Stalingrad Part 2 & 3 – A Conversation with a Pretty Book Doctor. (A travelogue with a heart to mother Russia)
Posted by intellisg on July 26, 2007
This is a continuation from Part 1 as a special tribute to the Tirianians due to the overwhelming response to the Part 1 series of the travelogue: Stalingrad. We the Brotherhood Press will be present Part 2 & 3 in the Extended Version. Happy Reading.
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Part 2 [Day 2] Early Morning Jog in Stalingrad East to South.
I want to be honest with you. I want to talk to you about cerulean skies in a Russian July. I want to talk about yellow finches, of happy repose when the sun strikes the bladed grasslands turning it into a sea of emerald. I want to tell this is the place that says it all, it’s wonderfully great, you should make your way here -the sort of place that, one describes as – ‘X’ marks the spot.
Sorry, this isn’t a travelogue about what I see in Stalingrad as much as how I ‘feel’ my way around this city. Remember my conversation with the grizzly bear receptionist in the first part? “You can’t see, hear and taste Stalingrad like the rest of Russia, only perhaps feel it.” She was right like Yoda when he told Luke Skywalker, “feel the force, you can’t see it, but it’s all around you” – Stalingrad can be like that, casting its strange spell even the first moment I woke up. So much so, this is probably one of those very rare occasions, when I don’t even care if this yarn even ever gets read. Besides if you want that sort of travelogue, you could just as well get it from Lonely planet, though Nat Geo does a better job with the colorful pics.
I woke up at 5.00 am and jogged from East to South, the length of the Volga. She felt at first like any other city beneath me and I have visited many cities, but here is the only place in the world where one feels most acutely lies about yourself, others or even the broader world will be wasted, nothing is spared not even the white lies.
I know that sounds like a really philosophical statement, but that’s how I felt as I tore through the city running with the wind beside me. You can’t hold on to a lie in a place that keeps reminding you of the brutal truth. That’s what they don’t tell you in Lonely Planet. All they say is, hey that’s a nice place to visit, it’s cheap to eat there, oh that’s quaint etc. I am not saying Stalingrad isn’t a charming city, if you are just visiting, but once you really begin to lose yourself in the side streets and linger longer than you should, even waste some time. One begins to realize, no one in their right mind will really want to stay here. Not even the Russians, they’re just here because they can’t leave.
Here you see men slumped on park benches drunk, shiny limousines along side old women pushing their decaying carts. From this angle, its definitely not one of those, “I wish you were here!” locales or “look at where I am now!”
Sorry, this is Stalingrad, the great equalizer. Always remember this city cut Adolf Hitler in half and put all his clap trap about super duper Aryan master race into a blender and fed it to Rotweillers and long before that when short cake Napolean Bonny Ass passed through here, they did packed him off just the same direction.
Stalingrad is the only place where the Russian saying: “the way things are, are the way things have been and the way they will always be” – remains believable. You could even be holding on lovingly to the latest iPhone, but it makes no difference, here you believe it. Here those words seem right, not like in Disneyland Singapore.
I found myself at the end of the jog sitting on a bench overlooking the Volga: asking myself – why these things which I would usually never admit should suddenly find a release in Stalingrad? Is this the spell the city cast on travelers? The same one that once made invading German soldier pine to for home? You know what I mean don’t you? When I say, the “I will never admit” stuff. They’re the sum of all our broken relationships, misunderstandings, heartaches, if’s, maybe’s and what if’s. Each and every one of us hides away from the world, only to put it all in a shoebox and slip it quietly beneath our beds with a sigh only to move on with the rest of life.
Here it seems easy, that same “I will never admit” box suddenly opens, spilling out on the sidewalk, swirled by the wind, blazed by the morning sun and it even seems natural. Natural enough for me to even admit, I am not a very clever man, things come hard for me. If it takes you an hour to understand an equation, it probably took me twice as long though I hide it well enough. One learns these tricks about life, such as appear larger than life, one has too, especially when you are a small man like me.
Here I don’t even need to take pride in my mentioning that takes perseverance, strength and dexterity. In Stalingrad twice as hard means double the effort and that is that, no sense of liberation that accompanies even the truth, no burden being lifted, nothing. You don’t need that in a city that has seen grown men cry like babies, shout out man when they are shot up – this pretenses are only necessary in places that try don’t regularly remind of the brutal truth.
The KGB used to call Stalingrad “the truth serum city”– Stalin even built a secret gulag 30 miles South East from where I am parking my ass. Only because this is the only place in the world the unrelenting winds from the Steppe blows from the Caucasus all the way stretching back to the Baltic. It’s an unrelenting lashing wind, one that sharpens the reality: how vulnerable and fragile man really is to the mercy of the elements. Long ago, the invading armies of Kublai Khan marched in full battle armor again this wind, they called the Hark-ham-ther – “bringer of the truth of dead.” Here over 4 million people froze to death during the battle of Stalingrad, that’s about our entire population in Singapore! In winter the temp can drop below -30 degrees Celsius. It’s a cruel place even by the standards of the Tundra and Stalingrad does a good job of brutalizing the truth again and again.
Is it such a wonder even the little lies we tell ourselves that makes life bearable is snatched away by this wind?
I am sorry, this is definitely not a traditional travelogue. I feel the need to apologize only because so much of it is happening in my head so forgive me, If I don’t recount to you what I ate, saw or even what’s the color of my shit. Those stuff somehow don’t seem important in Stalingrad this morning.
It time for me to run back to the hotel.
[Day 3] Do You See The Words Appearing?
The following day I wandered around the city again. With no particular rhyme or reason, I did plan it out the night before. But it simply didn’t turn out that way so I threw away the map and walk and walk.
By mid afternoon I found myself standing before a strange building that looks like a giant paint bucket. It took me a while to realized, it was the Volgograd State panoramic museum. Another soviet era carbuncle that has the same feel as Haw Par village back home just after it closed down down. I guess this is the equivalent of soviet styled cum tiger balm depiction of 7th stages of hell in the epic battle – the storyline is simple: ‘how we packed off Adolf Hitler story starring Josef Stalin’ with its endless gaudy representation of how good managed to triumph over evil by the barest margins. The narrative trite and melodramatic – “Oh master race are we? OK take that! Still a Nordic supermen? Ok another kryptonite bayonet! Still the 1,000 year Reich are we? Urrah! Urrah! Urrah!” At times the propaganda is so thick and syrupy, I have to put a paper bag over my head not to offend the rest of the Russian tourist, you just know its closer to snow white & the 7 dwarfs – when stories like how a whole platoon survived for 40 days and nights by figuring out 1,0001 ways of making a meal out of army issued boots. All kinds of stuff are piled up here – tanks, mainly T-34’s, planes and memorabilia that I am sure will make it to ebay some day.
It cold and I am just wearing a T-shirt and jeans, so slip inside the building. It seems empty enough, the school holidays are over. It’s the hour of hesitation when most Russians are pretending to work when you know they are nursing last nights hang over–a desiccated shoe, a child’s doll, helmet with a hole, sepia prints of boys, some smiling others looking as if they were just collared and thrown into the great cause with the words, “go kill Germans now!” Wandering around, I spot a girl in a cordoned off zone marked, “restricted.”
I slip through it. This is Russia, everything is “restricted” its loss much of its meaning since communism these days is just communism, means nothing like “restricted.” Besides if it’s really “restricted,” it wouldn’t be called “restricted.” The girl has her back to me, her cardigan is rolled up, trying to steady a plastic tray. Its heavy, she will never make it I tell myself. I rush to help. She flashes me a look while I stand to one side – after a full minute, I figured she’s not local i.e she not a Volgo girl. I can tell, her gait it’s lighter as if she’s accustomed to walking in wide boulevards not like the girls here who shuffle with that nervous shift that comes from negotiating uneven streets.
I try out my pidgin Russian, she doesn’t reply totally absorbed in the task of submerging a few sheets of paper. It looks like surgery, she book doctor – a conservator – a mortician, depending on whether you want to heal, preserve or bring back a page from the dead. After dipping the last of the documents, she dries her hands and introduces herself, Martha is her name.
Hardly Russian, something startles her, Martha goes back to one of the large plastic trays peering intently. She’s says, something like “shit” in Russian. It’s nervous energy this must be the moment of truth, she adds more chemical to the tray, the brownish paper into the solution starts to lighten up. She points to an egg beater. I give it to her, she says, “no help me.” Do as I do. I follow and whip up the solution in the tray gently, never touching the documents.
“You have no idea how difficult it is to get decent de-acidification solution these days.” She bitches. She’s a Muscovite alright. They don’t splice long sentences in two or three cadences like the Russians in the Caucasus. She peers intently at the submerge paper again, this time looking relieve. I look but see nothing, she moves aside grabbing my sleeve to move closer. Still nothing, then very slow, scribbles begin to appear magically, first like lines on the palm of the hands then forming into whole Cyrillic alphabets, words followed by sentences. To think, when I first say it, it was just scrappy brown paper with nothing. Suddenly she takes it out and dips it into another basin, this time with a satisfied look that says its finished.
It’s an original she’s proudly declares – a vignette from the past, a letter written by a certain Lieutenant Zagorsk a local hero in Stalingrad. She points to the folds confirming, it’s written on a type of stationary usually issued in field hospitals
“They use to folds it up into a little triangles like paper boats, envelops were in short supply during the patriotic struggle.”
I register the last word, “patriotic struggle,” a term only the party elite uses, no one uses those words these days, not even those who are supposed too. I notice, three pens sticking out of her breast pocket red, green and blue, a quirk that specific to only graduates from the Moscow institute of physics and technology – green denotes, “top secret” this could be dangerous. She senses my curiosity concerning the contents of the letter. I give her a pleading look that says, “please…..” she begins to read aloud adopting a suitably official tone, it softens by the second paragraph – the letter’s addressed to the soldiers young wife:
Sweet honey kisses to you. I’ve been wounded at the front. The time of hard fighting is reaching its height. I am in a cellar where two fair-haired children sit on my lap. They remind of Slavik and Lyda. My love, people may reproach me.’ Martha pauses. I know she has read ahead and it’s probably not even what she expected. I look on expecting her to continue, it works – she reads, “I want to believe I fighting all of you at home. But I can’t distinguish anymore. I don’t know even know what I am doing here, or where is home anymore. Yesterday just before I was wounded, I entered a house. I saw a German soldier, he saw me. I think he was expecting to see another German soldier. For a while, he reminded me of Alexei. How is he? I shot and shot and shot.
Shura, I no longer many times, where you end, and where the Motherland begins any more. You and it are the same to me. I know it sounds cruel that I should say this, but I often wonder whether it is better you forget me completely. You see the war is getting………..” she stops, the other page is missing. I don’t believe her, but one doesn’t press on such things. She tells me the officer probably died and it was probably never posted. I ask, how can she tell, she shrugs her shoulder, it means something I know, but the timing is lousy, I decide to let it go.
This is the way politics is conducted in Russia, words only if one choose to ignore the better part of what is said.
The letter offered a rare glimpse into the mood that once griped the hearts and minds of the men who fought in Stalingrad. They seemed to have subsumed their personal feelings within the cause of the great patriotic war, judging from the abrupt way Martha reacted when I asked her how she knew it wasn’t posted. Perhaps those soldiers who once wrote in candle light, huddled in the trenches, eking out tinned rations may have been more afraid of the NKVD (Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del thought police aka Stalin’s Rotweillers than their German invaders; they may have self censored knowing mail from the front is always read by the commissars.
Yet despite my cynicism, the concept of self-sacrifice comes across genuinely cutting through much of the noise of the propaganda of the period – the frantic scribbles, the little privates codes that only man and wife knows in the privacy of their beds, all these can’t be faked.
It’s as if those soldiers all knew of their impending doom. Only one in 79.4 men made it out alive in Stalingrad. Even makes the charge of the light brigade look like a sensible military enterprise. Many had no illusions, they were penning down their last words to their loved ones – tomorrow they will die.
The conservatory looks out at preserved ruins of the old windmill factory. It reminds of the duality that so often resonates in Stalingrad again. I can help but wonder what this duality between past and present, pain and peace, hopelessness and opportunity produces for these people like Martha. This is something strange for a Singaporean in my generation that has only known peace all my life.
For present Stalingrad is changing so rapidly these days with the free market economy, its finding itself like so many countries in the previous Soviet union caught in the whirlwind between old and new – they are flailing, lost and ambling blind in no mans land.
How do these people really cope with the transition, its one that conjures up images of the epic battle. Only this time, the invaders are new money, the wheel of fortune, MTV, CNN followed by the Russian version of Ally McBeal. How do they make sense of past, present and future?
Do they keep holding on to the unity that memory promises yet still try to remain afloat in the heady present like a spin of the coin. I asked Martha only obliquely, how she reconciles herself with the past and present?
She throws her head back and laughs, “This world of two faces…” She has knows the works of Chekov well. I can tell well Russians know we look down on them only for them to feign false pride. I have seen it all before, the way they hide their fraying cuffs, that slight look of coquetry mixed with resignation.
As she lights a cigarette, I know she’s thinking whether to cross the line. I sit and quietly.
“As a tourist you shouldn’t ask subversive questions. Your visa could be suddenly cancelled………….(she looks serious, but that’s only because she needs too) what do you really know about the other side of the coin?
You stay in your plush five star hotels. You only see what they want you to see, but there is another side of the coin that only we who have to lived here….day in and out will ever see – the great plans that failed us, people who failed us. Even trains don’t even keep to schedules these days. I can’t even get good chemicals to do my work. I have been writing daily to Moscow for a new oven (she points to a box to one corner) and even they don’t know when it’s and you talk of how we cope with the future? (she laughs) there’s no future here, wife’s stay with drunk and abusive husbands who give them black eyes every pay day, because they argue no end about money. These are the things that you foreigners don’t see. Maybe good, will come out of all these new money, maybe not. But don’t forget, we defeated the great German army here. We have seen it all, here today, gone tomorrow. So throw the coin of life we will again and again – and don’t be surprise, it may just land one day squarely on its spine, neither falling face or tail, but remaining as it is –, miracles happen here. They have too –they must – this is Stalingrad.”
At that point, she notices the lapel pin of the Interspacing Diplomatic Corps it catches her attention changing the complexion of the conversation like night to day,
“what’s is that?” Martha points to the pin.
“I am a diplomat.”
“A high or low one?” She’s side longs teasingly.
“The lowest of the low.” It works she laughs.
“What country again did you say you represent?”
“It’s a long story, why don’t we continue this conversation over dinner?”
“You make it sound as if, it’s from another world?”
She throws her head back again and laughs, I remind myself women in these parts aren’t like those from home. Over 20,000 of them fought in Stalingrad alone as soldiers, pilots. One a sniper even took out a 24 Germans in a day. But looking at her as the day gave in to the night I knew what she’s thinking another scumbag foreigner with one thing only his mind, but she gives me long searching looks that says it all,
“Maybe he isn’t like the rest, nothing is ever what it seems, we are after all in Stalingrad – a place where even miracles can happen.”
We walk. First through the portico, then into the streets, beneath the shaded trees, the lights casting long and lingering shadows, its a start, a very good start – this is Stalingrad.
(The Brotherhood Press 2007 – EP 2309035 Part 2 & 3– Travelogue Series 2007. EP – Tirianian / 39930 POP)
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