Last week in this very column, I penned something on the experience I and a group of young scribe-students from several African countries had following an educational visit in 1979 to the notorious German Nazi-era Schsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.
This was the camp where 200,000 people were held, and over 100,000 of them were killed by a perfected killing machinery within the camp walls.
To our mentors at the-then International Institute of Journalism in Berlin, this was not enough. They decided to further expose us to the horrors of war by flying us to Volgograd in the then Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
This is a city about 911 kilometers south west of Moscow, about five flying hours by a jet plane.
Now, Volgograd has a long history. Originally it was known as Tsaritsyn - and was renamed Stalingrad in 1925 in honour of Stalin who led the Bolshevik forces there during the 1918-1920 Russian civil war.
In 1961, the Nikita Kruschev administration changed the city’s name to Volgograd as part of his programme of de-Stalinisation following Stalin’s death in 1953. The city straddles the Volga River, on the European part of Russia.
But, this was not the main point of our tour there. Soon after we landed at the Volga International Airport some 15kms northwest of the city, we were driven to the famous, breathtaking Mamayev Kurgan Memorial Complex.
This is the centre of the management ensemble of the ‘Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad.’ It is crowned by a towering sculpture of a winged female figure. In 1967, it was declared the tallest statue in the world; it still is the tallest statue of a woman in the world.
It literally dominates the skyline of Volgograd, at 52 metres high, and 85 metres from the feet to the top of the 27-metre sword. It commemorates the sacrifices of the Soviet soldiers in the World War-II Battle of Stalingrad.
The Battle of Stalingrad was a brutal military campaign between Russian forces and those of Nazi German and the axis powers during the WW-II. And the Volgograd was the site of the German defeat in the winter of 1942-1943. We were informed that the Russians consider it to be the greatest battle of their Great Patriotic War, and most historians consider it to be one of the greatest battles of the entire conflict.
It stopped the German advance into the Soviet Union and marked the turning of the tide in favour of the Allies.
No wonder Vasily Chukov who led the Soviet forces at the city is buried at this Mamayev memorial complex. He is the only Marshal of the Soviet Union to be buried outside Moscow.
The battle for Stalingrad was so fierce and was fought street after street. Russian military historians estimate that, at the end of the battle, there 1,100,000 Red Army soldiers dead, wounded or captured in the campaign to defend the city. An estimated 40,000 civilians died as well. On the other hand, the German Nazi force lost a total of 500,000 men, including 91,000 who were taken prisoners.
In 1945, the city was declared a ‘Hero City of the Soviet Union’ for its defence of the motherland.
Later, as we sat down to taste some really potent Russian Vodka with some Bongolander students studying Engineering at the Volgograd University, I came to appreciate the logic behind our German mentors’ reason to fly us to the Mamayev Kurgan Memorial Complex in Volgograd: expose us to the horrors of war - and make us better human beings... And also better scribes, at that!
The author is a veteran journalist and communication expert based in Arusha