I am sitting on the edge of a fox-hole facing west. The sun is shining and I have a cold beer in my hand. A picnic is being laid out on a table. All manner of things – some of my favourites are vodka, smoked sturgeon and cheese. We have with us several veterans. Anatoly has been joined by three lovely ladies all wearing their medals. As they tell their stories we listen carefully.
|Listening to veterans stories - Mamayev Kurgan|
The place is called Rossoshka - way out on the Volga Steppe and it is reached by a road that runs through uncultivated fields pitted with fox holes and gun pits. In town we had picked up two German veterans and they joined us for Victory Day. Wary of local reaction, although both had fought during the battle, they are saying that they had only visited the city whilst incarcerated as PoWs whilst helping to build the post-war Don - Volga canal. The interpreter is doing a good job in facilitating an exchange of pleasantries. A less diplomatic Russian / English speaker tells me that the messages to the Germans from the Red Army veterans are more akin to what might have been said in 1942!
|The Newly Built German Cemetery at Rossoschka|
Back to the Red Army women veterans. The first speaks and our interpreter is reduced to tears. She tells of joining the Red Army at 15 years of age. She ferried supplies to the front-line troops. Another tells of driving lend-lease trucks up from Persia. She learnt English so she could read the assembly instructions.
I preferred the yellow trucks provided by the Queen of England later in the war. Afterwards I went to Manchuria to deliver supplies to troops facing the Imperial Japanese Army.
|Victory Day - 9th May 2002 - Rossoschka|
The woman in the peaked cap in the photo above is Galina Oreshkina. Galina is the prime mover in gathering the fallen from the Stalingrad battlefield and laying them to rest at the Rossoschka reconciliation cemetery. She is a school teacher and is helped in her work by children from the local settlement and by children from elsewhere - including overseas.
Galina is charismatic and formidable - dealing with Russian and German veterans and doing battle with local opportunists who desecrate the battlefield whilst looking for artefacts.
As I write I notice the top of a skull lying on the surface of the ground. This is, effectively, an uncleared battlefield. It must look like Flanders did in the 1920s – helmets and other artefacts scattered everywhere.
I ask Galina how she can tell the Soviet casualties from the German, Croatian and Rumanian ones. She tells me that the Red Army soldiers wore glass capsules which contained a piece of paper with the soldiers name and unit. She says that many Red Army soldiers are not identified because they thought it was unlucky to fill their details on on the bit of paper. The German soldiers wore metal tags in two halves - one left with the dead soldier and the other retained for the record. When there is no clear identification then Galina says she can tell the nationality by the feel of the bones. I believe her.
|Red Army Veterans at Rossoschka|
quietly reflecting on what I am witnessing, I’m joined by two silver haired
women who served in the Red Army during the battle. I feel so privileged
sitting in such distinguished company. They write in my journal and sign the
The people of Russia and England have always been friends. Thank you to the English for their help in rebuilding our home city of Stalingrad.
I had the great honour of receiving a gift from Her Majesty Elizabeth, the Queen of England (sic) during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. Heartfelt thanks to the English nation for their help in the struggle against fascism. We remember everything; the clothes, the medicines and the food. You saved us at a difficult time.
We bow our graying heads to the memory of Her Majesty – may her memory live for ever.
Polina Ivanovna Batayeva (Cheklova in the War Years), Rossoshka Village, 9th May 2002.
|Red Army Cemetery - Rossoschka|
would like to express my thanks for the meeting with your group. It brought
back memories of rthe evil war years when we stood together. We extend our
sympathy to you on the death of Her Majesty.
Uvov, NL, Novgorodova, 9th May 2002
One of the more bizarre images of our day on the Volga Steppe concerns one of our party – Mike – think Terry Thomas but without the moustache. He consumed a huge amount of vodka and stated off sitting on the rim of a shell hole. He went missing though. Later, when the Victory Day celebrations were drawing to a close we found him sleeping at the bottom of the hole with a contented smile on his face.
Back on Mamayev Kurgan for Victory Day the hill is awash with people. They are dressed up and in good spirits – balloons, cold drinks and picnics. There are groups singing.
Our little group pause by the reflecting pool below the massive 'Motherland' statue on top of the hill - the highest point in the city. After two minutes silence amongst the tens of thousands celebrating nearby we place a British Legion poppy wreath into the water. The floating poppies provoke a mixture of bemusement and interest from our hosts.
We meet lots of veterans. Three Cossacks, one in his original uniform. One veteran is keen to know whether members of my family served in the Great Patriotic War.
|Old Soldiers - Mamayev Kurgan|
Back to the hotel and after dinner another phone call. “would you like to have a drink with a Russian lady?”. "No thanks", I reply.
To read the final part click here.