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Russians Dig Through Past in Search of Fallen World War II Soldiers

Hundreds of volunteers scour country’s western regions for bones of the missing

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This article originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal

ZUI, Russia—Every spring, Sergei Osipov and a few dozen companions set out into the fields and forests here to dig for a macabre harvest: They turn the soggy clay earth for bones that lie just beneath the surface—remains of Soviet soldiers killed in battles with Nazi German forces.

<figcaption>Misha Korolyov (right) and his father, Vladimir, treat last month the exhumed remains of a Soviet soldier who fell in World War II near the Russian town of Rzhev | Photo: Dmitry Beliakov, The Wall Street Journal</figcaption>
Misha Korolyov (right) and his father, Vladimir, treat last month the exhumed remains of a Soviet soldier who fell in World War II near the Russian town of Rzhev | Photo: Dmitry Beliakov, The Wall Street Journal

“Our grandfathers are lying all around here in this earth. We can’t forget them,” says 53-year-old Mr. Osipov, a builder who is also the commander of a volunteer search brigade called “Eagle.”

Seventy years after the end of World War II, the memory of the Great Patriotic War, as it is known here, is palpable. The Soviet Union lost more than 20 million soldiers and citizens in the conflict, historians say. Around two million remain missing in action, compared with around 74,000 U.S. military personnel still unaccounted for from the war.

Hundreds of volunteers scour Russia’s western regions every year for bones of missing soldiers. Some are buried in mass graves; others lie where they fell in foxholes, forests and bogs, sometimes encaged in the carcasses of their crashed fighter planes. Search brigades’ pages on social media are covered with pleas to “help find grandpa.”

“The war isn’t over until the last soldier is buried,” says Mr. Osipov, quoting an 18th-century Russian general.

Those memories have now been projected onto Moscow’s standoff with the West over Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin has portrayed his policies as patriotic defiance against a malevolent aggressor; Russian officials and state television decry Ukrainian government forces as “fascists”; and pro-Russian separatists have adopted as their symbol the black-and-orange St. George’s ribbon, promoted in recent years as a sign of the Soviet victory.

The Kremlin is planning a triumphant parade of military hardware Saturday to commemorate Victory Day and demonstrate a Russia unbowed in the face of Western sanctions. Western leaders aren’t attending the event, irking Russians who feel their country’s contribution to the victory is undervalued.

“It’s offensive,” Mr. Osipov says of the snub. “We freed the whole territory from fascists, and now we are occupiers? They are rewriting everything.”

The war has particular resonance around Rzhev, a town of some 60,000 people located 100 miles west of Moscow. After repelling the German attack on the capital in late 1941, Soviet commanders threw wave after wave of troops against an enemy salient around this railway hub. Historians say the Soviet army suffered two million casualties in just over a year of battles known as “the Rzhev meat grinder,” as many as half of them dead, missing or taken prisoner. Allied armies led by the U.S. and the U.K. suffered 225,000 casualties in the Battle for Normandy in France in 1944.

“There’s no family here that didn’t lose someone,” says Valery Smirnov, a 50-year-old regional-government official in Rzhev.

The town is filled with reminders of the battles. Monuments and cemeteries containing thousands of remains are dotted around the town and surrounding villages. Wedding couples traditionally visit the eternal flame near the obelisk to the town’s liberators that overlooks the Volga River. The school year starts with a “lesson of remembrance.”

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Volunteer searchers relax after a long day of digging for World War II soldiers' remains in April near the Russian town of Rzhev | Photo: Dmitry Beliakov, The Wall Street Journal

Search brigades mushroomed at the end of the 1980s during glasnost, when people began talking openly about the scale of Soviet losses, which had long been concealed. Losses were especially high around Rzhev, as the Germans were well dug in and mowed down waves of poorly trained and supported Soviet infantry, historians say.

For many, the search is fueled by personal loss.Sergei Petukhov, who heads a search brigade in Rzhev and has been looking for remains for over 20 years, lost both grandfathers in the war, one of them near the town.

“I suppose I hoped to find him,” he says. “I still hope now.”

Villagers often buried fallen soldiers in mass graves in fields, sometimes moving them to larger sites after the war “as people wouldn’t plant seeds among graves,” said Galina Ivanova, a 59-year-old who runs a museum in a village near Rzhev.

Mr. Osipov’s Eagle brigade is working in the fields and forests to the southwest of Rzhev. Tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers broke through German lines in the area in early 1942 but were then cut off and suffered enormous losses.

Locals started more actively searching for remains around 15 years ago, when they stumbled across the bones of a so-called “surface soldier,” who had lain, mostly visible, where he fell for more than 50 years, says Vladimir Korolyov, a 56-year-old farmer and member of the group.

This year, they are have set up camp several miles from the nearest habitation in search of the remains of 150 soldiers buried in two mass graves. They are guided by a decades-old letter to village authorities from locals who described the graves as just south of the main road of the village of Zui, which was abandoned in the 1970s. The searchers rely on locals such as Mr. Korolyov to direct their work, and this year have support from a group that drove 1,500 miles in a bus from Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic that lost thousands around Rzhev.

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A scene near the Russian town of Rzhev during World War II after it was ravaged in a series of fierce battles between Soviet soldiers and Nazi German forces | Photo: Sovfoto/Getty Images

On a sunny afternoon late last month, the searchers pushed metal probes into the soft, wet ground to feel for remains. They say they can feel the difference between stone, metal and bone, which breaks on the second prod.

At the hint of a find, they started to dig, uncovering a rusted Soviet helmet, the barrel of a rifle and a couple of grenades in what was probably a trench. Two days earlier, they uncovered a skeleton hunched in a foxhole with a bullet between its shoulder blades and scorch marks on the bones.

Volunteers try to put names to the bones. Some soldiers carried plastic capsules containing paper with their details, although often they didn’t write anything out of superstition. Sometimes the engine number of an airplane or an engraving on a spoon or watch provides a name. But most of the remains can’t be identified.

“It’s hellish work, but who else will do it?” Mr. Korolyov says. “It’s in our blood. It’s our memory.”

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