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No. 1621:

Today, we visit a really big statue. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I recently did a program about the battle of Stalingrad, the most terrible single battle ever fought in any war. Since then, that event, entirely too large to grasp in one piece, has hovered in my mind -- bits and pieces of it resurfacing like old photos. The city was seemingly destroyed, and, after Stalin fell into disgrace, not even its name survives.

But it's alive and well today -- now a city of over a million people along the Volga River, surrounded by the high plains called the Steppe. The battle see-sawed over an area of thousands of square miles, but its focal point was Mamayev Hill, a small rise behind old Stalingrad. The city was renamed Volgograd in 1961, and a major memorial was built there. It stretches up the hill, culminating in a vast concrete statue of a woman, called Motherland Calls.

This is the largest statue of a full human figure ever made. Motherland rises 270 feet from her feet to the tip of her ninety-foot long stainless-steel sword. That's almost twice the height of our Statue of Liberty. This is Communist art at its best, but Communist art nonetheless. Motherland's powerful body is draped in a windblown diaphanous gown. She looks over her shoulder shouting to the Russian people -- telling them that they can move only forward. Her arms spread out in a gesture that takes in the whole nation. The people walking on the path below her look like ants. She takes your breath away.

Motherland Calls was designed by sculptor Yevgeni Vuchetich, perhaps the major sculptor to produce this sort of grand statement -- both impersonal and emotionally overwhelming at the same time. The work was finished in 1967 under Leonid Brezhnev.

It was a time when the Russian economy was deteriorating. Today, cynics in Volgograd call the great statue, Brezhnev's Auntie. And, like much post-war Soviet concrete work, this is faring badly. High winds, and a huge seasonal temperature variation, are taking their toll. Water has been found its way into small cracks, frozen, and widened them into large fissures. After a scant 35 years, she's already in grave danger of breaking up.

And so a nation in economic trouble searches for funds to do major repairs upon the vast monument -- this lady moving through a twilight zone between art and propaganda. Younger visitors, in its shadow below, say, "Gee-whiz, she's big!" Older visitors, who know the sacrifices made in this place, react with tears in their eyes. The Soviet Union saved not only herself at Stalingrad; she did much to save the other Allied nations as well.

After the war, Mamayev Hill was loose dirt, devoid of any vegetation. Every handful included metal fragments. New construction still encounters skeletal remains. And we're left to wonder what people will see, if this enormous lady, sword in hand, is still calling heroes to ugly deaths, a hundred years from now.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hawkes, N., Amazing Achievements: A Celebration of Human Ingenuity. San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 1996. pp. 32-35.

See the Wikipedia articles about Volgograd, and about the Motherland Calls statue.

Note Added, July 20, 2017: See this recent video of a helicopter trip around the statue. Also, a massive restoration of the statue is being completed as of this note.

The Motherland Calls Monument in Volgograd

The Motherland Calls Monument in Volgograd