One battlefield, two memories 3/3

The Soviet war cemetery on Sinyavinsky Heights 3/3

The defense of the city of Leningrad and the fight against the German Wehrmacht cost millions of Soviet soldiers their lives.[i] During the war, the Red Army buried its soldiers in anti-tank ditches or in temporary graves; later, the graves were marked with a simple stake and a Red star, and the name of the fallen, if known. [ii] The German army held the Sinyavinsky Heights, north of the village Sinyavino, to block passage to the city of Leningrad. The Heights, surrounded by the river Neva, served as a strategic military vantage point for the Germans, which kept the Red Army from attacking. After several unsuccessful attempts to reach the Sinyavinsky Heights, the Soviets captured it in January 1944, during a bloody battle involving heavy losses.[iii]

The Wall of Names, Sinyavinsky Heights, May 2016 

            After the Wehrmacht’s retreat from northwest Russia and the final Soviet victory in Berlin, the reconstruction process began in Leningrad and the surrounding Oblast region. The exact number of Soviet soldiers who died at the Leningrad front is unclear, but it has been confirmed to be over 1 million.[iv] The majority of the soldiers were buried in mass graves, either where they fell or close to the battlefields. ,The corpses were buried right on the battlefields of Sinyavinsky Heights, in mass graves. Until the late 1970s, the Heights remained a battlefield, with bullets and gas masks scattered around. The Oblast government then decided to remodel the battlefield into a memorial complex to mark the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory.[v] The original plan was to turn the Sinyavinsky fields into a memorial park, including an open-air museum. The exhibition was intended to show the daily front life of the soldiers: the foxholes, shelters, outposts and weapons, such as tanks and rockets launchers. The open-air museum was never realized due a lack of funding, but the Sinyavinsky Heights were transformed into a memorial complex for “the defenders of the Motherland”. In this memorial complex, the visitor walks towards the main memorial via an Alley of the Heroes of the Soviet Union, a path with monuments and grave stones donated to heroes and veterans. In front of a mass grave stands a red granite obelisk with a Red Army star, marking the center of the complex. The obelisk holds the inscription “The fallen of the Soviet War, who fell in the Battle of Leningrad, on the Sinyavinsky Heights 1941-1944”. Two plaques are installed on the same obelisk, to remember two Heroes of the Soviet Union, Vladimir I. Ermak (1924-1943) and Stulan B. Baimagambetov (1920-1943), who are both buried in a mass grave within the complex. The remodeling of the Sinyavinsky Heights cost 2 million Russian rubles and was opened in 1985, for the 40th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War .[vi]

            The mass graves—in Russian “fraternal” or “comrade´s” graves—are scattered around the complex. Overall, there are more than twenty fraternal graves on the former battlefield. In many cases, it is unknown who is buried in these graves. Some graves have lists with names attached, or even individual plaques with names and photographs of the fallen sticking out of the graves. It is unknown whether family members knew exactly which graves their loved ones were buried in, or they just assumed. Even if soldiers could be identified, they are still buried in fraternal graves.[vii]

Over the next few years, some additional elements were included: the obelisk is now surrounded by steel walls, giving the memorial a more monumental and modern look; an eternal flame was also added; and some individual memorials for units and individuals were installed, such as the memorial for the 124th Red Infantry Division. The most remarkable elements of the Sinyavinsky Heights memorial complex are the wall of names and the wooden Russian Orthodox cross, which were not part of the original plan by the Oblast government. On the wall of names, relatives and families can install a plaque or picture of fallen or missing soldiers to remember them, even if they could not be found to be buried, or if the grave they are buried in remains unknown. Thus children and grandchildren have at least one place to remember their father or grandfather.

The orthodox cross was placed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, separate from the cemetery center, in-between the mass graves. It contains pictures of saints and the capital Cyrillic letters “Nika”, for Saint Nicholas, the patron of sailors, merchants and convicts, and one of the most popular saints in the Russian-Orthodox Church.[i]

The different elements of the complex – the obelisk, the eternal flame, the wall of names, and the mass graves – make the Sinyavinsky Heights a memorial site with many different layers. These represent the collective official narrative of the Soviet Union from within the obelisk, the personal grief and memory of the wall of names, to the religious mourning and commemoration of the fallen soldiers associated with the wooden cross and Saint Nicholas.

[i] Klaus Guth, “Nikolaus von Myra”, in Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, vol. VI (Nordhausen, 1993): 915-920.

[ii] Makhotina, “Symbole,” 285. 

[iii] Glantz, Leningrad, 360–69.

[iv] Ibid, 179.

[v] Незаслуженно забытые, Ладога (, regional newspaper, Kirovsk/Leningrad Oblast, September 28, 2012 (accessed December 8, 2016).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] By observations of the author during a burial ceremony for fallen soldiers in May 2016.

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