Volgograd: the Living World War II Memorial

BACK during World War II, this city was known as Stalingrad. Its name may have changed, but it will be forever linked with some of the most fearsome fighting in the history of warfare.

To begin to understand the horror and carnage of the battle here 50 years ago, one only needs to know that the remains of 300,000 Russian and German combatants still lie scattered beneath the city without having received a formal burial. In all, up to 3.5 million soldiers and civilians - 2.7 million of them Soviet - are believed to have perished during the five-month struggle for the city, says Boris Usik, director of the Stalingrad Battle Museum.

In the end, the defeat and capture of the German 6th Army at the hands of Russian troops turned the tide of the war on the Eastern Front, stopping the Nazi advance into Russia. As a result, the battle, which ended in February 1943, became a potent symbol in the former Soviet Union - a testament to the resilience and determination of its peoples.

Now, during the current uncertain times brought on by the country's political and economic chaos, many Russians are looking back on the battle and searching for inspiration for future struggles. Mr. Usik says the number of visitors this year to the battle museum has doubled compared to 1992 levels.

``The loss of faith in perestroika and market reforms has caused people to look back to the past,'' Usik says from his office. ``If perestroika and market reforms had been more successful, then people would be looking forward, instead of behind.''

Though contemporary Volgograd is the lower Volga River's major industrial center, the battle landmarks shape the city's identity. The most prominent memorial is the ``Mother Russia'' statue on the Murmayev Kurgan heights above the city. Almost 300-feet high, the statue was built to sway up to five feet to reduce stress from strong winds.

The battle museum details the city's devastation. And to reinforce the images, next to the museum stand the bombed-out remains of a grain storage facility, which ironically was built by a Volga German merchant only to be gutted during the battle.

All the political and economic changes affecting Russia are giving people here the chance to reexamine World War II. For example, the museum has changed some exhibits to try to provide a more complete picture of the German invaders, Usik says.

``Now we're portraying the Germans not just as machines that marched here to kill, but as people who had families just like us,'' he says.

And after so many decades of enmity, a willingness to come to terms with the battle seems to be taking hold. These days, charter planes arrive nearly every weekend from Germany and Austria, bringing people who not only want to remember their fallen friends and relatives, but also to make peace with the former enemy, Usik says.

Meanwhile, some Russians, in addition to searching for inspiration, are starting to question the battle of Stalingrad within the context of Soviet achievement.

``What did we get in the end from victory?'' Usik asks. ``Nothing. Our people now live in poverty. Who needs such poverty?''

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