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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 17:35 GMT
Volga road trip: Stalingrad
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes travelled in a Volga car along the Volga river to take a snapshot of life in Vladimir Putin's Russia, as the presidential election looms. This is his sixth and final piece, from the city of Volgograd.

Volgograd's war memorial
The huge Motherland statue dominates the war memorial

Stalingrad. It is a name that reverberates through the history of the 20th Century.

Today they call it Volgograd, but to me it will always be Stalingrad. Not because I have any love for the Soviet dictator, but because of the titanic battle that bears the city's name.

In Britain, we learn about Dunkirk and Normandy. Americans learn about Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima, but (with all due respect) they were sideshows compared to what happened here.

During the bitter winter of 1942 the streets and buildings of this city became a meat grinder that consumed nearly two million lives. It was a vicious, pitiless struggle with appalling cruelty on both sides.

Concrete colossus

Today it is hard to imagine the handsome streets and squares of Volgograd as they were at the German surrender in February 1943.

A house left exactly as it was since 1943
A ruined house is a reminder of the fierce battle

Here and there, I found a few glimpses. Across the street from the grand railway station, I found a lone lamp post, left behind as a tiny reminder. From top to bottom it is marked with bullet holes, there is even a large shell hole big enough to put your hand through.

Down on the bank of the Volga, there is one whole building, a warehouse, left exactly as it was at the end of the battle. The only place I have seen anything like it is the centre of Grozny in Chechnya.

In 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered the construction of the world's biggest war memorial in Volgograd. It is an extraordinary structure, on a gargantuan scale.

Driving in to the north of the city, I suddenly saw it - a concrete colossus atop a small hill. An 82m (250ft) figure of a woman holding aloft a huge sword. On her face a howl of rage, as if she is ready to smite any who dare to violate "Mother Russia".


I went to the city's top high school. I wanted to find out what history Russian kids are learning.

Map of Volga trip

The class turned out to be an elaborate, and well-intentioned, charade. The chosen topic was people's diplomacy and the experience of Volgograd and Coventry.

The rotund teacher talked enthusiastically about Queen Elizabeth. Students got up and gave meaningful speeches about Anglo-Russian friendship.

But minutes later the same students were telling me quite openly how they consider America their enemy and that America and its Nato allies are intent on undermining Russia.

Later in the day, I went to meet a group of teenagers from a Kremlin-sponsored youth movement called Nashi (Ours).

The Americans always claim they won the war. That's rubbish. We won the war
Russian WWII veteran
They all trumpeted the same line. America wants to keep us weak, it wants our oil. Washington, I was told, has engineered revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia to turn those countries against Russia. It has expanded Nato to encircle Russia.

Together with the young activists I then went off to meet a couple of Stalingrad veterans. The two ladies were both in their mid-80s and bedecked with medals.

Over tea and cake they told me of their wartime adventures that had taken them from Stalingrad to Berlin.

I asked them what they thought of the British and Americans. Surely they must have some warm feelings for their wartime allies?

With fire in her eyes one of them glared at me.

"The Americans always claim they won the war," she said. "That's rubbish. We won the war. They only joined in when it was already clear the Germans were going to lose."

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