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Panfilov Park by Christopher Robbins

In it stands the Russian Orthodox cathedral, a rococo confection of yellow-and-white stuccoed wood. Built in 1904, it is one of the few buildings to have survived the earthquake that destroyed most of the town in 1911, perhaps because it was so expertly pegged by master carpenters - there is not a nail in it. Closed by the communists after the Revolution, it was used first as an officers' club, then as a museum, until after independence it was restored in all its glory as a place of worship.

Inside the cathedral each of a score of icons attracted its cluster of devotees who lit cheap candles that sizzled and hissed like sausages in a pan. Mass was well attended. A small army of clergy - there must have been twenty bearded priests in vestments of crimson and gold - emerged from mysterious doors, swinging censers full of incense, while a hidden choir sang from the beautiful repertoire of Russian religious music.

Apart from the cathedral, the other great feature of the park - from which it takes its name - is a monumental bronze memorial dedicated to the memory of soldiers of the Panfilov Division who took part in an action in 1941 credited with helping to save Moscow from being overrun by the Germans. While antiquated Kazakh artillery pounded the Nazis, wounded soldiers armed only with bottles of petrol rolled under tanks. In this way a brigade of 28 soldiers and sappers managed to destroy 47 tanks. Only three men survived.

The memorial to this display of courage is in the Socialist Realist style and portrays the men as giant angry gods, brandishing grenades and bayonets. They seem monstrous and inhuman, an impossible, propagandist breed of Soviet supermen who glower down upon an alley of black polished marble at the end of which burns an eternal flame. The monument is greatly revered by the Kazakhs who have their wedding pictures taken in front of it.

General Panfilov had seen action in the First World War, and had been sent to Kazakhstan to form a division at the beginning of what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War. More than a million Kazakhs served in the Red Army. The Panfilov Division was multi-ethnic, but mostly made up of Kazakhs, and it was known as the Wild Division because it was from the east. The men were poorly armed, scarcely trained and taught to fight with tractors rather than tanks. They were also prepared to expect the worst. The Kazakh second lieutenant, Baurjan Momysh-Uly, who led the battalion that destroyed so many German tanks, had decided before the battle that if his men were overrun he would kill all his wounded so that they would not fall into the hands of the enemy, and then kill himself.

I walked back through Panfilov Park and stopped to take another look at the memorial. It now seemed a mockery of the men involved. The monsters in bronze dwarfed the slight forms of the Kazakhs having their photos taken. It struck me that the courage displayed by the poorly armed and scruffy band of Kazakhs who helped save Moscow was altogether more ragged and human. The brute heroics portrayed by the figures in the memorial suggest the mechanical fearlessness of cartoon superheroes rather than the strength of character of soldiers running on empty - men who are scared, hungry and exhausted but who fight to the end. The Kazakhs possessed the day-to-day, around-the-clock, two-in-the-morning bravery that really does make heroes out of ordinary men. Perhaps the true memorial should be a statue of a gaunt soldier in a threadbare overcoat with a Molotov cocktail in his hand. But then, I don't suppose many people would want to have their photos taken beside him.

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins