Russian Volunteers Search For War's Forgotten Heroes
MORE THAN 3 MILLION MISSING
SOPKI, RUSSIA — The aluminum canteen, torn by shrapnel and now mossy with age, lay undisturbed on the forest floor. Beside it sat a brown, Soviet military-issue enamel mug, a little rainwater gathered at the bottom.
Vitaly Gusev dropped to his knees, cut away the fresh spring undergrowth with his hunting knife, and delicately peeled back a thin carpet of leaf mold and roots. There, darkened and dissolved by time and damp, lay the remains of a Soviet soldier, stretched out where he had fallen dead, more than 50 years ago.
Mr. Gusev, an unemployed truck driver who lives nearby in the northern province of Novgorod, belongs to an unusual band of men and women seeking to discover what happened to World War II Russians whom the rest of society forgot generations ago. They dedicate much of their spare time to finding, identifying if they can, and burying the remains of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
The scale of their task is monumental.
"We estimate that 850,000 Soviet troops died during the war in Novgorod Province, but there are only 530,000 names on the official burial lists," says Sergei Flyugov, head of Dolina, an organization coordinating the searchers. "That leaves 320,000 men in this region alone who never found graves."
More than half a century later, there is little left by which to know them. As Gusev and his colleagues sifted through the black soil, still cold from winter, they picked from among the scattered human bones a couple of corroded hand grenades, a belt buckle, a knife and spoon, and a 20 kopeck coin, dated 1939.
Suddenly, one of the searchers whooped with excitement and held up the prize they had all been hoping for - an olive-drab screw-top Bakelite capsule. This was the Soviet version of a dog tag; inside should be a twist of paper with the soldier's name, rank, and address.
Once opened, though, it was found to be empty. A collective sigh of disappointment deflated Vitaly and his friends. Yet another soldier had condemned himself to eternal anonymity by his superstition - commonly held during the war - that it brought bad luck to fill in a form that would be needed only posthumously.
Finding Private Katkov
But sometimes the searchers succeed. The day before, as the head of a team of young men from Kazakstan, Gleb Chugunov, had found a perfectly preserved identity form filled out in the careful pencil script of "Red Army Soldier Katkov, Ivan Alexandrovich."
The Central Army Archives should have records of Private Katkov's relatives. Mr. Chugunov hopes to be able to find any sons or daughters the soldier had, to give them belated news of their father's fate.
But Dolina's hunters find a legible ID form with only one body in a hundred.
Dolina, the Russian word for "valley," was founded in 1988, taking its name from the "Valley of Death," a narrow passage through the bogs of northern Novgorod where scores of thousands of men were killed in a particularly catastrophic Soviet military operation in 1942.
A Russian killing field
In nine years of work - spring, summer, and autumn - in the swamps and forests that surround the ancient town of Novgorod, Dolina searchers have found and buried 47,000 soldiers.
Before the group was launched, Mr. Flyugov says, hardly anybody cared.
Scavengers have combed the forests for personal gain since the war ended.
In the early years, locals gathered scrap copper wire from abandoned weapons and sold it to the government. Later, military-souvenir hunters came to dig up graves and to sell medals or helmets to collectors.
But "there were too many corpses and too few people left alive in this region to bury them," Flyugov explains. The Soviet government simply had ignored the issue.
The problem is especially troublesome in Novgorod, where the Soviet Army finally managed to stem the German blitzkrieg in the autumn of 1941 and held the line for 30 months of constant and brutal combat along the front.
But wherever fighting was intense on Soviet soil during World War II, men remain unburied. Overall, the Red Army lost more than 3 million men listed as missing in action, whose fate remains a mystery.
'This is a debt'
"This is a debt we have to repay," Flyugov says of his organization's burial work. "I believe that the lack of morality in Russia today, the lack of spirituality, is partly rooted in the fact that we did not bury our defenders. Their comrades couldn't; their sons didn't. Now it is the grandchildren who are doing the job."
"It's romantic, of course," says Larissa Lipatova, a trainee teacher.
"And it's interesting to find out more about the war," chimes in Alexei Pesotsky, a welder from Kazakstan. "Once you start doing this, you keep coming back."
A mood of camaraderie was evident among the searchers as groups of them walked through the mixed forest of silver birch and pine, one or two sweeping simple metal detectors before them, the rest armed only with primitive iron spikes on poles with which to test for objects beneath the soil.
Asking local residents for their advice on the best places to look - older people remember from their childhood where the fighting was heaviest, and hunters know where they have seen bones disturbed by animals - Dolina searchers go into the forest for two weeks at a time. They appear not to mind too much about the discomforts of camping, living on bucketfuls of borscht and potato stew.
They are also used to the potential dangers. The pretty white wood anemones that carpet the forest in springtime grow over an astonishing scrap yard of the war. In just one afternoon, Gusev and his colleagues collected an unexploded 155-mm howitzer shell, two artillery-launched mines, and several live hand grenades.
Throwing this kind of ordnance into the campfire is part of the attraction for some of the younger searchers.
As Flyugov concedes, "We do have a problem balancing people's tremendous enthusiasm and the need for discipline."
But all sorts of people join Dolina's search, for all sorts of reasons.
"Someone has got to do this," says Alexander Volkhov, a young power-station worker from Kazakstan.
"The 312th division was raised in Kazakstan and fought on this front."
For Chugunov, a journalist on his 15th expedition here, it is a matter of exploring his country's real history.
'We can get at the truth'
"Our history books were written by men sitting at desks with an ideological purpose," he complains.
"Here in the forest, we can get at the truth" of how the Red Army fought and died, he says.
German Yakshin, a wiry World War II veteran, knows that truth personally.
Mr. Yakshin fought near here, laying field radio cables for an artillery brigade.
He has come back each spring for the past nine years for a simple reason.
"All I know is that these guys were my comrades," he says. "They need to be buried. And you always have to do your best for your comrades."