The „good old days“ — Zaporizhzhia 2003

What a tender-sounding name for a city that couldn’t be more brittle! Apartment blocks of gray, crumbling concrete along a double-lane taxiway, Lenin Prospekt. Neglected, weed-covered green spaces that are not urban luxury but steppe remnants. Here, on the lower reaches of the Dnieper, the new Russia had begun, ordered by Stalin to catch up in a decade with what Western Europe had had more than a century to achieve – industrialization. For the communist visionaries, the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, with the water power of its rivers and its mineral resources, the manganese ore mines of Nikopol, the iron ore mines of Krivoy-Rog, the coal basins and iron districts of the Donets, became the Promised Land of progress. In Zaporozhye, at the end of the twenties, a miracle of technology was created in the form of a power station. Under the waters of the reservoir disappeared the thirteen rapids, notorious since ancient times, which Catherine’s flotilla had also had to overcome on its way to the Black Sea. (They were described as a chain of rocks, some of which were at the level of the water, the others protruding above it, forming various waterfalls and cascades with a deafening noise. The Prince of Potemkin, who organized the Tsarina’s boat trip to the Black Sea in 1787, had hired as boatmen Zaporozhian Cossacks who knew the river. He originally wanted to send the whole fleet across the rapids, but the tsarina insisted on a test. From the shore, the traveling party watched as three ships of various sizes ventured through. They rocked violently and plunged deep into the water, but took no damage. Catherine had seen enough, she ordered to continue the journey by horse and carriage).

The Cossack Museum

Zaporozhye received the visitor (2003) in a ground-level building, the Cossack Museum, whose special feature were the illuminated, semicircular panoramic paintings. One of them showed the construction site of the power plant as a seething, smoking, steaming witch’s kitchen of technology. The dam wall had been brought forward from the background on the right, where it appeared small and distant, compressed in perspective and set against the sky as a modern Tower of Babel. Staggered scaffolding, half-finished construction sections above yawning depth created the illusion of space. The viewer seems to be standing on a freshly concreted platform, looking into the drained riverbed of the Dnieper, from which billows of steam rise. Tiny people swarm around the cranes and locomotives. Everything seems cheerful and light. The workers, whether they are laying pipes, driving piles, or carrying loads, move with the elegance of dancers. In the center of the picture, women with shovels form a well-composed semicircle into which an iron tub of concrete is being lowered by a crane. They are painted, with short, tight-fitting skirts over their boots, in enticing poses. Work is Eros, was the message. In reality, it was hard labor under grueling conditions. But the goal was achieved: in 1932, the power plant went online.

Construction site of the power plant. (Foto Sybil Wagener)

The museum with its low, poorly ventilated rooms looked like a former bunker in which window openings had been sawn. On the opposite side of the entrance hall, where children in school uniforms gathered, a kind of loophole led to a second panorama: a night battle; apparently the recapture of Ukraine by the Red Army in 1943. Blue-lit wrecks of German tanks in the foreground, flaklight fingers on the black-blue horizon, black and compact in between a cluster of houses: some city, Kharkov or Kremenchug or Zaporozhye or Dnepropetrovsk or Kiev. All of them had been conquered by the Wehrmacht in 1941 and were recaptured by the Red Army in 1943. White smoke, red smoke, yellow light from explosions. Soldiers with round caps and fluttering coats run as silhouettes behind T-34 tanks away from the viewer towards the center…

Local history, obviously, with a visual preface and epilogue. The museum tour begins with the industrialization of Ukraine through the construction of the power plant and ends with the victory over fascism. In between, visitors are led along showcases with shimmering gold grave goods that come from Scythian princely tombs. Daggers, saddles, fur caps, harem pants are the illustrative material for the history of the Zaporozhian Sec, the legendary Cossack state. Thus, Ukrainian schoolchildren learn that their ancestors were Scythians and Cossacks and that Ukrainian history was not written in Moscow – which was the official doctrine until 1991, and even beyond.

At the beginning of the war in 1941, Stalin had ordered that the industrial plants, Hitler’s first priority war objective, be dismantled as completely as possible. Not a single wagon, not a single locomotive, not a kilo of grain, not a liter of fuel was to fall into the hands of the enemy. Already at the beginning of August 1941, the evacuation of the tube factory in Dnipropetrovsk had begun. Then came the turn of the Zaporozhye steelworks. Unnoticed by German defenses, during the nights between July and November 1941, over a thousand industrial plants rolled eastward and were rebuilt in the Urals, Western Siberia, and Kazakhstan. The workforces were conscripted into service and evacuated as well. Subsequently, destruction battalions of the Red Army and the NKVD set about destroying everything that could not be removed. Instead of intact mines and functioning industrial plants, the Germans found only rubble. Hitler’s plan to decisively weaken Russia by taking away its industrial centers had failed. Just one year later, the Soviet Union, out of reach of the Luftwaffe, was to produce more armaments than the German Reich. – Admittedly, this scorched earth policy also left the Ukrainian civilian population without resources.

October saw the beginning of the long and harsh continental winter, for which the Wehrmacht was not prepared, since Hitler had expected a „blitzkrieg“ like the one in France. The military authorities tried to get industry and trade going again in the army’s rear area, especially to produce winter clothing and boots for the soldiers. Since the craftsmen and workers in the cities had been recruited largely from the Jewish inhabitants, who had made up between one-third and one-half of the population, their systematic extermination meant the disappearance of entire trades. The first protests consequently came from business circles; they were not of a moral nature. The armaments inspector for the Ukraine, Lieutenant General Hans Leykauf, wrote on December 2, 1941: „If we shoot the Jews to death, let the prisoners of war perish, hand over a considerable part of the population of the big cities to starvation, and in the coming year we will also lose a part of the rural population to starvation, the question remains unanswered: Who should actually produce economic values here. “ 1 This was not a humanitarian but an economic argument, which nevertheless did not change the minds of the Reich leadership.

1 Letter from the Ukraine Armaments Inspector, Lieutenant General Hans Leykauf, to the Chief of the Wehrwirtschafts- und Rüstungsamt in the OKW, General der Inf. Thomas, dated 2.12.1941. In: Überschär/Wette, Der deutsche Überfall auf die Sowjetunion, Ffm 1991, pp. 338/39.