Column by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
I believe that every traveller has a “places to see before I die” list. One of the places on my list for many years has been Volgograd, Russia (formerly Stalingrad). If the name sounds familiar, there’s a sad reason why. A terrorist attack at a train station took place in the city just before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
I’ve been interested in Russia for many years. It began in public school when my classmates and I were first introduced to Canada’s role in the wars of the 20th century. During those lessons, we learned about the contributions of our allies in the western front, and the war on Russian soil in the east. That interest in history turned to fascination about Russia as I read about its role in the the Second World War in high school, in particular the bloody battle at Stalingrad.
The story of this battle, made famous by the movie Enemy at the Gates, is a story of raw courage and human suffering on a scale that defies belief. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed in the battle either from direct fighting, bombs, starvation or the brutally frigid weather. According to HistoryofRussia.org, the German military initially committed 270,000 men, 3,000 artillery pieces, 500 tanks and 600 aircraft to the battle. The Soviet defenders had available 187,000 men, 2,200 artillery pieces, 400 tanks and 300 aircraft. It is estimated that the German army lost more than 750,000 men, who were killed, missing or wounded. Archives record that the Soviet army, by comparison, lost 478,741 men (killed or missing) and 650,878 wounded.
It was at the Battle of Stalingrad where the Red Army was able to cut off and strangle the life out of the German 6th Army, dealing Adolf Hitler the first of several defeats leading to the end of the war.
Everyone’s “things to do before I die” list is different. We get our inspiration to travel from our own interests, finding knowledge about a place and then imagining ourselves there. I’ve imagined myself on Mamayev Kurgan and at Pavlov’s House, two points of heavy fighting that were saturated in blood by the end of the war. And I’ve imagined myself inside the touching Volgograd State Panoramic Museum, which features artifacts and art detailing what life was like in the city during the fighting. It’s always been a dream of mine to visit Russia because, besides being a history buff, I’ve always found the story of Russia strange and interesting. Even now as an adult, I never could understand why Canada and Russia were never closer friends politically, given that during one of the worst moments in history we had in fact been on the same side fighting against a common enemy.
But sadly, it is a dream that will remain unfulfilled, at least for the time being. As much as I would love to visit this culturally rich country and learn more about its dynamic people and natural wonders, I just can’t. As much as I would like to be Russia’s friend, I just can’t. Because as responsible tourists, I believe we must always strive to avoid supporting any government that engages in repressive behaviour against its people or its neighbours. Russia’s behaviour in 2014 has been deplorable, and the only correct thing to do is reject an immoral government that has chosen to flaunt international law.
Russia Invades Ukraine, Seizes Crimea
On February 27, just a day after Ukraine named ministers for a new government following the removal of president Viktor Yanukovych and just days after the Olympics, Russia put 150,000 troops on high alert. The invasion of Crimea was in full swing by March 2, with Russian forces tightening their grip on the peninsula. Ukraine estimates that Moscow has already deployed up to 30,000 troops in Crimea. This week, Russia’s parliament approved the annexation of Crimea. (see a full timeline of events on Reuters.com).
I understand that there is history in the region and there is a vortex of politics at play, but unilaterally invading a country and breaking off a chunk of it is simply unacceptable — especially after signing an agreement in 1994 saying it wouldn’t do so.
Perhaps if this had been a one-time occurrence it would be easier to digest, but the fact is Russian president Vladimir Putin has a shameful record when it comes to just about everything. He has never hesitated to put political rivals behind bars, even going as far as jailing the protest band Pussy Riot. Putin has never won a fair and open election in his life, and don’t even get me started with the Olympics. Seriously, $9.4 billion for a road to Sochi? That’s more than the budget of the entire 2010 Vancouver Games, and I’m sure not one penny of that money went into the hands of ordinary Russians.
The irony, of course, is that if Russia had chosen to engage with Ukraine in a less heavy-handed and manipulative manner in the past, I’m sure the Kremlin wouldn’t feel a need to deal with the nation in a heavy-handed way now. Putin can blame the western world all he wants, but the fact is Ukraine isn’t the only former Soviet “friend” that wants distance from Russia.
For a while, it looked like things were improving after the cold war. Russia’s relationship with Canada certainly warmed up. Canada International says bilateral trade relations with Russia have expanded significantly over the last decade with Canadian merchandise exports increasing more than eight times over — from $179 million in 1999 to $1.5 billion in 2011 — making Russia the 19th most important merchandise export market for Canada. Canada also exchanges services with Russia: exports of $254 million and imports of $419 million in 2009. For the first time in years, it had become easier for Canadians to visit Russia (a single entry for a Russian visa is $75, $130 for a double entry).
As far as travel is concerned, many Canadians jumped at the chance to see St. Petersburg with its outstanding nightlife and museums, and the sights and sounds of historic Moscow with its world-class entertainment, like the Bolshoi Ballet, and historic attractions. There was so much hope for a better relationship with an open and progressive Russia. Now this.
We Must Send Russia A Message
I’m putting my plans to visit Russia on the back burner and I advise you to do the same, but I have no delusions that this is going to make a difference.
The Canadian Tourism Commission, which markets our country abroad, doesn’t have an office in Russia. And according to Statistics Canada, Russia didn’t even break the top 15 foreign countries visited by Canadians in 2012. It’s clear the Russians don’t depend on Canadians for tourist dollars. So I realize my cry to avoid Russia isn’t going to have a huge impact.
It is however the very least that we can do for the people of Ukraine, several of whom have already been killed. Their crime? Demanding something we in Canada enjoy everyday — a democratically elected government that is accountable to the people. The right to stand up to a leader who isn’t being honest. The ability to run their own affairs without outside meddling. The freedom to choose their own path without being invaded.
Perhaps one day I will be able to travel to a Russia that doesn’t discriminate, fix elections, bully and invade. Perhaps one day Russians will take a hard look at the memorials at Volgograd and remember a time not that long ago when their own freedom hung in the balance. Perhaps one day Russians will remember who they are, what they have to offer the world, change their ways and challenge their leaders to become true, productive, honest and transparent partners in the world community.
Soon after that day I’ll visit Volgograd, check out the Panoramic Museum, celebrate Russian culture and city nightlife, and remove one of my to-do’s permanently from my list. But until that day, I’ll be spending my tourist dollars elsewhere. And I think you should too.