ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Nowhere is the Volga River more hallowed than in the city named after it: Volgograd. In Soviet times it was called Stalingrad. And that's where we're going today as we explore Russia with a journey down the Volga River.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
One of World War II's bloodiest battles took place in that city. Hitler's army fought to reach the Volga River and the access it provided to energy resources. Two million people died. The Soviets won and the battle changed the course of the war.
As NPR's Anne Garrels reports, all these years later, the Battle of Stalingrad remains an enduring symbol.
(Soundbite of cruise ship)
ANNE GARRELS: Passengers aboard the cruise ship grow silent as the river makes a huge bend towards Volgograd. They stare at the massive statue of the Motherland looming over them. As if to defy all who might attack this country, her hand wields a huge sword. Some passengers quietly wipe away tears.
Decades have passed. This city has long since risen from the ashes. Its center is monumental, full of post-war, neo-classical facades so beloved by Stalin. Poorly constructed apartments from the '60s and '70s fan out for miles along the river bank. The promenade sparkles with expensive new buildings. But it's the vast memorial site with its honor guard on the hard-fought high ground which still dominates and haunts. Once it celebrated a Soviet victory. Now, it belongs to Russia.
For this group of Russian tourists, the guide's words are unnecessary.
Ms. NINA SALNIKOVA (Tour Guide): (Through translator) The feeling of patriotism remains because the city suffered so much. This is a hero city where every piece of land is soaked in blood.
GARRELS: Tamara Kolbasina was a 10-year-old living here when the Germans attacked.
Ms. TAMARA KOLBASINA: (Through translator) There was a decision not to evacuate the city because it would sow panic. It would show the Germans we were afraid. We were told the Germans would never reach the city.
GARRELS: But on August 19th, 1942, a beautiful summer's day, the Nazi bombing campaign began.
Ms. KOLBASINA: (Through translator) I had gone for bread. I thought the war was far from us. Suddenly, there were planes overheard, masses of them.
GARRELS: The city exploded. The Volga became a ribbon of fire.
For the next 168 days, Tamara lived in open trenches, freezing, starving and terrified. Her best friend was killed next to her. Germans troops entered the city. The outnumbered Soviet forces were only able to hold a tiny sliver along the Volga River. Stalin issued an order: Anyone thought to be retreating or deserting be immediately shot.
As a young lieutenant, Gamlet Dallokian was among those sent to defend Stalingrad.
Mr. GAMLET DALLOKIAN (Russian Lieutenant): (Through translator) There was no food. We had no boots. We slept as we walked. The Germans attacked our rear and 42 of my 45 men were killed. How we managed to surround the city, I don't know.
GARRELS: Now 90 and one of the last living survivors, Dallokian recalls how close the opposing forces were.
Mr. DALLOKIAN: (Through translator) We would smoke and they could see our smoke. That's how close they were.
GARRELS: Ninety-year-old Konstantin Melikhov remembers how ill-equipped his unit was. Somehow it held on until the Soviets managed miraculously to build up their air force. Melikhov was there when the German troops�finally surrendered.
Mr. KONSTANTIN MELIKHOV (Russian Soldier): (Through translator) They threw their weapons on the ground. My job was to collect the best of them for the fighting still to come. Then we collected the dead bodies from both sides.
GARRELS: One million Soviet citizens and soldiers were dead, 91,000 Germans were taken prisoner. Many were forced to help rebuild the leveled city.
For these Russians, it was unquestionably a great victory; they still proudly wear their medals. But they're not proud of what came before - Stalin's terror - and what came after.
Tamara's father was declared missing in action. After the German defeat, her family lived in an earthen dugout reinforced with clay and straw. They stayed there for 14 years. Her sister survived typhus; her mother, weakened by malaria, died young. Nonetheless, Tamara got an education and became a loyal member of the Communist Party. But four years ago, Tamara got a call from the security services, the heir to the KGB. Her father was not missing in action as she had thought, but one of Stalin's victims.
Ms. KOLBASINA: (Through translator) He was overheard complimenting German technology. For this he was sentenced to 10 years. But there are no prison records. We can only assume he was shot.
GARRELS: She says she has lost her faith.
Ms. KOLBASINA: (Through translator) Why were so many innocent people like my father killed? And now, everything we built is in private hands, in the hands of millionaires, billionaires.
GARRELS: Dallokian's family, too, became Stalin's victims. Nonetheless, Dallokian still believes Stalin was a good wartime commander.
Mr. DALLOKIAN: (Through translator) I cannot forgive Stalin's brutal repressions. But this city should still bear his name. It was the battle of Stalingrad, not Volgograd.
GARRELS: He wrestles with the current state of Russia.
Mr. DALLOKIAN: (Through translator) Why can the Germans we defeated live 40 times better than us? When this is such a rich country, why do we live worse?
GARRELS: Konstantin Melikhov became a doctor. Now nearly blind from wounds he received, he, too, isn't happy with today's Russia.
Mr. MELIKHOV: (Speaking Russian)
GARRELS: Terrible things are happening, he says, then and now.
Anne Garrels, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.