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   - darkometer rating:  6 -
A city in the south of European Russia on the river that gives it its name: the Volga. Yet it's a place that is much more famous for its significance in history at a time when it still had its previous name: Stalingrad.
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest in war history, and at the same time one of the most decisive ones of WWII. It ended in the first major defeat for the military of the German Third Reich and constituted a turning point in the war. After Stalingrad, the Nazis' military advance was over and turned into retreat as the Soviet Red Army pushed westwards, and it soon became clear that Germany was on the road to ruin.
No wonder, then, that from a Russian perspective, Stalingrad stood out as a glorious victory, and this was massively milked by the Soviet propaganda machine after the war. These efforts gave the world what is probably the grandest war memorial in existence, plus a couple of museums, and other associated sites. Together they make Volgograd a top destination for war history tourists, even though it is a bit off the beaten track.     
More background info: Volgograd is today an industrial city and regional capital with about a million inhabitants, but as a city it's not an ancient place. Its prehistory may go back to the murky late Middle Ages when a fortress was set up on the banks of the Volga here, at a time when this southern edge of the Russian empire was under constant threats of attack from other powers (Tartar, Kalmyk, Kazakh, etc.).
Yet it wasn't until the late 18th century that the place became a modest-sized district town and more settlers slowly started arriving. The name of the town was Tsaritsyn back then.
It was also at that time that a Volga German settlement was formed to the south-east of Tsaritysn, at Sarepta, following a call by Tsarina Catherine the Great (who herself had German roots) trying to specifically attract German settlers. This later became part of the city too – see under Krasnoarmeysk.
Only during the second half of the 19th century Tsaritsyn grow and evolved into a proper city, with a railway station, trams, river port, a theatre, and so on.
After the 1917 October Revolution, during the Russian Civil War, the city became a battleground between the White Russians and the Bolsheviks, changing hands between the two sides repeatedly until the final victory of the Bolsheviks in 1920.
Apparently, Josef Stalin had played a role in this battle and so, after Lenin's death and Stalin's takeover of power in the fledging Soviet Union, Tsaritsyn was renamed Stalingrad in 1925.
Stalin pushed for a massive industrialization programme and so it comes that Stalingrad became an important centre for the steel industry and the manufacturing of vehicles, in particular tractors (and later tanks), weapons and other machinery, as well as chemical and oil refinery plants.
In WWII, Stalingrad became the target of the invading troops of Nazi Germany – and for both Hitler and Stalin the place had exceptional symbolic value, especially because of its name, not just for strategic reasons. For Hitler it would have been the most shining prize to conquer the city bearing his nemesis' name and for Stalin it would of course have been the biggest humiliation … had it happened.
As it turned out the Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943, became one of the largest, fiercest and bloodiest battles in world history, with well over a million dead (some casualty estimates are closer to two million even). Almost the entire city was destroyed during the bombardments, shelling and eventually house-to-house and even room-to-room fighting. Fortunes went back and forth, but eventually the Soviets managed to completely encircle Stalingrad, trapping the German 6th Army inside the city, cutting off their supplies, and all that as the harsh Russian winter (for which the Germans were not properly equipped) also began taking its toll.
I won't (and couldn't) go into more details here (that's where the various museums and memorial sites come in, not to mention the subject-specific guided tours). Suffice it to say that the brutal battle ended in the defeat of the German 6th Army under General Paulus, who, against Hitler's express instructions to fight to the last bullet and the last man, eventually capitulated when it had become clear that the battle was lost. Pockets of German resistance remained for a bit longer, but in the end it was a glorious victory for Stalin and the Soviet Red Army, and a resounding shock for Germany.
Some 100,000 German soldiers were taken POW. Only about 5000 of these would eventually return home in the mid-1950s, the rest succumbed to the cold, malnourishment, their wounds, disease and later the harsh conditions in the various POW labour camps.
But back to Stalingrad. The legacy of the battle was of course exploited for propaganda purposes on a grand scale after WWII, beginning with its declaration of Stalingrad as a “Hero City” (see also Leningrad, Murmansk, Kiev, Minsk). Over the years countless memorials were erected culminating in the grandest of them all at Mamayev Hill topped by the Rodina Mat statue.
In 1961, some eight years after Stalin's death, the city was renamed Volgograd as part of the de-Stalinization programme under Nikita Khrushchev aimed at dismantling the previous cult of personality.
Yet many citizens of Volgograd today would apparently not mind if the city reverted to its former name of Stalingrad. There have been several campaigns for this, but so far the Russian government has not been won over. It would be a strange signal to the rest of the world if that ever happened …
Finally, it should also be mentioned that Volgograd has seen several terrorist attacks in 2004 and 2013, when suicide bombers, presumed to have been from Chechnya and Dagestan respectively, targeted planes at the airport, a bus and the railway station in the city, killing dozens of civilians. Volgograd is indeed the largest city north of these “problem” areas of the North Caucasus, only 400 miles (600 km) away – a stone's throw by Russian standards! I remember seeing the warning signs on the tram admonishing passengers to look out for suspicious items/behaviour. These are clearly there for a reason. Nevertheless I experienced Volgograd as a relaxed “normal” city, and quite friendly too (again, by Russian standards).
What there is to see: Of the many monuments and memorial sites commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad, the following stand out and are thus given their own separate chapters here:
Furthermore there are a couple of other sites worth their own chapters though they are not (or not directly) linked to WWII and the Battle of Stalingrad:
In addition, there are countless smaller monuments related to the war, too many to cover them all here, but a few deserve a mention:
The most central one is Alleya Geroyev, the “Heroes' Alley”, which runs south-east from the central square (Ploshchad Pavshikh Bortsov – Площадь Павших Борцов) to the Volga Steps. At the bottom end is a row of tall granite panels with the names of officers and soldiers of the Battle of Stalingrad and plenty of typical Soviet-era insignia. Also spot the Lenin portrait that is still looking down from one of the Stalin-era buildings that flank the Avenue.
Further up the park-like Heroes' Alley you can see a “live” monument: a survivor tree, one of only very very few that survived the Battle of Stalingrad. After a few more memorials the north-western end of the complex is marked by the “Defenders of Red Tsaritsyn” memorial, which marks the local Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War (see above) and consists of a tall obelisk and an eternal flame (still burning!).
Prospekt Lenina, the city's main street, which bisects the Heroes' Alley at a right angle, not only features some of the grandest Stalinist architecture but also a few monuments, such as the group of defiant defenders at Komsomolskaya.
A rather more unusual and modern monument can be found by the promenade above the riverbank at the bottom of Ulitsa Komsomolskaya: the “bomb memorial” from 1995, which consists of the shape of the bottom half of a bomb casing atop a sculpture of human forms, including children. As you may have guessed, this monument is dedicated to the victims of aerial bombings. At the beginning of the Battle of Stalingrad the German Luftwaffe carpet-bombed the city and some 40,000 civilians were killed (apparently Stalin had not allowed them to evacuate up to then; only after this carnage did the remaining civilians get permission to flee). Further up along the promenade you come to one of the many tank-turret monuments you can spot all over the city. 
If you continue walking up the promenade you eventually get to the Panorama Museum and Old Mill ruins. And on the street to the north-west of this complex (Ulitsa Sovietskaya) you can find some of the few other ruins left from the Battle: a battered bit of wall of the Pavlov House, turned into yet another memorial monument. (In fact I'm not even sure it's an actual piece of ruins – it looked rather artificial to me ...)  Nearby (just north of the tanks on open-air display) is also a more modern addition, a stone monument commemorating the victims of political repression during the Soviet times (see also Moscow's Lubyanka and the Museum of Political History in St Petersburg).  
Further north-west, is Lenin Square (every Russian city has one) with the obligatory Lenin statue standing tall and proud atop a red marble plinth in front of a colonnaded crescent with a stern war-scene bas relief. This is not the only Lenin in town, you can find more statues of him, e.g. further up Prospekt Lenina.
Also to the north on Prospekt Lenina is Ploshchad Stalingradskoy Pobedy with a fantastic modern-Soviet building with a giant bas relief frieze sporting the heads of the commie triumvirate of Marx, Engels & Lenin (there he is again). I couldn't find out what the building's function is/was, but it looks like either a House of Soviets or a theatre/concert hall or some such thing.
Back in the centre, the very grandest piece of 1950s Soviet architecture in Volgograd is probably the 1954 main train station with its tall spire topped by a five-pointed star and with plenty of elaborate stonemasonry on the façade celebrating the railways and industrialization in general. It's worth going inside the station building too, even if you're not travelling by train, just to take a look at the two fantastic large socialist-realist ceiling paintings in the main halls, one featuring lots of red-flag-waving victorious Soviets, while the other is again a glorification of industrialization and construction works.
In front of the station you can find another reconstruction (see also Panorama Museum) of the famous Barmaley Fountain featuring a group of children holding hands and dancing in a circle around a crocodile. It depicts a scene from a fairy tale. A war photographer's shot of the original fountain, damaged and dirty but still largely intact, against the backdrop of the bombed and burning ruins of Stalingrad in August 1942 became one of the most iconic wartime photographic images from the USSR. The original fountain was removed after the war but this copy was rebuilt in front of the station in 2013.
Opposite the square outside the station on the corner of Ulitsa Gogolya (near the history museum) one of Stalingrad's old lamp posts survives as a rather unusual and sinister kind of memorial, though it is easily overlooked. The rusty pole still bears various bullet holes from the battle.
At the bus station next to the train station you can see destinations advertised on the ticket kiosks that bring you back into the modern age and its military conflicts: here Russian bus companies provide services to places such as Donetsk or Lugansk (“Luhansk” in Ukrainian), i.e. cities in the Donbass area in eastern Ukraine, a separatist war zone where officially, according to Putin and state media “there are no Russian military units”. Well, even if that is so, it's clear that they *could* get there with ease by public bus from Volgograd.
The industrial north of Volgograd has a few more sites associated with the Battle of Stalingrad, not just the Tractor Factory, also the Red October metallurgy plant (still active and belching out evil-looking orangey brown fumes) and especially the Barrikady weapons and ammunitions plant (which today produces the launchers for Russia's mobile ICBMs, amongst other things!). Both plants saw extensive room-to-room fighting in WWII and both were largely destroyed in the war (and later rebuilt).
Near the latter, between the plant and the river, is the so-called “Lyudnikov's Island” memorial site, where a division of Soviet fighters held a small area against the Germans despite being surrounded on three sides and with the river behind them. There is now a small memorial park with war graves and some ruins of the division's HQ. Unfortunately I did not make it there on my trip to Volgograd in 2017. It's a bit tricky to get to independently, as it's on the other side of the plant, not where the tram line goes past, so it would have been a long walk around, and I didn't have the time or inclination for that. However, this place is routinely included in the various guided tours on the battlefield theme by vehicle (see also below).
Another site I didn't make it to on my trip was the memorial by the giant grain elevator building a good 2 miles (3.2 km) south-west of the city centre, even though that could easily have been done by (trolley)bus from the western end of Prospekt Lenina (e.g. line 36), but unfortunately I found out about this place too late. This site is also a standard stop on battlefield-themed guided tours. This site too was the location of heavy fighting, when a small contingent of Soviet marines (why they were here, I don't know – cf. Murmansk) held out against the German onslaught for a long time despite being severely outnumbered. There's a statue of a marine in front of a crescent with inscriptions right in front of the towering grain silos.
As I said, this isn't everything. There are plenty more smaller-scale monuments, statues, plaques and other objects of interest around. Just keep your eyes open.
Location: in the steppes of southern Russia, a bit under 600 miles (a good 900 km) south-east of Moscow, by the last bend of the mighty Volga River before its final stretch towards its delta by the Caspian Sea, another 250 miles (400 km) away to the south-east.
Google maps locators:
Volga Steps: [48.7039, 44.5214]
Defenders of Red Tsaritsyn monument: [48.7082, 44.5153]
Bomb memorial: [48.70655, 44.52455]
Pavlov House: [48.7158, 44.5317]
Lenin on Lenin Square: [48.71645, 44.53038]
Train station: [48.7124, 44.5137]
Old lamp post: [48.71136, 44.51418]
Lyudnikov's Island: [48.7751, 44.5901]
Grain elevator: [48.6876, 44.4836]
Old fire station: [48.7098, 44.5104]
Theatre: [48.708, 44.513]
Planetarium: [48.7143, 44.5243]
Hidden old Tsaritsyn buildings: [48.7106, 44.5164]
Football stadium: [48.7345, 44.5487]
Access and costs: Off the usual tourist trails of Russia, but not too hard to get to; comparatively affordable.
Details: Getting to Volgograd is easiest by domestic flights from Moscow, which can be quite cheap. In theory there are other connections too, even one or two to places abroad (earning the airport the ambitious but misleading prefix “international”). The airport is some 10 miles (15 km) from the city at Gumrak. When I was there, the terminal building was a bit ramshackle, chaotic and confusing, but that was because it was basically a building site. It's undergoing a major upgrade and this should be finished in time for the 2018 World Cup, with an all-new terminal and even a train connection to nearby Gumrak station with onwards connections to the city centre. Otherwise there are airport buses to the main station in Volgograd or you could get a taxi (not too expensive).
Alternatively you can also get to Volgograd by train – but the distances mean that the journey from Moscow takes about a whole day. If you have the time, though, then this is of course a very good – and very, very Russian! – option. There are also connections to/from the Caucasus, Astrakhan, and upriver to Saratov and Samara.
In theory there's also the option of getting here by boat! However, river travel takes more the form of Volga cruises, not so much A-to-B connections that would be useful for dark-tourism travellers.
Getting around in Volgograd is easy only within the inner city centre core, where almost everything is walkable. But several of the points of interest further out can pose a bit more of a challenge.
Note that Volgograd is a very oddly shaped city, stretched out in a thin L-shaped band along the western and southern banks of the Volga, and for longer than any other city on its banks: almost 60 miles (100 km), which means getting from one end to the other can take a long time.
Getting north as far as the Tractor Factory is still quite easy by means of the very useful tram line CT (partly underground and hence referred to as 'metrotram'). This runs the entire length of Prospekt Lenina and onwards to the terminus near the tractor factory. The ride takes 30-40 minutes and is cheap. There are other tram lines too, but they won't be of so much use to visitors. Buses/trolleybuses perhaps more so. But you can do most of the things listed here by 'metrotram' and on foot, with one very notable exception: the ride all the way south-east to Krasnoarmeysk (which can be a bit of an odyssey or requires a regional train and a long walk, as described in its own chapter).
Accommodation options in Volgograd are surprisingly good, and even the most centrally located hotels (such as the old but good Intourist right on the central square) do not have to be expensive, at least not if you plan well ahead and shop around. But be careful: a good location (i.e. central and/or close to the metrotram) is more essential here than in many other places.
As for food & drink, things have improved a lot since the olden Soviet and more immediate post-Soviet days. Now you can get pretty decent restaurants and prices aren't inflated. The World Cup 2018 will probably have an impact though. On the one hand, more restaurants may offer English-language menus, but prices are also likely to go up – at least during the event. A place I kept returning to for its wide range, good atmosphere and service as well as moderate prices was on the corner of Alleya Geroyev and Ulitsa Marshala Chuykova very near the Volga Steps (… the name of the place began with an “M”). Craft beer connoisseurs will happily note that the trend has arrived here too, with even a range of three or four dedicated bars, though I found service and quality control were a bit behind other such places I visited on my 2017 trip to Russia.
Note that Volgograd can display the extremes of continental climate, with up to 80 degrees Celsius difference between winter and summer temperatures, in winter the mercury can drop below minus 30 and summers can be stiflingly hot! Be prepared.
Time required: To do all the sights listed here you'll need a minimum of two whole days, preferably a little more to allow for a more leisurely pace.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Russia.
There are a few further sites associated with WWII and the context of the Battle of Stalingrad outside the city proper, such as the Rossoshka memorial complex and war cemetery (for the fallen of both the Soviet and the German side), which is some 20 miles (30 km) north-west of Volgograd. Another significant site is the Meeting of the Fronts Memorial at Kalach-on-Don, 50 miles (80 km) from Volgograd.
To get to these sites can be tricky on an independent basis, so they are best done as part of a larger organized tour (such as those offered by Three Whales – see under Gorky Leninskiye) or as targeted stand-alone excursions from Volgograd (e.g. with Sputnik's Stalingrad Battlefield Tours).
Another intriguing place in the Volgograd Oblast that isn't so much dark as weird, and mysterious as a natural phenomenon, is Lake Elton, the largest salt lake in Europe. It is so shallow that it dries out in the summer but at other times its waters can turn a deep red, best seen in the evenings. If it's calm the lake becomes a “mirror” blending seamlessly with the horizon (cf. Uyuni in Bolivia!). Like at the Dead Sea, the salt, brine and mud found here are used in health spas (for the substances' alleged healing properties). It is unfortunately a long journey from Volgograd, a good 100 miles (170 km) as the crow flies (almost as far as the border with Kazakhstan), but about twice that by (bad) road. Yet it may be possible to organize a trip there through one of the local tour operators (I have definitely seen it mentioned somewhere).
Another salt lake is some 60 miles (100 km) further south – and ca.130 miles (200 km) from Volgograd: Lake Baskunchak. Unlike its reddish counterpart, this is a heavily mined source of commercial salt, allegedly supplying some 80% of the salt used within Russia! The mined salt is transported by train tracks directly on the salt pan – similarly to the mining operations at Garabogazköl, Turkmenistan. But in addition to the industrial exploitation of the lake, it's also become an unlikely tourist attraction, something like a Russian Dead Sea, where people come from far away just to float on the brine and take mud baths. At one end of the lake there are eerie-looking dead stumps of trees. So the spot is obviously as dead as it's better known equivalent ...
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Volgograd doesn't offer an awful lot for non-dark-tourists, really, despite the fairly pleasant riverbanks, both on the city side upstream from the Volga Steps as well as the “wild” side and beaches of the opposite riverbanks (for which you'd need a boat to get there).
The city centre sports a smattering of historical buildings, a few churches and some grand Stalin-era Soviet architecture, the latter especially along Prospekt Lenina. But the rest of the city is dominated by industrial landscapes and drab housing blocks and thus is not particularly inviting for mainstream tourists.
Of the older buildings, a few that stand out, even literally, include the restored old fire station with its tall tower north of the Children's Park, or the big theatre on the main square on the corner of Ulitsa Volodarskogo and Ulitsa Mira. At the other end of Ulitsa Mira (incidentally the first street reconstructed after the war!) the Volgograd Planetarium is perhaps also worth a look.
Very little is left of the pre-war buildings of the city, but there are a couple of houses from the time when the city was still called Tsaritsyn to be found even right in the centre, if in a little hidden location on a side street (Ulitsa Volgodonskaya) inside the block between Ulitsa Mira, Komsomolskaya, Kommunistcheskaya and Gogolnaya.
At the north-western corner of this block, opposite the train station is the city's history museum, housed in a pretty old building. But this only covers the periods before and up to the revolution and the Russian Civil War, nothing more modern (so I gave it a miss).
Those looking for old-school Russian churches can find a few here too, though few, if any, will be genuinely old, but either new or reconstructions. Right on the main square opposite the theatre there was a construction site at the time I was there (August 2017). Here a new large-scale Russian Orthodox church seems to be in the making.
Finally, also far advanced at the time of my visit was the construction of a large, modern new stadium, just below Mamayev Hill by the banks of the River Volga. This was clearly in preparation of the Football World Cup in Russia in 2018, which was also advertised in many places. And perhaps the run-up to this mega event will also have brought more renovation and improvements of infrastructure since my visit.
  • Volgograd 01 - by the Volga RiverVolgograd 01 - by the Volga River
  • Volgograd 02 - ship stationVolgograd 02 - ship station
  • Volgograd 03 - Volga stepsVolgograd 03 - Volga steps
  • Volgograd 04 - Lenin looking onVolgograd 04 - Lenin looking on
  • Volgograd 05 - memorial alley towards the VolgaVolgograd 05 - memorial alley towards the Volga
  • Volgograd 06 - Lenin againVolgograd 06 - Lenin again
  • Volgograd 07 - survivor treeVolgograd 07 - survivor tree
  • Volgograd 08 - bomb memorialVolgograd 08 - bomb memorial
  • Volgograd 09 - one of many tank turret monumentsVolgograd 09 - one of many tank turret monuments
  • Volgograd 10 - monument to the victims of political repressionVolgograd 10 - monument to the victims of political repression
  • Volgograd 11 - in the heart of the cityVolgograd 11 - in the heart of the city
  • Volgograd 12 - eternal flameVolgograd 12 - eternal flame
  • Volgograd 13 - yet another memorialVolgograd 13 - yet another memorial
  • Volgograd 14 - defiant defenders monumentVolgograd 14 - defiant defenders monument
  • Volgograd 15 - bit of a war ruin on SovietskayaVolgograd 15 - bit of a war ruin on Sovietskaya
  • Volgograd 16 - Pavlov House memorialVolgograd 16 - Pavlov House memorial
  • Volgograd 17 - big LeninVolgograd 17 - big Lenin
  • Volgograd 18 - smaller, more forelorn LeninVolgograd 18 - smaller, more forelorn Lenin
  • Volgograd 19 - Soviet brutalismVolgograd 19 - Soviet brutalism
  • Volgograd 20 - small-scale Soviet relicVolgograd 20 - small-scale Soviet relic
  • Volgograd 21 - Stalinist train stationVolgograd 21 - Stalinist train station
  • Volgograd 22 - Soviet railroad glorificationVolgograd 22 - Soviet railroad glorification
  • Volgograd 23 - ceiling painting inside the train stationVolgograd 23 - ceiling painting inside the train station
  • Volgograd 24 - and another oneVolgograd 24 - and another one
  • Volgograd 25 - copy of the famous fountain outside the train stationVolgograd 25 - copy of the famous fountain outside the train station
  • Volgograd 26 - pre-war lamp-post still with bullet holesVolgograd 26 - pre-war lamp-post still with bullet holes
  • Volgograd 27 - interesting bus destinations, including Lugansk and DonetskVolgograd 27 - interesting bus destinations, including Lugansk and Donetsk
  • Volgograd 28 - Barrikady factoryVolgograd 28 - Barrikady factory
  • Volgograd 29 - industry seen from Mamayev KurganVolgograd 29 - industry seen from Mamayev Kurgan
  • Volgograd 30 - heavy industryVolgograd 30 - heavy industry
  • Volgograd 31 - heavy pollutionVolgograd 31 - heavy pollution
  • Volgograd 32 - old fire station towerVolgograd 32 - old fire station tower
  • Volgograd 33 - theatre and Alexander Nevsky monumentVolgograd 33 - theatre and Alexander Nevsky monument
  • Volgograd 34 - timeless post office buildingVolgograd 34 - timeless post office building
  • Volgograd 35 - few buildings survived WWIIVolgograd 35 - few buildings survived WWII
  • Volgograd 36 - pre-WWII history museumVolgograd 36 - pre-WWII history museum
  • Volgograd 37 - planetariumVolgograd 37 - planetarium
  • Volgograd 38 - stadium for the 2018 Football Word CupVolgograd 38 - stadium for the 2018 Football Word Cup

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