Beginner’s Guide to World War II Sites in Western Russia
Victory Day is a big deal in Russia. It’s celebrated annually on May 9, the Moscow date when the German high command signed the surrender document in Berlin, ending World War II. Victory Day in Moscow typically includes some 200 state-of-the-art tanks and 16,000 troops parading through Red Square, and aerobatic fighter jets soaring overhead.
All this because the memory of World War II is still a big deal in Russia, and understandably so. Almost an entire generation of men was wiped out in what is known here as the Great Patriotic War. Estimates of casualties in Russia alone range from 7 million to 14 million, half of them civilians of all ages and genders. Everyone lost someone, and no one has forgotten.
A sobering story of treachery, tragedy, heroism and survival, Russia’s memory of its World War II experience has been an important influence on its contemporary character.
The memorials most often visited by travelers are in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but many people, especially those with an interest in military history, also make a stop in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, where one of the most crucial battles of the war was fought.
These are some of the most important of Western Russia’s WWII sites:
- Moscow Military Sites of Interest
- St. Petersburg Military Sites of Interest
- Volgograd Military Sites of Interest
Moscow Military Sites of Interest
Poklonnaya Gora (Hill of Homage) and Victory Park
The military history of the hill dates to long before World War II, as its height above Moscow provided an unobstructed view of the city, emphasizing its strategic importance. In 1812, Napoleon stood with his troops on this hill and waited for the keys to the city to be delivered to him, only to lose thousands of troops to the harsh Russian winter on his retreat.
In the 1960s, the Moscow triumphal arch was moved to Poklonnaya Gora and the hill transformed into an open-air museum. Only in the 1980s did the area become a monument to Russia’s victory in World War II. Though the triumphal arch still stands, it is now accompanied by an obelisk with a statue of Nike, a monument to St. George (the patron saint of Moscow) slaying the dragon, an Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue. All of these structures are dedicated to the memory of those who fought and died for Soviet victory in World War II. In 2005, President Vladimir Putin added to the memorial by installing 15 bronze pillars as a symbol of the Red Army’s main fronts and naval forces during the war.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Alexander Garden
The solemn Tomb of the Unknown Soldier monument stands against the outer western wall of Moscow’s Kremlin, in the 19th century Alexander Garden. It marks the resting place of soldiers who lost their lives at the place where the Nazi troops were turned back from their approach to the capital in the 1941 Battle of Moscow. In 1997, the Kremlin Honor Guard was transferred here from its earlier position guarding Lenin’s tomb, and a Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place every hour. The monument’s Eternal Flame was lit from the flame burning at Mars Field in 1967 Leningrad.
Defense of Moscow Museum
Dedicated to those who defended Moscow from the Nazis during the Second World War, this museum contains collections of weapons, medals, uniforms, front-line drawings and harrowing photos, war-time letters, trophies, maps of the battlefields, archaeological finds and memoirs about life on the front lines. The museum was founded in 1979, and located on the 1941 defensive line of a Moscow volunteer division.
Aviation Museum in Monino
The Aviation Museum in Monino, the largest and most complete in Russia, is a prime stop for anyone interested in aviation and air defense. Located an hour outside of Moscow at a former Soviet Air Force base, the museum displays dozens of Russian and Soviet aircraft from various periods and artifacts from the history of Russian aviation. Aircraft include the famous Tupelov Tu-95 – a huge Cold War bomber called the “Bear” – plenty of MiGs and Yaks and the largest helicopter in the world, the Mil M-12.
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St. Petersburg Military Sites of Interest
Victory Square and the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad
At Ploschad Pobedy, or Victory Square, the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad holds pride of place. The monument is made up of a huge broken ring symbolizing the siege of Leningrad, finally broken after 900 days of deprivation, cold and starvation. Inside the ring, gas torches light engraved scenes of the siege, while on the outside of the ring an arrangement of sculptures shows the soldiers and sailors who defended the city. Beneath the memorial is the underground Museum of the Defense of Leningrad, dedicated to the history of the siege.
Piskarev Memorial Cemetery
Interred in great mounds marked only by the year of death, the graves of over half a million Leningraders in Piskarev Memorial Cemetery tell the story of the 900-day siege. During World War II, from 1941 to 1944, German forces surrounded Leningrad (now restored to its earlier name, St. Petersburg) and laid siege to it. Most of the deaths were from cold and starvation; in the winter of 1942 the bread ration dropped to a quarter pound a day per person. Twenty years passed before the city regained the population it had before this horrific event. Piskarev Memorial Cemetery is a tribute to the endurance of the people of St. Petersburg.
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Defense of Leningrad Museum
For 900 days between 1941 and 1943, the city of St. Petersburg, called Leningrad at the time, was put under siege by Nazi troops. Hitler’s orders were to wipe the city from the face of the earth. One out of every four people died from starvation or bombing attacks. The Defense of Leningrad Museum is dedicated to telling that story.
Volgograd Military Sites of Interest
On the banks of the Volga River, Stalingrad, as Volgograd was called in Soviet times, was the scene of probably the most important battle of World War II. It was here that the Russians finally turned back the Nazi advance to the Caucasian oil fields in Baku in the infamous battle that claimed many hundreds of thousands of lives. This was considered the turning point of the war, but Stalingrad paid an enormous price; the city was virtually destroyed. The city was designated as a Soviet Hero City in 1945.
First established in 1937, the museum was transformed into the State Panoramic Museum of the Stalingrad Battle only in 1982. The museum consists of an enormous, atmospheric panorama, called “The Defeat of the Fascist Armies at Stalingrad,” and the museum of the Stalingrad Battle. The latter displays more than 3,500 objects in its eight exhibition halls. Featured are a portrait gallery of Soviet military leaders, war equipment and propaganda materials, and exhibitions on the war actions in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Mamaev Kurgan is a dominant height overlooking Volgograd which today houses an eloquent memorial complex dedicated to those who perished in the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad. The launch of the German attack on Volgograd on September 13, 1942 saw fierce fighting on the hill as it was key to controlling the city. The five-month defense of the city exacted extremely high casualties from both the Germans and the Soviets, and even today it is possible to find fragments of bone and metal buried deep within the hill. At the summit is an enormous statue of Mother Russia with sword upheld, which at the time of its construction in 1967 was the largest freestanding sculpture in the world. At the bottom of the hill is a memorial hall with an Eternal Flame, surrounded by an honor guard that is changed periodically with great ceremony.
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Rossoshka Cemetery of Soviet and German Soldiers
Located about 15 miles outside of Volgograd, this is a moving memorial to the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the prolonged fighting in and around Stalingrad. In 1999, a reconciliation ceremony here honored both Soviet and German soldiers and mourned the loss of life on both sides.
Travel to Russia with MIR
Travelers can pay their respects to Russia’s incredible war effort at some of Moscow and St. Petersburg’s WWII memorials on:
- Russia’s Imperial Capitals & Ancient Villages – a small group tour that explores where Russian art, architecture and culture began: Moscow, the Golden Ring and St. Petersburg.
- Essential Russia – travel independently on your dates on an itinerary that communicates the character of Western Russia in a succinct and meaningful series of experiences.
- Essential Moscow – travel independently on your dates on an itinerary that delves deep into the long and fascinating history of Russia’s capital and includes time at WWII sites Poklonnaya Gora and Victory Park.
The Silk Road by Private Train rail journey makes a stop in Volgograd to visit Mamaev Kurgan and the Panorama Museum.
You can also work with a MIR Private Journeys specialist to create your own personalized custom private journey to this region, visiting any of the dozens of memorials, battlefields and war museums that Russia honors.
(Top photo: Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier along Moscow’s Kremlin Wall. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen.)
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2015