The last week of April, my group went on a study trip to Volgograd and Saratov, two cities in the south of Russia on the Volga River. We boarded our first train, from Moscow to Volgograd, on Saturday around 1pm and arrived in Volgograd a solid twenty hours later.
Our first day in Volgograd was whirlwind. As soon as we arrived at the station, still groggy from sleeping on the train, we were whisked away on a city tour. Our guide knew a lot, maybe a little too much, about Volgograd and talked at length about each monument, statue, and landmark, and what they meant. He proudly explained that the history of Volgograd was the subject of his dissertation, and felt the need to remind us at virtually every stop who he was. I will never forget the ringing sound of his voice, amplified by his microphone: “увежаемые гости, меня зовут Максим Анатольевич, ваш экскурсовод,» (respected guests, my name is Maxim Anatolevich, your tourguide). We saw more monuments than I thought possible that day, including the famous Soviet statue Rodina-Mat Zovyeot, or The Motherland Calls. Built after World War II, this statue, taller than the Statue of Liberty from the base to the tip of her sword, is the physical representation of the Motherland calling her children to war. She stands on top of a hill in Volgograd that, while innocuously covered in lush green grass, is a huge mass grave for the people who died during the Battle of Stalingrad in WWII.
I suppose I should go back and explain for a second. Volgograd is filled to the brim with monuments, most of which relate to World War II or, more specifically, the Battle of Stalingrad. That’s because during the war (and all of Stalin’s rule until deStalinization during the Khrushchev period), Volgograd was known as Stalingrad, and suffered through what is considered the largest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. The battle was marked by consistent air raids and close-quarters combat, and lasted from August 1942-February 1943. It is considered a major turning point in the war, as the Germans never quite regained their hold on the Eastern European front and although the Soviets won the battle, the city itself was practically leveled. On the tour, we saw Dom Pavlova, which was preserved after the war as the most complete building in the entire city. It’s a bombed-out shell. While I have a lot I want to (and probably will) say about World War II and what it means to the people of Russia, I’m going to try to put that on hold for right now. Victory Day is May 9th and I want to talk about it all concurrently, so bear with me.
By the end of the first day in Volgograd, we exhaustedly stumbled back to the hostel and collapsed into bed. The next day was spent once again touring around—this time to see the Volga-Don Canal, and then a memorial cemetery about an hour outside the city. On one side of the road stood the memorial to the Russian soldiers and it shook me, when I looked at the tombstones, to notice how many of the soldiers who died were not even 21 years old yet. On the other side of the road stood a cemetery and memorial for the Germans who lost their lives in the battle—all completely funded by the German government. Though interesting, by the time we headed back to the hostel we were all in a daze of information overload and exhaustion. Thankfully we spent most of the next day relaxing, and were able to enjoy the beautiful weather and views of the river before getting on the train to Saratov that night.
Our time in Saratov was much less chaotic and busy. The first day we went on the standard city tour, and in the afternoon met with students from Saratov State University. We participated in a sort of question and answer session with them, exchanging cultural info and opinions, before meeting up with them in the evening to walk along Saratov’s beautiful boardwalk. The next day was thankfully all free time, and we wandered through the city sightseeing, exploring, and blissfully relaxing after our packed days in Volgograd. It was so bright that I managed to get sunburned, something I didn’t expect in Russia, and I ate more ice cream cones than most people do in a lifetime.
Though our program coordinator told us we were going to see the “Russia most Russians never get a chance to see,” and almost every Muscovite we told about the trip responded with a vaguely disgusted “Why would you go there?”, I have nothing but good things to say about both cities, as different as they were. Relaxed Saratov, about the size of Boston, stood in stark contrast to monument-filled Volgograd, one of the largest cities in the country and a center for industry. Regardless, I haven’t been to a place in Russia so far that I didn’t like, and although many rave about European St. Petersburg, the cities I’ve enjoyed the most have been the most “Russian.” I may have been feeling the culture shock two months ago, but now, the “Russian soul” people talk so much about has taken hold of me completely and the more I see of this vast and beautiful nation, the more I love it.