Posts Tagged ‘Zaitsev’

On Friday, I flew off on an adventure with some friends to see the city of Volgograd, which was known as Stalingrad during part of Soviet history. I have wanted to go there for a long time, especially since my cousin gave me a handmade, scale model of the famous Motherland Calls statue as a college graduation present. Studying German prisoners of war, I figured it was especially important that I go see the location of the bloodiest battle in history. It was at the Battle of Stalingrad that the course of the Second World War changed in the Eastern Front. It was a major victory for the Red Army, and it was the first one in which they took massive quantities of POWs.

Hero City Volgograd

On Friday afternoon, I headed off with Gustav and Linda from the dorms to meet Erin at Belorussky Train Station. From there, we took the Aeroexpress train to Sheremetyevo together. We easily and quickly printed our boarding passes and made it through security. Feeling peckish, we went to a Shokoladnitsa in the airport and got some food. The service was less than stellar. The table was dirty, and I had to ask the waiter twice to clean it. He still didn’t clean it, and only did so after we tried to flag down different waitresses in vain. When he did finally come to clean it, he left a giant pile of crumbs in front of me, and the others joked that it looked like he was going to push them onto my lap.

After eating, we walked to our gate. Boarding was annoyingly delayed without any announcement as to why or for how long. Eventually, we boarded the plane and pushed back from the gate mostly on time. The flight was relatively pleasant and only lasted about one hour and twenty minutes. Linda was dozing off at one point and tried to refuse the snack, but the flight attendants woke her and insisted that she take her fish sandwich. None of my traveling partners were enthused about the meal, though Gustav thought about taking Linda’s spare sandwich as an additional snack depending on his hunger later.

Back to the orange summer uniform, and with a St. George ribbon for Victory Day.

Volgograd is going to be a host city for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and it’s quite clear that a lot of infrastructural development in underway. When we landed, we taxied to a far part of the airport, surrounded by gravel access roads. We walked off of the plane and boarded a bus to the terminal. While we waited to depart, I asked one of the lovely Italians back in Moscow to sign me up for laundry on Monday night. I was barred from doing so on Thursday and the sheet would only be available after 6:00PM on Friday. Surrounded by a number of UAZ bukhanki, we rode down to the terminal. We exited at the old, Soviet Terminal A, but it looks like the brand new Terminal C is almost complete. They are in the process of paving new taxi ways and aprons towards the terminals.

Airport paving in the distance.

We then went into the baggage claim area, which like the Murmansk airport, only had a single toilet that we took turns waiting for. Exiting the terminal, I called a Yandex Taxi to take us to our hostel. We got to the car with a quoted price of about 350 rubles. The driver then spoke to me and asked me to cancel the ride so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the commission to Yandex, and then wanted 400 rubles from our group. Without many other options and not wanting to fight over $1.00, we quickly agreed to get in and ride off. He then took us across the city to the hostel and pointed a few things out along the way. At one point, he caught me looking off at a walled building with barbed wire in the distance. “Это зона,” he said (“It’s a prison” – literally, a zone). He then said that there were dachas next to it and that “it’s Russia.” He told us what we had to see in the city over the next few days. He also pointed out the jail when we drove past and laughed. I asked him if he knew anything about the POWs in the city and their role in reconstruction, and he said that they rebuilt the whole city, so I knew my research was off to a good start.

Eventually, we arrived at the very center of the city and where we had booked a room. Through Booking.com, we found a hostel called Hostel Like at Home. We had managed to get a room for four people in it. When we arrived, we were slightly confused because the address was an apartment in a building. I typed the number in the domophone and asked if it was the hostel, and they said that we had booked a room with them. They opened the front door of the building, told us to go up to the fourth floor, and greeted us at the apartment door. It was indeed a converted apartment of a formerly elite caliber. The apartment had four rooms, a kitchen, and a toilet and shower. Our room had a large bed, a sofa bed, and a bunk bed in it. The hosts, husband and wife Nikolai and Lilia, were very friendly and made us immediately feel at home. We set our things down, and they gave us some maps of the city and recommendations for dinner.

We walked out onto the street and at the bottom of our building was a very nice Georgian restaurant, where we decided to have dinner. The weather was a balmby 60 or so degrees, and after the snow of Moscow, it felt delightful. Indeed, on the 12th, I was walking to get lunch at the cafeteria in one archive. To do so, I have to cross an interior courtyard. It was snowing when I went to get lunch. Our waiter at the restaurant was fantastic and friendly, a nice change from the anger of the waiter at the airport café. We were also pleasantly surprised that there was the option to order khakhapuri with two eggs instead of the standard one for ten rubles more.

Perfection in food form.

After dinner, we walked back to the room with a stop to buy some water along the way. We then tried to figure out about bedding for the sofa bed, which Nikolai searched for and later gave us. With the bed pulled out, it was a tight squeeze in the room, but we each had a bed and it was fine.

We slept in a bit on Saturday and woke up to find breakfast waiting for us. There was cereal, yogurt, tea, coffee, bread, and butter. While eating, we befriended a Dutch backpacker who had been traveling around Russia by train. He was leaving Volgograd that day, but he gave us a few tips for what to see in the city. We eventually got our acts together and headed out to see the city.

Our apartment truly was in the center. We were near Lenina (generally the main road in any ex-Russian city that hasn’t been heavily renamed), the water, and the central eternal flame. When we walked to the eternal flame, we noticed a bunch of high school children who were performing an honor guard near it. They even did a changing of the guard with a slow march. From there, we popped down to see the riverbank. We saw a cool clock counting down to the opening of the World Cup, and got mobbed by Russian school children out on excursions.

Just a little over 365 days until the start.

We walked along the waterfront to the Stalingrad Battle panorama museum. Parked outside was a neat T-34 tank, which we took turns climbing. We then spent a few hours walking through the museum. It had a bunch of cool artifacts from the war, such as legendary Vasily Zaitsev’s Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle. Sadly, there wasn’t anything in the museum for me about POWs. Outside the museum, we walked around the samples of military technology and looked at the ruins of an old mill, which are preserved to show what the battle did to the buildings in the town.

The mill and a reproduction of the famous fountain that appears in numerous war photos.

After the museum, we headed off to find some lunch, which we did at a wok and sushi place, which wasn’t too bad. From there, we walked the last mile and a half along Lenina to Mamaev Kurgan, the park for the Motherland Calls statue. From the bottom, we walked up a series of steps that said “To Our Soviet Motherland – USSR!”

At the top of those steps was a walkway that led to a giant statue and fountain of a WWII soldier holding a grenade and a PPSh machine gun.

From him, we climbed more stairs with reliefs that had popular motivational slogans from the war. There was also patriotic war music playing, like the well known song “The Scared War,” which is the song that kicks off the Victory Day Parade in Moscow.

“Everything for the front. Everything for victory.”

Past more statues and reflecting ponds, we found the entrance to a building that housed an eternal flame and honor guard. On the façade of this building was a series of reliefs depicting Lenin, Red Army soldiers, and to my surprise, German POWs being taken captive. I couldn’t believe that.

“The fascist forces wanted to see the Volga. The Red Army gave them this ‘opportunity.'”

As we entered the hall with the eternal flame, we couldn’t believe our luck to catch the changing of the guard.

We watched from inside and then left when we thought it was done. We then went outside to head our way up the memorial complex, but turned when we heard footsteps getting louder. The soldiers march all the way up the complex and out the top of it.

We were glad to catch them coming out and then walked up to the base of the Mother Russia statue. Along the way, we had a tremendously sobering moment when we saw a sign asking visitors to keep off of the grass as it was a communal grave, which contains remains of 34,505 people.

“Keep off of the mass grave. There are 34,505 buried here.”

Seeing the monument in person was spectacular. We were barred from getting very close as the statue is slightly under renovation.

The Motherland Calls.

We then walked into the nearby chapel before walking down the hill and catching a trolleybus back to the hostel to relax a bit before dinner. We ended up getting food at a Russian restaurant that had a DJ, who curated a sweet soundtrack. We then walked to a local supermarket, where Erin and I bought some Russian beer, which we drank at the hostel before falling asleep.

The next morning, we got up and arranged our transit to the airport the following day with Nikolai. Our flight was to leave at 6:00AM, so we wanted to give them warning and ask about when we should order a cab. Nikolai took care of it all for us while we were out exploring. As we ate out breakfast, a new guest came to stay at the hostel. He was a French backpacker who had flown to Vladivistok and was making his way back to Moscow via train. For reasons we couldn’t understand, neither the French nor the Dutch backpackers spoke much Russian. The French guy mostly sat there as we planned our day. Nikolai seemed sad when we didn’t take him with us for the day, but we had planned to travel far out in the city that day, and there wouldn’t be space for him with us in the taxi.

From the hostel, we walked a few blocks to the basement of the Central Universal Store, or TsUM. Originally, in the basement, there was a Red Army field hospital. As the territory changed hands over the battle, it then became a Wehrmacht field hospital and headquarters of sorts. In this basement, General Field Marshall Friedrich von Paulus was captured by the Red Army. He was perhaps the most notorious German POW in Soviet hands, and Hitler was livid that Paulus allowed himself to be captured instead of killing himself. The museum was also great in that the woman working at the desk remembered us from the Panorama the day before and believed that we were all students. We also found out that photography, including flash photography (usually a huge no-no in Russian museums) was allowed at no extra charged. As we neared the end of the exhibit, one of the directors noticed us and gave us a brief private tour in English and then invited us to join along on the Russian tour, but we sadly had to decline to go off on more adventures.

Paulus being captured.

From the bunker museum, we walked towards the train station hoping to find a place for lunch. We quickly found a burger joint that was Chuck Norris themed. They even had Chuck Norris juice and ketchup and mustard bottles.

Chuck Norris branded everything.

After a quick walk around the train station, and a stop by the recreation of the famous fountain of children around an alligator, we called a Yandex taxi to take us about 45 minutes out in the city to a former German settlement called Sarepta. We got into the cab and I told the driver that I was surprised that he was willing to drive us so far. He said it was only 30 kilometers, which was nothing given that the city itself is 80 kilometers (50 miles) long. Along the way, he laughed when I asked him to turn up a currently popular Russian rap song on the radio called “Ice Melts Between Us.”

At the Sarepta museum, we got to go into exhibits in three buildings of a former German farming settlement. The first building, where we bought the tickets, was actually the last building. We were instructed to head off to a different one, which turned out to be a museum of mustard. Apparently, Volgograd is known for mustard oil, and we got to see how they traditionally extracted it with a candle and hand crank press. In the third building, we got a small view of what rooms looked like that people lived in in the community.

The Museum of Russian Mustard.

From the museum complex, we walked about five minutes to a bus stop to catch a marshrutka that would take us along the Volga-Don Canal and to the largest Lenin statue in the world. It was originally a giant statue of Stalin, which was turned into a Lenin statue during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign.

World’s largest Lenin statue.

Along the statue, there was some sassy graffiti, such as one piece that said “Я жив – В.И. Ленин (I am alive – V.I. Lenin),” which was a play on the famous Soviet slogan “Ленин жил. Ленин жив. Ленин будет жить (Lenin Lived. Lenin is Living. Lenin Will Live.”

“I am living. – V.I. Lenin.”

At the bottom of the statue, there were steps leading to the Volga River. The water seemed to be unusually high and flooding some trees. We also saw a man drive up on a boat and potentially exchange some things and money with some youths. Basically, we may have witnessed a boat based drug deal. So that was fun.

From the Lenin statue, we walked along the river to see the main gate of the Volga-Don Canal, which was a massive Soviet canal project that was completed after the war and largely through the labor of German POWs. The gates were impressive, and as we neared them, we noticed that men were catching fish in the waters. One guy saw us and asked if we wanted to buy fish. I said that we couldn’t, that we had no way to prepare them. He answered that he would give us a bag, and it would be fine. I then explained that we had nowhere to cook the fish, and he let us go.

The entrance to the Volga-Don Canal.

From the Canal, we headed off towards a café that was built around a Yak-40 jet, and decided that it would be a good place to call a taxi back to the center. A driver somewhat quickly accepted the fare, but then I noticed that he wasn’t moving on the map for a long time. I called him and asked why he was taking so long. He said that he didn’t want to drive back to the center, that it was too far and for too little money. He told me that no one would want to drive that far for Yandex. My reply was, “then how did I get here in the first place?” Annoyed, I hung up on him and saw that he was refusing the cancel the order. I cancelled, filed a complaint against him in the system, and then got a different driver. Rather than wasting time again, I called him and asked if he would take us to the address. He seemed confused by my question. He said that he could see on the map that it was where we want to go and asked if we wanted to go somewhere else. Unlike the first driver, he paid attention to the address of the fare and didn’t mind driving us there. We then embarked on a forty minute ride of insanity and terror.

Russian taxi 101.

Our driver, while extremely friendly, drove like a rally driver in a beat up old Nissan station wagon. He was very gopnik, complete with a knockoff Adidas track jacket, and the standard Russian man sunglasses. The car smelled strongly of gasoline, and he weaved in and out of traffic. Once he started talking, he didn’t stop until we arrived at the hostel. At first, he started talking about the Mongol conquest of Russia when Erin and I said we were historians. He then started to talk about a friend who uses a metal detector to search for treasures in the fields, which led to a story about him finding and selling a coin from the era of Peter the Great. The driver then started to talk about some icon that his grandfather had given him. During this conversation, he almost drove us into a truck. He also narrowly avoided running over a large chunk of metal that had fallen off of a different car ahead of us. As he was talking about the icon, he mentioned something about the water of the Volga and quickly pulled off of the road and into a gas station. He then got something out of the trunk and poured it into the gas tank. I’m not sure if he was pulling in gas from a jerry can, as the fuel gauge read E the whole way, or if he was adding dry gas. Either he was supposed to bless his icon in the Volga, or there was water in his fuel. He spoke in a very confusing fashion, which wasn’t helped by the radio and open windows. We got back onto the road, and he then told us about how he had broken up with his girlfriend of five years. Mercifully, we arrived before we could die from his driving.

Exiting the taxi, we popped into a local blini restaurant for an early dinner. The shashlyk blini was depressingly bad. Gustav then headed back to relax while Erin, Linda, and I walked to the water and then into a bookstore. We then returned home where we sat and had tea until nightfall. We had decided to go back to Mamaev Kurgan at night to see it lit up. We took the tramvai there, which in Volgograd is like a miniature metro at times. In the center of the city, the tramvai runs underground and has stations reminiscent of the metro. And, without street traffic, the tramvai was able to go really fast.

Tramvai? Subway? Subvai?

We got out at Mamaev Kurgan and climbed our way up and got lots of photos at night. We also went up past the statue to see if the cemetery was lit up, which it wasn’t, so we turned back and walked back down.

On the way down, we noticed a woman wearing a very strange track suit. Actually, track suits were very popular in Volgograd. She had a green, knockoff Adidas track suit that was very tight. She decided to pair it with a pair of heels that only a stripper would wear. As we walked down, I got a sneak photo. Others were not as covert. One guy with his girlfriend took a photo with a flash. His girlfriend was laughing, and I told her that we had also taken photos. This caused her to burst out laughing to the point of tears.

We climbed down and took the tramvai back to the hostel. There, we had tea with Lilia and Nikolai in the kitchen. We told them about our day’s adventures, while the French guy awkwardly sat there looking at his phone and eating cereal without milk. Lilia asked if we had tried the mustard oil at Sarepta. When we said no, she pulled out a bottle and cut up some bread for us to taste it with. Nikolai reminded us many times that it was better with black bread, while we had to make do with French bread. We also told them that I was studying German prisoners of war, and they told me that they had built their building. Lilia also told me that there is a cemetery in the area that has a new monument and German graves, so it looks like I’ll have to come back to Volgograd. Nikolai then told us that we had to each wake up in 15 minute intervals, which was actually right. He made a joke that we wouldn’t all go in the shower that the same time, but that it was OK with him if we wanted to. He said we were more than welcome to try, but that he couldn’t imagine how we would all fit. Lilia then told him to stop teasing us.

Thus, at 3:00AM this morning, we took shifts waking and dressing before bidding Nikolai goodbye and heading off in the taxi. Our driver this morning was crazy. He laughed when those in the back seat tried to find their seatbelts and said they weren’t necessary, and that no one would get in trouble for not having them. He then drove like a maniac the whole way. At one straightaway, he accelerated up to 155kph, or 95mph, and took his hands off of the wheel to see if the car would track straight. The instrument cluster was also lit up like a Christmas tree. ABS? ESP? Those are for cowards. He almost crashed us into the back of a car that didn’t move over for us, and aggressively passed a series of other drivers. He then dropped us off at Terminal C, which was the wrong Terminal. We then walked over to the dilapidated, Soviet Terminal A, where we checked in. At check in, Gustav had a run in with the man putting on the baggage tags. The guy said that he would have to check his bag because he had a small wheeled carry on and a small backpack. I said that he was allowed to have a bag and a smaller second bag that’s a personal item. He then countered about the weight of Gustav’s bag, which was heavy due to his school books, but the issue was quickly resolved by the woman working at the check-in computer, who said he was going to Moscow and that it was fine for him to take the bag onboard.

The new terminal, which was still closed, at least for our flight.

Before passing through security, we had a breakfast, which was packed for us by Lilia. She had given each of us a juice box and a bear shaped treat that are filled and made for kids. We then made it through security and killed time before getting onto a bus to the plane. It was a little unclear which gate was for our plane, and no one seemed to work at the airport to tell us. The flight was uneventful, and we landed in Moscow without any issues. We got on a bus, walked through the airport, and ran to catch the 8:30 Aeroexpress train. I then went back and took a nap before wandering around Moscow with my adviser, but that is a story for another time.

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