Businessman, author and pollster Lord Ashcroft describes his cruise deep into the Russian waterways on board his 50 metre Hakvoort superyacht
It is the city that will never be allowed to forget its savage past. Although it is 75 years since the end of the Second World War, the bitter, close- quarter fighting that took place in Volgograd from the summer of 1942 through to the winter of 1943 is still easily recalled by the city’s residents, young and old. Soldiers on both sides fought not just street to street, but cellar to cellar, and even sewer to sewer. It was 200 days that the Germans called the “Battle of the Rats”, but you might know it by a different name: Stalingrad.
I have always been fascinated by Russian history. In 2017, we became one of the first foreign-flagged yachts to complete the journey through the infamous White Sea-Baltic Canal, built with slave labour and opened in 1933, travelling from St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea to Belomorsk on the White Sea. At the end of that epic adventure, I vowed to return to Russian waters sooner rather than later, and in the summer of 2019 I seized the opportunity.
Our route back into the country would take us from Georgia in the Black Sea, through the Sea of Azov and deep into Russia’s waterways all the way to Volgograd (the city was renamed in 1961, eight years after Stalin’s death), where I could experience first-hand the city so bitterly fought over by Hitler and Stalin, and learn more about the battle that swung the war for the Allies.
For this second journey through Russian waters, I chose a route that was equally as challenging as my 2017 experience and would require a significant modification to our 50-metre Hakvoort: its mast would have to be reduced in height by almost one-and-a-half metres to permit it to pass under the lowest bridges on our journey. The work took place at a shipyard in Spain, taking three weeks as it involved the temporary relocation of radar and communication equipment. After the cruise, the mast was restored to its original design.
The key to a successful and enjoyable cruise in Russia and other former Soviet Union countries is meticulous preparation. The captain, working with a specialist travel agent, had spent a whole year looking into the details of our cruise to make sure there were no unwelcome surprises along the way. Not only did we have to to get hold of Russian charts, but they often needed to be translated into English too.
Tensions between some former Soviet countries were, and still are, running high and we knew that if we accidentally strayed into contested military areas, out of the safety of international waters, it could lead to our arrest or seizure. Once again, we employed the services of Igor, our Russian pilot who was indispensable for my 2017 cruise because of his local knowledge and good command of English. Our four-week cruise began in Batumi, Georgia’s third-largest city and a coastal port on the Black Sea. Surrounded by mountains and with its main streets lined with mature palm trees, Batumi is a vibrant city of contrasting architecture: its classical 19th-century buildings could hardly be more different from its modern skyscrapers, hotels and casinos – Batumi is the region’s gambling capital.
We departed the city in darkness at 10pm on a warm evening in early July, knowing it would be only a matter of hours before we encountered the first of many potential hazards. Abkhazia is a self-proclaimed sovereign state (since the 1990s), recognised by Russia and a handful of other countries, but not by the wider international community, particularly Georgia, which still claims the area as part of its territory.
As with all foreign vessels, this meant we had to keep at least 12 nautical miles from land, a shame since we knew that Abkhazia’s rugged coastline was beautiful and that its beaches were once a popular destination for yacht owners. Just to be sure there was no “misunderstanding” over our position from rival Russian and Georgian warships, our captain insisted that we kept fully 15 nautical miles from land at all times and so we passed through the area without incident. After a stunning sunrise, we were greeted the next day, and several other days, by a pod of short-beaked common dolphins, which I learnt are abundant in the Black Sea. There are few more majestic sights than 20 dolphins leaping out of the water within yards of a yacht.
That night, after starting our customs clearance process, we docked at the Russian port of Sochi. Affectionately known as the summer capital of Russia, the city of nearly 500,000 people had streets bustling with tourists enjoying a perfect day of warm weather and blue skies. It was here, too, that we picked up Igor, our Russian guide for the rest of our journey. I spent my day in Sochi touring the Olympic Park, including the magnificent Bolshoy Ice Dome which was designed to resemble a frozen water droplet. I was also driven up into the Krasnaya mountain area, where I enjoyed spectacular scenery: in summer, snow-capped peaks loom above three world-class ski resorts.
Two days later, after a 113-nautical-mile night cruise, we berthed at Novorossiysk, a major Black Sea port and our final stop-off before the Kerch Strait. Here, an eccentric local Russian guide took me on a tour of the city where another brutal Second World War battle was fought: the giant Malaya Zemlya (Little Earth) Memorial pays tribute to a key military victory on 4 February 1943 that paved the way for the liberation of the city from German occupation.
We left Novorossiysk in a thunderstorm for our 260-mile cruise to Rostov-on-Don. Here, our orders from the Russian authorities were to keep within 12 nautical miles of the coast, and we could hear loud firing from military exercises nearby. We sensed that Big Brother was watching us as we approached the disputed Crimea territory that Russia annexed from Ukraine. As we neared the Kerch Strait, the shipping lanes got busier and we enjoyed the spectacular sight of the Kerch Strait (or Crimean) Bridge, the longest bridge in Russia at more than 17 kilometres. In fact, two parallel bridges were built by Russia for vehicles and trains to span the Kerch Strait after the 2014 annexation.
After exiting the Strait, which is 35 kilometres long but less than three kilometres wide in some parts, we followed our route in convoy style along dredged channels. The Sea of Azov is shallow with an average depth of seven metres. Where the silt is built up at its worst, the depth drops to just a metre, meaning the prospect of being grounded is a very real one. Igor remained constantly at the helm, communicating with other vessels and land- based local authorities in his native language. It is a busy shipping lane too, with cargo vessels moving grain, fuel and other raw materials, and with strict speed restrictions in force. By the time we reached Rostov-on-Don, we were five days into our journey. As the name suggests, the city lies on the River Don, the fifth-longest river in Europe. Here the topography was much flatter than we had seen in Sochi and the city was more commercial.
After another spectacular sunrise the next morning, we soon entered the Volga-Don Canal. Opened in 1952, the 101-kilometre waterway is a masterpiece of Soviet engineering and it links the River Don to the River Volga at their closest points. It has 13 purpose-built locks and goes through three large reservoirs. Like the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Volga-Don Canal only opened recently to foreign-flagged vessels. Some 17 nautical miles after our first lock, we tied up at the town of Konstantinovsk because the crew were in need of rest after a 14-hour journey. The yacht attracted a great deal of attention from the friendly locals, who were clearly not used to seeing many foreign-flagged leisure vessels.
The next day, with just six locks left to tackle, we approached Volgograd, which lies on the River Volga. The final lock was inscribed in Russian: “With gratitude to the Soviet people who built communism.” At nearly 3,600 kilometres, the Volga is the longest river in Europe and drains into the Caspian Sea. I had arranged to stay in Volgograd for five days – much longer than my typical stop-offs but I was convinced that there would be so much to see and do. As a result of my interest in Russian history, I had read widely about the battle for Stalingrad but I wanted to see for myself the location for the relentless fighting that undoubtedly changed the course of the Second World War when the German advance through Russia was finally brought to an end. I had enjoyed Antony Beevor’s splendid book Stalingrad, but I still wanted to fill in some gaps.
The refusal of the Russians to surrender when they were overwhelmed and outnumbered showed astonishing resilience and, as someone who admires and champions bravery (including amassing the world’s largest collection of Victoria Cross gallantry medals), I wanted to understand the layout of the city at the time of the battle.
On arriving in Volgograd, I was able to acquire the services of two local historians who showed me where and how the German Sixth Army, under the command of General Friedrich Paulus, had approached the city. We visited the riverside house that Paulus had sequestrated as his office and accommodation for the duration of much of the battle, as well as his military headquarters in the heart of what was then Stalingrad. Our visit to the State Panorama Museum enabled me to understand – through giant paintings, photographs, drawings and film – the brutal conditions that both the local population and the German invaders endured. The life expectancy of Russian troops entering the battle was just 24 hours, while locals were reduced to sucking lumps of clay pulled from the riverbank to ease hunger pains as conditions deteriorated.
The scale of The Motherland Calls at Mamayev Kurgan, Volgograd’s highest point, has to be seen to be believed. Dedicated in 1967, the 85-metre statue is the tallest in Europe, and a memorial to the heroes of the battle. At the time it was constructed, the goddess-like figure wielding a sword was the tallest statue in the world. At the Stalingrad Museum, I saw the ceremonial longsword that King George VI had commissioned in honour of the defenders of the city. It was presented to Joseph Stalin by Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943 and is inscribed with the words: “To the steel-hearted citizens of Stalingrad. The gift of King George VI. In token of the homage of the British people.”
From 23 August 1942 to 2 February 1943, there were an estimated two million casualties in what turned out to be not just the bloodiest but also the most strategically decisive battle of the Second World War. After its defeat, Germany never again regained the initiative and was eventually defeated by the Allies two years later. After five days in Volgograd, it was time to retrace our steps back down the rivers Volga and Don and the Volga-Don Canal, ending at Anapa, a Russian town on the northern coast of the Black Sea. My 26-day adventure was at an end after 1,353 nautical miles and a total of 36 locks.
My gratitude goes out to our captain, pilot and crew for coping so calmly and professionally with any number of potential hazards and pitfalls: it was an experience that I will never forget. My appetite for adventure remains unsated: in 2018, between my two Russian trips, I visited Svalbard, the archipelago between Norway and the North Pole. During that cruise, we achieved the highest latitude ever known for a superyacht. We reached 81 degrees 46.45 minutes north, just 493 nautical miles from the North Pole.
I am already looking on a world map to choose an interesting and remote location for my next adventure. However, wherever I end up, it will undoubtedly struggle to compete with Stalingrad for the sheer brutality of its history. As one German officer wrote in 1942 of the embattled city: “Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure.” Not for nothing do they say that modern-day Volgograd is the city built on human bones.
Lord Ashcroft is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For more information on his work, visit lordashcroft.com. Follow him on Twitter @LordAshcroft