Letter From Crimea: Stalingrad Looms Large in Ukraine

This is the sixth in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


The Red October Steel Factory as seen from Mamayev Kurgan in Volgograd, Russia, once Stalingrad and the scene of the decisive battle in 1942-43 in which the Russians, dug into the ruins of earlier factories, kept the Germans from crossing the Volga River, visible in the distance. Photo: Matthew Stevenson

My night train to Volgograd, which was Stalingrad in its hours of desperation, left Moscow from Paveletsky station, which when I rolled up to the main entrance was a maelstrom of people traveling for summer holidays. I had to show my tickets at several checkpoints, and men with scanner wands examined my bicycle bags for explosives, of the kinds that some years back Chechen rebels detonated around Moscow (how the enemy voted in that conflict).

The Night Train to Volgograd

I took my first Russian sleeper in summer 1975, when I was there on a student trip and a youth affiliate of Intourist (the state travel agency) lost our hotel reservations, and for accommodation on many nights our group of about twenty was shunted around Russia on overnight trains.

Those sleepers were more like couchettes, with six berths to a compartment. I remember snoring, vodka, and other passengers coming and going in the night, as anonymous as characters in a Russian novel.

For this overnight trip, I splurged and was traveling revisionist class. I bought the tickets online from a rail agency called Real Russia, and the English-speaking clerk (via email) assured me that it would be an elegant compartment.

When I located my berth, it was, indeed, well appointed, but I found myself in the company of a mother and daughter (about age 7). When I asked about the student rush to the provodnitsa—a sleeping car attendant in Russia—she explained that a first class a passenger could bring a child along at no additional cost, which explains why my car had the air of a day care center where many kids were toting video game consoles.

Nor did anyone in the car have the least interest in obeying the stated covid rule (in large type on my ticket) to wear a face mask. On several occasions, I had been warned that I could lose my right of passage for failure to wear a mask—cases were raging in Russia—but clearly I was the only one who had gotten the memo.

The Iconography of Stalingrad

Despite the sleeping car’s resemblance to primary school, I was excited to be heading toward Stalingrad, a place I had dreamed about for much of my adult life. Churchill said it was where “the hinge of fate turned.”

I probably first became aware of its importance when I was growing up. In conversations with my father, he described the Russian victory at Stalingrad (1942-43) as decisive in the European war—in the way that the contemporaneous battle of Guadalcanal (in which he had fought) turned the tide in the Pacific.

Neither battle ended the war in their theaters, but for the Germans and Japanese, Stalingrad and Guadalcanal marked the farthest reach of their empires.

Frank Capra Goes to War

After college, when primitive VCRs entered our lives, my first rental was a Frank Capra “Why We Fight” documentary called The Battle of Russia, which had grainy black-and-white news reel images of the house-to-house fighting in Stalingrad, whose ruins were blanketed in snow, ice, and death.

In the 1990s, when I began traveling more frequently to Russia—then opening its doors to Western investment, provided you didn’t mind dividends paid in roubles, then the equivalent of Monopoly money—I thought that I would be able to detour from some meeting down to Volgograd and “walk off” the battlefield.

There was, however, always some barrier that kept me away from Stalingrad, which on a train is about sixteen hours southeast of Moscow—although to be frank it’s on the way to nowhere, except maybe Astrakhan at the northern tip of the Caspian Sea (where I could never seem to arrange any business meetings).

In the meantime, I bided my time by reading books about the campaign, including Antony Beevor’s 1998 history, Stalingrad, which he begins:

Hitler’s fundamental irresponsibility – a psychologically interesting defiance of fate – had been to launch the most ambitious invasion in history while refusing to gear the German economy and industry for all-out war. In hindsight, it seems more like the act of a compulsive gambler, subconsciously striving to increase the odds. The horrific consequences for millions of people seemed only to strengthen his megalomania.

Reading these words a year later, as Vladimir Putin’s Blitzkrieg against Ukraine is fighting across a similar landscape, I cannot help but wonder whether Russia or Ukraine has the copyright to the lessons of Stalingrad.

But have the roles been reversed? Is Putin playing the role of Hitler, trying to sweep Ukraine from the map? Is Ukraine the true heir to Russia at Stalingrad, hanging on by a thread at numerous river crossings to defend its threatened homeland?

At the very least Putin seems to have doubled down on Hitler’s mistake by initially attacking along too wide a front, and he has mirrored some of Stalin’s brutality in sacrificing a number of his generals, not to mention his conscript army.

Welcome to the Hotel Volgograd

I arrived too early to check into the Hotel Volgograd, a renovated hotel on what was once the local Red Square, but after breakfast and a short bike ride to orient myself (the city had yet to wake up), I was shown to my room. I knew it was a good hotel when the concierge insisted on keeping the bicycle in a luggage store room rather than allowing me to drag it upstairs.

By 9:15 a.m. that morning, I was pedaling off to places listed in my guide with names such as Alley of Heroes, Civil Defense Bunkers, Grain Elevator, Central River Crossing, and Red October Steel Foundry—all locations where the Soviet armies held off the attacking Germans.

Germany invaded Russia on June 22, 1941, and penetrated deeply into the Soviet Union, capturing Ukraine and much of western Russia. In Barbarossa, his history of the 1941-45 Russian-German conflict, British historian Alan Clark writes: “Stalin believed that space was more important than fixed defenses, but he ignored the fact that the Army was not trained in the sort of fluid defensive battle that alone makes the use of space profitable.”

A German colonel later wrote: “The German Army in fighting Russia is like an elephant attacking a host of ants. The elephant will kill thousands, perhaps even millions, of ants, but in the end their numbers will overcome him, and he will be eaten to the bone.”

Although it was a weekday, Volgograd was surprisingly free of traffic. I began my touring down by the river, where I looked across the expansive River Volga (think of the Mississippi at St. Louis) and there discovered that Volgograd in summer is an endless swarm of midges.

I was fine while biking, but the moment I stopped to take a picture of a memorial or battlefield site (in Stalingrad, they tend to be warehouses), the midges would descend en masse, and I became a cartoon figure, flapping my arms spasmodically. Only that night in a convenience store near the station did I discover a spray to ward off the demons, but some always got through.

The Russian Vicksburg

The present city of Volgograd spreads vertically along the west bank of the Volga. The worst of the fighting occurred along a front of about twenty miles that wound through the city’s many industrial plants and factories.

The famous war photographs of hollowed-out buildings were from the downtown area that was destroyed early in the fighting, although the ruins allowed Russian defenders to snipe at the attacking Germans. In some buildings, Russians and Germans were holed up on different floors.

During the six-month campaign the Germans never managed to cross the river, although in some cases the attackers did reach the western shore. Their goal was pivot south and capture oil wells in the Caucasus, but Hitler made the disastrous decision to take Stalingrad (what’s in a name?) on his way south.

Had the Germans crossed the Volga with their armor, Russia might well have been cut in half, much as was the American Confederacy when U.S. Grant took Vicksburg on the Mississippi.

Instead, the Russians not only denied the Germans a river crossing, but they turned both invading flanks and eventually surrounded the German Sixth Army, which resulted in destruction of almost half a million men. But it was a battle that equally drained both sides.

In Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad, which I was reading on this trip, William Craig writes:

Conversations with official Russian sources on a not-for-attribution basis (and it must be remembered that the Russians have never officially admitted their losses in World War II) put the loss of Red Army soldiers at Stalingrad at 750,000 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The Germans lost almost 400,000 men. The Italians lost more than 130,000 men out of their 200,000-man army. The Hungarians lost approximately 120,000 men. The Rumanians also lost approximately 200,000 men around Stalingrad.

Craig also describes how muddled was German thinking about invasion of Russia, which is captured in this account of a Hitler monologue (words that sound remarkably similar to some of Putin’s rants about Ukraine):

Silhouetted by banks of spotlights, Hitler continued: What have we to offer? If we advance 1,000 kilometers, it is nothing. It is a veritable failure.… If we could cross the Don, thrust to the Volga, attack Stalingrad—and it will be taken, you may be sure of that—then it is nothing. It is nothing if we advance to the Caucasus, occupy the Ukraine and the Donetz basin.… We had three objectives: (1) To take away the last great Russian wheat territory. (2) To take away the last district of coking coal. (3) To approach the oil district, paralyze it, and at least cut it off. Our offensive then went on to the enemy’s great transport artery, the Volga and Stalingrad. You may rest assured that once there, no one will push us out of that spot.… In Stalingrad, “that spot” as Hitler referred to it in his speech, a few battered Russian units still managed to stymie German efforts to drive them into the Volga.

To the Grain Elevator

Even on a bicycle, it’s hard to conjure an image of the battlefield. Volgograd is a sprawling regional city, with buses spewing soot and apartment blocks rising over what were once trench lines. Trams run down some of the main streets, and the downtown is a patchwork of pocket parks and what look like Orwellian state ministries. Downtown, war memorial steps leads to the riverside, where there are exposition centers and commemorative columns posed in gardens.

From the ferry terminal, I headed to the southern suburbs, riding about three miles down a busy boulevard—I stuck to the sidewalk—and then weaving my way back toward the center city. (In the end I had to make the ride twice, as I dropped my map and guide crossing a street, but found them an hour later.)

The southern highlight was a soaring grain elevator that during the worst of the fighting became an urban fortress that the Germans were unable to destroy or get around.

The columned silos were converted into medieval turrets into which crept waves of Russian defenders. In September 1942, a skeleton force of 40 Russian marines of the Northern fleet held off several German regiments and prevented them from taking the warehouses. Craig says it was three German divisions that were attacking, but if so, they were no doubt depleted.

In the current Russian war in Ukraine, the battle that most closely resembled Stalingrad was that for the capital, Kiev, which equally lies along the west bank of a major river, although there it was the Russians who were attacking across a river and the Ukrainians who burrowed into the ruins to defend their city.

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate

Many novels have been written about Stalingrad, the most famous of which is Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate—the War and Peace of this particular battle, although the novel goes beyond Soviet heroism to weave in more modernistic themes of the Gulag and the evils of Stalinism (the reason it was banned, and not celebrated, after World War II).

Grossman was a Ukrainian Jew (born in Berdichev, as was the Polish novelist Joseph Conrad) who covered the Russian front as a correspondent for the newspaper Red Star, for which he wrote about many of the climactic battles in the East, including in the West the fall of Berlin. When he died in 1964, however, he assumed his life’s work had been suppressed and buried.

Only in the 1980s was Life and Fate smuggled to the West (much like Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago). And it was the first time in Soviet history that someone who was present in Stalingrad, and who admired the sacrifices made there, could write: “And the greatest tragedy of our age is we don’t listen to our consciences. We don’t say what we think. We feel one thing and do another.”

Days and Nights

I didn’t try to bring Grossman’s novel with me on this trip. Except on a Kindle, books and bicycles are not a great match. And when I got home, instead making progress with his tome, I read a more concise novel about Stalingrad, Konstantine Simonov’s Days and Nights, a traditional account of the fighting, one also written by a foreign correspondent who was there (although Simonov never posed a threat to Soviet authorities).

Days and Nights follows a company commander—we only know him as Captain Saburov—in and out of the front lines during the long struggle for Stalingrad. It’s a book not unlike James Jones’s account of Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line, or Henri Barbusse’s The Fire about Verdun in 1916. Like Russia itself at Stalingrad, Captain Saburov never gives up. Simonov writes:

Before, the entire field of vision had been filled with buildings, half-destroyed but still buildings. Now in places what one saw was almost wasteland. The three buildings which Saburov’s battalion had been defending no longer really existed; they were only foundations on which the remains of walls and the lower parts of windows still stood in a few places. They all looked like children’s toys, smashed and broken. To the left and to the right of the buildings ran unbroken lines of ruins. In some places the chimneys were still standing. Now, at night, the rest dissolved into the darkness and looked like an uneven rocky valley. It looked as if the houses had disappeared into the ground and as if burial mounds of brick had been raised over them.

Except in some museum dioramas and in shells of buildings that have been preserved as war memorials, that vision of Stalingrad has disappeared, replaced by what might be called Monumental Stalingrad, in which Mamayev Kurgan stands tallest.

Mamayev Kurgan: Little Round Top

It took me several tries to make it up to Mamayev Kurgan, a soaring hilltop memorial north of the city center, which is where most Volgograd tourists go to contemplate the battle.

Biking from the Panorama War Museum along the river, I could always see the hilltop memorial (a Greek-like statue of “Athena of Victory” wielding a sword), but, wanting to avoid the main north-south boulevard, I could not find a suitable bicycle path that connected to the memorial.

Instead, I rode somewhat aimlessly through the parking lot of the World Cup football stadium and then across the street through a new city park—until I gave up, locked the bicycle to a utility pole, and set off for the memorial on foot.

During the fighting for the city, the Germans occupied the eastern slope of the hill and some of the surrounding ravines, while the Russian clung to the western edges. Craig describes it: “This was Mamaev Hill, once a Tartar burying ground and now a picnic area. From there, a casual observer could see most of the city.” It became the Little Round Top of this fighting, although no one encounter along the twenty-mile battlefront was ever decisive: instead, all of Stalingrad was a deadly meat grinder. Craig writes: “Most appalling was the growing realization, formed by statistics I uncovered, that the battle was the greatest military bloodbath in recorded history. Well over a million men and women died because of Stalingrad, a number far surpassing the previous records of dead at the first battle of the Somme and Verdun in 1916.”

The Hunt for Red October

I walked up to the top of Mamayev Kurgan on the winding brick stairway, seemingly to heaven. Along the way I passed a reflection pool and an eternal flame, plus a roll of honor for those who defended the hill from the Germans.

More to my interest was the nearby Red October Steel Factory, visible from the hilltop, where afterwards I went on my bike.

The surrounding roads might have had potholes, and I was always on the lookout for trucks careening down narrow industrial lanes, but at least in the shadow of the steel furnaces and chimneys I could better imagine how it was possible for the Russians to hold on to the city.

Craig writes: “North of the ferry landing, north of heavily contested Mamaev Hill, lay the key to the city—the factories. There, the [German] Sixth Army faced the ultimate challenge. And [the attacking German General Friedrich von] Paulus was running out of men and ammunition.”

Red October hugs the river and its fortress-like footprint brought into focus this passage I later found in Simonov, as the battle is about to turn:

“Oh, Lord, how bored I am with sitting on the defense! You know what?” He looked at Saburov with a frown on his face. “We will certainly take that building. With an accompaniment like this from the north, it would be simply shameful not to do it. That building . . . what’s a building after all?” He smiled, but then at once became serious again. “As a matter of fact that building is an awful lot. It’s almost everything. It’s Russia.” He leaned his stool back against the wall and repeated in a slow drawl: “Russia . . . you can’t even imagine the feeling we’ll have when by dawn tomorrow we’ve got that building. What is the building? Four walls, and not even walls—four ruins. But your heart tells you: look, just like that building, we’ll take all Russia back again. You understand, Saburov? What’s important is to begin. To begin, with that building if we have to, but to feel at the same time that we’ll keep going. And we will keep going, until it’s all finished. All.”

And it was the warehouses that later saved Kiev.

Who Owns the Trademark to the Suffering at Stalingrad?

I am not surprised that Stalingrad has become the imagined template of the current fighting in Ukraine. It’s the one battle of the earlier German-Russian War that is easy to visualize—that of a river city holding out in the snow against attacking Panzer divisions. And Stalingrad is what comes to Russian minds when President Putin denounces what he calls “open neo-Nazism” in Ukraine and other Soviet satellites. But as a metaphor to rally troops in the current war, it lacks precision.

In the lines at Stalingrad were not just Germans and Russians, but allied nations on both rides. On the German side there were impressed Romanian, Croatian, Austrian, Hungarian, and Italian legions (and some of their failures are what enabled the Russians to win).

On the Russian side there were nationalities from all over the Soviet Union, including from Ukraine—although some of the Ukrainians in action at Stalingrad were captured during the initial German invasion, and they were fighting for the Nazis. Stalingrad might well have been the biggest battle in history fought, in part, with slave labor. Craig writes of Russian commissars: “And always there were the grim police of the Russian NKVD, standing between the front line and the Volga, checking soldiers’ papers and shooting suspected deserters dead.”

In pressing his forces forward in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has invoked the image of sacrifice at Stalingrad, where it was said “time is blood” (meaning, the Russians bought time for Lend-Lease aid to arrive, by sacrificing waves of infantrymen). But do the Russian people really now want to fight a similar war of attrition in Donbas just to fulfill Putin’s personal dreams of a revanchist Soviet Union?

Vasily Grossman asks in Life and Fate: “Why do people have memories? It would be easier to die – anything to stop remembering.” And as much as he admired the Russian stand at Stalingrad, he also drew a straight line from the Volga to the Gulag.


Next: More from Stalingrad and the surrounding steppe where the Germans lost an army, if not the war. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.