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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

55 Years Later, Mines Besiege St. Pete




ST. PETERSBURG -- Though World War II has been over for half a century, the dangerous munitions it left behind make St. Petersburg a battleground that never sleeps.


And for Finders, a private bomb squad based in the northern capital, the search for unexploded artillery is a daily battle.


Inching his way across a future golf course site one recent afternoon with a metal detector in his hand, Nikolai Kaigorodov, a Finders specialist, found what he was looking for. Taking out a shovel, he dug down to expose an artillery shell.


"This one's not dangerous," he called out to his two colleagues who, like Kaigorodov, are former military officers. "It's already been detonated."


But in the seven days that Kaigorodov and his colleagues had been sweeping the site, they had already found a dozen deadly mines and bombs. Gesturing farther along the narrow road that winds through the Dubai golf course, Kaigorodov pointed out the large holes his team had left behind earlier in the day.


"There were anti-tank mines here earlier this morning," he said. "A heavy truck would have been blown sky-high if it had driven through here."


It is hard to imagine that this peaceful spot - with its sandy dunes and lush trees - was once the site of one of World War II's most brutal front lines. The deadly souvenirs of war still lurk underground, but there is only so much the authorities can do to protect pedestrians strolling the grounds.


"We can't cordon these dangerous areas off," said Finders President Reval Shaidulin. "We'd have to cordon off the entire region."


While leftover World War II munitions are scattered underground throughout the former Soviet Union, they are a particular problem in St. Petersburg - the site of some of the heaviest fighting in Russia when the city was blockaded by the German army for 900 days.


Thousands of German and Russian mines and bombs from the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II, remain buried throughout St. Petersburg. They become more dangerous with each spring thaw, experts say. As the ground shifts and the weather changes, these munitions eventually make their way to the surface to be found by unwitting residents.


More than 500 accidental mine explosions have been reported in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region this year alone, according to the Emergency Situations Ministry.


Although no comprehensive statistics exist, there have been at least two deaths and nearly a dozen serious injuries as a result of these unexpected explosions since the beginning of the year.The most recent fatalities occurred last month when a 17-year-old St. Petersburg girl died instantly after a shell exploded at her family's dacha. Two of the girl's friends were hospitalized with serious burns, according to Russian news reports. In the same week, one man died and two others were seriously injured after inadvertently setting off a hidden land mine in the region's Kirovsky district.


"Every spring these hidden bombs haunt the city and region," said Sergei Ganin, chief of engineering for the Ministry of Emergency Situations in St. Petersburg.


It is impossible to determine exactly how many undetonated


antipersonnel, antitank and antiaircraft mines, artillery shells and


hand grenades are buried throughout the city and region, but Ganin


says there are too many to be counted.


"Who knows how many there are? There are countless millions of them


everywhere," Ganin said.


Ganin is attempting to rid the area, once and for all, of these


dangerous sleepers. His team has deactivated 5,080 various World War II munitions in the last four years, but this is only a drop in the bucket, he says.


"It's my job to protect the people," Ganin said. "But I don't have the


manpower and the fed doesn't have the money."


"Nobody was looking for these mines and bombs," said Finders' Shaidulin, estimating that 60 to 70 percent of the Leningrad region is peppered with deadly munitions. "The ministry responds to calls from people who find them, but they don't go out and look for them. That's where we come in."


Last month Ganin's ministry submitted a plan banning all new construction in areas that may contain undetonated shells until they can determine if the area is safe. Ganin hopes to hire Finders to pick up the slack the ministry cannot handle. Backed with frightening statistics, he aims to convince the State Duma that funds must be found to deal with the problem.


But in the meantime, the government can't pay Finders' fees, and the private bomb squad gets most of its work from private companies, charging $245 per square hectare. To date Finders has swept 2,425 hectares of land and excavated 4,344 undetonated mines and unexploded munitions - including antitank, antiaircraft, and antipersonnel mines, artillery shells and bombshells.


If construction companies don't hire Finders, Shaidulin said, they risk losing their men and equipment to explosions.


"We have a professional reputation. All our employees are former army officers and highly trained experts. We've never had an accident," said Finders Vice President Pyotr Kabatov.Accidents happen to those who don't recognize the danger, Kabatov added.


"Kids like to play with these things," he said. "They find a neat artillery shell and then throw it in a bonfire or something."