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Riding into a steppe sunset en route to Mumbai

Sudha Mahalingam

A continuing account of Russian explorer Afanasy Nikitin's saga along a 500-year-old, 10,000-km overland trade route



The Mamaev Kurgan Memorial in Volgograd. The 83- metre statue of Mother Russia brandishing a sword was built to commemorate the Battle of Stalingrad.

Volgograd: Close to a fortnight after it began on November 12 in St. Petersburg, the Nikitin expedition reached the estuary of the Caspian shores where it will finally part company with the Volga river. While temperatures continue to be at sub-zero levels, the snow has all but disappeared. But we are now in the open steppe where the chill of the wind penetrates our very bones.

The expedition, which has 14 Indians as members, follows the trail of the explorer Afanasy Nikitin along a 500-year-old, 10,000-km overland trade route, is heading for Mumbai.

Tyre swallows tarmac as we race from Saratov to Volgograd, formerly known as Tsaritsyn or Stalingrad. Tsaritsyn was a mighty fortress town established by the Golden Horde in 1589 at the confluence of the Volga and the Don. Little remains of Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde empire.

Even less remains of Stalingrad. It was the site of the decisive battle of Stalingrad between Hitler's army and the Soviet troops during 1942-43. It lasted the entire Russian winter, inflicting grievous injuries on both sides. While the one million inhabitants of Stalingrad were reduced to a mere 30,000 by the vicious fascist troops and the magnificent town itself was reduced to a rubble, the Germans suffered an even worse fate. Like Napoleon before him, Hitler paid the price for underestimating the cruelty of the Russian winter and the Germans perished in hordes and could not even retreat. Russia emerged victorious and went on to rebuild the town which is today known as Volgograd.

Volgograd rose like Phoenix from the ashes. It was painstakingly rebuilt during the Soviet period. The city spans a length of 70 km along the Volga river. Its people are truly polyglot, hailing from every direction around: Ukrainians, Chuvash, Bashgirs, Kazakhs, Moldavians, Muslims from Dagestan and Chechnya, Buddhists from nearby Kalmikia, the Slavic peoples, even some 30,000 Vietnamese and an equal number of Chinese, not to mention Russians of Greek origin make up this city now. Attempts to preserve ethnic identities and culture seem sporadic and largely unstructured.

Yet it would be an exaggeration to call this town a melting pot. Within the Russian national identity, the various ethnic groups do retain a modicum of their cultural identities.

A prosperous industrial town during the Soviet era, Volgograd of post-Soviet days is a mere shadow of its glorious past. The factories have all but fallen silent, the smoke stacks of steel mills no longer send out plumes curling up into the sky, the river does not ring with foghorns of cargo boats which used to carry industrial goods to other towns along its banks. The Caterpillar earthmoving equipment factory, which used to churn out 76,000 units a year during its heyday, now produces 4,000 a year. Scrap metal that used to be converted into special quality steel is now exported to Austria. Unemployment is rampant in this town of one million people.

Paul Pavlovich, Director of International Relations in the Volgograd Administration, was himself a metallurgical engineer working in one of the steel factories. He has had to reinvent himself as an international relations expert. But he is among the luckier ones. Those who could not reskill themselves have been reduced to hawking trinkets on the steps of tourist monuments.

Speaking of monuments, there is none grander than the Mamaev Kurgan Memorial situated on a mound overlooking the town. Galena Sharonova, a Volgograd Administration official of Ukrainian descent, tells us that the 83- metre statue of Mother Russia brandishing a sword was built to commemorate the pitched Battle of Stalingrad that lasted four months. The dead soldiers could not be given a proper burial because of the advancing Russian winter. And when spring came, the bodies could not even be recognised. By consensus, the townspeople decided to build the memorial on this mound.

There is also a museum beside a bombed out shell of a building. It contains paintings on a panoramic screen depicting scenes from the battle.

As our three vehicles make it to the town square, a posse of Indian students converges on us, as has been our experience in most other Russian cities through which our caravan passed.

In Volgograd, they all are from Maharashtra: once again, medical students in the local university. Rahul Patil, Srikant Patil, Sunny Goud and Nilanjan Dham assure us they see very few Indians in these parts.

Incidentally, Chennai is the sister city of Volgograd and there is a mini rosewood temple replica that adorns the museum here - a gift from the people of Chennai to commemorate Volgograd's victory over fascist forces.

The expedition is now headed towards Astrakhan on the banks of the Caspian.

The flat steppe extends as far as eyes can see and the road splices the panorama like a black arrow. As rubber and road keep their tryst, the alchemy of the setting sun has turned the horizon into riot of colours.

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