Russia still searching for WWII dead, six decades on

9th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

"It's our duty to find and bury our heroes with honour."

Valley of Glory -- Every spring, when the ground thaws, searchers fan out across Russia's vast swamps and forests armed with metal detectors, shovels and long metal probes, scouring for bones.

Most are barely teenagers, their nails caked in the dirt of this valley west of Moscow, where up to 30,000 soldiers died before Adolf Hitler's advancing Nazi army in 1941.

While their friends gear up to celebrate the May 9 Victory Day holiday by watching the military parade on Red Square, for the volunteers here the memory of the war is stronger.

"Out here, it's worth thinking about what they did for us. If it weren't for them, we might not be here," said Nikolai Krasikov, 23, standing thigh deep in muddy water and plunging for remains.

"It's our duty to find and bury our heroes with honour."

Krasikov's grandparents were all caught up in the Soviet mobilization for what is known as the Great Patriotic War.

One grandmother survived the 30 month siege of Leningrad, where more than a million people are said to have died; the other, worked at a depot on the front.

His grandfathers were among an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens who perished in World War II. Millions more simply disappeared.

"The front for searchers with our spades and metal detectors stretches from Berlin to Moscow," said Leonid Melnikov, a colonel in the Russian army who heads a search group.

The volunteers, crouched on all fours in the marshes, painstakingly sift through clumps of dirt in the hopes of finding the tiny identity cylinders that Soviet soldiers carried.

Dressed in head-to-toe camouflage and large rubber gaiters they gave the impression of children playing in the mud, if not for a growing pile of bones: the remains of two Russian soldiers.

Five hours of searching gave up a tooth, an exploded helmet, a gas mask, bullets, leg bones, shrapnel, a pair of boots riddled with more bones and one mossy shoe.

"They say when you find a soldier, his soul is freed," said Yulia, a 17-year old studying to be an art restorer.

"My parents aren't happy I'm here, they're worried because I'm missing school. My friends: I think they're jealous, but they don't really get it," she said, straggles of red hair peaking out under her army-issue bandana.

The fields, about 140 kilometres (90 miles) west of Moscow, where the Red Army's 32nd Rifle Division held Nazi troops for 15 days in December 1941, have yielded over 600 skeletons in the last decade.

In just a few days this spring, the strip that used to be known as the Valley of Death has yielded the remains of eight men.

None have been identified and the recovered identity capsules were empty, washed clear by water and rot or, perhaps, because soldierly superstition had it that signing your name to the identity form would herald sure death.

A set of initials and a date of birth, R.A.A. 1920, scratched on the back of a wrist compass and a tube of German toothpaste were the only clues found with the scattered bones of the lost soldiers.

"For us, the war is not over until the last soldier is buried," said Vyasheslav Pirogov, 32, who has been digging for 11 years.

In the 64 years since World War II, search squads have recovered over 250,000 soldiers heaped in mass graves and still haunting Russia's vast battlefields, according to Yuri Smirnov head of the Russian Search Squads, a non-governmental group.

He estimates that between 40,000 and 60,000 people across the country volunteer for search teams, who work nearly exclusively from private donations.

Only once, in 1995, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Soviet victory over the Nazis, did the government make a small allocation, he said.

All the diggers in the valley -- a bar-tender, a cook, a police officer, teachers -- helped buy a 1,000-dollar metal detector and other equipment.

"The saddest thing for me is that this work is being carried out by children. Adults don't have any use for history, but, children, they need to live in the present," said Vyasheslav Pirogov, a professor who leads his own scout group.

The Pioneers and Komsomol, the youth wings of the Communist party, spearheaded the search for fallen soldiers in the 1960s, but searchers complained the state does not do enough.

While Moscow will hail Victory Day with great fanfare and a military parade across Red Square, searchers say they know a better way to honour the nation's defenders.

"There is patriotism in words and patriotism in action," said Smirnov. "You should just once see the tears in a grandmother's eyes when you tell her you've buried her husband or brother."

Last year, searchers buried the remains of two Soviet Yak-7 fighter pilots in Russia's northern region of Pskov in a ceremony with full military honours, the coffins draped with the Russian flag.

"I have tears in my eyes again remembering," said Nikolai Peskulov, grandson of one of the pilots, who watched the ceremony by chance on army television from his Moscow apartment.

"Our nation is very, very proud of our victory," said Nikolai's wife, Elena. "We will go to Pskov this spring to lay flowers at his grave."


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