture fueled a sentiment widespread among Volgograd’s communists, but little has come of the initiative since. In the meantime, the image of the Soviet dictator who gave the city its erstwhile name is enjoying a revival of sorts.

“People want order right now,” said Irina Demyanovich, who works at a stall in the Voroshilovsky mall selling war-themed paraphernalia, including t-shirts with Stalin’s face. “They want a strong leader.” Souvenirs featuring Stalin are also on sale at Mamayev Kurgan, a hill overlooking the city which became an epicentre of the fighting in 1943, as both sides sought control of a strategic outpost. Today, the 280-foot “Motherland Calls” monument stands atop the hill, the largest and most prominent part of a memorial complex spanning 360 hectares.

Stalingrad, more than any other battle, helped Stalin capitalise on the Soviet sacrifice in the Second World War and cement his domination over eastern Europe. In the decades that followed, victory in that battle was used to legitimise the socialist system even as its prospects for survival grew dim. The war narrative that predominates in today’s Russia reifies the myth of a Soviet Union which heroically came together to defeat a powerful aggressor. It has little space for deserters, who faced summary execution by the NKVD secret police, or for any mention of the crimes Soviet soldiers committed against civilians in their counter-advance through eastern Europe to Berlin.

Markaryan is reluctant to pass judgement. Only in the 1980s, when open discussion of political repressions and the wartime past became possible, did she learn of Stalin’s decision not to evacuate the civilian population of Stalingrad when the Germans were at its gates. “Maybe it was the correct decision, strategically,” she offers. “But it’s because of that that so many innocent people died.”

Text and images: Matthew Luxmoore