Honouring the Soviet soldiers who died in the Second World War was obviously of huge importance to Joseph Stalin – in Berlin alone there are 4 memorials, one of which is the Soviet War Memorial in Schönholzer Heide (Das Sowjetische Ehrenmal in der Schönholzer Heide). It may not be as centrally located as the Soviet War Memorial on Strasse des 17 Juni or as jaw-droppingly vast as the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park but it is an impressive monument to the fallen soldiers nonetheless.
Plans to construct the Soviet war memorials in Berlin were conceived soon after the end of the war and a group of Soviet architects – Konstantin A. Soloviev, M. Belarnzew, WD Koroljew – and the sculptor Ivan G. Perschudtschew were given the task of creating the memorial in Schönholz.
Construction of the memorial and cemetery – 13,200 of the approximately 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin are buried here – took place between May 1947 and November 1949 over an area of around 27,500 m2.
Set in the walls flanking the memorial are 100 plaques bearing the name, rank and year of birth of each of the 2647 soldiers it was possible to identify.
When I first made the journey to Schönholz in the North Berlin district of Pankow the memorial was closed for renovations – metal fences barred access to the grounds but I resolved to return.
The memorial was closed between early 2011 and August 2013 during which time 10.35 million Euros was spent cleaning, renovating and installing new security systems.
I returned to the Soviet War Memorial in Schönholzer Heide on a sunny afternoon soon after it reopened on the 13 August 2013.
The entrance is flanked by two granite pillars topped with a bronze sculpture of an eternal flame and bearing a wreath. From here, an avenue of lime trees leads to the memorial grounds.
I paused at the red granite gatehouses bearing bronze reliefs depicting victorious soldiers and the soviet people grieving the loss of loved ones, along with the insignia of the Soviet military branches.
Having walked the length of the grounds to the focal points of the memorial, the Statue of Mother Russia and the 33.5m high Obelisk, I sat on the steps to enjoy the peace and quiet.
As I sat there waiting for the moment I could take a photo looking back to the entrance without people in it, I watched as a woman lifted her toddler onto the plinth of the statue of Mother Russia, where the child proceeded to beat the cast bronze.
The same woman then dropped the cigarette she had been smoking and crushed it on the ground under her foot, where she left it.
Whilst I was still shaking my head at her lack of respect, a couple arrived with their dog, off its lead, running around on the grass above the bodies of the Russian soldiers.
Thankfully, my visit and my faith in human nature were rescued by another visitor and what turned out to be a magic Berlin moment. As I sat there an elderly gentleman approached me and asked if I speak Russian.
When I explained that I don’t, Wolfgang introduced himself in German and went on to tell me about his personal connection to the memorial.
Wolfgang had fought during the war and spent the 4 years from 1945 to 1949 in a Russian prison in Volta outside Moscow as a Prisoner of War. He lives 30 minutes walk from the War Memorial and visits often to say thank you to the dead soldiers there who gave their lives to end the war. He came empty handed on the day I met him but he explained that he often brings flowers from his garden.
Wolfgang then told me a little of his life after the war living in East Berlin with his wife and 2 children.
We discussed the peacefulness of the memorial, the horror and stupidity of war and the uniqueness of Berlin – ‘ich liebe Berlin’, Wolfgang told me often.
I can’t promise you’ll meet Wolfgang if you visit the Soviet War Memorial in Schönholzer Heide but there are plenty of symbolic touches in the monument and grounds that will lead to the contemplation of the human cost of the war and the Soviet army’s losses in the Battle of Berlin in particular.