Friday, 10 October 2014

Volgograd (Stalingrad)

 Having heard I had recently been to Volgograd, I was asked if I would write a post about the city. I guess tennis players can temporarily come out of retirement, so I will do the same.

My doing so does not represent any change in my view about Russia annexing part of a neighbouring country.

By the way, anyone stirring up separatism in Russia can face up to 5 years in jail. Bit of a double standard there, wouldn’t you say?.

Volgograd is better known to the world as Stalingrad. In the winter of 1942/43 the Sixth Army, pride of the Wehrmacht, was surrounded by the Russians, besieged and crushed. A quarter of a million Axis soldiers were killed or captured. Vast numbers of Russian soldiers died. One of the turning points of the war.

I watched the BBC series ‘The World at War’ some years ago and had more recently read Antony Beevor’s book ‘Stalingrad’, so could not pass up the opportunity to see this historic city while I was in the neighbourhood.

During the course of the battle Stalingrad was completely trashed and subsequently rebuilt. If I had been placed blindfolded in today’s city and then asked where I was, I might have guessed some suburb of Moscow. There’s not much left of the pre-battle city.

Volgograd sprawls for many kilometres along the western bank of the wide and lovely Volga River. Beside the river the bank rises fairly steeply a little way, then a few kilometres of low rolling country before the endless, flat steppe. The most hilly area is called Mamaev Kurgan – a site of ferocious fighting. On the highest point a monumental statue ‘The Motherland Calls, has been erected. Constructed in 1967 (by the same engineer who designed the Ostankino Tower) I had been keen to see this statue since I saw pictures of it some years ago. It did not disappoint. Still the largest statue of a woman in the world – it is gigantic.  Apparently it stands purely under its own weight - it is not fixed to its foundations, and there is some concern about shifting. 

The Motherland Calls

The grain elevator was also another high vantage point fiercely fought over. It is still standing. I had seen pictures and film of the grain elevator, battered and under attack by the Germans. It was an interesting feeling, standing there, actually looking at this same building over 70 years later. 

The Grain Elevator under attack

The Grain Elevator today

More poignant, though, was finding the final headquarters of Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus, commander of the 6th Army. The Univermag Department store still stands and in its gloomy basement Paulus finally decided to surrender. Even more surprising, an unassuming metal door leads to some steps and down into that same basement, now a museum. And there is Paulus’s room….small, cold and dingy. He must have wondered how it had all come to this.

Soviet troops outside the Univermag building
The Univermag building in 2014

Last Headquarter's of the 6th Army in the Univermag basement
Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus's room (the red dots are to stop people walking into the glass)

Paulus on his way to surrender

One building, the old Flour Mill, was left intact to show the state of the city after the conflict. Unfortunately, it had a high fence around it while I was there and work was going on inside. It does not seem to have occurred to whoever is managing this work that a viewing platform to allow the public see this very significant site would have been helpful. A number of other people were also wandering around trying to get photos over the fence.

The Flour Mill - built by Germans in the late 19th century, trashed by Germans in the mid 20th century. All makes a lot of sense.
I don’t normally write this much in my posts, so I’ll finish at the Barmaley Fountain. There is a famous photograph from the battle, this fountain of children dancing around a crocodile against a dramatic contrast of ruined buildings. The fountain survived the battle, but some dimwit in the 1950s had it removed. Last year a near identical statue was installed in the same place, in front of the Volgograd railway station. This station was bombed by a terrorist last December – repair works still go on.  

Iconic photo of the Barmaley Fountain  

Reconstructed Barmaley Fountain. If you look closely you'll see that while they are quite similar, there are many differences of detail.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Goodbye and thanks for reading

I have been debating with myself about continuing this blog given the on-going issues about Ukraine and Crimea.

I have decided to terminate it.

I consider the actions of Russia completely inappropriate, no matter what the real or imagined justification.

Goodbye and thanks for reading.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Baumanskaya metro station

It’s been ages since I had a look at a metro station. 

Before I start I’ll have a metro station related gripe. Today someone trod on my foot - hard. The treading on the foot didn’t bother me, that happens in busy metro stations, what irked was that the culprit (who knew he’d done it) didn’t apologise. There is a word in Russian for sorry, ‘Izveneety’, but in over two years I haven’t heard it. Not once. I wasted my time learning it. 

When you know Russians, they are perfectly lovely people; but if they don’t know you, you don’t exist – and are treated accordingly. So if you come to Moscow on holidays do not expect all the social courtesies one finds in Western Europe, and don’t take it personally – that’s just how things are done here. 

OK, now on to something more positive. Baumanskaya metro station. If you have enjoyed gawking at the statues in Ploschad Revolutsi metro station, it’s worth hoping on the train and going two stops to Baumanskaya, where you’ll find some more. There’s also a mosaic portrait of Lenin. The station was completed in 1944, which surprised me a little as I thought the Russians might be a bit too otherwise preoccupied to be building metro stations. 

The date of the station's construction, 1944, is very much reflected in the martial nature of some of the statues.
 Nikolai Bauman, I read on Wikipedia, was a comrade of Lenin’s in the early days who ran foul of the authorities in 1905 and was beaten to death while in custody, thus becoming something of a martyr to the Bolshevik cause.

The statues are made of plaster, coloured to look bronze. Unlike the real bronze statues in Ploschad Revolutsi, this means they don't have golden shiny spots where people rub them for luck

This must be the guy who dug the metro tunnel - by the look of him, he could have done it single-handed.
 It’s worth getting out of the station and having a wander around as there is a beautiful cathedral in the neighbourhood – Yelokovo Cathedral.

Yelokovo Cathedral (and trolleybus lines)

Exterior wall mosaic

Monday, 10 February 2014


One sure way to have people look at you and think ‘he’s not from around here’ is to try and cross major, multi-lane Moscow roads at street level. Every couple of hundred metres are pedestrian underpasses, called perehods, which are used by more sensible folk.
Many perehods contain little shops selling odds and ends such as clothing, jewellery, toys and the like. Some months ago I read an item in the Moscow News about these shops and apparently the rents are astronomical, which surprised me considering the stuff they sell is hardly top-of-the-line and they are actually fairly dingy places to shop. That might help explain why I have seen a couple of perehods in recent months having their shops dismantled. 

Quite a number of perehods also contain the entrance doors to Metro stations. At the end of this one you can see the doors to Tverskaya & Pushkinskaya Stations.
The shops are quite tiny cubicles in which a woman (usually) shopkeeper spends her day.
Another view of the long perehod under Pushkinskaya Ploschad
Most, though, are empty tiled corridors, occasionally inhabited by buskers (the acoustics are good), old ladies begging, or some sad old guy sheltering from the cold. 

Opposite the entrance to Gorky Park, this perehod has become an art gallery.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Nicholas Roerich

Before coming to Russia I read a short story by H P Lovecraft called ‘The Mountains of Madness’. In it he mentioned strange paintings by a man named Roerich. One of the great things about the internet is you can look up this sort of obscure and miscellaneous reference straight away, before you have forgotten about it.

I checked out a small collection of Roerich’s paintings soon after arriving in Moscow at the Museum of Oriental Art and had thought that was all there was on display in this city – many of his works being in the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York. That is, until the other day when I was going through my guidebook looking for new places to go and realized that the Rerikh Museum in in the guidebook index was actually another transliteration of the more usual Roerich.

Nicholas Roerich
One could be forgiven for thinking Nicholas Roerich was the original New Age guy. Possessing a powerful intellect (he is said to have spoken 30 languages, whereas I can still barely manage to get a cappuccino with my Russian), he was an excellent artist; an explorer, spending much time on archaeological expeditions in the Himalayas; and something of a mystic.

Roerich was born in Saint Petersburg in 1874. Originally involved in post-Revolution arts, he rapidly grew disillusioned with the authoritarianism and repression of the Bolsheviks and emigrated to Finland. Soon after he moved to London, and then to the United States, where he lived in New York. Over several years in the 1920s and 30s he spent a considerable amount of time in Tibet, India and other parts of Asia. In 1929 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today I visited this really quite excellent museum/gallery. If you ever intend opening a New Age shop in downtown San Francisco (maybe sell a few crystals and tarot cards), parts of this place might provide some helpful d├ęcor hints.    

Roerich Museum
The museum is located not far from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Mylinki Znamensky. Take the Metro to Crackpotskaya (OK, it’s really Kropotkinskaya, but I'm not Roerich and I need some way of remembering these awkward Russian names). Please be aware that there are signs with maps on the main road outside the station which show the museum in the wrong location (it is not on Bolshoi Znamensky).

My apologies for the image quality today –they are scanned from a book and some prints I bought in the small museum shop. My only complaint (apart from the hefty 650 rouble admission fee) is that you are not allowed to take photos in the museum. Elderly ladies diligently watch to make darned sure you don’t. I was in the museum on my own and it was quite disconcerting to be followed from the entrance of a room to its exit, only to be met at the door by the guardian of the next room, and the next, and the next...

Some examples of Roerich's art