KURSK. For anyone familiar with the Second World War on the eastern front -- and it was in the east that the war was won and lost -- the name is as evocative as they come. It signifies a turning point in history, or at least the point where a historical shift was sealed.
But the “Battle of Kursk” never came within range of Kursk city itself. Instead, its decisive clash was fought well to the southwest, on the outskirts of the small town of Prokhorovka. The name is obscure outside Russia, but to military historians it signifies the largest and most destructive encounter in the greatest series of tank battles ever waged.
In Russia itself, Prokhorovka has attained mythic status -- perhaps not quite as prominent as the siege of Leningrad, or the heroic defense of Stalingrad, but a defining moment nonetheless. I had long been fascinated by the sheer scale and intensity of the Nazi-Soviet clash, not to mention its unparalleled importance to twentieth-century history. So when the long dreamt-of opportunity to travel through post-Soviet Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express became a reality, I knew I would have to depart from the east-west axis and make a pilgrimage to Prokhorovka in the deep south of the country, not far from the Ukrainian border.
Joining me on the journey was my Mexican lady-friend Griselda. When I somewhat hesitantly raised the idea of heading far off the beaten track, she surprised me with the enthusiasm of her response. This is a woman, I must note, who commented after our tour of the extraordinary Artillery Museum in St. Petersburg: “That was more interesting than the Hermitage” -- one of the world’s premier art collections, which we’d visited the day before. My feelings exactly. And so we were off.
OUR PILGRIMAGE BEGAN with a sixteen-hour overnight train ride across the breadth of western Russia: from St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland; passing through the ghostly Moscow suburbs at 4 a.m.; then following the rail spur southwest. We passed through rolling steppe, thick forests of ash and birch, meadows speckled with wildflowers and freshly-tilled fields of rich black soil. At last, we rumbled into the grimy industrial city of Kursk, with its imposing train station adorned with a huge map of the 1943 battle. (And with the communist hammer-and-sickle still emblazoned in bas-relief above the station entrance.)
From this point on, we were flying blind -- though fortunately not completely deaf and dumb. Griselda had been taking weekend Russian classes in Mexico City for several years now, and though she was still shaky on the more practical traveller’s vocabulary, she located a train leaving for Prokhorovka in half an hour’s time. We jumped aboard the crowded and boisterous carriage, full of villagers returning home with the spoils of their shopping trip to the big city.
The train seemed to stop every five minutes or so, whether or not there was a railway platform, or indeed any sign of human habitation, in view. After two-and-a-half hours, we pulled into Prokhorovka station.
Now what? Prokhorovka was unmentioned in our tourist guides. The one or two military-oriented tours we had located on the Internet were run from Moscow -- an overnight train to Kursk, followed by a guided tour around the battlefields with a local driver, and an overnight return to Moscow. Those tours ran into hundreds of dollars, but we were determined -- and financially obliged -- to make our own way. We had no way of knowing whether there was even a hotel in town. Images flashed before my eyes of strolling down streets of tumbledown houses, knocking on doors, asking for a night or two’s lodging with a local family. If there were even houses.
Imagine our glad surprise when we emerged from the railway station to find not only a substantial little town, but a bright and tidy one. In fact, as would become clear over the next three days, Prokhorovka is imbued with a civic zeal that surpasses almost any community of its size that I have seen in Eastern Europe. The streets are spotless; litter-bins are strategically placed every few metres in the central area; and as we walked along outlying avenues, we were struck by the block after block of freshly-mown grass at roadside.
As it happened, we wouldn’t have to be camping on those lawns. There was indeed a hotel in town, and locals directed us down a sidestreet lined with houses boasting gaily-painted fences and door jams and window frames, until ahead there loomed a wedding-cake fantasy. It was the tall spire of the Peter and Paul Monastery, destroyed in World War Two and finally rebuilt under Boris Yeltsin’s regime in the mid-1990s. And directly across from the monastery, the Hotel Projorovskoe -- almost as surreal, given our minimal expectations. Its lobby was a cool oasis of marble and lace.
I blanched slightly: surely this was beyond our means? But although rooms on the first two floors rented for up to $180 a night, there was a budget option: a slightly stuffy but perfectly functional double-room on the third floor for fifty bucks or so, hearty breakfast included. On our first night, we had a busload of Russian tourists for company. For the final two, we would be the only guests in the echoing spaces of the hotel, outnumbered at least four to one by staff who spent most of their time loitering and watching mindless programs on Russian TV.
After the blessed relief of a long shower, we supped in the hotel restaurant -- also the only one in town -- and headed out for a late-evening stroll. Half the town’s population seemed to join us for the promenade along the quiet, gently humid avenues and pedestrian plazas.
Even this preliminary reconnaissance made clear that the town shouldered a heavy weight of history. A moving memorial to the victors of Kursk, with an eternal flame burning, lay across from a museum dedicated to the battle, with children clambering over the artillery pieces parked outside. A few metres away, a memorial plaza was dedicated to the busts of Soviet generals who oversaw the campaigns in this theatre. The contrast was potent: a peaceful late-spring evening; couples ambling and pushing prams; and everywhere the mementos of the most gargantuan conflict in human history, and Prokhorovka’s pivotal place in it.
HITLER INVADED the Soviet Union in June 1941. The blitzkrieg strategy that had served the Nazis so well in the west carried their forces to the very outskirts of Moscow before they were repelled and forced to settle in for the grim Russian winter. The nadir of Soviet fortunes was reached the following year, when the Germans renewed their offensive and thrust toward the Volga river -- Russia’s life’s blood -- and to the oilfields of the Caucasus far to the south. The key strategic goal of Hitler and his generals was Stalingrad (today’s Volgograd). There, epically, the Soviets battled German forces to a savage standstill, then threw them back in a massive counterstroke. The beleaguered remnant of the German 6th army, some 90,000 starving and frostbitten troops, was captured and shipped off to Siberia. Only 6,000 survived to be repatriated to Germany in the 1950s.
But even after Stalingrad, the war see-sawed. The Germans retook Kharkov in the Ukraine, seemingly regaining the initiative. For the time being, early in 1943, the front lines congealed. Along the line bulged the Kursk salient -- held by the Soviets, but surrounded on three sides by the Germans. It was Hitler’s ambition to launch one of the pincer strikes that had served his forces so well in the first months of the war in the east, when vast numbers of Soviet soldiers were captured in great encirclement campaigns. (Over three million of them would die in German captivity: the worst Nazi atrocity after the Holocaust of the Jews.)
After the salient had been severed and the front line straightened, the Germans would be free to launch a renewed drive on Moscow and force the Soviet Union, finally and crushingly, to its knees. Had they done so, there is little doubt that Europe would have spent decades in the Nazi thrall -- perhaps even the millennium that Hitler dreamt of with his “thousand-year Reich.”
But if the strategic import of the Kursk bulge was clear to the Hitler and his commanders, it was no less obvious to Stalin and his minions. It fell to Georgi Zhukov, the war’s most brilliant general, to organize a defense of Kursk in depth. Hundreds of thousands of Russian civilians toiled feverishly to build five concentric rings around Kursk, teeming with minefields and tank traps. Behind the lines, an immense Soviet tank force gathered to meet the expected German assault on the salient -- and then, if all went well, to turn the tide and carry the battle to the hated invader.
OUR FIRST MORNING in Prokhorovka dawned bright and sunny. After a breakfast of eggs, bread, and salad, washed down with cups of chai (tea), we followed the winding country road out of town. It ran adjacent to the main highway, passing through landscapes similar to the gently undulating terrain of southern England -- but with that magnificent black earth stretching, in places, to the horizon. It was easy to imagine dust-speckled ranks of Soviet troops marching through town on their way to the front, moving inexorably closer to Prokhorovka as the German tank divisions smashed into the Soviet defensive lines.
The monument was visible from a distance. It stands on the summit of Hill 252.2, just two or three kilometres from town. This was sacred ground during the Soviet period; but the towering monument was commissioned by the Yeltsin government in the early 1990s, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Kursk. There is no mistaking its post-Soviet provenance: one of the main friezes shows soldiers kissing the hand and receiving the blessing of an Orthodox priest, which would have been taboo even in late communist times. So, too, would the religious iconography of St. George slaying the dragon -- the top frieze -- have been forbidden under the commissars. But it blended impressively with the bottom panel in the series. This depicted Marshal Zhukov astride his white horse, famously trampling a thicket of Nazi ensigns during the victory celebrations in Moscow in May 1945.
The location of the monument, and indeed the battle of Prokhorovka itself, was something of an accident. Arguably, the battle was lost to the Germans, or at least rendered inconclusive, by the failure of the tank thrust in the north of the salient, led by General Model. Launching the Kursk assault, dubbed Operation Zitadelle (Citadel), on 4 July 1943, the spearhead quickly became mired in the Soviets’ defensive rings, and penetrated no more than a few kilometres. Even had the Germans succeeded in taking the city of Kursk from the south, the Soviets would still have been able to pour reinforcements through the gap in the pincers, and resist a further drive north to link up with Model’s stranded divisions.
That in no way diminished the fury of the German assault in the south, however. The full weight of the 4th Panzer Army, under General Hoth, crashed into the Soviet defences . The 48th Panzer Corps, with nearly 500 tanks (including the new and much-vaunted Panthers), drove toward the town of Pokrovka, 25 kilometres southwest of Prokhorovka. Their intended line of advance was due north, toward the city of Oboian.
But from the outset, the Soviets met the German assault with strategies “that would endure throughout the subsequent battle,” as David Glantz and Jonathan House write in their definitive account, The Battle of Kursk (University Press of Kansas, 1999). Roughly half the Soviet tank force “functioned in a purely defensive role to grind down and blunt the forward progress of advancing German panzers,” while “the remainder struck repeatedly at the flanks of the German armored armada.” Meanwhile, hundreds of German and Soviet planes battled for control of the skies, their flaming craft falling like fireworks to the battlefield.
These carefully-prepared and coordinated strategies succeeded in stalling the Nazi drive toward Oboian. And so, on 10 July, a fateful decision was taken: a path of less resistance would be sought, aimed not at Oboian but at Prokhorovka. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the 3rd Panzer Corps, bloodied but still formidable, were directed to seize the town and move on from there, via a slightly more roundabout route, toward Kursk.
In stop-and-start fashion, hundreds of German tanks and tens of thousands of supporting infantry pushed through ravines and streams and minefields toward Prokhorovka. Soviet General Rotmistrov was dispatched with his 5th Guards Tank Army to launch a counteroffensive -- but his forces unexpectedly ran straight into the teeth of a fresh German advance, led by General von Manstein’s fabled Panzer corps.
The stage was set for the momentous clash of 11-12 July. As Glantz and House point out, the total number of tanks engaged in the battle swelled after the war, together with Prokhorovka’s mythic status. It was not the 1,200 or even 1,500 tanks of later retelling, but just under 600 that met in the chaotic series of frontal engagements around Hill 252.2 and its towering present-day monument. This still likely qualifies Prokhorovka as the biggest tank battle in history.
For those in the middle of it, it seemed as though the gates of hell had opened. But the concentration of armour worked to Soviet advantage. It negated the advantage the newest German tanks held at long range, and also made it impossible for the Luftwaffe flying above to affect the course of the battle, since they could not distinguish German tanks from Soviet amidst the chaos.
The sheer carnage of the battle is vividly captured in a huge painting hung in the small but fascinating museum on Prokhorovka’s central plaza. And it was ably described by Soviet General Rotmistrov:
“The Soviet tanks thrust into the German advanced formation at full speed and penetrated the German tank screen. The [Soviet] T-34s were knocking out [German] Tigers at extremely close range ... The tanks of both sides were in the closest possible contact. There was neither time nor room to disengage from the enemy and reform in battle order or operate in formation. ... Frequently, when a tank was hit, its ammunition and fuel blew up, and torn-off turrets were flung through the air over dozens of yards. ... Soon the whole sky was shrouded by the thick smoke of the burning wrecks. On the black, scorched earth the gutted tanks burned like torches. It was difficult to establish which side was attacking and which defending.”
Most of the burned-out tanks, and corpses, strewing the battlefield were Soviet. Entire Soviet tank corps had been shattered. But their desperate resistance had stymied the German attack; and wider developments now aided the Soviets. On the night of 9-10 July, the Allies had landed in Sicily. Hitler, starved for reserves by this point in the war, felt bound to disengage the 2nd Panzer Corps and dispatch it to confront the new threat -- even though it would take three months to get there.
That opened the door for the planned Soviet counterstrike, Operation Kutuzov, which duly began on 12 July. Within a matter of weeks, the Germans had been forced back past their original starting point, and a new frontline was formed -- straighter and more manageable, as the Nazis had hoped; but a hundred miles further west than they had envisaged. The battle of Kursk was won. Never again would the Germans mount a major offensive in the east. And less than two years later, Soviet forces would be planting the red flag on the skeletal ruins of the Reichstag in Berlin.
WE WANDER AROUND the grounds of Hill 252.2 with its imposing monument. It is not much of a hill, but in the battle every stretch of higher ground was eagerly coveted and defended to the last. It was hard to imagine, from this sunny vantage point, the bucolic fields just below teeming with tanks maneuvering in close combat, and infantrymen engaged in bitter hand-to-hand fighting.
The site swarmed with students -- schoolchildren and laughing adolescents -- enjoying an excursion from classes. We left them behind and strolled across the road to a small plaza by the railway line, where a series of Soviet tanks was arrayed. They include the T-34, the workhorse of the Kursk defense and subsequent counterassault -- considered by many the finest all-round tank of World War Two. From there, we walked two or three kilometres further down the road, to the tree-lined ridge that marked Hill 241.6. Griselda had reached her limit, but my eye was drawn to a cluster of farmhouses in the near distance. Was this, I wondered, Komsomolets State Farm, where a tenacious Soviet force had slowed the German advance before it finally sputtered out at the next ridge?
It was indeed, as we were able to confirm the next day -- zooming past the sign for the Komsomolets turnoff in a minibus. The fact that it retained its old name was striking: “Komsomolets” was the name of the Young Communist League under Soviet rule. Decommunization had proceeded apace, but only so far, it seemed -- as a silver-painted Lenin statue, standing in a quiet garden outside Prokhorovka’s gymnasium, also attested.
The minibus took us down the highway to Belgorod, the largest city in the vicinity. In 1943, this was the launching point for the German advance in the southern sector of the Kursk salient. Today it is an anonymous but prosperous-looking city, at least from what we could see out the bus window. The driver was perplexed when, rather than dismounting, we proffered a new fare and asked to return directly to Prokhorovka. “Tourists!” we announced. He shrugged, and took our money.
The return journey took scarcely 45 minutes, through terrain that the Nazis had laboured across for a full nine days. I noted the small creeks and ravines that the German tanks had sought to ford in their assault, and which served as key defensive points for the Soviets confronting them. Here and there were other reminders of the gargantuan conflict now fading into history: memorials, plaques, and at the turnoff toward Prokhorovka an actual “Stalin Organ” -- the Katyusha multiple rocket-launcher, mounted on the chassis of a Ford truck, that had terrorized German soldiers more than any other Soviet weapon.
Back in Prokhorovka, we toured the small but memorable museum devoted to the battle. Apart from its vivid mural of the clash, it included a number of Nazi mementos recovered from the battlefields. They included medals and helmets and insignia, but also the necessities of daily life: cutlery, tea-strainers, and the like.
In the basement was a larger hall with meticulously-arranged exhibits on the history of Prokhorovka. It was founded along the railway line in 1868, and the exhibits included samples of nineteenth-century peasant dress and household goods, as well as display cases devoted to postwar military history. Among the exhibits were poignant photos of a couple of young men from the town who had been drafted for service in the futile decade-long war against Afghan rebels, and had died on that foreign soil.
It was the final day of our stay, a Friday, and also the last day of classes. Boys in smart suits and girls in black dresses, with white lace bows and stockings, headed off to their graduation ceremonies. In the evening, we would be obliged to take dinner in our room, as the hotel restaurant was booked out for a rollicking high-school banquet. The ambience of youthful vivacity was appealing, and stood in marked contrast to the assumptions we had brought with us to Russia. So much of the coverage we read had emphasized the gloomy aspect of the post-Soviet period: decay, dereliction, and catastrophic demographic decline. This aspect was certainly hard to miss. A couple of hours walking around the vicinity of the main Kursk train station, for example, had presented us with bleak images of rotting physical and human resources: dilapidated and abandoned houses, crumbling apartment blocks, and drunks and vagabonds stumbling along the streets.
Here, though, was another Russia, one we were also to glimpse in the booming Siberian oil-cities later in our trip. The Soviet-era factories on Prokhorovka’s outskirts of Prokhorovka were indeed falling into disrepair; but the town itself seemed vibrant and economically prosperous, and the people healthy and spirited. The phenomenon widespread in western Russia and Siberia -- of small settlements being abandoned or turning geriatric as young people abandoned them for the large cities -- was nowhere evident.
Prokhorovka bore its heavy historical burden with dignity, but it also seemed forward-looking and optimistic. And it imbued us with something of that same spirit. It was with a measure of regret that we left the place, to continue with our main itinerary along the trans-Siberian route. Towing our bags back to the station to catch the next train to Kursk, we passed for a last time the eternal flame commemorating the town’s World War Two fallen. Wreaths had been placed against the stark socialist sculptures of the monument -- and recently, for the flowers were still fresh.
[Adam Jones, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna, BC. His first book of travel photography, Latin American Portraits, was published by The Key Publishing Co. in September 2008.]
Copyright 2008 by Adam Jones. No copyright is claimed for educational and other non-commercial use of this text and these images, if the author is credited and notified. For commercial use, please contact the author. All images are available in high-resolution format, suitable for print publication.