Photo: koraxdc / flickr
Russia has marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad with memories of survivors and fallen soldiers as President Vladimir Putin warned the country can be ‘invincible’.Safron Ryzhakov, 90, did not flinch as the cannon salute rang out across Volgograd’s Square of the Fallen Fighters, sending drifts of wet snow down from a roof onto the crowds below.
“The worst thing was the German artillery strikes,” he told The Sunday Telegraph as he peered through rheumy eyes at the phalanxes of soldiers marching by the tribune. “They worked us over good and proper. I lost many friends.”
70 years to the day, this southern Russian city – once called Stalingrad – on Saturday commemorated the end of the battle that turned the course of the Second World War. More than one million soldiers perished here in five months of bombing and fierce house-to-house fighting.
The victory of Soviet forces in a clash of appalling terror and violence turned the tide of Adolf Hitler’s war in Europe, forcing the retreat that would eventually send German troops all the way back to Berlin.
President Vladimir Putin flew in to Volgograd to honour the dead on Saturday afternoon, after a military parade of 650 soldiers had passed through the city centre followed by a veteran T-34 tank puffing blue fumes.
A handful of elderly veterans, some smothered in medals, came to watch the march past – braving cold and slush to celebrate victory and honour their fallen comrades, who fell in one of the greatest pitched battles in history. In another decade there may be none of them left.
“Stalingrad will forever remain a symbol of unity and invincibility of our people, a symbol of genuine patriotism, a symbol of the greatest victory of the Soviet liberator soldier,” Mr Putin said at an evening commemorative concert. “And as long as we are devoted to Russia, our language, culture, roots and national memory, Russia will be invincible.”
Mr Ryzhakov’s Soviet 321st Division helped protect the pincer movement that encircled and crushed the German Sixth Army to the west of Stalingrad, leading to the final capitulation of General Friedrich Paulus’s troops on February 2, 1943. He recalls fighting Italian and Romanian troops, as well as Germans. “That sticks in my mind most of all: the pale blue dress uniforms of the Italians lying dead, scattered in the snow,” he said.
Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941 and 14 months later Panzer companies had reached the Volga.
The Battle of Stalingrad would be a decisive moment for both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army: a furnace in which the future course of war was forged.
By summer 1942, Paulus’s Sixth Army had struck deep into the Soviet heartland, winning battle after battle. But the German soldiers were already feeling the strain. The retreating Red Army poisoned wells and poured petrol on supplies of grain: there was a constant, wracking thirst, and cases of dysentery and typhus began to rise.
Still, the Nazis advanced across the Don and on Aug 23 Stalingrad became an inferno as Heinkel bombers dropped thousands of tonnes of explosives on the city. An estimated 40,000 people died in the first week of bombardment.
“The first three days were a slaughter,” recalled Petr Kovalenko, 85, pointing down the road from the tribune on the Square of Fallen Fighters. “I was standing in a bread queue just over there when the bombs hit. There was a hum in the sky and you looked up and there was an armada of planes. A piece of shrapnel hit me in the back.”
Soon the German forces were inside the city and Hitler had such high hopes for a swift victory that Josef Goebbels had to tone down propaganda, emphasising the toughness of the fighting.
Soviet forces gave desperate resistance, refusing to relinquish their hold on three beachheads and withdraw to the east bank of the Volga, knowing that if the Wehrmacht crossed the river, southern Russia and the Caucasus would be in Hitler’s grasp. Josef Stalin ordered “not one step back” and General Vasily Chuykov, the Soviet army commander in the city, told his soldiers to dig trenches as close as possible – sometimes 30 yards – from German positions, keeping the aggressor constantly under stress and guarding against air strikes.
In another canny move, Chuykov created “breakwaters” – buildings among the ruins that were occupied by small detachments of troops, who held them like fortresses to disrupt the advancing German units. The battle soon descended into “Rattenkrieg”, as the German soldiers called it – rats’ war, a grinding struggle fought out in cellars, basements and shattered shops.
Red Army snipers such as Vasily Zaytsev – played by Jude Law in the Hollywood film Enemy at the Gates – notched up scores of kills. Meanwhile, Soviet artillery kept up a constant artillery barrage from across the river, answering similarly ferocious firing from the west.
Worn down and surrounded by a Soviet counter attack north and south of the city, Paulus finally capitulated, infuriating Hitler by giving himself up rather than fighting to the death or committing suicide. 90-one thousand Axis soldiers surrendered.
After 70 years, the victory at Stalingrad remains burned into the national psyche as an emblem of grit and defiance. It is also a powerful motivator for Mr Putin, who is given to hinting darkly at foreign states plotting Russia’s downfall.
“Today we are putting huge resources into the rebirth of the Russian defence industry,” Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister and hawkish ally of the president, told the crowd of 20,000 at the parade.
“Every enemy must see that, understand that, feel that. Let anybody who thinks of plans to seize our country remember Stalingrad.” As if to underline his words, a pair of new truck-mounted Iskander ballistic missile units stood parked at the end of the square, with more rocket launchers and tanks on display behind them.
The patriotic theme continued on Mamayev Kurgan, the ancient Tartar burial mound in Volgograd topped by a giant statue of Mother Russia waving a sword. By her feet lie tens of thousands of Stalingrad in mass graves. A stream of mourners climbed the steps to lay carnations at the statue and an eternal flame in the nearby Hall of Military Glory.
Among them were activists from the ruling United Russia party, Mr Putin’s legislative sledgehammer in parliament. They carried a banner reading, “We are proud of the past and we believe in the future”.
“I just saw a veteran pour a glass of vodka on General Chuykov’s grave and drink a second one in tribute, breaking down in tears,” said Alexei Sharbelsky, 44, a party worker. “We must preserve this memory and emotion of Stalingrad, and pass it from generation to generation.”
Units of Cossacks in shaggy hats filed past and children posed for photographs by the graves of heroes. Many people spoke together of whether the name Stalingrad – removed in 1961 – should be returned to the city. In recent weeks, 50,000 of the city’s residents signed a petition in favour of the change.
Vladimir Kazachkov, 75, was – unsurprisingly – in favour of giving Josef Stalin’s name back to the town. He stood nearby holding up a portrait of the dictator. Underneath was written: “Today is a Day of Victory and Stalin is the Supreme Commander in Chief of the Victors.” “You can’t cut down trees without woodchips flying,” said Mr Kazachkov, who was five at the time of the battle and hid in a cellar under his parents’ kitchen.
“Stalin made some mistakes, he killed some people, but he won the war and rebuilt the country. And people here fought for Stalingrad, not Volgograd.”
Away from Mamayev Kurgan, down below the hill and across the railway tracks, Valentina Savelyeva, 75, was spending the day in quiet reflection at her ramshackle house at 1 Kubinskaya Street.
Mrs Savelyeva was five years old when the bombs started raining down in 1942. Her father Timofey was away at the front; first near Moscow and then in Stalingrad, manning an anti-aircraft gun on an island in the middle of the Volga as the Germans planes swept overhead.
“Father came home just once and told us, “We will stay and die in our city’,” remembered Mrs Savelyeva. She would never see him again. In September 1942, her two-year old brother Gennady died of diphtheria as the intensity of the battle increased, and hunger and disease began to take hold of the thousands of civilians who remained in the city. She and her mother and grandmother abandoned their home a month later – it was soon swept from its foundations and left in a crumpled heap by the force of an explosion.
The three of them dragged a sack of potatoes and a few possessions to a ravine that cut down to the river near the Red October steel plant.
“The oil tanks nearby had been hit and the Volga was a sheet of fire,” Mrs Savelyeva recalled. Irregular soldiers had burrowed into the side of the ravine, creating tiny living spaces, each with a front door ripped from a ruined house.
“We crouched in the burrow, peeping out,” said Mrs Savelyeva. “The potatoes lasted as week. When the incendiary bombs fell we would rush out and cook them on the flames.”
After that the family survived for three months by eating lumps of clay from the river bank. “It was slightly sweet and I would suck on it all day long. My mother collected water from the Volga. There was blood floating downstream. She would crouch down and skim it away with her hand, and then filter the water into a saucepan with a piece of cloth.”
The aerial bombardments were unremitting. Once, Mrs Savelyeva and her grandmother were trapped as their burrow was covered by debris. A group of Soviet soldiers poked their rifles through the earth to locate the door and then dug the pair out with their trowels.
On another occasion a family who had carved out a larger bunker all asphyxiated when it was buried in an explosion.
“I’ll never forget the moment when the bodies were dug out,” said Mrs Savelyeva. “There was girl a little older than me. She had clumps of hair in her hands that had she torn out in desperation as she choked to death.”
Not until three years ago did she find out the fate and final resting place of her father. Military records, only recently made widely available, show he died near the Volga on October 16th, 1942, and was later reburied with tens of thousands of others in a mass grave on Mamayev Kurgan.
“I lived here all my life, close to the Kurgan, and I never knew he was just up the hill,” said Mrs Savelyeva. “I’m still alive and I’m glad my father’s name will live in stone. But I feel an emptiness inside.”
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