One of the reasons that I chose to come to Samara was the location, down in the south of Russia in the Vogla region. I thought there would be a more friendly climate (so -20 degrees when I arrived was a bit of a shock!) and knew that it was close (in Russian terms!) to many places that I wanted to visit. Later this month I will be visiting Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod, and in March I travelled to Volgograd, a town that I had wanted to visit for a long time, having heard so much about the Battle of Stalingrad, probably the key battle of the Second World War.
My first impression of Volgograd was a small dot on the horizon about an hour before our arrival. Sergei, who I was sharing a kupe with, had told me (between chapters of his life story) that it was possible to see the famous statue from a long way away, and we had spent the last hour watching from both sides of the carriage as no one knew which side it would be on! As we got nearer and nearer, this dot got bigger and bigger, and as the train went past the statue of Mother Russia seemed absolutely enormous. The sheer size of the statue was overwhelming, and I tried to imagine the effort that must have gone into building it.
is a student from Oxford University. He studies Russian and French. He’s working now as an English teacher at the Municipal Nayanova University in Samara.
After checking into the Hotel Volgograd on the main square I decided to go and have a closer look at Mother Russia and the monuments surrounding her, the hill known as Mamaev Kurgan. From the tram stop the approach to the hill is startling, with lots of statues and memorials. The steps give a great view of the massive statue ahead, and the sounds - music and radio broadcasts from the battle - create a somber mood, and made me think of the battle and all that I had heard about the soldiers’ difficulties. I approached the statue of Mother Russia through the hall with the eternal flame. Here the names of soldiers who died during the battle are written on the walls, giving a more personal impression. Through the hole in the roof snow was falling lightly, and I could see that everyone in the room, like me, was affected - I felt sympathy and regret, but most of all anger and frustration that such terrible events seem to have taught humanity nothing, and wars are still fought today. I walked up to the statue and round the base, trying to imagine how hard it must have been to fight in such a terrible battle. No other war memorial has left such a strong impression on me, and the whole ensemble I think is a fitting memorial to the soldiers who lost their lives in the terrible battle.
After such a somber day I had a rather more cheerful evening in a local blues bar, where I got to know some of the local people. As I have found everywhere in Russia, the English stereotype of the cold, unfriendly Russian is completely untrue: everyone was very welcoming and happy to tell me all about the town, and they even invited me to come and visit any time I wanted to.
The second day was much warmer and I walked round the town and along the river, which was already melted, unlike in Samara! It was strange to think that all the buildings that I saw had been built since the battle, as pretty much everything in the town was destroyed. This fact is reinforced by the ruined mill that is next to the museum: the only building in the town centre that is from the war, and by the stunning panorama inside the museum which shows what the city looked like at the end of the battle. The museum had lots of interesting exhibits on the battle and the people that fought in it, once again giving a very personal and human impression.
After walking across the square and stopping for a coffee it was time for me to buy my supplies and catch the train back to Samara. I could only stay for two days, but Volgograd left a strong impression on me. The memorials to the war are a necessary and fitting reminder of all that the town suffered during the war, and I learnt a lot and was very moved by them. The people I met were also very welcoming, and proved that Volgograd is not just a museum town, but a living, modern and very friendly city.