VOLGOGRAD, Russia (AP) — Nearly 60 years since it changed its name to Volgograd, the Russian city once called Stalingrad and its bloody history loom large even in the midst of the fun and football of the World Cup.
Stalingrad, the name of the city on the Volga river between 1925 and 1961, is now often shorthand for one of the most violent battles in history. The exact death toll can never be known, but historians believe about a million people from both sides died that savage winter of 1942-3 when the Nazi war machine was stopped from crossing the Volga, then surrounded and defeated.
The city was basically reduced to rubble and its modern-day residents will forever remember the sacrifices of their ancestors.
“It’s sacred for us because in every family in the Volgograd region, there are people who died in the battle and we mustn’t forget about it and every year we do patriotic action and do some lessons for children so they know all about it,” said 21-year-old Daria Kolomyichenko.
“It’s our history and we are very proud.”
To visitors, particularly from nations that fought against the Nazis, the monuments around the city — especially the 85-meter (280-foot) statue known as “The Motherland Calls”— are also a reminder that the sacrifices of Russians at Stalingrad were crucial to the Allies winning World War II. With Britain and Russia feuding politically, the English team played their first match of the World Cup in Volgograd.
“To see the statue and have an understanding of the history reminds you that some things are even bigger than football, and that’s good perspective for us all,” said England coach Gareth Southgate.
The battle is a constant presence in the city of around 1 million. While the monuments loom large in the Hero City — the honor granted by the then-Soviet Union — Volgograd is now a thriving regional center, bustling with attractions, parks and visitors. There is more than enough to appreciate to ignore the occasional swarms of flies and mosquitoes that hounded fans as England beat Tunisia 2-1 at Volgograd Arena Monday night
The stadium was constructed on the banks of the Volga and at the bottom of the Mamayev Kurgan, the hill that was savagely fought over by the Red Army and the Nazis. Sometimes changing hands several times on any particular day, it is said the ground on the hill was so soaked in blood that the springs were poisoned.
No wonder the Soviet authorities more or less enshrined the hill’s status as sacred. A collection of memorials and outsized structures on the hill include a granite pool, an eternal flame and mass graves. But it’s the sculpture on the top that draws one’s breath. The Motherland Calls casts a long shadow across the city.
England fans also joined with dignitaries to lay a wreath to commemorate the dead.
“I’m into football and you’re into football, but when you have an event like this, you realize it’s more, there’s more than just football,” said fan Billy Grant.
Football is a game that perhaps unites the world more than any other, and certainly more than any political or religious creed. Russia may be facing international censure for its annexation of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine, for its alleged role in the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in southern England and meddling in the U.S. election, but visitors from all over the world are reminded of the magnitude of the nation’s role in World War II, regardless of what one thinks of Josef Stalin.
The Panorama Museum in Volgograd, built next to the gutted remains of a ruined mill, showcases an array of tributes to the city, including a sword from King George VI that was presented to Stalin by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1943, and the Legion d’Honneur that French President Francois Mitterrand bequeathed to the city in 1984.
The horrors of the Battle of Stalingrad are clear, but there’s no antagonism towards the Germans.
In a cemetery some 40 miles northwest of Volgograd in Rossoshka, there’s a dignified cemetery for German soldiers who perished at Stalingrad and nearby Rostov-on-Don.
Local historian Svetlana Kostrykina writes in a local travel guide that 52,000 of them are buried in two mass graves and that another 120,000 Germans thought to be missing are inscribed on rectangular panels around the site, “like huge dice lost in the steppe.”
Vitaly Danilkin, as grizzled a 72-year-old as you are likely to see, cares for the site as well as a Soviet cemetery on the other side of the road. Cutting the grass in the summer, and clearing the snow in winter, Danilkin is always on the lookout for war-related artifacts. His 43-year-old son, Alexei, with the permission of the state, runs a small team that does exactly that and is alert to anyone illegally looking for memorabilia — there’s a big black market for Stalingrad-related helmets, guns, medals and tags.
Vitaly, who has been doing his job for three years, said he’s the only one who would do it for “only 7,000 rubles a month” when he was hired. He has since gotten a raise to 9,000 rubles ($140) a month.
“Someone has to do it,” said Vitaly.
For those few who still have a connection with the battle, the pain remains.
Just a few months ago, Vitaly saw an elderly lady descend into floods of tears as she kissed one of the portraits in a small museum room on the side of the Soviet cemetery.
As for the World Cup, Vitaly is not so interested but he clapped when Russia won its first match against Saudi Arabia 5-0.
“I’m a patriot,” he said. “I love my Russia.”
Stalingrad, it’s clear, was full of patriots.
AP video journalist Sergei Grits contributed to this report.