Poklonnaya Gora

Paying respect to Russia's heroes and the Great Patriotic War.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

A wide view of the memorial.
It is always very difficult, if not impossible, for Americans to appreciate the loss suffered by Russia and the former republics of the USSR during the second world war. Most of us, born after the war's end, have only seen grainy film footage on television documentaries, and photographs in books and magazines. Often these images seem like a time too distant to understand, a world so different than our own.

Additionally, American citizens back home did not experience the ravages of the war on our own soil. While we certainly suffered casualties during the war, and these losses were felt with grief back home, America was greatly fortunate to not have the guns and tanks in our own cities and towns, as did the countries of Europe.

Of course, I should say that all these impressions are purely my own, and I am no historian obviously. And since I was not even born until decades after the war, my feelings represent those of someone only taught of the war as history. But that feeling of remoteness was replaced quickly in my mind as I approached the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War at Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow that day.

Approaching the immense plaza I was struck into the silence. The giddy, adventorous spirit of strolling along the Garden Ring was replaced with a somber mood of rememberance. I thought for the first time, since my arrival in Russia, that I was actually in a city that fought for its very existence against Hitler's military.

The marker denoting the last year of the war.
As you begin your walk towards the museum itself, you pass large stone markers, each displaying a year of the war. Standing at the first marker, 1941, your eyes follow a stretching path towards the last marker, 1945. The distance of your gaze impresses upon you the great distance traveled by the soldiers and people of Russia; some didn't make it to that last marker. Perhaps their ghosts linger along the plaza carving invisible names into the marker representing the year they perished.

This place was giving me a whole new perspective on history, just as so many aspects of this trip would. But the tragedy and sacrifice of this place remains perhaps the deepest. As an American today, many of my reflections on this period in history include swinging tunes of The Andrew Sisters and The Benny Goodman Orchestra, even the silly Abbott and Costello movies were all part of America's way of dealing with the war. Here, there was no big band swing playing, no funny skits from Buck Privates Come Home.

I never realized before how the unrealistic, and romantic old Hollywood movies about the second world war had been actually part of my education. They still play on the classic movie channels, here in the states. Poklonnaya Gora, however, was telling an unmasked and naked truth.

As I walked forward torwards the museum dark clouds rolled over and thunder began to rumble in the distance. I looked up into the darkening skies and it wasn't difficult to imagine the skys dark with explosive dust and the thunder the sound of not too distant cannon fire. I was passing 1942.

A church near the memorial.
The cold war has certainly distorted and obstructed the view held by most Americans about Russia, and probably even our understanding about Russia's role in the second world war. Growing up, even in the seventies, the idea that the Russians were actually our allies against Hiter was a fact that struck too many of us with irony.

I suppose both of our countries have a lot of catching up to do to come to a greater understanding of one another, admittedly, the Americans the most. I have been really surprised by, before and after my trip, the persisting stereotypes that too many people in my country still seem to have about Russians. Too many stories from twenty years ago still abound.

All of this will change, I'm sure. There is so much more cooperation and business now, more than was even imaginable just a few short years ago. I, myself, even after the large amount of reading I did to prepare for my trip, was amazed by the amount of western influence all over Moscow and St. Petersburg. I'm sure this is very dismaying to many Russians, to see their culture perhaps invaded by so much from elsewhere. I think their feelings are justified and well founded.

I am quite sure that many Americans would be shocked if our society was suddenly awash in products and ideas from Russia. Personally, I look forward to the day when many goods on our shelves have the words "Made in Russia" stamped on them. I'm sure it will happen someday soon, too. As the Russian economy grows and the markets expand beyond its borders integration into the world market will benefit us both.

I should say, however, not all Americans would be shocked with a bit of Russian culture. My Russian hockey jerseys have been a real hit since I returned. Several of my friends have asked if I can get a couple of them sent over here to the states for them. Maybe there's a joint venture I should be looking into!

Another view.
These were some of the thoughts I had, making my way towards the marker for 1945. Strange, that I should be thinking about market economies, and shared culture amidst this memorial to the past. But I think that is rather typical of the way things are now. We are remembering our past relationships while we look forward to our future ones. I think they are both important.

There were many Muscovites there that day that seem to be thinking more about their own futures than the past. People on rollerblades circled around the plaza, some stopped and purchased soft drinks and chose a seat by the fountains to rest. A group of high school students, fresh from graduation I think, laughed and posed for pictures on the steps of the museum. Were they being disrespectful? I must say I don't know; I'm a foreigner in this place.

The sky broke and a light rain fell and I packed the camera back into plastic bags and prepared to seek refuge. After a few moments, however, even this light rain didn't persist, though the clouds and the thunder still threatened. I was now up by the front and took the next few shots you see here from either end of the building, and the one further below of St. George slaying the dragon.

View of the ends.
I sat on the steps and watched the people go by. A security guard came from inside and glanced my way. Seeing my camera, I suppose he figured I was just another tourist and returned inside.

A man who worked at the museum began to speak to me, but when I told him I didn't understand Russian, he began talking to Nino. For some strange reason, he didn't seem to believe she was from Georgia (the republic, not my state back here in America), and insisted she, too, must be from America. She got a laugh out of this, and assured him she was Georgian, and now a Muscovite.

He invited us to a barbecue that was to take place the next day, some distance by train outside the city. He said he wanted to show me some real Russian hospitality while I was here. Unfortunately, we were unable to make it, and I still, even now, regret missing that one!

I was to receive plenty of hospitality on this trip, though. Everyone I met, Nino's family and friends, even a couple of pool sharks in St. Petersburg (more on that one in a later story) treated me very well. No, Russians are not fascinated with every American they meet; after all, they've now been so saturated with our culture that we're not at all unfamiliar to them, but they are very hospitable to just about everyone.

Statues demark each side. Notice the rainbow to the left.
The darkened skies that rumbled around us as we strolled around the museum broke off towards the city to display the beautiful rainbow you see in the picture to the left. The whole rainbow, both ends, were visible and made a stunning site as it seemed to stretch from one end of Moscow to the other, no small feat even for a rainbow!

Still, the clouds held their ground and the thunder continued to threaten more severe weather; the rainbow, though, offered a glimmer of hope. I wandered around taking these next two shots while Nino talked to our new friend about things in Moscow. Like most Russians I met, he spoke a little bit of english and made great efforts to speak to me. More and more I was feeling a bit dumb for not speaking any more Russian than, 'nyet', 'vodka' and 'ruble'.

A certain isolation comes upon you when you are in an unfamiliar place not being able to speak the langauge. However, most of the time I felt it afforded me a great priviledge of privacy. People on the streets trying to sell me things I didn't want were easily dispatched with a simple phrase. People seeking information or directions couldn't have picked a worse source for information than myself in the subways. And shopkeepers describing goods and prices were redirected to Nino with a simple pointing motion.

Of course, this also meant that there was a great deal of information out of my grasp, as well, but my visual senses were bombarded so constantly, and so many impressions were forming just from the things I saw, that perhaps understanding what was also said around me might overload me to the point of a breakdown. Each night as I fell asleep images of the things I had seen during the day swirled in my mind and found lasting places in my memory.

St. George slaying the dragon depicted beneath the tower memorial.
Even though I had now been in Moscow three days, due to the weather this was my first full day exploring the city. From one side of the plaza at Poklonnaya Gora you could scan a wide landscape view of Moscow. The sheer size of the city was so impressive to me that day that I could not have imagined that even more spectacular views awaited me.

Off in the distance the horizon was peppered with apartment buildings. Also clearly visible were the large cranes that can be seen all over Moscow these days, erecting new buildings or renovating old ones. Moscow, and I imagine all of Russia, is truly a place undergoing an immense transition. As I stared out over the landscape I wondered how different it will look in just a few short years.

Very suddenly the clouds overhead broke and the sun shown through bright blue skies. I had just walked over to the large towering monument over the statue of St. George. My first close look at this part of the monument was the picture just below. The detail of the work rising up the faces of tower were offset perfectly by the newly brightened sunlight.

Russian cities are named along the tower.
Depicted along the tower are many of the faces and instruments of war, soldiers and civilian victims, guns and swords. They are mixed together in such a way to evoke the chaotic anguish of war, giving the impression that in this violent time there existed no place for peace or tranquility.

The sculpture impresses the viewer with a very uneasy feeling. The suffering of the war can be clearly felt while gazing upon the piece, but there is an element of a relentless struggle as well, symbolic of Russia's refusal to surrender to the Nazi aggressor. There is clear determination on the faces of the soldiers to never relinquish their homeland.

Your eyes follow these images skyward, reading the names of the many besieged Russian cities, until victory is finally reached at the top. It is the most impressive piece at the museum for the pure emotion it is able to invoke, with the human depictions and frenetic display of war.

Spending time here put me much more in touch with the true meaning of the second world war, certainly in terms of its affect and consequences on Russia and its people. To Americans, who are rather isolated geographically, yet still host so many different nationalities within its borders, the animosities between the peoples of Europe have always been something difficult to comprehend. Put in the context of war, a concept for me personally equally difficult to comprehend, the puzzle is slightly, but only slightly, clearer.

Still, the time seems long at hand to dispose of these ill feelings. The world is too busy a place to base prejudices on nationality. The quality of life has been shown to be best improved through democratic means. I often found the tremendous diversity of cultures that exist in Moscow to be profoundly enlightening.

In America we struggle with this same issue. There are those who demand people from other cultures 'assimilate'. Some people think demands to assimilate mean some Americans simply want others to give up their heritage, trade it in for some American, all-purpose heritage, good for everyone. Personally, I have to agree more with this latter view. Think of how boring the world would be if we were all the same.

I enjoy being out in public here in Atlanta and hearing a conversation in a different language. It's fun to try and guess what language it is, and maybe even strike up a conversation and ask them where they are from. Many Americans complain that people from different countries are lazy, and don't want to learn english. I say, send these people to Russia and let them try and learn Russian. I can tell them it's pretty damn hard!

The memorial to prison camp victims is both moving and haunting. Notice the shadows cast by the setting sun.
Behind the museum is a memorial to the victims of the prison camps. It is a very powerful sight, indeed. Towering statues of terribly thin, suffering prisoners cling to one another, the leader shielding the eyes of a child, and recede into the background becoming smaller, shrinking away.

In the picture to the right you'll notice how the statues cast long shadows on the wall behind them. I'm quite sure this is an intentional affect by the designer, creating a strong impression against the backdrop of the setting sun.

To the back of the memorial is a large stone with inscriptions of the different languages of the former USSR republics. It created an interesting image, symbolizing the diversity of the people who suffered in the camps, at the hands of the Nazis.

We continued on, behind the museum and out into a grazzy area and began thinking of heading home. This place had made quite an impression on me, and its images would return to mind on many occassions on my trip, and beyond. The tower and camp victims would come into my mind on subway rides, taxi cabs, the plane home to Atlanta, and even still during my day to day travels.

Both the sun and the moon followed us on our way home along the Garden Ring.
We headed back to Garden Ring to catch a trolley bus, and search for somewhere to have dinner. While walking along I took this picture to the left, an amazing view for someone from a lower longitude, such as myself. To our left across the street the sun was just beginning to set, and to our right the moon hung just at the tip of the crane standing behind the apartment building in the center. Seeing them together like this was indeed a strange sight for me!

You can see the sun reflecting brightly in the windows of the apartment, but the moon, unfortunately, is not visible in this scanned image. But if you click on the image and examine the larger view, you can probably just see a very, very faint circle, the moon, at the very tip of the crane. Alas, such is the limitation of technology.

It had been a pretty long day, and a very interesting one at that. The Garden Ring and Poklonnaya Gora had presented me with two rather different views of Moscow. One was of the present and future looking Moscow, the other a somber rememberance of the past.

For a little joke and light hearted end to the day we ate at McDonalds. I thought here, at least, I could order for myself and feel quite independant; after all, what's more American than McDonalds? But it was not to be.

Staring at the menu board overhead I recognized the pictures easily enough; a hamburger is still a hamburger anywhere in the world, right? But when the young man behind the counter asked me for my order, I quickly realized that standing there pointing up at the pictures would make me look extremely foolish. So instead, I once again resorted to my tried and true method of surviving in Moscow; I pointed to Nino and told her, 'I'll have a hamburger, fries and a coke'.

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All contents and photos © 1997 by Skip Evans