Mamayev Hill & Rodina Mat 

  
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A large memorial complex in Volgograd, Russia. In fact one of the largest war memorials in the world, and certainly the most visually stunning of them all, the site commemorates the Battle of Stalingrad and the Soviet victory in it, which is widely regarded as having been the crucial turning point of WWII.
   
The hill is crowned by the towering “Rodina Mat” statue, one of THE icons of the Soviet era and the largest statue of a woman in the world. It's a must-see sight, making it worth coming to Volgograd for this alone.     
More background info: For background and history of the Battle of Stalingrad see under Volgograd (and the relevant other sub-chapters listed there).
   
Mamayev Hill (“Mamayev Kurgan”, Мамаев курган, in Russian) was one of the locations in Stalingrad that because of its strategic significance, being the highest point overlooking the city and its industries below, was fiercely contested during the long battle. It was conquered and reconquered by both sides numerous times with great losses.
   
The hill itself suffered severely too having been constantly pounded by artillery fire, so it lost some of its original height and steepness, and the soil was so scorched and saturated with shrapnel that for a while nothing would grow on it after the battle. Pieces of shells, cartridges and even bone fragments can still be found in the ground here to this day.
   
For the first few years after the war, rebuilding the city and its industries had priority, but from the late 1950s a grand memorial was being planned. The initial work on it started in 1958.
   
The centrepiece of Mamayev Hill is the gigantic Rodina Mat statue, or more precisely “Rodina-mat zavyot!” (Родина-мать зовёт!) meaning: 'the Motherland calls!'.
  
Even though it's the term for 'fatherland' in Russian, “otechestvo” (отечество), that features in the common expression for WWIIVelikaya Otechestvennaya voyna” (Вели́кая Оте́чественная война́ ), usually rendered as 'Great Patriotic War' (could have been 'Great Fatherland War'), the depiction of Russia as a woman is actually more common, hence also the expression, “Mother Russia”. Rodina Mat, in turn, could literally be rendered as 'Mother Motherland'. And that's indeed the name usually used  in English when referring to the other giant Mother Russia statue in Kiev.
  
But all that linguistic confusion aside, the inspiration of depicting Rodina Mat as a sword-wielding woman with a flying tunic robe may have been the Marseillaise figure on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or maybe depictions of Joan of Arc. Anyway, it is of course only symbolic, since instead of barefooted women in flowing robes and wielding nothing more lethal than an olden-days sword, the real battles were fought by modern soldiers with modern guns, tanks and planes.
   
To turn from the abstract to the concrete: the Volgograd Rodina Mat statue is indeed made of concrete and is a remarkable feat of engineering. The structure is hollow and the ca. one foot thick outer pre-stressed concrete “skin” is internally supported by a system of steel frames. The sword is made of steel and is also hollow. Inside ladders lead all the way to the tip of the sword and Rodina Mat's outstretched arm (all only accessible for service staff, of course). The same techniques of construction with concrete were apparently also used by the monument's chief engineer Nikolai Nikitin at another famous building of his: Ostankino TV tower in Moscow!
   
The entire Rodina Mat sculpture is 85 metres (280 feet) high, of which the female figure alone is 52 metres tall and the sword between 27 and 29 metres long – sources vary a bit on the exact figures. What is clear is that when the complex was finished and unveiled in 1967 (after 8 years of construction), this was the largest statue in the world.
  
It is still the largest statue in Europe and the largest sculpture of a woman worldwide. Most of the other statues taller than Rodina Mat are gigantic Buddhas in China and elsewhere in East Asia that were constructed during the past two decades or so. Note that the famous Statue of Liberty in New York is only taller (93 metres) if you count the high pedestal (which is almost as tall as the woman), and the same goes for Kiev's Rodina Mat (102 metres with pedestal, 62 metres without).
   
Clearly, size matters – but so does weight. Volgograd's Rodina Mat won't inspire weight-watchers, coming in at a whopping 8000 tonnes. This also is a structural problem, and it is especially the connections of the sword with the hand holding it that caused issues. The original sword soon had to be replaced (in 1972) and later the sword was eventually perforated with holes towards the tip in order to relieve wind pressure.
   
A few years ago it was reported that the whole statue might be listing and could be in danger of collapse. (Some reports claimed the same for the Kiev Rodina Mat, but probably got it confused with this one in Volgograd). But since nothing has been said about this in recent years I presume the issue has either been resolved or was never real in the first place.
   
Rodina Mat does need a lot of maintenance, that much is certain. Every 15 years or so, the whole sculpture receives a new outer coating to protect it against the elements. When I was there I could observe workers on ropes in action. Apparently the first time this work had to be done, the whole structure was scaffolded up, but that proved too much effort, so these days workers with mountaineering training do the job. The current restoration programme was begun in 2012, scheduled to be finished by 2018 (in time for the Football World Cup, presumably).
   
While the Rodina Mat statue takes pride of place (in unprecedented fashion) the rest of the memorial complex is also very grand and full of symbolism, described, as appropriate, below.
   
It is also quite literally a graveyard. Basically the whole top of the hill at the feet of Rodina Mat is a large mass grave. In addition there are also a few marked graves, including ones for persons who hadn't actually died here but were involved in the battle, such as the commander of the 62nd Army, Marshal Vasily Chuikov (who died in 1982), and the legendary sniper Vasily Zaytsev (portrayed by Jude Law in the movie “Enemy at the Gates”), who was first buried in Kiev after his death in 1991, but was reinterred with military honours at Mamayev Hill in 2006.
   
The place is clearly of great importance for Russia still today. When I was there I could see large groups of military personnel gathering for a pilgrimage and ceremony. And the regular guards of honour clearly take their roles very seriously too.
   
   
What there is to see: You can see Rodina Mat atop her hill from far away – she is the defining element of Volgograd's “skyline” (which is otherwise pretty featureless). As you get to the foot of Mamayev Hill and the bottom of the steps up the slope you lose sight of her for a while until she comes back into view a little further up the steps. There are 200 steps in total, symbolizing the approximate number of days the Battle of Stalingrad lasted.
   
Before you go up you may want to take a look at the sculpture to the north of the square at the foot of the hill – this is a classic stone monument entitled “memory of the generations” depicting a young man setting off (presumably into battle) leaving behind a group of women, children and elderly people. It may be small in comparison to what's to come, but still a classic socialist-realist design worth a look.
   
After the first steep bit up the first flight of steps the path levels out along the “Avenue of Poplars” (the trees provide welcome shade on a hot and sunny day). After crossing two railway lines you come to the first monumental sculpture, called “Not one step back”.
   
This is a 16-metre-high shape of a grim-looking soldier, which emerges from the waters of a round pond, bare-chested and muscular (six-pack and all) and carrying a machine gun in the one hand and a hand grenade in the other. It's classic Soviet OTT-ness. It reminded me of the equivalent sculptures at Brest Fortress in Belarus. Despite the much smaller size of this sculpture compared to Rodina Mat in the distance, the perspective you look at it from can make her appear small and him gigantic. I like that sort of playing-with-perspective thing (see photos).
   
Moving on comes the next set of steps. These are flanked by two enormous 64 metre long and 17 metre high concrete walls all sculpted in rich bas reliefs. These depict various scenes, including groups of soldiers, tanks advancing, the stacking of shells and snipers in action.
   
At the top of this section of steps you come to a large reflecting pool filled with greenish water. Light and weather permitting you can get fantastic reflection images of Rodina Mat on the water surface here. The rectangular pool is flanked on the southern side by a wall with patriotic inscriptions, while on the northern side there's a series of yet more large groups of sculptures. These include depictions of wounded soldiers being carried, hand grenades being thrown, a dying commander still giving orders and, in the final group, two soldiers throwing a smashed-up swastika and a snake (symbolic for fascism) into the water.
   
To the north of the pool and the groups of sculptures is a grove of trees – again providing welcome shade on a hot and sunny day.
   
At the far end of the reflecting pool is a high wall full of depictions of celebrating victorious Red Army soldiers contrasted with dishevelled and dejected-looking defeated Germans taken POW, all etched into the wall like cartoon drawings.
   
A gap in the wall becomes the corridor leading onwards into the circular Hall of Glory. Other than Rodina Mat this is the most grandiose element of the whole complex: 13 metres high and with a diameter of 40 metres. As you enter the hall, past some typical mosaics featuring soldiers, Lenin, Soviet symbols and so on, you're at the ground level and come to a row of wreaths and flowers. Beyond, standing in the centre of the hall is a sculpture of a giant hand holding up a torch (which looks uncannily like an ice cream cone) with a big eternal flame burning at the top.
   
Two guards of honour usually stand by the wreaths facing each other. (When I first got there in the morning – see below! – they hadn't yet appeared … I only saw them on my way back down. So I presume they start their shift at 9 a.m. or so.)
   
There's a walkway spiralling up the inside of the golden-mosaic walls and going up you pass underneath a series of symbolic red flags with names of the fallen inscribed on them. As you spiral upwards you can see the head of Rodina Mat seemingly peeking in through the large round skylight opening in the ceiling above … At the top you can gaze back down into the hall with the guards and the eternal flame from a balcony.
   
Turn round and a gap in the wall takes you back out into the open, to the “Square of Sorrow”. To the east this overlooks the reflecting pool. At the far end to the south is yet another large sculpture, this time that of a Grieving Mother, holding her dead son whose head is covered with a flag. This sculpture too stands in a shallow pool of water (her tears?), and a few stepping stones lead to a spot where a bunch of red flowers is placed at the base of the mother sculpture.
   
And then it's time to walk to the summit of the hill towards Rodina Mat's feet. En route you pass a few marble slabs, some symbolic, some tombs for individuals (see above), while small signs admonish visitors to stay on the paths and off the grass – because under this grass the hilltop is a giant mass graves for some 35,000 dead.
   
If Rodina Mat is impressive from a distance, her sheer massive size becomes almost overwhelming as you get closer. Petite she is not. Even just the toes of her enormous feet are each bigger in size than a person. It's quite impossible to describe these impressions – and even the photos below can only provide an approximation of what it's like.
   
As I looked up I noticed there were ropes hanging out of Rodina Mat's wide open mouth, making it look a bit like dental floss. Later when I came back (namely from the Stalin Museum behind Mamayev Hill), it became clear what these were. They were for workers carrying out maintenance work wearing harnesses and the ropes were their support and safety lines. The base of the statue was fenced off for that reason and a sign on the fence explained that maintenance was ongoing. This also meant that you couldn't walk all the way round the rear of Rodina Mat before heading back down.
   
Before doing so, though, you may also want to take a look at the memorial cemetery that's behind Rodina Mat on the northern slope of Mamayev Hill. En route you pass through landscaped gardens with flower beds and groves of trees – and at one spot a small memorial on which rusty war relics had been placed, a helmet, a bayonet and various shells/cartridges. Allegedly the ground here is still full of such buried relics.
   
From the top of the hill you can first take in the view: a vast vista of Volgograd, the Volga River, the stadium and especially over its massive industrial plants along the river, and then make your way through the whole complex in reverse order, i.e. passing through the Hall of Glory, past the reflecting pool, the giant wall bas reliefs and eventually back down the steps to Prospekt Lenina, from where you can get a tram back into town.
   
Overall verdict: So, is it worth it? Hell yes! This is the most stunning war memorial I've seen anywhere in the world (and I have seen quite a few). Size absolutely does matter. And Volgograd's Rodina Mat beats them all not just in that respect but also in the extreme exuberance of the sculpture's execution. It's all so massively over the top that it just cannot be anything but totally impressive (even though a friend of mine once quipped that her wide-open mouth made him think of something other than heroic leadership). The rest of the Mamayev Hill complex has lots to offer those who enjoy seeing old-school former-Soviet memorial grandeur – with the Hall of Glory certainly the highlight. All worth the trip to Volgograd alone (but see also combinations).
   
   
Location: in the north of Volgograd, Russia, some 3 miles (5 km) from the city centre.
  
Google maps locators:
  
Rodina Mat: [48.7423, 44.5371]
  
Hall of Military Glory: [48.7423, 44.5391]
  
Bottom of the steps (main access): [48.7394, 44.5461]
  
Military memorial cemetery: [48.7435, 44.5341]
  
  
Access and costs: requiring an effort (a tram ride then a walk and uphill climb); but free.
   
Details: Getting to the foot of Mamayev Hill from the centre of Volgograd is relatively easy. You have to get a (metro)tram (line CT) from somewhere along the main avenue that is Prospekt Lenina to the stop “Mamayev Kurgan” (in Russian: Мамаев курган). It's the stop just after the one for the Central Stadium.
   
Cross the road and start climbing the steps from there. Make sure you bring some drinking water, especially on a hot summer day. And take it slow. The way back down is obviously less strenuous.
   
For those who want to avoid the steps, and are content to make do with seeing only Rodina Mat, there's also the option of getting a taxi to the rear of the complex, as there is an access road there from the west of the hill. If you have your own vehicle, you can use the car park by the Stalin Museum. The walk from there is more or less on level ground.
   
The complex is freely accessible at all times.
   
But speaking of timing: in terms of photography you may want to take into consideration the light, especially on a sunny day. Since Rodina Mat is looking in a north-easterly direction you'll have to go here very early in the morning to see her face in sunlight. Soon after, harsh shadows make her expression nigh on impossible to photograph. Late in the day, however, her face may be illuminated from the other side by the evening sun. Of course on an overcast day, none of this is such an issue. At night, Rodina Mat is illuminated – I didn't see this for myself, unfortunately, but it would certainly be worth going after dark too (not just for photography), if you have a chance.
   
Needless to say, getting there very early in the morning also helps in beating the worst of the crowds, especially on a busy day. I was there before 8 a.m. in late August 2017, i.e. an hour before the guards of honour even turned up. Only on the way down did I see them … and the hordes of other visitors congregating by the reflecting pool. Until then it wasn't overly crowded.
 
  
Time required: at least two hours, possibly more, depending on how long you want to linger to take all the parts of the memorial complex in … and on how fast you can/want to climb all those steps.
   
   
Combinations with other dark destinations: The most obvious dark (and extremely weird) combination when at the top of Mamayev Hill is the crazy Stalin Museum just over the crest of the hill behind the memorial complex, right by the car park south of the military memorial cemetery. Outside the museum west of the car park is also a somewhat bizarre collection of old Soviet military planes and vehicles on open-air display, and slowly crumbling away.
   
For some (like weird old me) the view over all the heavy industry at the foot of the hill and further north also has a certain dark attraction of its own. Big hulks of rusty and grimy factory halls, cooling towers, chimneys and plumes of threatening-looking, evil-smelling fumes … a wonderful dystopian panorama, I thought!
   
If you take the tram further north still, all the way to its terminus, then you get to the former tractor factory and its big murals and memorials outside.
   
Going in the other direction takes you back to Volgograd's more central districts and the important Panorama Museum (the place most thematically connected to Mamayev Hill) and its other attractions and museums.
   
   
Combinations with non-dark destinations: nothing much … unless you count the view over Volgograd and the river that you can have from the top of the hill. Straight down is the brand new stadium (built for the 2018 Football World Cup), but to the left the picture is “tarnished” (so many would say) by the steelworks belching out evil-looking fumes.
   
Just to the south of Rodina Mat stands a small typically Russian church with golden onion domes – maybe worth a quick look for those who like these things. But the building is only faux traditional. It is in actual fact brand new.
   
See also under Volgograd in general.
 
   
   
   
  • Mamayev Hill 01 - by the road at the bottom of the stairsMamayev Hill 01 - by the road at the bottom of the stairs
  • Mamayev Hill 02 - long approachMamayev Hill 02 - long approach
  • Mamayev Hill 03 - playing with perspectiveMamayev Hill 03 - playing with perspective
  • Mamayev Hill 04 - grand reliefsMamayev Hill 04 - grand reliefs
  • Mamayev Hill 05 - with tanks and bombsMamayev Hill 05 - with tanks and bombs
  • Mamayev Hill 06 - and a lone sniper at the topMamayev Hill 06 - and a lone sniper at the top
  • Mamayev Hill 07 - Rodina Mat reflectedMamayev Hill 07 - Rodina Mat reflected
  • Mamayev Hill 08 - playing with reflectionMamayev Hill 08 - playing with reflection
  • Mamayev Hill 09 - statue groups by the reflecting poolMamayev Hill 09 - statue groups by the reflecting pool
  • Mamayev Hill 10 - casualty carryingMamayev Hill 10 - casualty carrying
  • Mamayev Hill 11 - German losersMamayev Hill 11 - German losers
  • Mamayev Hill 12 - Soviet winnersMamayev Hill 12 - Soviet winners
  • Mamayev Hill 13 - way into the Hall of GloryMamayev Hill 13 - way into the Hall of Glory
  • Mamayev Hill 14 - For the Defence of StalingradMamayev Hill 14 - For the Defence of Stalingrad
  • Mamayev Hill 15 - LeninMamayev Hill 15 - Lenin
  • Mamayev Hill 16 - in the holy of holiesMamayev Hill 16 - in the holy of holies
  • Mamayev Hill 17 - eternal flameMamayev Hill 17 - eternal flame
  • Mamayev Hill 18 - Rodina Mat peeking inMamayev Hill 18 - Rodina Mat peeking in
  • Mamayev Hill 19 - spiral walkway leading upMamayev Hill 19 - spiral walkway leading up
  • Mamayev Hill 20 - exitMamayev Hill 20 - exit
  • Mamayev Hill 21 - Mourning MotherMamayev Hill 21 - Mourning Mother
  • Mamayev Hill 22 - Rodnia Mat atop a hill of mass gravesMamayev Hill 22 - Rodnia Mat atop a hill of mass graves
  • Mamayev Hill 23 - keep off the grass where thousands are buriedMamayev Hill 23 - keep off the grass where thousands are buried
  • Mamayev Hill 24 - The Motherland CallsMamayev Hill 24 - The Motherland Calls
  • Mamayev Hill 25 - striding forwardMamayev Hill 25 - striding forward
  • Mamayev Hill 26 - on big feetMamayev Hill 26 - on big feet
  • Mamayev Hill 27 - war relics and flowersMamayev Hill 27 - war relics and flowers
  • Mamayev Hill 28 - Rodina Mat from behindMamayev Hill 28 - Rodina Mat from behind
  • Mamayev Hill 29 - workers have arrivedMamayev Hill 29 - workers have arrived
  • Mamayev Hill 30 - and are all over her, even down her cleavageMamayev Hill 30 - and are all over her, even down her cleavage
  • Mamayev Hill 30 - view down over industrial VolgogradMamayev Hill 30 - view down over industrial Volgograd
  • Mamayev Hill 31 - new church on the hillsideMamayev Hill 31 - new church on the hillside
  • Mamayev Hill 32 - Rodina Mat by night - photo courtesy of Lucas KlamertMamayev Hill 32 - Rodina Mat by night - photo courtesy of Lucas Klamert
  
   
   
   
   
 

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