Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was invited to join a private train for its first – and, as it proved, only – excursion, from St Petersburg to Tashkent. Things in Russia had changed a lot, mostly for the worse. The streets of former Leningrad had been commandeered by homeless urchins and men in dark glasses with mobile phones. In a hotel bar, a drunken Red Army veteran pulled a pistol on me. Moscow seemed more dilapidated than ever, but L’Oréal perfume was on sale at the GUM store. As the train puffed south towards the Caspian Sea, blank and hungry faces stared from desolate village halts, and the carriage windows were locked for the passengers’ protection.
The ruins of Russia were not what I had come to see, however. My goal was Stalingrad on the Volga, scene of the most violent battle of the Second World War, the beginning of the end of Hitler’s imperial fantasy, and a turning-point in European history.
I left the train and spent a day walking round the city looking for something that would convey the terrible struggle of the winter of 1942–3. Along the top of the steep western bank of the river a line of tank turrets on concrete pillars reminded the visitor how perilously thin the Red Army front line became. In the rebuilt megalopolis, renamed Volgograd, a few wartime ruins had been preserved. A rotunda displayed a panoramic painting of the Soviet counter-attack which in December 1942 encircled the 300,000 troops of General Paulus’s Sixth Army, and thousands of bedraggled and freezing German prisoners being ferried over to the eastern bank of the Volga and marched away, already dying, to the camps.
I climbed Mamaev Kurgan, the hill overhanging the city where some of the fiercest fighting took place. It is crowned by a 150-foot statue of Mother Russia waving a ninety-foot sword over her head. Built in Brezhnev’s time, this is the biggest war memorial in the Soviet Union and one of the tallest monuments anywhere. On
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