History and heartache in the soil of Stalingrad

Decades after WWII, Stalingrad remains a by-word both for great courage, and for the great sacrifice of the Soviet soldiers who died fighting the Nazis.

Today this city is called Volgograd, but 68 years ago it was called Stalingrad, and it was the scene of one of the largest battles in military history. Even today the marks it left on both the physical and spiritual sides of the city and its population are evident.

Old Soviet light tanks proved too weak to stop the Nazi invaders reaching the city of Stalingrad.

Tank drivers called it the ‘mass grave’. Its armor was so thin it could be pierced by machine gun bullets,” says Mikhail Gudyenov, director of local Patriotic Centre.

It was part of the arsenal of the Soviet armies which, by autumn 1942, were desperately trying to protect Stalin’s city on the Volga from a vast Axis offensive.

Pyotr was an 18-year-old cadet then. As the Germans closed in, he was read Stalin’s infamous order not to retreat one step, whatever the cost.

In our first combat we were bombed and our officers and commissar were killed. That was our baptism of fire,” Abramtsov ssys.

Over the next six months, the valor and determination of Soviet soldiers saved the city and trapped the invading Germans in an encirclement which destroyed Hitler’s biggest army.

Since that Great Victory, much has changed. Stalingrad changed its name to Volgograd, the Soviet Union itself collapsed and those who remember the battle are now old.

But when it comes to monuments, Volgograd made sure the heroism of the moment was set in stone, in the form of the city’s iconic Mother Russia statue.

In some ways this statue is a metaphor for the war itself. Her rough and ready construction as practical as the Soviet soldiers who fought here, her strength as defiant as the army that clung to the banks of the Volga, and her size as vast as the battle that raged around here.

But many more reminders abound which are a lot less stylized and a lot more poignant.

Many soldiers were not buried in solemn ceremony. They lie where they fell, unseen until now. There are teams of volunteers that have been researching and excavating the battle site for years.

One of the battle archaeologists, Sergey Kochetov, says time is crucial for the search.

The close relatives of soldiers are getting very old themselves. The documents we find will decompose if we don’t dig them up. The quicker we do that, the better both for historians and soldiers' relatives,” Kochetov says.

The volunteers want to try and record the human stories of the Stalingrad battle, which claimed as many as two million lives.

Many generals say, ‘The war isn’t over until the last body is buried.’ That’s the motto of every search group,” Kochetov says.

Sergey reckons there are enough bullets and bones left for even his grandchildren to find. And the terror and tragedy of these ultimate sacrifices are yet to be revealed.