Forever associated with the Battle of Stalingrad, Volgograd is today a pleasant, bustling port set alongside the Volga. Running parallel to Europe’s mightest river, the local Metrotram calls at the gigantic statue on Mamayev Kurgan, built to commemorate the bloodiest battle in human history.
Overshadowed by the Call to the Motherland, the next stop along is Central Stadium, serving the renamed Volgograd Arena, rebuilt to stage four matches at the 2018 World Cup, including England’s opening group game against Tunisia.
Everywhere you look are reminders of the momentous events of 1942-43 that claimed the lives of nearly two million. Even the city name frequently reverts back to Stalingrad – those here for the following game, Iceland-Nigeria on June 22, will notice this as it coincides with one of nine war-time anniversaries for which ‘Volgograd’ is dropped.
Football in Volgograd is only rarely treated with such reverence. Flagship club Rotor are currently waiting on a decision from the authorities as to whether the financial instability of other clubs will allow the Blue & Sky Blues to continue in the second flight after finishing in a relegation spot in May 2018.
Rotor’s one night of glory took place in Manchester, in 1995, when the club was enjoying its one brief period of relative success. Twice league runners-up, UEFA Cup competitors for four seasons in five, Rotor had taken a 0-0 scoreline to Old Trafford when they went into a shock 2-0 lead after 25 minutes. United then threw everything at the Russians, who held out until the 89th minute when goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel ran up to claim an equaliser. Away goals got Rotor over the line.
Football began in what was then Tsaritsyn in the late 1800s, when employees at the Nobel oil factory – whose main base was across the nearby Caspian Sea in Baku – played pick-up games. A pitch was created by the train tracks – the railway, trams and street lighting had all come relatively early to this industrious port.
Railway workers, factory men and schools all had teams but it wasn’t until after the Russian Revolution that a more organised set-up saw the creation of a club attached to the tractor plant, along with a modest ground equipped with wooden stands. Traktor have direct links to today’s Rotor, who give 1929 as their foundation date.
Matches were played against factory rivals Red October and teams from Astrakhan and Krasnodar. A Stalingrad city XI took part in the Volga Games and sundry friendlies.
Traktor made the Soviet top division, its fit, swift forwards gaining the club fourth place in 1939 and catching the eye of Moscow clubs – until a signed declaration from Stalin forbade their transfers.
After 1941, players took part in the defence of their city. On May 2 1943, with Stalingrad little but rubble, a morale-boosting football match was organised at the Azot factory south of the city – the only place capable of hosting it. Players from Spartak Moscow somehow flew down to Volgograd, where a ‘Dynamo’ side had been formed from surviving members of Traktor and Red October. The attendance figure of 10,000 might be ambitious – but such is the legend of the event that memorial matches have since been played in its honour. In 2013, 10,500 gathered at the Central Stadium for another ‘Ruins of Stalingrad’ game, Rotor drawing 3-3 with Spartak.
Planned in the 1930s, interrupted by war then the mass urban rebuilding after it, the Central Stadium dates back to 1958, when work started on the site of a former oil depot by the Volga. Builders, factory workers and some 100,000 Young Communists then laboured for four years, knocking down warehouses and factory buildings. On September 27 1962, Konstantin Belikov, veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad and participant in the original war-time match, whistled for two teams to kick off in the new stadium. The former Traktor defender officiated as Lev Yashin kept a clean sheet and the USSR beat an Olympic XI 1-0.
During Rotor’s purple patch, visitors here included Manchester United, Bordeaux and Lazio but the club’s financial collapse in 2005 and subsequent representation by reserve side Rotor-2 saw crowds dwindle to three figures.
In a complex merger also involving nearly $5 million of state backing, an FC Rotor were revived but have failed to regain top-flight status.
Volgograd’s symbolic status as ‘Hero City’ helped its inclusion as a World Cup venue for 2018. In 2014, the Central Stadium was knocked down and, eventually, the Volgograd Arena arose in its place. Opened with a Rotor league game in April 2018, it can accommodate 45,000 spectators, its façade featuring decorative nods to war-time victory. High above, dramatically illuminated when the sun sets, the statue of the Motherland wields her mighty sword.
Volgograd International Airport is 15km (nine miles) north-west of town.
Marshrutka minibus No.6 (28r/£0.33, pay on board) makes regular runs to the ulitsa Tulaka bus concourse, actually on ulitsa 25 Letiya Oktyabrya, outside the city centre. The southern terminus of the Metrotram (23r/£0.27, pay on board), Yel’shanka, is about 500 metres away, with the stadium another eight stops through the centre of Volgograd.
Alternatively, frequent bus 6 (25r/£0.30, pay on board) goes to central Alleya Geroyev near the main train station and Komsomolskaya on the Metrotram line closer to the stadium.
Airport-recommended Bonjour Taxis charges over 1,000r/£12 into town but a firm such as Taxi Saturn (+7 844 2400 400), based near the stadium, should be cheaper. Note that Volgograd is 50 miles long from end to end, its centre ranged along the Volga, so taxi journeys across town can be lengthy.
The main railway and bus stations are 500 metres apart at the southern end of town. Russian Railways runs four trains a day from Moscow, journey times 18-24hrs.
Volgograd has no official tourist or accommodation information resource.
The nearest hotel to the stadium is the Hilton Garden Inn just across the park at prospekt Lenina 56A, with 157 rooms, a gym and restaurant. Availability during the World Cup only starts once the circus has left town.
Right by the railway station, the Park Inn by Radisson is another large well equipped international chain, but with availability in June from around 8,500r/£101. Reasonably close at ulitsa Imeni Rokossovskogo 7, the Hotel Gallery Park is upscale mid-range, amenities including a spa, sauna, pool and billiard room. Availability in June is very limited but you might want to pop in for the Greenwich Pub and big screen.
Close to the bus station, the 100-room Inturist at ulitsa Mira 14 offers old-school hospitality in the better sense of the word – although you’ll be hard pushed to find a bed in June.
Close by, the classic Hotel Volgograd was built in 1890 and revamped in 1955 and 2015. It still has a few rooms available in June, starting at 8,800r/£105. In its time, the Volgograd has hosted a theatre, a caviar market and, in 1918, Joseph Stalin. Today’s attractions are a small sauna, pool and French restaurant.
A cheaper option near a scattering of bars, the Yuzhniy (Raboche-Krestyanskaya 18), has reasonable availability in June but a minimum two-night policy, 12,750r/£152 all-in with breakfast for the whole stay.
Bars and restaurants cluster around little hubs in the city centre. One is ulitsa Sovetskaya, around the junction with Komsomolskaya, where the German-style Bamberg serves its own house pils, dark and wheat brews, providing also quality pub food, TV football and live music. Just across Komsomolskaya, Bochka (‘Barrel’) is in similar vein, also with live games. At Sovetskaya 13, Porter puts the gastro into gastropub but has a TV too.
This is right by the Alley of Heroes (Alleya Geroev) where the Fan Zone will be – and also where you’ll find the Turman Pub, with TV football.
At the Krasnoznamenskaya end of Sovetskaya, the popular Svejk is another honest beerhall with televised action.
For outdoor drinking, terrace bars by the Children’s City Park are central and convivial. Here is where you find the Volgograd branch of the Russia-wide sports pub chain Harat’s and, next to it, the pleasant but football-free Edem. By the Drama Theatre, the Bar & Grill specialises in quality steaks and quality vodkas.
The other hub is further south, between the Yuzhnyi and Hampton by Hilton hotels. Here, the Doubler Pub (Raboche-Krestyanskaya 14) offers great bar food, TV sport and global beers until 2am every night. Across Profsoyuznaya, Killfish makes no bones about its cheap drink offers – it’s a nationwide chain, a Slav version of Wetherspoons without the spoons.
Nearby towards Akademicheskaya ulitsa, Poneslos strips things down to basics: beer, live music, football, food. On the same street at No.8, Draft Craft is slightly more hipster, with a TV amid the ale ads.