The Second World War was probably the greatest human catastrophe the world has ever seen. Historians have always struggled to find words that can convey even a glimpse of its total scale. We give endless statistics – more than 100 million soldiers mobilised, more than 60 million people killed, more than $1.6 trillion squandered – but such numbers are so large that they are meaningless to most people.
Monuments, memorials and museums do not rely on statistics: they find other ways to suggest the scale of wartime events. A single well-chosen symbol can often hint at this far better than any words. For example, who can look at the mountain of shoes on display in the Holocaust museum at Auschwitz–Birkenau without imagining the host of corpses from which those shoes were stolen? Sometimes even a tiny object can bring to mind something gigantic. In the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum there is a display of clocks and watches which all stopped at the exact moment of the atomic blast. The atom bomb, they seem to say, was so great that it had the power to stop time.
But perhaps the most effective way that memorials convey the vastness of wartime events is also the simplest: through their own sheer size. Many of the memorials in this book are larger than life. Some are truly gigantic. There is a simple rule of thumb that holds true for most of them: the bigger the event being commemorated, the bigger the monument.
This chapter tells the story of one of the largest of them all: the huge statue that stands on top of Mamayev Kurgan, in the city of Volgograd in Russia. Its size tells us a great deal – not only about the Second World War, but also about the Russian psyche, and the bonds that continue to hold it prisoner.
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Mamayev Kurgan is not the site of a single monument, but a whole complex of monuments, each of them more gigantic than the last. The first time I came here, I felt like I was entering a realm of titans. At the foot of the hill stands a huge sculpture of a bare-chested man clutching a machine gun in one hand and a grenade in the other. He seems to rise out of the very rock, torso rippling, as tall as a three-story building. Beyond him, on either side of the steps that lead to the summit, are relief sculptures of giant soldiers springing out of the ruined walls as if in the midst of battle. Further up the hill is the gigantic figure of a grieving mother, more than twice the size of my house. She is hunched over the body of her dead son, sobbing into a large pool of water, called the “Lake of Tears”.
The dozens of statues arranged in this park are all giants: not one of them is under six metres (20 feet) tall, and some of them depict heroes who are three or four times that size. And yet they are dwarfed by the single statue that rises above them all, on the summit of the hill. Here, overlooking the Volga, stands a colossal representation of Mother Russia beckoning to her children to come and fight for her. Her mouth is open in battle-cry, her hair and dress fluttering in the wind; and in her right hand she holds a vast sword pointing up into the sky. From her feet to the tip of her sword she stands 85 metres (280 feet) high. She is nearly twice as tall, and forty times as heavy, as the Statue of Liberty in New York City. When she was first unveiled in 1967, she was the largest statue in the world.
This memorial, entitled “The Motherland Calls!”, is one of the most iconic statues in the whole of Russia. It was the creation of Soviet sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich, who spent years designing and building it. It contains around 2,500 metric tonnes of metal, and 5,500 tonnes of concrete. The sword alone weighs 14 tonnes. So huge was this statue that Vuchetich was obliged to collaborate with a structural engineer, Nikolai Nikitin to ensure that it did not collapse under its own weight. Holes had to be drilled into the sword to reduce the threat of the wind catching it and swaying the whole structure.
Were this monument in Italy or France it would appear absurdly grandiose, but here on the banks of the Volga, in the city that was once called Stalingrad, it feels quietly appropriate. The battle that took place here in 1942 dwarfs anything that happened in the West. It began with the greatest German bombardment of the war, and progressed with attacks and counter attacks by more than a dozen entire armies. Within the city itself, soldiers fought from street to street, and even from room to room, in a landscape of shattered houses. Over the course of five months around two million men lost their lives, their health, or their liberty. The combined casualties of this one battle were greater than the casualties that Britain and America together suffered during the whole of the war.
As one stands on the summit of Mamayev Kurgan in the shadow of the gigantic statue of the motherland, one can feel the weight of all this history. It is oppressive even for a foreigner. But for many Russians this place is sacred. The word “Kurgan” in Russian means a tumulus or burial mound. This hill is an ancient site dedicated to a 14th century warlord, but in the wake of the greatest battle of the greatest war in history, it now carries a new symbolism. This place was one of the major battlegrounds of 1942, and an unknown number of soldiers and civilians are buried here. Even today, when walking on the hill, it is still possible to find fragments of metal and bone buried in the soil. The Motherland statue stands, both figuratively and literally, upon a mountain of corpses.
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The scale of the war in Russia is one reason why the monuments on Mamayev Kurgan are so huge, but it is not the only reason – in fact, it is not even the main reason. The statues of muscular heroes and weeping mothers might be huge, but it is the giantess on the summit of the hill that dominates them all. It is important to remember that this is a representation not of the war, but of the Motherland. Its message is simple: no matter how great the battle, and no matter how great the enemy, the Motherland is greater still. Her colossal size is supposed to be a comfort to all the struggling soldiers and weeping mothers, a reminder that for all their sacrifice, they are at least a part of something powerful and magnificent. This is the true meaning of Mamayev Kurgan.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the people of the Soviet Union did not have much to console them. Not only were they traumatised by loss, but they also faced an uncertain future. Russians did not benefit economically from the war as the Americans did: the violence had left their economy in ruins. Nor did Russians win any new freedoms: despite widespread hopes of a political thaw after 1945, Stalinist repression soon started up all over again. Life in Russia after the war was grim.
The only consolation offered to Russian and other Soviet people was that their country had proven itself at last to be a truly great nation. In 1945, the USSR possessed the largest army the world has ever seen. It dominated not only the vast Eurasian landmass, but also the Baltic and the Black Sea. The Second World War had not only restored the country’s borders, but extended them, both to the west and to the east, and Soviet influence now stretched deep into the heart of Europe. Before the war, the Soviet Union had been a second rate power, weakened by internal upheaval. After the war, it was a superpower.
The Motherland statue on Mamayev Kurgan was designed to be proof of all this. It was built in the 1960s, when the USSR was at the height of its strength. It stood as a warning to anyone who dared attack the Soviet Union, but also as a symbol of reassurance to the Soviet people. The giant, it declared, would always protect them.
For the Russian citizens who first stood on the summit of this hill with the Motherland statue at their backs, the vistas looked endless. Everything to the west of them for a thousand miles was Soviet territory. To the east they could travel through nine time zones without once leaving their country. Even the heavens seemed to belong to them: the first man in space was a Russian, and the first woman too. It is impossible to look up at the Motherland statue without also gazing beyond, to the endless skies above her.
Since those days, Russia has never stopped building war memorials. Many of them are on a similar scale to those in Volgograd. In 1974, for example, a 42-metre high statue of a Soviet soldier was erected in Murmansk, in memory of the men who died during the defence of Arctic Russia in July 1941. In the early 1980s, when Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union, a second Motherland statue was erected in Kiev. (Like the statue on Mamayev Kurgan, it too was designed by Vuchetich. Including its plinth, it stands over 100 metres tall.) And in 1985, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, a 79-metre-high victory monument was erected in Riga, the capital of Soviet Latvia.
All of these statues and monuments were meant to be symbols of power and confidence. But a generation after the Motherland statue in Volgograd was inaugurated, Soviet power began to waver. In the 1980s, Eastern Bloc countries like Poland and East Germany began to pull away from Soviet influence, culminating in the collapse of Communism in these countries in 1989. Then pieces of the Soviet Union itself began to break off: first Lithuania in March 1990, followed in quick succession by thirteen other states in the Baltic, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The giant was crumbling. The dissolution of the USSR was finally announced on 26 December 1991.
The sense of despair felt by many Russians during this period was palpable. Madeleine Albright, who was America’s Secretary of State at the end of the 1990s, tells the story of meeting a Russian man who complained that “We used to be a superpower, but now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.” For decades, national greatness had been the only consolation for all the loss that men like him had suffered throughout the century. Now this too had been taken away.
In such an atmosphere, Russia’s gargantuan war memorials began to look less like symbols of power, and more like Ozymandias in the famous poem by Shelley: relics of past glories, destined to be swallowed, slowly but surely, by the sands of time. But this did not stop the Russian authorities from building them. Far from it: Russia has never stopped celebrating the glories of the Second World War. In 1995, for example, a brand new “Museum of the Great Patriotic War” was opened in Moscow. In front of it stands a monument that is even taller than the statue on Mamayev Kurgan: in fact, at 141.8 metres (or 465 feet) tall, it is the tallest Second World War memorial anywhere in the world. Other monuments followed. In April 2007, Belgorod, Kursk and Oryol were declared “Cities of Military Glory” because of the role they had played during the war, and brand new obelisks were erected in each place. The following October, five more cities were given this title, and five more obelisks erected. Within just five years, more than forty cities across Russia were honoured in this way, with brand new monuments springing up from Vyborg to Vladivostok.
Why do the Russians continue to commemorate the war in this way? More than 75 years have passed since the final days of the war – is it not time to lay it to rest?
There are a couple of possible explanations for this country’s seemingly limitless addiction to massive Second World War monuments. The first is that the trauma caused by the war was so great that Russians simply cannot forget it. They feel compelled to tell the stories of the war again and again, in the same way that individuals who have experienced trauma often have flashbacks. These new memorials, each one seemingly bigger than the last, are Russia’s way of coming to terms with its past.
I’m sure that this is true, but it is also a little simplistic. For example, it does not explain why these memorials are growing and replicating now more than ever. Is there something about life in Russia today that is triggering these concrete flashbacks? I can’t help feeling that there must be a renewed sense of instability, or vulnerability, which is driving Russians to insist ever more stridently upon their wartime heroism. In other words, the monuments that they are erecting today have as much to do with the present as with the past.
Or perhaps this is simply about nation-building. Russia is not the country that it once was. It has lost an empire, and not yet found a new role for itself in the world. For many Russians, the building of war memorials serves as a reminder of the status that their country once had, and perhaps also gives a sense of hope that, one day soon, Russia might rise again. The bigger the monument, the greater the sense of pride – and the greater the nostalgia. The glorification of the war has become a central part of Vladimir Putin’s program to forge a new sense of national identity.
This too can be felt at Mamayev Kurgan. During the 1990s, when Russian power was crumbling, the Motherland statue on Mamayev Kurgan also began to fall apart. Decaying pipes around the “lake of tears” began to leak water into the hill around the statue, making the soil unstable. By the year 2000, deep cracks had begun to appear in the statue’s shoulders. A few years later, reports emerged that it was listing 20 cm to one side. The cash-strapped Russian government kept promising to pay for reconstruction work, but the money never arrived. Nobody knew whether this official neglect was due to Russia’s new-found poverty, or its new-found ambivalence towards its Soviet past.
In recent years, however, the monument has had a new lease of life. When I visited in 2018, the Motherland statue had just been repaired. The other monuments in downtown Volgograd had also been given a face lift, and the whole of the city’s Victory Park was closed for refurbishment. In the central square, which is named the “Square of the Fallen Heroes”, school children were practicing their marching for a ceremony to honour the Stalingrad dead.
There is pride here, and sorrow, in equal measure. When you climb the hill today, you see people from all over Russia, who come to this place to pay their respects. Families bring children to teach them about the heroism of their great-grandfathers. Young women pose for photos in front of the Motherland statue, and carry red carnations to lay at the feet of the monuments. Military men come in full dress uniform, their medals clanking as they climb the steps.
None of these people can escape the history that has forged them, nor the longing for greatness that has been such an integral part of their nation’s consciousness since 1945. For better or worse, they continue to live in the shadow of the great statue that stands on top of the hill.
This excerpt is from Prisoners of History: What Monuments to the Second World War Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves by Keith Lowe, published by Harper Collins.