Berlin’s Soviet Memorials

Eliẓaveta Efimova on Berlin’s impressive trio of Soviet memorials… 

Two roads lead to Treptower Park’s Soviet War memorial—Puschkinallee or Straße am Treptower Park—both of which pass through entrances marked by magnificent stone arches. The paths converge at the three-meter-high statue of Mother Russia mourning her fallen sons during World War II: 80,000 soldiers died fighting for Berlin, and 7,000 of them rest below the shade of plane and sycamore trees in the memorial’s cemetery.

From this statue, a small alley atmospherically lined with weeping willows leads to the main memorial: a vast rectangular space heralded by immense granite pedestals decorated with the coat of arms of the Soviet Union and flanked by statues of grieving soldiers. A wide stone staircase leads down to the main grounds, which are hidden from the park’s normal leisure visitors by uniform ranks of trees.

Treptower Park Memorial. Image by Elizaveta Efimova.

These immaculately landscaped grounds, which opened on May 8th 1949, exactly four years after the end of the war, were built on a former sports pitch. They’re so vast that the memorial seems to absorb the sounds of speech, leaving only the chirping of birds and the gentle rustling of leaves in the air, as if forcing visitors to observe a fragile silence for those commemorated here, as well as all the others who didn’t get out of the war alive, and those whose loved ones never returned.

On either side of the memorial, sixteen stone sarcophagi are erected in honour of each of the republics of the Soviet Union that existed at that time; in 1956 the Republic of Karelia separated from the USSR, leaving only fifteen until the total collapse of the union. The surface of the sarcophagi are decorated with reliefs depicting war scenes as well as Stalin quotes on either side carved in gold in German and Russian.

At the far edge of the memorial is an even larger (13-meter) monument, «Воин-Освободитель» (“Warrior Liberator”) by Yevgeny Vuchetich, which stands proudly on the wreckage of a swastika. The soldier holds a lowered sword in one hand, and with the other holds a young German child he has saved; this was supposedly modelled on Red Army sergeant of guards Nikolai Masalov, who risked his life to rescue a local three-year old whose mother had disappeared.

This monument is in fact the final part of a triptych whose other two parts are in Russia: «Тыл — фронту» (“Rear to the Front”) by Lev Golovnitsky and Yakov Belopolsky can be found in Magnitogorsk, and «Родина-мать зовёт!» (“Motherland Calls!”) sits on the Mamaev Kurgan in Volgograd (and is also by Vuchetich). The idea behind the triptych is that the sword, forged on the shores of the Urals, was then raised by the Motherland in Stalingrad and lowered after the victory in Berlin.

Memorial Hall at Trepower Park. Image by Elizaveta Efimova.

The monument stands atop a mound and is reached via a grey stone staircase that leads to its pedestal. Inside the mound is a circular memorial hall with a mosaic panel on the walls that depicts representatives of different nations laying wreaths on the grave of Soviet soldiers. Above their heads, again in Russian and German, is another quote from Stalin: “Now everyone recognizes that the Soviet people by their self-sacrificing struggle saved the civilisation of Europe from the fascist pogroms. This is the great merit of the Soviet people to the history of mankind.”

The memorial hall is adorned with a chandelier in the form of the Order of Victory, made of rubies and crystals, and in the centre of the hall sits a black stone pedestal with a golden casket and parchment book with red binding; this book contains the names of heroes who died in the Battle for Berlin and are buried in mass graves.

The Treptower Park memorial, the largest in Germany, served as the main war memorial for East Germany and is today considered the central of three such memorials in Berlin. All were built shortly after the war, all commemorate the Great Victory, and all serve as places of eternal rest for the Red Army soldiers who liberated Germany from National Socialism.

The very first memorial was erected in Tiergarten on the northern side of the east-west Straße des 17. Juni—right at the spot where Adolf Hitler had intended to dedicate his Welthauptstadt Germania. Built in November 1945 and designed by Mikhali Gorvits, it presents an aesthetically pleasing concave row of six columns, one for each of branch of the Russian army that fought in the war. These are dramatically ‘guarded’ by T-34 tanks, which are often—incorrectly—described as the first two Soviet tanks to reach the city during the war. Behind them rise the two artillery cannons whose shots marked the end of the Battle of Berlin.

Front of the Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten. Image by Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 3.0

The larger central column provides the pedestal for an eight-meter bronze statue of a Soviet soldier by sculptors Vladimir Tsigal and Lev Kerbel; the casually slung rifle on his shoulder signals the war is over, and his outstretched left arm shelters the graves of his compatriots buried at the foot of the memorial. The names and the ranks of the fallen soldiers—Heroes of the Soviet Union—are carved in the stone of the columns; many of them were barely 20 years old and most fell during the grim fight for the nearby Reichstag.

A large inscription in Cyrillic asks for “Eternal glory to heroes who fell in battle with the German fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of the Soviet Union”. Below are the dates 1941-45, which cover the Great Patriotic War, as it was called from the Soviet perspective. This began with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and not with the 1939 invasion of Poland, in which the Soviet Union were complicit. The fountains behind the columns symbolise the tears and longing of the people of the Soviet Union as they mourn the fallen soldiers.

There is a myth that some of the marble used for the construction of the memorial (as well as the red marble used at Treptower Park) was taken from the ruins of state buildings damaged during the war, but this has not been conclusively proven. A non-disputed fact about memorial, though, is that it ironically wound up on the western side of the Berlin Wall, and special Soviet guards had to be sent from the east to protect it from Cold War protestors. In 1970, one of the guards was shot by a neo-Nazi, and in 2010 the monument was vandalised with graffiti accusing the Red Army of being ‘thieves, murderers and rapists’, sparking a diplomatic incident.

The third Soviet Memorial, and by far the least crowded because of its distance from the city centre, was erected in Schönholzer Heide between 1947-1949. It’s almost as impressive as Treptower: spanning a total area of 30,000 square meters, it includes the largest cemetery of Soviet soldiers in Berlin, with 13,200 Soviet soldiers (including 120 women) buried here. Built by an ensemble of Soviet architects (K. Solovyov, M. Belaventsev, V. Korolyov) and sculptor Ivan Pershudchev, the entrance to the memorial, reached via a short lime tree lined alley, is framed by two granite columns with symbolic wreaths and bronze bowls with eternal flames.

Schönholzer Heide Soviet memorial. Image by Paul Sullivan.

Similar in layout to the Treptower memorial, the centrepiece here is a 33.5-meter obelisk set on raised steps and, at the foot of the steps, a statue of a Russian mother bewailing her fallen son and covered by the Russian flag of Victory. The landscaped area between the entrance and obelisk consists of manicured lawns, and is surrounded with a wall featuring bronze tablets listing the names, ranks and birth dates of some of soldiers buried here; 1182 of them lie in eight distinctive burial chambers, with the graves of two Soviet colonels located inside the obelisk’s Honor Hall.

Flowers on May 8th at the Treptower Park memorial. Image by Elizaveta Efimova.

Every year on May 8th, wreaths of flowers—especially carnations, the traditional flower of the Victory Day in Russia—are laid at the graves of fallen soldiers at all three of these Berlin memorials. Candles are lit on the cold grey steps, and portraits of heroes who never returned from the war are hung on fences.

Notes with inscriptions such as “Nothing is forgotten, no one is forgotten” are placed below the monuments. As places of remembrance go, all three sites still carry a great deal of poignancy and power, not only for Russians, but for dedicated anti-fascists all over the world.


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