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Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA
Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA

There is a city on the Volga that takes its name from the wide river that it straddles, but which in another time was called Stalingrad, site of a siege so bitter, relentless and grinding that the name has become a metaphor for thwarted ambition.

In the 200-day-long World War 2 battle, German invaders took the city but  then found themselves surrounded, and then increasingly crushed, by the Red Army’s fist of steel (and cheap human flesh). The battle was reduced to gangs of crazed soldiers fighting in kitchens, bedrooms, attics, sewers and eventually, as artillery shells and bombs rained down, mere piles of rubble.

The German name for the siege is a 1,000-picture word: rattenkrieg. Rat war.

There were two notable positions at the heart of the fighting. There was the Stalingrad Tractor Factory (which, in no small irony, no longer makes tractors but has switched to self-propelled antitank guns), where German defenders died of starvation, cold and bullets through the deathly winter of 1942.

It may yet happen that the Azovstal plant becomes the 21st century’s ‘Tractor Factory’ or ‘Pavlov’s House’

And then there was a fortified four-storey building, Pavlov’s House, named for its commander Sgt Yakov Pavlov, where a platoon of Red Army soldiers held on grimly, without resupply, for two months.

Pavlov’s House is at the centre of Russian mythmaking about the battle of Stalingrad — the house was not, in fact, in the centre of the city but further out — just as Russia’s defeat of the Nazis has become central to Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric about expunging Nazism from Ukraine.

It may yet happen that the Azovstal plant — a rat’s nest of bunkers, tunnels and rubble — becomes the 21st century’s “Tractor Factory” or “Pavlov’s House”. There is an even chance, though, that the whole of Ukraine — and not just Mariupol — will turn into Putin’s Stalingrad. The question is, will he appreciate the irony? Or even care? 

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