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TORONTO — On an overcast November 3rd morning our delegation of thirteen Torontonians sat at a large table in the office of the Mayor of Volgograd, listening to his welcoming speech. The Mayor, Mr. V. I. Atopov, was flanked by a portrait of Lenin in inlaid wood, and a silver maquette of Mother Russia, whose famous statue crowns thc war memorial on Mamayev Hill.
Our group responded with warm thanks and the presentation of a letter of greeting and good wishes from Toronto’s Mayor Eggleton.
This moment was but one of a series of significant events during our eight-day stay in Volgograd, a city better known in the west as Stalingrad. This city was the site of a major turning point in World War II — in February 1943, the destruction of the Nazi eastern front after a 200-day siege which left the city levelled and smoking, with 40,000 civilians and nearly one million soldiers dead.
Two years of preparation had led up to this moment in the Mayor’s office and this week in Volgograd. Following the November 1982, civic election. in which 78.8% of Toronto voters had endorsed a call for efforts towards multilateral nuclear disarmament, a small group of city activists began meeting to consider ways of translating this vote into some kind of action.
After several meetings the group decided on a people-to-people overture to a Soviet city.and chose Volgograd for a number of reasons. There was a previous link with Toronto, when, in 1943, the city had collected thousands of dollars and thirty tons of clothing for the relief of Stalingrad. It was also a Soviet, rather than an Eastern bloc city, but not Moscow. Finally, this was a citv whose people understood the horrors of war, and who would have a powerful commitment never to let such carnage recur.
The idea was successfully tested on a larger group, and at a public meeting held in the fall of 1983, the Toronto/Volgograd Initiative was formally established, with a statement of purpose focussing on city-to-city links as a means of reducing global tensions.
We decided to invite one or two Volgograd citizens to Toronto to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a Toronto fund-raising and tag day for Stalingrad. A long letter describing the group and its aims and requesting two visitors was sent off in early January. 1984. The next month brought a highly successful, well-publicised visit to Toronto by retired General Alexandre Ovcharov, a hero of the battle of Stalingrad and Loudmila Kouznetsova, a chief administrator in Volgograd’s International Department of City Council (TPC, April 1984).
Lengthy discussions with Loudmila and Alexandre cleared the way for a return visit. Eight months later, despite lack of fund raising from city and federal governments, but with financial and moral support from a wide range of community groups in the city, we were in Volgograd.
It is hard to convey the warmth of our reception, from the moment when we were greeted in sunny Volgograd with bouquets of red roses from Loudmila, until our departure seven days later, when we said goodbye to some new friends.
It was clear from the start that our hosts knew we were at best a semiofficial delegation; but the red carpet was out, and both formal and informal activities — visits to schools, clinics, factories, a day-care centre, meeting with a group of people who studied and spoke English, a session with the Peace Committee, tours of the various war memorials, were charged with enthusiasm and appreciation.
We were charmed by the city — all new since the 1950s but rebuilt in 19th century style, and planned with wisdom and sensitivity — large areas of green space, comfortable boulevards, an imposing but elegant central square, our hotel on one edge, the classic Gorky theatre on another, and a promenade along the Volga banks that integrates the river with the city.
We had timed our visit to coincide with the 67 anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution, a holiday that was like a blend of Grey Cup, Thanksgiving and Remembrance Day. Our anxieties about militaristic demonstrations quickly subsided on the morning we stood with a crowd to watch half the city’s population parade by us in two great streams of about half a million people.
Certainly the soldiers led off, but they were cadets and.young recruits. There were no guns and no tanks. Jeeps followed, carrying war veterans, male and female, too frail now to walk, and behind them younger veterans marched, their medals glinting in the sun. Then came groups walking beside floats representing the city’s industry and trade union groups, school and athletic groups carrying balloons and multi-coloured banners.
We began spotting formal peace slogans, then handmade peace signs — doves, missiles broken in two, more and more of these and hordes of men, women and children, just like our peace marches only a thousandfold more. The skeptic could argue that these people were required to be there, but if it was mandatory, they were having a very good time.
Later that evening, after a gala dinner with the Mayor on his boat on the Volga, two of us sat in Loudmila’s cosy flat with her husband, her young son, Sergei, and her mother. We drank tea and watched TV coverage of the celebrations — Moscow’s Red Square, with Chernenko and cronies bundled against the chill, the whole scene bristling with military hardware. It felt surreal. Here in Loudmila’s living room after a day of joy and festivity was the familiar rendering of Soviet life — a cliche of military might clanking ominously across Red Square. This pleasant evening brought home with new force and clarity how blinkered and dangerously limited our view of the U.S.S.R. is.
Our group is home now, received by family, friends and various interested constituency groups who are excited to hear about our visit. It is sad that the discovery of such a simple truth — that the similarities between the peoples of our two cities far outweigh the differences, and that they fear war and want peace as fervently as we do — should so desperately need to be to told.
The “bottom line” question is inevitable: Yes, but what did you really achieve? It may be impossible to reach those who are convinced that we are dupes, propaganda vehicles and Commie-lovers. But we do know that the group has made close contact with some citizens of Volgograd, and has built the first span of a bridge. And we have a guarantee of continuing interaction beginning with a return delegation to Toronto in 1985.
Thirteen of us have had the experience of a lifetime, in being made so welcome by a group of people who know so clearly what really matters in life, having lived so near the edge.
We hope Torontonians will take them to their hearts as they did us. Then, who knows what might be possible!
Anne Hume is Co-Chairman, with Jim Houston, of Toronto/Volgograd.