It was one of those classic days on the road. The sky burned blue over an endless rippling plain of grasslands, whose all encompassing nature was disturbed only by the tarmac beneath us. The road ran unrelentingly straight and was smooth enough for me to relax, a nice change from having to be continuously alert for potholes, as the roads in the Ukraine had demanded. The Corvette was up for the drive, droning along behind the Rolls Royce quite happily, yet thriving on those moments when it was called on to use all of its 5.7 litres to overtake a slow lorry, or simply to keep my entertained, for at the end of the day I’m a person of simple needs, and a charismatic V8 fills most of them. The Corvette’s bespoke engine was growing on me more with every day; I sold on its addictive combination of low down torque which gives way to a cammy surge of acceleration as the revs rise, all accompanied by a soundtrack which wouldn’t be out of place on a ¼ mile drag racing strip.
We raced across the landscape for hour after hour, loving the experience and feeling completely liberated from the worries of everyday life as we counted down the kilometres to our destination – Volgograd. As usual on a big road trip, life had distilled down to a beautiful simplicity, in which all outside stresses become so distant as to be irrelevant. All that mattered was the drive, keeping the car going, and getting to the evening’s destination. But as the signs counted down to our destination; as we burst from the rolling grasslands into the tattered outskirts of a city, everything about our journey began to feel frivolous. For we had just driven into Volgograd, a town in southern Russia; a town which today is somewhat off the radar of the world, but on which the future of the planet once hung. For in 1942, the town was known by a much more evocative name. In 1942, Volgograd was named Stalingrad, and over 2 million people died in the battle between the Soviet and the Axis powers to control it.
As I cruised into the city with my thoughts bogged down in history, I tried to turn my mind back to those days over 70 years ago, when the ground beneath the Corvette’s wheels played host to the biggest battle the planet has ever seen. From how the city looks today, it is almost impossible to imagine it as the burning crucible in which the direction of world history was decided, for the original city was almost totally destroyed in the artillery barrages, the bombing, the tank skirmishes and the hand-to-hand fighting which once made the city the most important front-line on the planet. As reconstructed in the post-war period, the new city is a work of Soviet efficiency; of ugly high-rises and terrible tarmac, crowded around a city centre which drips with burlish Stalinesque grandeur.
After entering the city, we parked the cars and walked up to the statue which dominates a memorial garden dedicated to the memory of the 1,150,000 Soviet conscripts who lost their lives in the defence of the city, and whose sacrifice almost certainly saved the Soviet Union from defeat by the Nazis. An 87m tall concrete sculpture, the stature is a representation of Mother Russia, brandishing a sword as she calls on her citizens to defend of the motherland. Massive yet reassuringly alarmed and human in its expression, the statue manages to tread the fine line between the glorification of Soviet might and the sacrifice of its most vulnerable citizens convincingly, and leaves little doubt as to the monumentousness of the events which took place here 70 years ago.
As I drove through Stalingrad, the memorial statue dominating the view from the Corvette’s windscreen, I tried to picture just how many people had died in the battle for this city – almost all of them just innocent people unlucky enough to have been caught up in one of the battles in the worst war the world has ever seen. 2 million people; twice the city’s current population. The only way I could imagine that number was to picture 22 Wembley Stadiums packed to capacity; and imagine that each and every person in every one of those 22 cheering crowds was snuffed out in their prime by events they had almost no control over.
What a f&%king waste.