Of the three Soviet Memorials in Berlin, the Sowjetisches Ehrenmal in Treptower Park, located just southeast of Central Berlin, is the grande dame. One cannot help but be impressed with the monumental proportions of this solemn memorial to the Soviet soldiers who gave their lives attacking and conquering Berlin in the closing days of World War II.
The complex is half a kilometer long and is always kept in pristine condition (thanks to it being the responsibility of the federal, and not the city, government), even when it’s being restored (which, with the German tradition of thoroughness, takes ages). The two entrances opposite each other, identical arches approaching the center axis from either side, let one know that one is entering a monument to heroes, and that everything written will be in Russian and German. Once at the center of the entrance, a Kollwitz-esque Mother Russia mourns her fallen sons. There is almost always a fresh flower—of unknown but regular origin—at her feet.
From Mother Russia, a lightly inclining path (an architectural trick to inspire awe) lined with weeping birch trees (an incredibly effective mood evoker) leads to the gates of the inner sanctum. The gates, shaped like red flags draped in mourning, are rumored to be clad in marble salvaged from Adolf Hitler’s Chancellory. Though the truth of this cannot be confirmed, during the first restoration after unification, each piece of marble was carefully removed, numbered, and treated like a first-degree relic until it was put back in place. In front of each flag is a kneeling Soviet soldier—a rare sight as most depictions of Soviet soldiers are in victory poses. Passing them, one stands on the balcony of the inner sanctum, with an all-encompassing view of the remaining jewels of the memorial.
The inner sanctum consists of five symbolic square graves capped with laurel crowns, eight white marble ‘sarcophagi’ on each side and like an altar at the far end, a hero-mound crowned with a statue of a Soviet soldier. (The actual graves of approximately 7,000 unknown soldiers are on the sides, not in the center, of the complex.)
There are eight different sarcophagi, with exact copies repeated on each side. Each sarcophagus has two reliefs telling the story of the Great Patriotic War in pictures (much like ancient churches used pictures in stained glass to tell the stories of the Bible), and a quote from Josef Stalin. The quotes are in Russian on the left side sarcophagi and translated into German on the right side sarcophagi. Interestingly, with the sarcophagi facing opposite directions on each side of the memorial and them being exact copies (except for the translated quotes), the order of the pictures is slightly different, with the reliefs not being switched to the other side.
The crown jewel of the memorial is the statue of the Soviet soldier atop a Rus-inspired hero-mound grave (the Rus were the ancient ancestors of today’s Russians) at the far end. The depiction of the virile, proud Russian soldier is full of symbolism. He is destroying a swastika with his sword, while holding a young girl who symbolize the innocent German folk being “saved” by the Red Army. Whether the post-war German folk should be considered as innocent as a small child will be discussed and debated ad infinitum, but it was a de facto post-war concept which allowed for the rebuilding of Europe and the acceptance and/or rehabilitation of millions of ‘non-guilty’ people.
Worth noting is the fresco inside the base of the statue (after climbing the steps) and above all, the ceiling over it. One needs to kneel to see it, possibly a trick to get visitors to kneel, but it is well worth it. Again here there are always fresh flowers just inside the gate.
Know Before You Go
The Soviet Memorial is a short walk through Treptower Park from the Treptower Park S-bahn Station. The memorial grounds open at 10 a.m. and close at 1 a.m.
There is usually plenty of free parking at either entrance, but on days when the park is crowded, parking on the Alt-Treptow side is recommended.