A History Buff’s Guide to Lesser-Known World War II Sites in Western Russia
It’s been more than 70 years since of the end of World War II in 1945, and lately there’s been renewed interest in visiting some of the historic sites of the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call it.
Tours around St. Petersburg, or to places featured in our article Beginners Guide to WWII Sites of Western Russia, are good places to start for a travel itinerary focusing on World War II history, but there are some lesser-known sites that should also be on the radar of any military or history buff traveling through the region.
Sites In and Around St. Petersburg
“The Muses Were Not Silent” Museum
A well-known old Russian proverb says, “When the guns speak, the muses are silent.” This museum of the artistic endeavors of people suffering through the Siege of Leningrad proves otherwise.
There are several museums that have to do with the siege, but only this one tells stories of the musicians, writers, actors, and other creative people who stayed in Leningrad during the war and kept working, kept creating. Artifacts relating to Shostakovich’s famous Leningrad symphonies fill one hall, while another is dedicated to the ballet, theater and fine arts. There is also a moving collection of children’s artwork, toys and clothing. The museum aspires to envelop visitors in the atmosphere of a besieged city, by allowing them to touch, hear and see what the ensnared citizens experienced.
Memorial Watch Camp at the Volkhov Front
Each summer, University Lecturer Evgeny Ilin and the students of the Center for the Study of Military History at St. Petersburg State University stage a six-week camp in the forests and swamps around St. Petersburg where countless men and women perished defending the city.
Travelers are welcomed for a full-day visit to the camp
- The first stop is the Breaking of the Blockade Diorama Museum in nearby Marino Village.
- Next is a tour of the battlefields and memorials of Sinyavino Heights and the Nevsky Bridgehead.
- Then the travelers are welcomed to the “Memorial Watch” Camp, where Ilin and his students use metal detectors and probes to recover the forgotten bodies of soldiers and civilians, still here after all this time.
More men and women died per square mile here at the Volkhov Front than on any other battlefield in the war. Shell craters, trenches, rusting helmets, and old boots still litter the ground. “Out here, you feel as if the war ended yesterday,” says Dr. Ilin. He and his students work to identify the remains of thousands of soldiers and civilians who still lie unburied, below the moss and leaves.
Nevsky Bridgehead (Pyatachok)
About 30 miles southeast of then Leningrad on the Neva River, the Red Army struggled against the Nazis to open and maintain a land link to a besieged Leningrad called the Nevsky Bridgehead, or Nevsky Pyatachok. The word pyatachok means a small five-kopek coin – it was a tiny but hard-fought bridgehead. Fighting continued from January 1942 to May 1943 and resulted in Soviet casualties of nearly 211,000. A memorial marks the battlefield here. It is one of dozens of small memorials ringing St. Petersburg that make up what is called the “Green Belt of Glory.”
The Oranienbaum Bridgehead on the Gulf of Finland was the only area around besieged Leningrad that held out against the German army. Located near the town of Oranienbaum, now called Lomonosov, the bridgehead was a 11×16-mile foothold on the coast that included the coastal artillery fort, Krasnaya Gorka, and was defended by soldiers of the Red Army and sailors of the Baltic Fleet. It played a significant part in the liberation of Leningrad in 1944.
Across the Moika River from the Savior on the Spilled Blood Cathedral lies Mars Field, a place with almost as long a history as St. Petersburg. The open area near the Neva embankment first was put to use by Peter the Great as a parade and training ground for the imperial guards regiments. Later, after palaces for Catherine I and Paul I were built alongside the field, the open area reverted to being a place for St. Petersburg families to picnic and enjoy themselves. During the three-year Siege of Leningrad, Mars Field was given over to vegetable gardeners who did their part to feed the beleaguered city. In 1957 an Eternal Flame was lit here to remember the St. Petersburg victims of all wars.
Sites In and Around Moscow
Stalin’s Secret Underground Bunker
In the 1930s, during the time when Moscow’s lavish subway system was being built, a “second subway” system took shape as well. The term “second subway” refers to the secret underground bunker established by Stalin under the city.
To mask the enterprise, architects planned and began to build a huge sports stadium near Izmailovo Park, with underground access to the city center. Below the stadium, the corridors and rooms of the secret bunker were constructed. Unlike Churchill’s London “War Rooms,” however, Stalin’s bunker sports marble columns and wood paneling. Its dining room was designed in the Georgian style. Along with “Stalin’s Unit,” an underground area for an armada of tanks was finished before war broke out.
Armed Forces Museum
This museum offers 24 halls of 20th century military hardware and weapons. The first floor focuses on the history of the Russian Army and Navy during World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia. The second floor covers military action in the years since, and includes artifacts and weapons from the Vietnam War and the war in Afghanistan. The wreckage of Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane is displayed, as well as tanks, missiles, aircraft, uniforms, banners and photos. Gary Powers, who bailed out and was captured, was exchanged for a Soviet spy in 1962.
Kubinka Museum of Tanks
Kubinka is a must-see for military history enthusiasts. The hundreds of examples of tanks, armored cars and personnel carriers trace the history of the Red Army, the Soviet Army and now the Russian Army. Photos of clumsy proto-tanks, armored train cars and rolling stock of all types, along with uniforms, banners and documents fill out the collection.
Travel to Western Russia with MIR
MIR has 30 years of experience hand-crafting tours to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and even the most remote regions of Russia. MIR’s knowledgeable guides offer unique perspectives and insider information that only an on-the-ground local would know, helping to make your journey unforgettable.
MIR’s Private Journey team has the destination expertise to arrange a visit to any of the lesser-known sites in Russia as part of a custom, private trip – built around your interests and timeline.
MIR also has a variety of small group tours, independent private journeys, and rail journeys by private train that include time in Western Russia. A pre- or post-tour to any of the above sites can be added to your itinerary.
For more information on Russia’s must-see memorials, museums and battlegrounds, be sure to check out these blog posts that focus on WWII sites:
- 4 Must-See WWII Sites in St. Petersburg: The Siege of Leningrad
(Top photo: Tanks used during WWII guard the entrance to the Armed Forces Museum in Moscow. Photo credit: Jim Beers.)
PUBLISHED: April 12, 2016