Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Red Army cemetery in Wroclaw

I spent a very enjoyable few days in Wroclaw, Poland, last week. I was there to give a couple of lectures, but I took time out to visit the Soviet Cemetery in the south of the city. I went there on a whim; I had been to Wroclaw many times and had already seen most of the sights, but had never been to the Soviet Cemetery, which was laid out after the war for those that were killed in the siege of Breslau from February to May 1945.

After visiting the various wartime cemeteries in Normandy a few years ago, it struck me that one can tell alot from a war cemetery. Very few, of course, match up to the immaculate condition maintained in British & Commonwealth Cemeteries, but it is still an interesting exercise...

The first impression is pretty positive. The cemetery is laid out on the southern edge of the city, with two T-34s and a couple of artillery pieces as gate guardians. Aside from the inevitable rash of graffiti, the lawns were all pretty well maintained, though some of the headstones themselves were rather the worse for wear. There were around 2,000 of the estimated 6,000 Soviet casualties from the siege; the graves were mostly named and were grouped around a central monument.

There were a few notable items. The grave of Alexander Nazarov, for instance, is adorned with a polished metal facade (left) and, unusually, gives his life dates. The reason for this special treatment is that Nazarov had been awarded the "Hero of the Soviet Union". Nazarov died on the 7 February 1945, a few weeks short of his 19th Birthday.

There is also a memorial plaque to Soviet Air Force General Ivan Polbin, who was shot down by flak fire outside Breslau on 11 February 1945. A veteran pilot and dive-bombing specialist, Polbin had fought at Khalkin-Gol in 1939, and at Stalingrad, where he was awarded the "Hero of the Soviet Union". Commander of the 2nd Guards Bomber Aviation Corps, Polbin had flown over 150 missions. He was posthumouosly awarded his second Hero of the Soviet Union.

Considering the enormous political changes that have overtaken this part of the world in the seven or so decades since the end of the World War Two, one might have expected the Soviet cemetery in Wroclaw to be rather neglected and rather forlorn. After all, the inhabitants of the city in 1945 - the opponents of those Soviet soldiers - are long gone and have been replaced by Polish civilians. Even the regime that the Red Army imported - Soviet-style communism - has been gone for over 20 years. All of which leaves these sons of the Soviet Union washed up in a foreign land, seemingly neither liberators nor conquerors, rather a footnote to a complex history.

Yet, happily, the cemetery is in good shape; Wroclaw's scouts are evidently doing a sterling job in maintaining it. Perhaps this might become one of the touchstones of the new Russo-Polish rapprochement - it would be a fitting development for a city that has done so much to smooth the often difficult relationship with Germany. Here's hoping...

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