Tuesday 19 June 2018

Volgograd - The World Cup host city and its historical importance

The ‘Motherland Calls’ statue on Mamayev Kurgan overlooking Volgograd which commemorates the ‘Battle of Stalingrad’.

The World Cup football tournament, as with other festivals of sport such as the Olympic Games, present the host nation with the opportunity to showcase its historical legacies as well as its cultural heritage. They may also provide a suitable platform aimed at portraying the national zeitgeist.

Russia is certainly taking the opportunity to present aspects of its history and culture alongside the football matches by staging a series of exhibitions, music concerts and ballet performances.

For those with a general knowledge of the medieval and modern history of Russia, the names of most of the cities hosting the matches will strike a chord. Nizhny Novgorod was a cultural centre of the early flowering of Russian civilisation while Saint Petersburg is the city built by Peter the Great to serve as Russia’s ‘window to Europe’. Moscow is of course famous as the capital city of both Russia and the Soviet Union, where the imposing fortress of the Kremlin is located. And Yekaterinburg is the city in which Tsar Nicholas II and his family were massacred by the Bolsheviks one hundred years ago.

The Second World War, which in Russia is referred to as Velikaya Otechestvennaya voyna (the Great Patriotic War), inexorably figures in such recollections. For it was on the German Eastern Front that a series of battles between vast Nazi and Soviet armies occurred. Each confrontation was replete with large scale pincer movements, ferocious tank battles, protracted sieges and massive capitulations.

Saint Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, endured a 900-day long siege, while the Battles for Moscow and Rostov-on-Don during the later part of 1941 provided the templates for future Soviet resistance to what appeared to be the unstoppable advance of Nazi forces after the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June of that year.

But if one battle is emblematic of Russian-Soviet defiance of the Nazi war machine, it is the Battle of Stalingrad. Named after the Soviet leader Stalin, the city, now known as Volgograd, was the scene of what is regarded as the single largest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. It is also seen as the turning point in the war. The surrender of the Sixth Army in February 1943, ended a confrontation which had consumed an estimated 1.9 million lives consisting of the soldiers of both armies as well as Soviet civilians. Victory at Stalingrad set the Soviet Union on the path to victory against Nazi Germany.

It is rightfully commemorated.

A monument called Mamayev Kurgan, situated at the highest point of the city on an ancient Tatar burial mound, provides a fitting memorial. Designed by Yevgeny Vuchetich and structural engineer Nikolai Nikitin, the ‘Motherland is Calling’ statue is a massive structure depicting Mother Russia as a voluptuous heroine bearing a massive sword while exhorting the nation to victory.*

While Russia’s objective, like other countries which host World Cup competitions, is to boost national prestige and develop areas within its business sphere, the authorities may also calculate that the temporary, but intense focus of the global media on host cities such as Volgograd, will create an awareness of its past, and hope that this translates into a more empathetic appraisal of its present needs.  

*An important consequence of the victory was the ensuing domination of the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe. While the breakup of the Soviet Union has removed such domination the Soviet conquest of East Prussia has a not often remembered legacy. Kaliningrad, which is situated between Poland and Lithuania, has remained under Russian control. Formerly known as Konigsberg, it remains for some an unresolved remnant of the Second World War, while for others it is territory firmly in Russian hands and from which Russia can project its military power in the Baltic region.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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