Lepitsk, Russia. 7th July 2014.
When I was planning this journey (‘There’s a plan’ I hear you ask in astonishment?) there were three of Russia’s major cities I wanted to see. St Petersburg and Moscow for obvious reasons, but also Volgograd, better known to many as Stalingrad. This city has a unique place in Russian history and folklore, being the rock upon which Hitler’s ship of dreams foundered. It is impossible to know what would have happened had he taken the city but he failed to do so because of the heroism, bloody mindedness and sacrifice of the defenders. So my plan was to visit some of the WW2 memorial sites before moving on.
Russia is a BIG country. Soon after crossing the border from Finland I joined the M6 road which then runs all the way south to Volgograd and beyond, taking in St Petersburg and Moscow en route. Almost 2,000 kilometres. I was pleased to be able to ride it in stages with some things to do and places to see on the way. Talking of big, Volgograd must be one of the longest cities there is. It stretches 80 kms along the banks of the Volga River.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, I haven’t even got there yet. It was too far to go in one day so I booked into a hostel in a town called Lepitsk, which had nothing going for it other than its convenient location halfway between where I’d left and where I was going.. The hostel was a converted apartment in a huge housing block but was very nice inside and run by friendly people. In typical Russian fashion, the street number of the address relates to several buildings and it was a case of hunting it down, something I was to become used to as time went by. I’d had an interesting ride down from Moscow, having fun with the traffic and roads. When the traffic snarls up Moscow bikers use the 1 metre wide gap between the outer lane and the central reservation as a personal traffic beating lane, a system I was happy to follow. At one point another biker pulled up alongside me, gave me the thumbs up to check I was OK and after a while pulled into a bus lay by. I assured him I was OK and he took a photo of me before riding off. I’ll be somewhere on Facebook now no doubt.
Lepitsk had served its purpose and once out of the city there were what seemed like endless, although very necessary, roadworks with long stretches of single, alternate lane traffic. I’d leaned how to deal with that already so just got on with it, Russian style. The roads they were replacing were in absolutely appalling condition, really broken up and potholed. As I travelled these roads my respect for Russian truckers grew enormously. Many of their trucks are old and quite crude and the drivers must really take a hammering.
This road surprised me in one respect in that for a distance of about 520kms it didn’t pass through one single town and ran more or less straight as a die. Like I said, Russia is BIG!
I found the hotel I’d booked in Volgograd easily enough and I had a nice room to myself at a very reasonable RU650. I also pre-paid for dinner and breakfast, which were quite cheap. When I ate them I discovered why. They were refectory type meals, served canteen style although still good enough. I got the impression the hotel caters for large groups of youngsters. It seems to be focused on tennis judging by the number of courts there were.
Next morning the receptionist helped me to locate the two places I wanted to visit on the town map and gave me instructions as to which trolleybus to get and from where. Fortunately she spoke English very well so everything went smoothly. On Russian public transport the common system seems to be one price per journey, as was the case on the Moscow Metro. On busses you pay the conductress, RU18 in this case, very reasonable for a journey that took nearly forty minutes.
My first destination was the memorial site on Mamayev Hill. During the battle for the city this place changed hands eight times. There are a whole variety of memorials, the main one being ‘The Motherland Calls’ statue. It is the figure of a woman calling the sons of the Motherland to fight in its defence. It is eighty metres high, including the sword, and looks pretty spectacular. The other big statue is of a soldier, gun in one hand, grenade in the other. The inscription includes the famous words of the General leading the defence: No Step Backwards, Stand to Death! These words were reckoned to have given extra determination to the defenders. There’s a cylindrical building which contains an eternal flame and on its walls are the names of those who died. There’s a whole host of other artwork around the statues, most of it in typical Soviet style. There’s never any doubt about what any of these displays are trying to say to you. ‘Subtle’ is not an applicable word.
My second destination was the museum, Panorama Stalinngrad Battle. I enjoyed a hot thirty minute walk to this location and on the way was interested to see a football stadium that seemed to be hosting some kind of 2018 World Cup promotion event. ‘Blimey’ I thought, ‘the current one isn’t even finished yet!’
The museum is at the same location as the infamous factory where German and Russian troops fought a hand to hand battle to win control of the city. The factory was ruined by shelling and has been left in that condition as a memorial. Unfortunately it was closed off for works so I couldn’t visit it. That was a great shame as I remember it vividly from the film Stalingrad and would loved to have seen inside it.
The museum, though, was excellent. Once I’d got in past the unhelpful girl at the cash desk, but helped by the guy at the audio guide desk, I was able to walk around the eight halls of exhibits and became fascinated by them, even though none of the descriptions were in English. The audio guide filled that gap for most of them and it was interesting to see the the rifle of, and information about, Vasily Zaytsev, the famous sniper depicted in the film Enemy at the Gate.
The story of the battle was well told and there were plenty of artefacts from it as well as paintings and memorabilia such as weapons, medals, uniforms and so on. There were also some gifts from various countries sent in acknowledgement of the city’s heroic stand including a ceremonial sword from King George VI, the jewelled Sword of Stalingrad.
The display continued on an upper floor where there is a famous panoramic painting of various battle scenes. It is quite an amazing piece of artwork, being 120 metres long by 16 metres high. It gives a completely different perspective that of a flat panel and worked very well. There was a guide explaining the different scenes to a group of students and I wished I’d been able to understand what she said.
Outside were some period armaments – planes, tanks, even a train. The whole complex was very well organised I thought, and was well worth the visit. I’d wanted to gain a greater understanding of these events from a point of view other than films and I felt I’d succeeded. I heard later that the communist mayor is trying to get the name of the city changed back to Stalingrad and apparently has the support of over 50% of the population. I wonder if he’ll succeed? As it is, the city is entitled to refer to itself as Stalingrad on nine days of the year, all of which relate to WW2 events. The name was changed to Volgograd by Kruschev as part of hi de-Stalinisation programme.
Trains and Tanks and Planes …. on display outside.
The battle itself started on 23rd August 1942 and lasted until 2nd February 1943. The Germans bombed the city to rubble before attempting to occupy it. Although they’d managed to take ninety percent of it by early November they failed to overcome two small pockets of resistance. This gave the Soviet army time to launch a huge counter attack which eventually led to the encirclement and defeat of the German 6th Army. General Paulus surrendered on the 31st January. It’s reckoned that this battle caused the greatest number of casualties of any single battle in the history of warfare – around 1.5 million.
Stalin awarded the city the status of Hero City and, as mentioned, honours flowed in from around the world, not only from governments but also from other cities which has suffered badly during the war, Coventry being one of them. The memorials on Mamyev Hill were constructed in the 1960’s. The Panoramic Museum was opened under its present guise in 1981 although it had been a museum since 1937. It was originally opened to celebrate the freeing of the city from White Russian forces in 1923 at which time the city’s name was changed from Tsaritsyn to Stalingrad in honour of Stalin’s role in those events.
Volgograd/Stalingrad/Tsaritsyn has a history dating back to the late 16th century when it was established as a fortress to protect Russia from forces invading from the south. Therefore there are many other historical sites from across the ages I could have visited but unfortunately I didn’t have the time. I had chosen to concentrate just on WW2 events and I felt I had achieved that by visiting two of the main sites out of the many available. Job done!
The next day I set off south again, hoping that it would be my last day in Russia for a while. And it would have been too had it not been for a town called Astrakhan. The day started well and once I’d finally left Volgograd behind the road became straight and flat, although not busy. The trucks and cars were getting older and I noticed peoples faces were changing, getting more Asian/Mongol. Stopping for fuel, I went to use the toilet only to be confronted with a shed whose floor had a hole over a deep hole in the ground. Things were definitely getting more, shall we say, ‘rural’. I noticed that the ground looked a little boggy alongside the road and when I checked my Sat Nav I saw the elevation was 50 metres below sea level. No wonder! It shouldn’t have come as a surprise really as the Volga River spreads its wet tentacles across a wide area south of the city as it forms a huge delta before reaching the Caspian Sea.
So all was going well until I came to bloody Astrakhan. Just another sprawling Russian city with little by way of useful signposts, and roads that all seemed to go nowhere very much. My intention for finding the route to Kazakhstan had been to navigate my way to the nearest town to the border at which point I’d have been on the road I needed. The flaw in that plan was that the Sat Nav mapping didn’t list any of them. You’d think that getting out of a town onto a border road would be easy but it seems that Russian road planners don’t want you to leave the country. There were no signs that helped me and the one road my compass bearings suggested would get me there was closed for repairs. After much more riding round in circles I somehow managed to get the Sat Nav to recognise one of the towns between Astrakhan and the border and was on my way – at long last!
But it was getting late by now and I needed a place to stay. To my surprise the road went via a ferry and there was another biker on it. I managed to get him to understand what I wanted and, after consulting with another guy, he was able to lead me to a local hotel. Fantastic, and once again I was rescued by the great biker family. With some hot food inside me and a bed to sleep in I felt ready for anything Kazakhstan could throw at me.