The former Soviet Union was ravaged during the Second World War, losing nearly 27 million soldiers and civilians. The memories of World War II still run deep. This recent trip to Russia was an interesting historical journey to former Soviet cities that have been given the honorific of “Hero Cities” for the exemplary courage of their citizens.

St. Petersburg

Our trip of 28 days began in Russia’s St. Petersburg, formerly known as Leningrad. We visited the Winter Palace, Artillery Museum, and the naval fortress on Kronstadt Island.

The next day we visited the Pisarev Memorial Cemetery, Siege Museum, Victory Museum and the Blockade Museum. At St. Petersburg Naval Academy, students of the school come from as far as Vladivostok. Just across the street from the academy is the floating museum, Cruiser Aurora, whose action signaled the start of the 1917 Communist Revolution. The pristine ship is planned to be reactivated and put to use by the cadets in a few years. On the fourth morning we went to the Oranienbaum Pocket, where the Soviet Union broke through invading German lines during a 1944 invasion of the city.

Murmansk

Murmansk was the second hero city. Here, the Russians held out against Germany’s Operation Silver Fox which was an attempt to cut supply lines. Murmansk has a good Historical Museum, called Museum of the Northern Fleet, a submarine port which stays light until midnight.

Moscow

Next we took a flight to the third hero city – the capital of Russia, Moscow. At night Moscow features a fairy tale glow of lights on Russian Orthodox domes. Nazi Germany suffered its first defeat in 1941 in Moscow. The impressive Monino outdoor aviation museum features preserved aircraft from the struggle and exhibits the stories of ace pilots. In town, the Space Exploration Museum is very interactive. Although closed during our visit, the “Tagansky” secret command center is a descent of 200 feet below the street and an exciting place. A visit to Moscow would not be complete without a ride on the ornate Metro. Recently opened to foreigners, we visited the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City where the staff showed us a space station and gave us the opportunity to speak with a Russian cosmonaut.

We took a flight to Belgorod and traveled to Prokhorovka village. Here, during Germany’s retreat from Stalingrad, the biggest tank battle in history took place. Also worthy of mention are the twenty smaller “Towns of Military Glory.” At these sites there are often two groups of diggers. So-called “white diggers” are the good guys recovering bodies and artifacts of the Great Patriotic War, and “black diggers” retrieve medals and sell them. Sometimes they rob old soldiers to get the medals.

Tula

Next we drove to the remote area of the tank battles of the Kursk Curve. Here we see the Kursk Arch before boarding a train to Tula, the fourth Hero City of our trip.

Founded in 1146, Tula is one of Russia’s oldest river towns. We visited the Museum of Weapons and the remains of Russian trenches. One highlight was meeting an actual hero of the tank battle: Saveliy Ilyich – who holds many awards, including the Cavalier of the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky. With a touch of “Lost in Translation,” our guide in Tula showed us a statue dedicated to an admiral of the war with Japan. Listening carefully, I heard her say that the admiral is honored for drowning the sheep. Confused, I asked her to repeat. She meant sinking the ship. Lots of laughs ensued.

Volgograd

We caught a flight to the fifth Hero City of Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad. It’s my fourth trip to the former Stalingrad where one of the most savage and important battles of history resulted in Hitler’s first major defeat. The Panoramic Museum is most interesting and the hill memorial with the statue of Mother Russia is most memorable. We also went outside of the town to visit an impressive German cemetery.

Novorossiysk

We leave the Volga River by overnight train for Novorossiysk – the sixth Hero City. Novorossiysk is the primary port of the Black Sea and an important transit point from Kazakhstan’s oil and gas fields on the Caspian Sea. Declared a Hero City in 1973, Novorossiysk is where we go off the beaten path. On our first day, we had eight local guides – waiters and school teachers who came to practice their English. Novorossiysk was occupied by the German army in 1942. A small unit of Soviet sailors was able to defend the beachhead at Malaya Zemlya for 225 days. After visiting the port, we continued on to the memorial complex at the Valley of Death and the floating Cold War museum cruiser, Nicolay Kuznetsov. This sea port was very friendly and had great restaurants.

Kerch

The following day, we drove to Port Kavkaz and boarded a ferry to the seventh Hero City of Kerch which was almost completely destroyed in WWII. Kerch was a Hellenic settlement first founded by Greeks in the fifth century B.C. As we were now on the Crimean peninsula, we enjoyed a most scenic drive, stopping to visit Sudak Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were the first American tour group to visit. This extensive underground fortress was built by the proceeds from the sale of Alaska.

Sevastopol

On the way to the eighth Hero City, Sevastopol, we stopped by Yalta which is a busy cruise liner port today. A visit to the Livadia Palace built by Czar Nicholas II was well worth it. Built with Crimean granite, this was the site of the Yalta Conference with the Big Three – Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin – where they negotiated terms for the end of the war in 1945. The area is now the playground of wealthy Russians. On our way to Sevastopol, founded by Catherine the Great, we stopped to observe the site of the “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Next we explored a previously secret submarine base at Balaklava, recently used as a background for a James Bond movie.

Sevastopol is a Hero City where the Axis powers overran all of the Crimean peninsula except for this fortified port. We received a private tour of the new museum at Maxim Gorky 2 fortification 35 coastal battery which was a very sobering experience. The 800 MM gun, the Dora, was once used here. As we drove along the dramatic coast line, we could see the red roof of Mikail Gorbachev’s dacha where he was held during the coup that eventually brought down the Soviet Union.

Odessa

Driving to Simferopol, we take the night train to Odessa, our ninth Hero City. It is named after a Ancient Greek city that resides nearby. Going under ground into the catacombs, we saw where the Russian resistance hid and trained their fighters.

Kiev

We flew on to our next Hero City, Kiev. Kiev is another beautiful, old city full of magnificent Orthodox churches, classical architecture and whimsical statues.

Near Kiev we visit many military sites, including the site of the concentration camp of Babi Yar. Over 30,000 Jews were murdered here and thrown into the ravine. Over the course of the war, 150,000 other people were killed and dumped. On our trip we met a bus load of Israelis.

At the State Aviation Museum there are seventy aircraft and exhibits. The monuments are some of the most impressive of the tour. The War museum is amazing. Of interesting note, one of the last displays shows the instant coffee that came from the U.S. as a gift. It seems Nescafé got its start during the war. The entire museum is dedicated to the 60 million lost souls of WW2.

Minsk

The final third of our journey begins as we fly to Minsk, the 11th Hero City and capital of Belarus and the HQ of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The city is a living testimony to the atrocities of WWII; half of its population perished during the war.

The Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War is the largest of its kind in the world. Sobering is the Yama Memorial (the Ditch) that remembers the 5,000 Jews killed in 1942. We visited Stalin’s Line and spent several hours exploring the pill boxes and war materiel. Almost every month at the Stalin Line, reenactments of tank battles are held. There’s also an opportunity to fire a machine gun. Belarus is struggling to control corruption so at times it feels a little like the old Soviet state. The freeways, however, are the best in the world, and the agrarian landscape is most picturesque. I thought it was interesting to see giant bronze statues of bison –  the national symbol. Driving past well manicured private farms, we go to the memorial village of Khatyn. This was the site of the Khatyn massacre where all the residents but one perished in a Nazi reprisal. Walking around the former village you see many memorials to those that suffered, while the church bell rings periodically. It is a most sobering experience.

Brest Fortress

Proceeding near the Polish border, we took a day tour to the Brest Fortress, built by Czar Nicholas I in 1838. It was defended in 1942, earning the title of Hero-Fortress. Today it serves as a museum and memorial.

Smolensk

The night train takes us to our final Hero City of Smolensk. After our tour of historical sites, we stay at Hotel Rossia, built in 1980 in anticipation of the Olympic Games.

Afterwards we came full circle by taking a train back to Moscow, and prepare for our next destinations further east: China and North Korea. Note: We were a small group of less than six Americans. With the regular tour inclusions for 28 days less international air, the cost was $14,450 per person, with $1895 single supplement. The trip through Valor Tours of military tour fame was logistically supported by Mir Corp. in Seattle. It was possible to take the program in thirds. Our outstanding tour manager was Natalyia from St. Petersburg. The duration was twenty-nine days covering five thousand miles.

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