Fans arriving for England’s first World Cup match with Tunisia on Monday will be greeted by the tallest statue in Europe.
This is The Motherland Calls, a woman high on a hill above the Volgograd Arena, summoning the Russian people people to a war of liberation from the Nazis.
Sword in hand, she urges the Red Army and citizens of Stalingrad, as the city was, to crush the Fascist invader.
This is where Soviet Russia stopped Adolf Hitler’s Second World War armies, and hurled them back to die in the snow.
So Volgograd has a special place in the hearts of Russians. It was a turning point in what they call The Great Patriotic War. Hitler admitted his failed battle for Stalingrad was fatal to his vision of a thousand-year Reich.
Even by the apocalyptic standards in Russia, this ordeal was the harshest for soldiers and civilians alike in the history of war. The battle for the city that bore the name of the Soviet leader lasted five months, one week and three days until February 2 1943. It was the bloodiest ever, with almost two million casualties.
In his book Stalingrad: The City That Defeated The Third Reich, Jochen Hellbeck explained how even in Britain the terrible battle dominated conversation: “In pubs throughout England the radio would be turned on for the start of the evening news only to be turned off after the report on Stalin- grad. ‘Nobody wants to hear anything else,’ a British reporter noted. ‘All they talk about is Stalingrad’.”
Hitler was obsessed with Stalingrad, calling its people “thoroughly communistic and especially dangerous”.
He ordered all males to be murdered, and women and children to be deported after its capture by his 6th Army under Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus. But the Red Army led by Georgy Zhukov, despite appalling losses and civilian privation that reportedly led to cannibalism, broke the siege, counter-attacked and turned the tide of the war.
Women played a vital role. Not just as nurses and drivers but as frontline soldiers. There were even three all-women air regiments. Trapped civilians in the city joined the fight. The famous Traktor Factory, after which Volograd’s football team was named, kept on making T34 tanks until Nazi stormtroopers burst into the plant.
The battle was fought street by street, house by house and room by room. The Germans called it Rattenkrieg – Rat War.
Stalin’s cry was: “Not a step back. There is no land behind the Volga.”
Deserters and malingerers were shot in their thousands. This is the proud, patriotic city that FIFA, or maybe Vladimir Putin, chose for England’s first game in the midst of a propaganda
war. In 1942, we were military allies, but today we are locked in a diplomatic conflict.
Passions will inevitably run high in the brand-new arena, built at the foot of a hill where the Mamayev Kurgan war memorial complex, which includes The Motherland Calls, commemorates the sacrifice of Stalingraders.
England fans must expect a full-throated roar of loyalty to Putin from flag-waving Russians. As for songs on the terraces, what better anthem could Volgograders have than The Volga Boatmen.
This classic folk shanty about the hard life of burlaks has the memorable chorus “Ey Ukhnem”. We know this as “Yo-o, heave ho” and English fans singing that should get a warm welcome.
In recent months, relations between London and Moscow have frozen into a new cold war after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia in Salisbury. But this is football, not international diplomacy. It does not have to be a grudge-match. Cossacks are said to have been sent to the city “to keep order”, but in my experience – and I’ve been there three times – the Russians are amazingly friendly and hospitable.
They invite you into their homes, and what’s theirs is yours by way of food and drink. They’re curious about “life in the West”, even though they can travel freely.
They love their vodka (beer is regarded as a soft drink), but they usually eat something with their booze. Dried fish is a favourite.
Founded as the trading settlement of Tsaritsyn in the 16th century, Volgograd has grown to become a city of more than a million people, with broad, tree-lined streets adorned with “Welcome” banners. It boasts a supertram system, and a thriving industrial base of shipbuilding, oil, steel and aluminium production.
Volgograd, which is twinned with Coventry, has risen from the ashes to become a paradigm of contemporary Russian prosperity. But, having been designated one of the USSR’s Hero
Cities by Stalin, it is still steeped in its wartime history.
A petition has been signed by 50,000 people calling for it to be given back its name of Stalingrad, which it lost in 1961 after the denunciation of Stalin.
A referendum must be held for that, but the city reverts to Stalingrad several times a year for ceremonial occasions.
Nostalgia for the old name shows how deep the wartime identity runs. In his book Russia’s War, Richard Overy, professor of history at Exeter University says: “Stalingrad… has remained in the modern memory unique among the battles of the Second World War.
“It was a victory necessary for the self-belief of ordinary Russians, it was a victory necessary for the Allies at a critical juncture in the war. Stalingrad symbolised the change in Soviet fortunes.” You cannot get away from the echoes of the Great Patriotic War.
This is a different kind of war, a Great Patriotic Propaganda Contest in which “Putin’s World Cup” has been compared with Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics which showcased Nazi achievements.
And Volgograd is uniquely situated to host England’s entry into this contest. Its heroism was recognised by Winston Churchill, who presented a steel longsword to Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943. Etched on it is this: “To the steel-hearted citizens of Stalingrad the gift of King George VI in token of the homage of the British people.”
I wonder where it is now? I hope it’s on show for English fans to see, and ponder the ties which bind the generations of their parents and grandparents with the people of the Hero City.
The battle in numbers
… the length of time the fierce battle lasted
… took part – 1.1 million Axis troops (from Germany, Italy and Japan) and 1.2 million Russians
…the highest number of casulaties for any battle in the Second World War
… civilians were estimated to have died
.. Axis prisoners died in Soviet prison camps afterwards
… were lost by the Soviets along with 4,341 tanks. The Axis lost 900 aircraft and 1,500 tanks
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