Pavlov’s House and Gerhard’s Mill as reminders of the devastating consequences of World War II

Anna Cherepova , Moscow, Russia

15+ years

90 mins

Abstract: The idea of this lesson is to use memorials to show the destructive consequences of war. Any material losses are accompanied by even greater and more significant human losses. Using the example of Pavlov’s House and Gerhard’s Mill in Volgograd, Russia, which were defended for almost 2 months during the Battle of Stalingrad, students will discuss the nature of heroism. The battle, which was one of the bloodiest and most brutal battles in the history of mankind, became one of the key events of World War II (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War). Pavlov’s House and Gerhard’s Mill have become symbols of the battle. During the battle, the infamous Order No. 227 “Not a step back!” was issued, the terrible consequences of which have led to contradictory assessments being made of it. Studying the same battle from the perspectives of the state, soldiers and officers is an important lesson for a multiperspective understanding of the events of World War II.

Key question: Does the state have the right to order wide-ranging physical and human sacrifices? Who should make such decisions – the authorities or the people themselves?

Learning outcomes

Students will:
  • Learn the significance of the Battle of Stalingrad and its place within World War II. 
  • Study the content of Order No. 227 “Not a step back!” and its consequences.
  • Compare two ways of preserving memorials.
  • Develop critical thinking and empathy through reading personal historical sources.
  • Reflect on human rights and the role of citizens in war and peacetime.

Pedagogical Recommendations

This lesson can be conducted both with and without a visit to the memorial sites. 

If a visit is possible it is assumed that, on the ground with a guide, students will learn that Stalingrad was the key for the Germans to the strategic oil reserves of the USSR. In addition, the geography of modern Volgograd will show that the Volga River was a natural barrier that helped the Soviet army to hold the city and not let the Germans advance further east.

If a visit to the city and memorial site is not possible, the facts mentioned above can be discussed with the use of historical maps. Most history textbooks contain enough general information about the Battle of Stalingrad to cover the main purposes of studying these issues.


To prepare for the lesson, students receive a handout that briefly describes the Battle of Stalingrad and its significance for the further events of World War II (see Appendix I).

Stage 1: Memorial observation and comparison. 20 minutes
In a brief session, the students discuss the outcomes of their preparation with a guide or the teacher. Then the lesson begins with a study of the memorials, learning about their history, and comparing the photos below. 

Pavlov’s House is an ordinary four-story residential building that turned into an impregnable fortress during the Battle of Stalingrad, which a group of Soviet soldiers held for 58 days. The house was named after the senior sergeant who took command. Marshal V. Chuikov said in his memoirs: “This small group, defending one house, destroyed more enemy soldiers than the Nazis lost during the capture of Paris.”
Ruins of Pavlov’s House in Stalingrad, USSR, 1943. Photo: Unknown, PD, Russian State Military Archive, Wikimedia Commons, File:Pavlov's_House.jpg 
Pavlov’s House memorial, Volgograd, Russia, 2013. Photo: Insider, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons, File:Дом_Павлова_03.jpg 
Gerhard's Mill is situated directly across from Pavlov’s House in central Volgograd. During the Battle of Stalingrad, Gerhard’s Mill became the final frontier, with the Soviet Red Army deterring the army of German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus on its approaches to the Volga. Fierce fighting for the mill lasted for several months: it was bombed and blown up numerous times, but the German Army failed to take it, or pass around it. The building was semi-surrounded for 58 days, during which time it sustained numerous hits from air bombs and shells. This damage can still be seen today – literally every square metre of the exterior walls was hit by shells, bullets and shrapnel, and the reinforced concrete beams on the roof were broken by direct hits from aircraft bombs. 
Gerhard’s Mill, Volgograd, Russia, 2015. Photo: Savin, A , CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons, File:May2015_Volgograd_img14_Gergardt_Mill.jpg 
Students study the photos and/or the memorials themselves and work in small groups to fill in the worksheet (see Appendix II).

Stage 2: Order No. 227 and the prerequisites for its publication. 25 minutes
At this stage, students are divided into groups and read Order No. 227 “Not a step back!” (see Appendix III). After reading, the students share their assumptions with their own groups about the reasons for Joseph Stalin to issue such an order and what consequences this order might have had. After the group work, the groups discuss their assumptions with the teacher and the class. These assumptions should be written down on the board so that everyone can see them. This will be needed for the next stage, when students will read historical sources in which they can check the assumptions made in the group work.

Stage 3: Study of historical sources. 25 minutes
Individually, students read and compare the views of Order No. 227 expressed by a writer, a Soviet officer, and a soldier (see Appendix IV). They should think about the following questions:
  1. What conclusions and reflections did the witnesses of Order No. 227 make and why?
  2. Are there any differences between them?
  3. What consequences did this order have for the soldiers?
  4. Compare your answers to questions 1 – 3 with the results of your work with Order No. 227.
Stage 4: Final discussion & reflection. 20 minutes
Finally, the teacher initiates a reflective discussion. The class should discuss two main issues:
  1. What might have forced people and soldiers to sacrifice themselves so desperately to defend the city?
  2. Did the supreme power in the country have the moral right to issue such orders as Order No. 227? What were the grounds for issuing this order? Do you think they are convincing and sufficient?
In the discussion, it is important to take into account such factors as the totalitarian regime, wartime, the factor of desertion, the importance of the region, and the danger of its conquest by Nazi troops. 

If there is time left, there can be a short discussion about the role of authorities and citizens in wartime as well as peacetime.

Finally, the teacher should sum up the lesson. The main point of the summary should be that often during a war it is ordinary people who become the victims, and victory is fashioned at their expense. It is not only the enemy who can condemn people to these sacrifices, but also the leadership of the country itself. During World War II, for example, Stalin and the Soviet leadership did not always take into account the interests of its own citizens in its actions, and instead made decisions, the consequences of which can be seen as cruel and neglectful towards human lives. Is there a moral justification for such decisions? Everyone answers this question for themselves in different ways, based on their own worldview.


Here you can find definitions for the words in bold below.
  • Barrier troops – military units that are located in the rear or on the front line (behind the main forces) to maintain military discipline, prevent the flight of servicemen from the battlefield, capture spies, saboteurs and deserters, and return troops who flee from the battlefield or lag behind their units.
  • Commissar / Commissioner – the position or title of a person vested with authority, or a member of a commission. Here, commissar refers either to a member of the NKVD or more broadly to an official working for the government.
  • Luftwaffe – the German Air Force, which was part of the German armed forces.  
  • NKVD (Russian: Наро́дный комиссариа́т вну́тренних дел) – the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Established in 1917, the agency was initially tasked with conducting regular police work and overseeing the country's prisons and labour camps in the USSR. It was responsible for the mass extrajudicial executions of citizens and conceived the GULAG network of camps.
  • Totalitarian regime – a political regime implying absolute state control over all aspects of public and private life.

Appendix I – Preparatory handout for students

Read a brief history of the Battle of Stalingrad below. While reading, please underline the sentences about:
  • The strategic significance of the Stalingrad region for both sides.
  • The results of the battle.
  • Losses incurred during the battle.
  • An evaluation of the battle compared to others throughout history.
The Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943) was a major battle on the Eastern Front of World War II during which Nazi Germany and its allies unsuccessfully fought the Soviet Union for control of the city of Stalingrad (later renamed Volgograd) in Southern Russia. The battle was marked by fierce close quarters combat and direct assaults on civilians in air raids, the epitome of urban warfare. The Battle of Stalingrad was the deadliest battle to take place during World War II and is one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, with an estimated two million total casualties. Today, the Battle of Stalingrad is universally regarded as the turning point in the European theatre of war, as it forced the German High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) to withdraw considerable military forces from other areas in occupied Europe to replace German losses on the Eastern Front. The victory at Stalingrad energised the Red Army and shifted the balance of power in the favour of the Soviets.

Stalingrad was strategically important to both sides as a major industrial and transport hub on the Volga River. Whoever controlled Stalingrad would have access to the oil fields of the Caucasus, and control of the Volga itself. Germany, already operating on dwindling fuel supplies, focused its efforts on moving deeper into Soviet territory and taking the oil fields at any cost. On 4 August, the Germans launched an offensive using the 6th Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army. The attack was supported by intense Luftwaffe bombing that reduced much of the city to rubble. The battle became one of house-to-house fighting as both sides poured reinforcements into the city. 

On 19 November, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus. The Axis flanks were overrun, and the 6th Army was cut off and surrounded in the Stalingrad region. Adolf Hitler was determined to hold the city at all costs and forbade the 6th Army from attempting a breakout; instead, attempts were made to supply it by air and to break the encirclement from the outside. The Soviets were successful in denying the Germans the ability to resupply through the air, which strained the German forces to breaking point. Nevertheless, the German forces were determined to continue their advance and heavy fighting continued for another two months. On 2 February 1943, the 6th Army, having exhausted their ammunition and food, finally capitulated, making it the first of Hitler's field armies to surrender during World War II – after five months, one week, and three days of fighting.

The losses of Germany and its allies of troops of all types amounted to more than 800,000 people (killed, wounded or captured). The total losses of the Soviet Union, according to various sources, amounted to more than a million people. 

Source: Adapted from ‘The Battle of Stalingrad’, Wikipedia, accessed 3 July 2022.

Appendix II – Observation worksheet

  Pavlov's House Gerhard's Mill
Description (what
can you see?)

Why does the
building look like

What emotions and
feelings do you get
when looking at this

Was it the right decision
to preserve the exterior
of the building?
Try to argue your point.

Appendix III – Order No. 227 handout

Read Order No. 227 below. The Order was issued on 28 July 1942 by Joseph Stalin, who was acting as the People’s Commissar of Defence. It is known for its famous line “Not a step back!” In groups, discuss what reasons Stalin might have had to issue such an order, and what consequences this order was likely to have. Please make notes, as they will be used in a class discussion afterwards.

The enemy throws new forces to the front without regard to heavy losses and penetrates deep into the Soviet Union, seizing new regions, destroying our cities and villages, and violating, plundering, and killing the Soviet people. The German invaders penetrate towards Stalingrad, to the Volga River and want at any cost to trap Kuban and Northern Caucasus, with their oil and grain. [...] Some of the Soviet troops of the Southern front, following the panic-mongers, have left many cities without resistance and without orders from Moscow, bringing shame on their banners. The people of our country, who love and respect the Red Army, are beginning to be discouraged and are losing faith in the Red Army, and many curse the Red Army for leaving our people under the yoke of the German oppressors and itself running east.

Certain unintelligent people at the front reassure themselves by saying that we can retreat further to the east, as we have a lot of territory, a lot of ground, a lot of people, and that there will always be much bread for us. They want to justify the fear at the front. But such talk is a falsehood, helpful only to our enemies. Each commander, Red Army soldier and political commissar should understand that our means are not limitless. The territory of the Soviet state is not a desert, but consists of people – workers, peasants, our fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, children. [...] We have lost more than 70 million people, more than 800 million pounds of bread annually and more than 10 million tons of metal annually. Now we do not have predominance over the Germans in human reserves, in reserves of bread. This leads to the conclusion that it is time to finish retreating. Not one step back! Such should now be our main slogan.

According to this Order, military councils of the fronts and front commanders should: [...]

a) Form within each Front between one and three (depending on the situation) penal battalions (800 persons) to which commanders and high commanders and appropriate commissars of all branches of the armed forces who have been guilty of a breach of discipline due to cowardice or vacillation will be sent and put on more difficult sectors of the front to give them an opportunity to redeem by blood their crimes against the Motherland. [...]

b) Form within the limits of each army 3 to 5 well-armed barrier detachments (up to 200 persons in each), and put them directly behind unstable divisions and require them in case of panic and scattered withdrawals of elements of the divisions to shoot panic-mongers and cowards where they stand, and thus help the honest soldiers of the division execute their duty to the Motherland; [...]

c) Render all help and support to the defensive squads of the army in their business of strengthening order and discipline in the units.

The People’s Commissioner of Defence
Joseph Stalin

Source: Stalin, J. (1942), ‘Order No. 227’, July 28, accessed 18 January 2023.

Appendix IV – Historical sources on Order No. 227

Source 1: Soviet officer
Order No. 227 is one of the strongest documents of the war years in terms of the depth of its patriotic content, the degree of emotional tension. There were many conflicting viewpoints on the Order, but it can be justified by the very harsh and alarming time during which it was issued. What attracted us most in the Order were its social and moral content.

Vasilevsky, A. (1978). A lifetime’s work. Politizdat: Moscow, p. 552.
Source 2: Writer & soviet soldier

“We... were stunned into silence for a whole hour after we read the order. I really came to my senses only a few days later in Moscow. All that time it seemed to me that time had stopped moving. Before that, the war was wound tight up like a ball of yarn, at first a tangle of misfortunes. Then, in December of ’41, this ball seemed to begin to unwind, but then it began to wind up again, like a ball of new misfortunes. And suddenly, when I read this order, everything seemed to stop. Now it seemed that in the future the course of life would be a kind of leap – either jump over or die!” 

Simonov, K. M. (1982). Different days of the war: A writer's diary. Vol. 2. 1942-1945. Khudozhestvennaya Literatura: Moscow, p. 688.
Source 3: Soviet officer
“Stalin hoped that under the threat of executions and penal battalions, the Red Army soldiers would fight harder and cause more damage to the enemy. In fact, sometimes the opposite happened. Fearing reprisals, commanders at all levels were sometimes late in ordering a withdrawal, and this led only to additional losses.”

Sokolov, B. V. (2013). The Miracle of Stalingrad. Algorithm: Moscow, p. 45.
Source 4: War veteran
“The troops went on the attack, driven by terror. Meeting with the Germans was terrible, with their machine guns and tanks, the fiery meat grinder of bombing and artillery shelling. No less terrifying was the inexorable threat of execution. In order to keep the amorphous mass of poorly trained soldiers in obedience, executions were carried out before the battle. They grabbed some puny do-gooders or those who blurted something out, or random deserters, who were always abundant enough. They lined up the whole division and summarily finished off the unfortunates. This preventive political work resulted in a fear of the NKVD and commissars – greater than a fear of the Germans. And when it came to the offensive, if you turned back, you'd get a bullet from the squad. Fear forced the soldiers to go to their deaths. This is what our wise party, the leader and organiser of our victories, counted on. They were shot, of course, after an unsuccessful battle as well. Hence the combat capability of our valiant troops. […]

The actions of the barrier troops are understandable in conditions of general discord, panic and flight, as there was, for example, at Stalingrad, at the beginning of the battle. There, with the help of cruelty, it was possible to restore order. Even then, it is difficult to justify this cruelty. But to resort to it at the end of the war before the surrender of the enemy! What monstrous stupidity that was!”

Nikulin, N. N. (2008). Memories of the war. Hermitage Museum: St. Petersburg, pp. 43-47, 231.

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