LIPOVKA, RUSSIA — In a corner of her mind, as she sliced the pickled cucumbers, quartered the roast chicken, and laid out her freshly baked piroshki last week, Alexandra Kizhykina allowed herself to hope that the feast she was preparing for a visitor would honor her father's return home.
But in her heart, she knew it would not.
Fifty-six years ago, like all the young men in this remote Russian village, Ivan Katkov set off for the war. He sent a few letters home to his wife and children - "look after our baby son," Alexandra recalls him writing - and then, in February 1942, his letters stopped arriving.
Instead, Alexandra remembers, one morning the postman brought an official notification. Red Army soldier Ivan Katkov had been declared missing in action on Feb. 3, 1942. It didn't say how; it didn't say where. That was the last that Private Katkov's wife and young daughters ever heard of him.
A thousand miles to the north, also in February 1942, another small girl in another remote Russian village watched as invading German soldiers herded 32 Soviet prisoners of war into a field near her house, and then shot them.
She watched her grown-up neighbors dig a pit and bury the bodies.
The small girl, Zinaida Stolyarova, grew up near that field in Barsuki and has lived there for the last 55 years. When she tried a couple of times to tell the authorities what it concealed, they ignored her.
Three weeks ago she told Dolina, a volunteer group dedicated to finding, documenting, and burying World War II casualties. They sent a team of investigators to Barsuki. They dug where she told them to dig, and they found what she told them they would find. Among the remains was the small capsule in which Ivan Katkov had kept the piece of paper that told the diggers, more than half a century later, whom he had been.
Neither Alexandra nor her sister, Vera Chernygina, knew any of this until June 3. Now, with a lifetime's hard work on the collective farm etched into their faces, they received the news in stunned silence. Alexandra, the elder of the two, sat stoically, almost impassively, until a single tear rolled down her cheek.
Vera, clutching a handkerchief, sobbed violently.
"We never had any idea where he might be," Alexandra said. "We thought that perhaps he might be alive, that he had been held prisoner in Germany and started a new life there with a new family."
"Mama was waiting for him, hoping he would appear from somewhere or let us know where he was," Vera added.
Mama, Nadezhda Yegorovna, died two years ago.
But the family's hopes had begun to die almost as soon as the war ended. "When everyone else came back, we stopped waiting for him," Alexandra remembered.
Lipovka, a collective farm village of log houses strung out along muddy, unpaved tracks, was home to about 400 families when the war broke out in 1941. By 1945, almost every home had lost a father, a brother, or a son; 427 Lipovka men were killed. More than a hundred of them, like Katkov, were simply reported missing in action.
Nadezhda never made any attempt to find out more about her husband's fate.
For a start, Alexandra explains, "she couldn't read or write too well," and following military-bureaucratic paper trails was beyond her. Nor would it have done her any good. The Army didn't know any more about what had happened to Private Katkov than it had said in 1942.
Instead, Nadezhda worked hard on the farm, a wheat-growing state enterprise in Russia's rich "black earth" region. By the time she retired at the age of 80, she had a breastful of gold-and-red-enamel medals honoring her heroic labor. She had even been invited to Moscow once as one of the country's outstanding collective-farm workers.
Her daughters helped her. "That war left a lot of orphans and a lot of widows," Alexandra says. So women and girls learned to do the mens' jobs - Alexandra helped to build her home - and they learned to put up with injustice.
The sisters are still bitter when they remember how, not long after the war, the government gave out extra food rations to the families of returning heroes. The families of men who did not come home were given nothing.
They were left with their memories. Vera still remembers how her father used to give her rides in the pushcart when he went to collect fodder for the family's cow.
Today, Alexandra and Vera are both widows, and the village where they grew up is shrinking. Few young people stay on the farm nowadays, barely half the homes in Lipovka are inhabited; the village schoolroom is half empty.
The knowledge of her father's fate is painful, but welcome nonetheless. "It's bad news, of course," Alexandra says. "But it's better to know that he is dead and buried."
Soviet World War II Losses Touched Every Family
Two generations later, World War II still scars the Russian consciousness in ways Westerners barely comprehend.
And for good reason.
The casualty figures are appalling enough just as digits. But they represent a human loss to almost every home in the Soviet Union, and often more than one.
Accurate figures on total number of Soviet losses in the war do not exist.
The numbers reflect the latest estimates made by the government after Soviet secrecy laws were rescinded:
* About 27 million Soviet citizens died in World War II. Of them, 15.6 million were civilians.
* About 11.4 million Soviet soldiers perished. Some 3.4 million of them were missing in action, like Pvt. Ivan Katkov (see story at left and above).
* By comparison, total US losses, all military, ran to 405,400. The British lost 306,000 soldiers and 60,600 civilians.
* 3.25 million German soldiers were killed, 2.35 million German civilians died.
* Three out of every 4 soldiers who died in World War II were Soviets. More than 25 percent of them have never been identified.
* Sources: The Russian Military Encyclopedia; The World War II Data Book