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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Group Hunts for Soldiers State Forgot

HOLM, Western Russia -- As a retired World War II veteran, German Yakshin might spend his days tending a garden. Instead, he chooses to spend his summers digging up the remains of his fallen comrades.

Travelling to the Novgorod region from his native Kirov every summer, Yakshin returns to the battleground he defended as a soldier in the Soviet Army. Now in his 70s, the former physical education teacher is one of thousands of volunteers committed to recovering the hundredsof thousands of lost soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.

"I come here because I lived and they died," Yakshin said, digging up the remains of six Russian soldiers whose bones were found entwined with the roots of a birch tree. "I have to do this."

And he's been doing it for 10 years, having joined Dolina, the volunteer organization that was born in the 1980s after a group of locals decided it was time to dig up the estimated 300,000 Soviet soldiers who still lay where they fell more than 50 years ago.

"We have a saying here that the war is not over until the last soldier is buried," said Dolina's Alexander Kuznetsov, who led a recent search expedition near Holm, a small town 190 kilometers south of Novgorod, where much of the heaviest fighting in this region took place.

Indeed, the group's name, which means valley in Russian, refers to a particularly blood-soaked part of the region.

Stooped down on their hands and knees, Kuznetsov's volunteers uncovered a human skeleton under a shallow layer of decomposed leaves and moss f just 9 meters away from another six sets of human bones. While clouds of horseflies and mosquitoes swarmed in the thick summer heat, the Dolina team carefully retrieved the bones and placed them in a polyethylene fertilizer sack.

Of the 850,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the Novgorod region between 1941 and 1944, only a half million or so have been officially accounted for. The existence of hundreds of thousands of unburied war dead was an embarrassment for the Soviet regime, which hastily erected small war memorials along the roadsides to remind passersby that thousands of soldiers had died in the surrounding fields and forests. But they did nothing to retrieve the lost soldiers.

"The generals had already officially closed the book on this issue," said Sergei Flyugov, Dolina's founder, whose grandfather was killed during the war and his body never recovered.

So Dolina stepped in to do the job the military had not. Thousands of volunteers f many of them children and grandchildren of soldiers killed during World War II f join the summer search teams, eager to heal the wound that remains as long as so many unburied soldiers lie beneath the forest floor.

In the decade since it was officially registered, Dolina has exhumed the bones of 46,000 soldiers. Whenever possible, the search team tries to return the remains to surviving family members through the Ministry of Defense. This, however, is easier said than done.

Identification methods available to the searchers are primitive, and the sheer numbers of dead soldiers in the region makes DNA testing impractical and prohibitively expensive. Even when they can make an exact identification, locating surviving relatives is not easy. Often the most reliable means is convincing newspapers to publish the names of the soldiers that have been found and hope somebody calls to claim them.

In order to make a positive identification, the Dolina team must find the Bakelite plastic capsule that served as the Soviet equivalent of a dog tag. Soldiers were supposed to write their name, address, and next-of-kin on a rolled up slip of paper and place it in the capsule, but most neglected to do this out of superstition.

"For soldiers, it was like filling out their own death certificate, so many just left the paper slip blank," Flyugov said.

Another reason that many of the slips were left blank was illiteracy, which was still widespread in the Soviet Union in the early 1940s. Many of the Soviet soldiers simply did not know how to write their own names and addresses.

As a result, only one in a hundred of the exhumed remains are positively identified. The rest, Flyugov says, is guess work.

"The unit commanders were required to fill out battle reports every day," Flyugov said, "They would write that they attacked this or that height, and who in their unit was killed or disappeared in the fighting."The battle reports are still on file in the Russian army's central archive in Podolsk, just outside Moscow, and can be checked upon request.

"You learn that a hundred soldiers died on a certain day at a certain spot," Flyugov said, "When you find their bones you already know their last names, although you don't know whether it is Ivanov or Sidorov you are digging up."

But on this recent search expedition, Dolina got lucky. After an hour of picking through the scattered bones, Yakshin f one of the few veterans who joined the group f excitedly announced that he had found a capsule with a folded strip of paper inside.

With a group of volunteers gathered around her, Lyudmila Borodocheva, Dolina's co-chair, unravelled the mystery of the buried capsule. Using two needles and a mess tin full of water to slowly unroll the fragile paper slip, she revealed the contents the dead soldier had written more than 50 years ago: Andrei Yablokov, Red Army soldier.

Below that name was another name and address: Yablokova, Yelizaveta Ivanovna. Ivanovo region. Kudelensky village soviet, Sgorevo f the soldier's wife, Borodocheva concluded, adding that she would send a request to the Defense Ministry to help locate any surviving kin. At least for one family, she said, a long and painful chapter in history may finally come to a close.