Today, we visit a really big statue. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I recently did a program about the battle of
Stalingrad, the most terrible single battle ever
fought in any war. Since then, that event, entirely too
large to grasp in one piece, has hovered in my mind --
bits and pieces of it resurfacing like old photos. The
city was seemingly destroyed, and, after Stalin fell into
disgrace, not even its name survives.
But it's alive and well today -- now a city of over a
million people along the Volga River, surrounded by the
high plains called the Steppe. The battle see-sawed over
an area of thousands of square miles, but its focal point
was Mamayev Hill, a small rise behind old Stalingrad. The
city was renamed Volgograd in 1961, and a major memorial
was built there. It stretches up the hill, culminating in
a vast concrete statue of a woman, called
This is the largest statue of a full human figure ever
made. Motherland rises 270 feet from her feet to the tip
of her ninety-foot long stainless-steel sword. That's
almost twice the height of our Statue of Liberty. This is
Communist art at its best, but Communist art nonetheless.
Motherland's powerful body is draped in a windblown
diaphanous gown. She looks over her shoulder shouting to
the Russian people -- telling them that they can move
only forward. Her arms spread out in a gesture that takes
in the whole nation. The people walking on the path below
her look like ants. She takes your breath away.
Motherland was designed by sculptor Yevgeni Vuchetich,
perhaps the major sculptor to produce this sort of grand
statement -- both impersonal and emotionally overwhelming
at the same time. The work was finished in 1967 under
It was a time when the Russian economy was deteriorating.
Today, cynics in Volgograd call the great statue,
Brezhnev's Auntie. And, like much post-war Soviet
concrete work, this is faring badly. High winds, and a
huge seasonal temperature variation, are taking their
toll. Water has been found its way into small cracks,
frozen, and widened them into large fissures. After a
scant 35 years, she's already in grave danger of breaking
And so a nation in economic trouble searches for funds to
do major repairs upon the vast monument -- this lady
moving through a twilight zone between art and
propaganda. Younger visitors, in its shadow below, say,
"Gee-whiz, she's big!" Older visitors, who know the
sacrifices made in this place, react with tears in their
eyes. The Soviet Union saved not only herself at
Stalingrad; she did much to save the other Allied nations
After the war, Mamayev Hill was loose dirt, devoid of any
vegetation. Every handful included metal fragments. New
construction still encounters skeletal remains. And we're
left to wonder what people will see, if this enormous
lady, sword in hand, is still calling heroes to ugly
deaths, a hundred years from now.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.