A War Story

by Jesse Lillefjeld

Along the Karl Marxa Prospekt in Dnepropetrovsk still within view of a westward facing T-34 mounted up on a large concrete pedestal is the Діорама «Битва за Дніпро», the Diorama for the battle for the Dnepr. The diorama is adjacent to the museum of regional history and culture, and interesting juxtaposition to say the least. The combination is appropriate for a state that is in the process of creating a cohesive national narrative. It seems that war patriotism in any form is acceptable in a place that is currently undergoing a renaming-frenzy. Dnepropetrovsk, Sverdlovsk, Ekatarinslav, the city itself and its streets are unsure of what to call themselves. Despite all of this, the soviet era monument to the battle of the Dnepr in the fall of 1943, a massive month long struggle that involved over four million combatants, is a well-maintained soviet-modernist building. Outside of the building stands an array of wartime equipment and vehicles, all painted in that ubiquitous red army pond water green.

A T-34 Tank as it was used during World War 2

Inside the lobby to the diorama is a flora and fauna expo with several long tables cluttered with various types of plants in bloom that stands in contrast to the fifteen meter long bronze relief depicting several valiant red army variations of Homo Sovieticus. The curator sits behind a small dark wooden desk with a cashiers box and a glass pointer that is neatly placed on the desk. After registering our group and collecting the nominal fee of 10 Hryvna, she picks up the pointer and calmly and firmly points the way up the wide but dimly lit stairs. Beside the stairwell is a large sculpture of a kneeling helmet red army soldier, with his hands stretched outward, as if to welcome us to solemnly honor those like him. The antechamber to the diorama is a sort of mix between a flea market, and the collection of a black digger. Rusted relics of German and Soviet weaponry and field equipment are placed closely together to capture the attention of the guest and to make them not look behind at the diorama until asked to do so. Either side of the collection stands silent mannequins, to the left, the east, two red army soldiers, man and woman. To the right, west, a Waffen-SS soldier decorated with awards on his chest and an iron cross ribbon in his buttonhole. Next to the red army soldiers there is a large wall mounted glass map depicting the five soviet army fronts in sweeping attack arrows down towards and around Dnepropetrovsk. Our curator stands curtly to the side and with practiced measured meter describes the heroic events of the battle, neatly pointing out each front and the timeline like a classroom teacher explaining an arithmetic lesson. One ventures to guess how long she has been telling the same story, she doesn’t falter or hesitate at any moment. Perhaps the only addition to the well-practiced speech is that of the five red army fronts, two of them were Ukrainian fronts and therefore the losses and glory belong to the Ukrainians. She fails to note that the fronts were organized by geographic location and not by ethnic composition, but that would detract from the delivery. After finishing the speech she instructs us to turn around and walk into the diorama. She notes to wait until after the presentation before taking pictures, not to interrupt the experience.

Walking into the dimly lit room one realizes quickly that one is up on a sort of terrace with the debris of a battlefield all around and below, representing rocky landscape long the bank of the Dnepr. Looking up and all around is a 230 degree canvas that puts the viewer in the perspective of looking south as the Red army advances from the east bank to the west bank of the Dnepr. Thousands of red army men are depicted in heroic advance against the enemy. Strafing Yak fighters, knocked out Panther tanks, wounded men, smashed anti tank guns, planes, and assault craft overwhelm the senses. Just as the eyes begin to adjust and take in all of the massive detail a solemn and pensive orchestral piece comes on the speakers. Shostakovich? One cannot say, but it adds a decisive mood to the viewing. The piece ends and then a short historic radio speech about the battle is played. Afterwards our curator tells us about the dimensions of the diorama, the largest of its type in the Ukraine and was first opened in 1975. It took the famous artists MJ Booth and M. Ovechkin two years to complete and it covers a space of 900 square meters. As we seem to have reached our saturation point for concisely recited facts about its grand proportion, she kindly ushers us on our way.

„Debris of a battlefield“ – the war diorama of Dnipropetrowsk

The Diorama seems to still be a well-visited attraction for tourists and locals alike, and it celebrates the bravery of ordinary Ukrainians, something that is of a valuable national currency these days. War patriotism is healthy and alive in Dnepropetrovsk, even if it is at a memorial where the current enemy is depicted as your erstwhile comrade at arms.

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