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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Presumed Dead for 30 Years Over Love Letter

MTWorld War II veteran Vladimir Kashtanov playing his accordion on Monday. He has been married for 58 years to a woman who wrote to him in the hospital.
Vladimir Kashtanov put the photograph in an envelope and sealed it. He thought his girlfriend would be impressed to see him in Vienna. He was 20 and handsome in his khaki Soviet Army uniform.

His girlfriend never got the letter. In fact, it led some of his friends to believe he was dead for decades.

"I didn't know I had been buried by many who knew me," said Kashtanov, who is now 82.

Kashtanov still feels a sense of surprise that he made it out of World War II alive. He eagerly shared his memories in his two-room Moscow apartment -- memories that grow stronger every year around May 9, the Victory Day anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Kashtanov said he arrived in newly liberated Vienna in late April 1945 for what turned out to be a 10-day stay for his unit. A young lieutenant, he lived in an apartment with an orderly, Alexei Moroz, or Lyoshka, as he called him.

In the evenings they gathered in a square next to the Austrian parliament, where Kashtanov played his accordion. The square was always packed with Austrian women, singing and dancing with the Soviet soldiers, Kashtanov said. He said the women liked to listen to him play the Russian folk song "Katyusha," while he enjoyed learning to play their "Rosamunda," the war-era hit also known as the "Beer Barrel Polka."

But the evening he wrote the letter to his girlfriend, Masha, he did not go out to the square. He slipped a recent photo of himself into the envelope and asked Moroz to mail it for him.

Moroz put the envelope into the pocket of his uniform and left. Just an hour later, their unit received urgent orders to fly to Prague for an offensive operation against Nazi troops there.

Hours later, Kashtanov and Moroz parachuted into the countryside outside Prague, following a procedure they had repeated many times over the past two years in Russia, Belarus, Austria and Romania. The trouble started after they hit the ground, Kashtanov said.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Kashtanov will play "Rosamunda" as he celebrates Victory Day this year.
The soldiers came under fierce fire as they moved toward Prague. Kashtanov said he remembered little about the fighting other than a flash of blinding light when a shell exploded near him on the third day.

"I just remember that blood came out of my head. Nothing more except the date: May 8, 1945," Kashtanov said.

He woke up three days later in a makeshift hospital in a school in the southern Czech town of Sobeslav. He was in shell shock, with 12 pieces of shrapnel lodged in his face and body. Worse, he could not see a thing.

The doctor ordered his right eye removed and promised that vision would return to the other eye eventually.

His words were of small comfort to Kashtanov, who said he spent a month in the hospital bed unable to see. He said he worried that Masha would no longer love him if he was blind. He could not understand why she had not replied to the letter with the photograph from Vienna.

"Lyoshka must have let her know that I am here," Kashtanov said he thought.

Kashtanov had met Masha while on a short leave in Kaliningrad in 1944. They fell in love but were soon separated when he was sent back to the front.

Kashtanov's older brother came to Sobeslav to take him home to Borisoglebsk, in the Voronezh region. The brother advised him, however, to go on to Moscow and continue with his studies. "You need to think of your future," he said. "You may lose your sight some day. Get an education to give you a strong academic background."

Kashtanov entered a law school in Moscow.

A year passed, and he finally received a letter from Masha. The words of the letter are burned into his memory. "I shed so many tears because of you," she wrote. "If you wanted to break up with me, why didn't you just tell me? But you asked your friends to write to me that you were dead. They wrote that you were almost torn apart by a shell and that there was a letter with a photograph in your pocket. And now you are alive!"

Only then did Kashtanov realize why Masha had never written and why he had heard nothing from Moroz.

Kashtanov wrote to Masha, explaining what had happened. She never replied.

Kashtanov learned years later that other soldiers in his unit, including his commander, still believed he was dead. He spotted a war veteran wearing the badge of his division during Victory Day festivities in Moscow in 1975, and he went over to talk. The man started telling him about what had happened to the other members of their unit. "Kashtanov perished near Prague. He was a really brave fellow," the man said.

He was astonished when Kashtanov identified himself.

Word quickly got around that Kashtanov was alive, and his telephone began ringing as former comrades called, he said.

His former commander, Colonel Nikolai Popov, delivered the news in a glowing report on state radio.

"We thought for more than 30 years that we had lost one of the best lieutenants in our division when we tried to reach Prague," Popov said, according to a copy of his remarks that he gave to Kashtanov. "But now we know that he is alive, and not only is he alive, but he has found the strength to get a good education and make something of himself."

Kashtanov graduated from law school with honors and served for many years as a judge in what is now Moscow's Central District. Although he has a glass eye, he never lost his sight in the other eye.

While in the Czech hospital, Kashtanov received a letter from a former classmate, Nina, who wrote that she missed him. During one of his visits home to Borisoglebsk after the war, he asked Nina to marry him. "All the girls in our class liked him, and each time I met his mother on the street [during the war], I would ask her, 'How is Volodya?'" Nina Kashtanova said Monday. When his mother told her that he had been hospitalized, she wrote him the letter. Last November, the couple celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary. They have one son, a French and German language instructor who is now retired.

On Victory Day this Wednesday, Kashtanov will gather with other veterans in Gorky Park. He said he would also will bring out his accordion and play "Rosamunda," reliving the days when he and Moroz first celebrated victory in Vienna.