PUTILOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–Nearly every evening one of the many vodka toasts of our geological party is: “To the great victory over the Germans!” This may be because all of our study sites were on one frontline or another during World War II, or because this is a group of men of a certain age interested in the history of their fathers and grandfathers. We were on the left bank of the Neva River yesterday and passed many monuments, preserved tanks, and large signs saying, “Always Remember the Defenders of the Motherland!” and “Here the Invader Was Stopped!”. We pass by almost every day a memorial “To the Unknown Drivers” of supply trucks to the besieged city of Leningrad. (They paid a horrendous price transporting goods across frozen Ladoga Lake under intense bombardment.) The place where Vladimir Putin’s father was wounded on the bank of the Neva was pointed out to me. I’m also told when we cross into territories “the Germans never took”.
There is otherwise very little evidence of the war here because almost every pre-war building was completely destroyed in this area and the rubble cleared. It is only in a few small villages that I’ve seen overgrown shot-up ruins of building walls, or the occasional stone roots of a bombed bridge. Scaling these observations upwards to match the size of this war zone produces an astonishing image of destruction. No wonder that two generations later the war is still very much in mind.