Since the last blog post, I’ve since been even farther away from home in Russia, with my group from St. Petersburg, along with students from other cities in ACTR’s Russian program, taking a long train ride to Volgograd, in the south, formerly Stalingrad. While there are certainly similarities between Americans and Russians in terms of general behavior, coming to Volgograd has made it clear to me how vastly our perceptions of the Second World War truly differ from country to country.
In America, the war in question, despite obviously being of great significance, is still viewed with a certain remoteness. Having taken place thousands of miles away, with virtually no combat taking place on American soil, the American experience of the war was vastly different from that of most of our allies. Coming to Volgograd, the site of history’s bloodiest battle, a city turned quite literally into a graveyard, has been nothing if not humbling to me, as an American citizen. My society’s collective memory has nothing coming even close to the scale of bloodshed and pain wrought upon Russia by the war.
Coming to Volgograd, the atmosphere was immediately different. In St. Petersburg and Moscow, one is greeted by the large crowds of people one would expect in a city. Volgograd is simply a smaller city, and as such, the throngs of pedestrians aren’t instantly seen; combined with the overwhelming number of graveyards and memorials, it makes for an experience that is oddly somber compared to the urban liveliness of the other cities in Russia I’ve seen. It’s made even odder by the fact that the less built-up areas of the city are eerily reminiscent of where I grew up, in Maine; the distant-stretching fields and little roadside clusters of homes look exactly like what I grew up around.
The absence of older buildings also struck me as odd, initially, since I was used to central St. Petersburg’s endless 18th century construction. It wasn’t until we visited the panoramic Museum of the Battle of Stalingrad that I realized most of the city had been torn down during the war, blown to pieces and torn apart brick by brick. As an American, the thought of an entire city being almost completely destroyed, with more than a million dead, at least, is terrifying. We’ve never had to deal with such a tragedy of that scale, and when such an event occurs elsewhere it’s usually at least an ocean away from us, personally. Seeing the rusted shards of metal, the bullet-riddled helmets, the mass graves of hundreds of soldiers of all sides buried namelessly, makes one realize the true gravity of war in a way I don’t think most Americans can really appreciate.
Seeing war memorializations often makes me pause for a moment, to ask whether it’s really memorialization or more fictionalized glorification. Knowing that Russia lost at least 20,000,000 men, women, and children during their war against Germany and its allies, the memorials I’ve seen don’t convey glory, or romance – simply an enormous respect and sense of loss, shared between generations, regardless of their chronological separation from the war itself. I don’t think I will ever be able to truly appreciate the weight of the Battle of Stalingrad on the Russian psyche, but simply seeing the battle commemorated first hand has, at least, made me somewhat aware of how massive an event it is in Russia’s history.
By: Declan Donnelly
Term: Spring 2018