During World War II, Volgograd, then called Stalingrad, suffered heavy losses. Nearly two million men died in the ferocious fight for the city, including over one million Red Army and 800,000 German soldiers. The city was all but destroyed in an incomprehensible six months between July 1942 and February 1943.
The Germans had been determined to capture the city not only because it bore the name of the Soviet leader, but also as it would have provided a base from which to secure the oil-rich Caucasus region to power the Nazi war machine.
Although they at first quickly gained ground, they soon encountered fierce Soviet resistance. House to house fighting ensued, with Stalin refusing to evacuate the citizens, believing the troops would be better motivated if they were defenders of the local popualtion. “Not one step back” was his declaration. Once winter arrived the Germans began to fall short of both supplies and morale.
General Paulus of the German 6th Army was told by Hitler that he must not retreat or surrender, which resulted in a meatgrinder in December and January. Nevertheless, with just 90,000 of his original one million men left, Paulus surrendered on January 31, 1942.
Volgograd’s defining feature is The Motherland Calls monument, built as a tribute the defence of the city that turned the tide in the Second World War. The colossal statue, taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York, dominates the landscape, overlooking the city, the River Volga, and the new Volgograd Arena.
Nowadays, Volgograd is a Soviet-style city, full of wide boulevards and grand, Stalinist architecture. The city is long, narrow and not particularly big. Fans can jump on and off the tram to nip between the stadium and the city centre. The stadium will hold 45,000 spectators, slightly more than will squeeze into the Fan Zone on the banks of the river nearby.
Down by the river, bars and restaurants bathe in the evening sun, not far from a small park full of flowers and statues.
The local team, FC Rotor Volgograd was a force to be reckoned with in the 90s, regularly featuring in the UEFA Cup, but financial difficulties led to a decline, from which the club is only just recovering. They have just been promoted to the Russian Second Division and will be hoping that strong local support in 2018 and a move to the new stadium will be the catalyst for them to return to prominence.