Ukrainian searchers who continue to cooperate with searchers from Russia. And it is a miracle, if we take into account that the war continues in Donbass, that the wars of historical memory have never been so strong, and the relations between Ukraine and Russia are so bad. Our correspondent Pavel Volkov together with Ukrainian searchers, went to excavate the area of the twice legendary Slavyansk and found that those who saw war want peace, and that the truth, including about war, exists.
Person of war
Station square, like everywhere, is clogged with shawarma, sausage, and beer, but over the flat roofs of kiosks and shops in the grey December sky domes are raising – bell ringing in the temple travels over traders. Slavyansk is a temple for many on both sides of the conflict. The temple of the beginning and the temple of the end. Among the indistinguishable “soap boxes” on wheels, it is very easy to identify the car that came for me. A white “gazelle” with a large red cross and the inscription “Cargo 200. Search for the Dead”– more from the world of the temple than from the world of shawarma stalls. Driving is a young man in camouflage with a badge “Association of researchers of military historical heritage ‘Bridgehead'”.
– “Aleksey Yukov,” he offers me a friendly hand.
– “Friends from Russia asked me to write about you.”
– “Yes, of course, thank you. But in general it is strange, they celebrate May 9th, but they don’t know about the dead. Our Slavs are some kind of bad ones, they only wage wars among themselves. War is not parades and awards, but destroyed families, lives. It is awful.”
The “Gazelle” shakes on the destroyed roads of Donbass. Modern billboards with inscriptions like “Glory of the nation” flash by, or rusty bent signs like “Druzhba agricultural enterprise”. I have a legitimate question:
– “Have you been in war?”
– “Yes, we were here, we saw everything. We understand what war is – with the face of death, cemeteries and troubles, one continuous evil. People are angry, ready to kill each other simply because of different perceptions of the world.”
I am silent, not quite understanding how to react – our perception of the world is not so different. However, only city “activists” in search of chervonets are irreconcilable and are ready to fight with someone until the last Ukrainian; those who actually saw war, as a rule, stop dividing the world into white and black.
Nobody’s forgotten, nothing’s forgotten?
Kiev. Office of the All-Ukrainian public organisation “People’s Memory Union”. The head of the Union Yaroslav Zhilkin sits at a table under a large map where the places of carrying out search works are marked.
– “I’m an entrepreneur myself,” he says, “and the search was done because my grandmother was all sad that she had a brother, my great-uncle, who went missing in June 1941. He was part of the First Army, and was a musician. His comrade-in-arms returned from captivity after the war and said that the last time he saw my grandfather was in a crater, waiting out an air raid. Then they split-up, and nothing else is known about his fate. I tried to find him, I didn’t know how to look for him – I turned to private detectives, and to Moscow’s archives, but to no avail. That’s when the searchers turned up. I went on an expedition with them, a helmet was found, I was impressed by it. I started supporting them, then became the head of a local organisation in my native Krivoy Rog… And over time I realised that search work was left to chance in the country, the state does not do it. I was just horrified by this injustice. It seems that since childhood we have always heard: no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten, all of us remember dead warriors, honour their feats, and so on – but in fact almost all of them remained in their primary graves or on the battlefields.”
– “And you decided to fight injustice with your own forces?”
– “In 2011, at the First All-Ukrainian Congress of Searchers I was elected as the leader. We are joined by many different people – entrepreneurs, archeologists, active and former police officers, retired forensic experts. There is a backbone that I finance – I maintain an office at my own expense, such as the headquarters, because there is a lot of work in the legal sphere, it is necessary to work with maps, with archives, to maintain ties with other searchers. The rest are volunteers, doing it in their spare time, it’s their passion. ‘People’s Memory Union’ is an umbrella structure, it includes independent organisations in different cities.”
– “Volunteers are one thing, but expeditions cost money. Are you funding them, too?”
– “Yes. As an example, I can cite our expedition to Barvenkovo, after which we handed over the remains of Red Army soldiers to representatives of the Russian Federation. According to our calculations, there are more than 100,000 people in the fields, and in three years we managed to examine only a small patch and find the remains of just 200+ fighters. You feel what a huge difference it is – 100,000 and 200! The most modest expedition – to pay people for fuel, train tickets, to provide food, water, some roof over their heads – it costs a lot of money. This year it cost me about 150,000 hryvnia.”
– “Across how many days?”
– “A week. It is very difficult to do more. People take holidays at their own expense. In general, it is desirable to work on an expedition all year round, at least as long as field agricultural work allows. But then work has to be paid for because people cannot do it for so long at their own expense – they have to feed their families. It is other level. Then it is necessary to hire professionals for piecework, to check it all and to pay. And on a volunteer basis it is possible for us to come out once a year for seven days.”
Humans and non-humans
The Gazelle with a red cross rattles past the fog-covered fields of Donbass, and Aleksey tactfully helps me to shift the topic from one war to another:
– “Are you interested in our work on the Second World War?”
– “Yes, of course.”
– “Here, look to the right. We are passing the height of 199.5, known as Shuklin Field. In 1943 here, between the villages of Bogorodychne and Dolina, there were violent battles, the daily losses amounted to almost 1,000 people. We have already surfaced more than 3,000 Soviet soldiers. From these, at least 2,500 were at these heights. There the Germans strongly fortified themselves, and then send elite units, the SS ‘Viking’ division, there. Our city was liberated twice, in 1942 and 1943. More people died near Slavyansk than there were residents of Slavyansk. The dead were not really searched for here for 75 years. Yes, there were search teams from pioneers, they collected remains. But they didn’t do it en masse. Okay, for the first 10 years after the war, people were rebuilding cities, infrastructure. But in the 1960s, when the country in principle has already raised to its feet and recovered, it could’ve been done! Was it necessary to wait three generations to start a mass search?”
– “And now young people help you? What encourages them to do that?”
– “History, I think. They want to know the truth, they want to touch it. They don’t need to read a textbook or watch films, which are often unreliable. We touch living history. We don’t need to tell you what the war was like – we see it here in the trenches.”
– “And what do you see?“
– “For us, searchers, the most important thing is to return a name to the soldier, to simply bring them home so that they are adequately buried, rather than lying in an open field. There were mass graves here after the war, and then they were just ploughed over and wheat was planted on top. This terrible war of people, of course, taught something, but… unfortunately, war is raging, it awakens the animal in people, instinct starts to speak inside of them, not reason. For them it is quite normal if a corpse was lying along the road – people are used to it! War takes away humanity. The worst thing is when humans stop being humans. And it’s hard to stay human in a situation where people are being killed in front of your eyes or when you are doing the killing.”
“They don’t put crosses on mass graves…”
At the Kiev office Yaroslav Zhilkin continues to reveal the secrets of search work.
– “How do you know where to look?”
– “Firstly, thanks to surveying the local population. We have a hotline, plus on our YouTube channel there are constantly programs reminding to people that we are interested in any information passed on from generation to generation. Some remember that a Red Army soldier’s grave was near, a grandmother remembers that somewhere a pilot was downed, and there is neither a fence, nor an obelisk any more. This type of data is stored in a database. We even sometimes equip expeditions from young men and girls without shovels. They go under the supervision of seniors to nearby villages, spend several days there, find the elders and question them. This is the collection of primary information.
Secondly, comparison with archives. We look at where the events that led to the mass death took place, where there were mass losses, where there is a promising place. We come, we look for traces — shrapnel, projectile shafts, shell casings. As a rule, the Germans did not shoot at emptiness. If you see projectile shafts, it means they shot at someone, so someone could’ve died and their remains may be nearby somewhere. We compare official lists of the dead in this area to inscriptions on mass graves. If someone is missing, it means they are lying somewhere in the fields. These are initial, so-called sanitary burials. The fields had to be sowed, therefore the locals came out, and everything that remained after fighting — bodies of fighters, killed horses, casings, pieces of armoured vehicles — were dragged with hooks into the nearest craters and bunkers, filled in from above, and plowed over. We find these places thanks to metal [bullets, for example – ed]. The most valuable to us is the personal identification marks (PIM) that allows us to identify the person.”
– “Does it happen that there are remains but no identification marks?”
– “Yes, unfortunately. Here now 142 persons were found and only 32 had a PIM. The matter is that it is 1942, and just at the beginning of 1942 the command cancelled personal identification marks and instead of them introduced Red Army ID cards, which decompose quite quickly in the ground. Only thanks to some special circumstances — for example, the document was enclosed in a leather cover or a purse — do some parts remain. Thanks to such a miraculously preserved document, one soldier was identified without a PIM. It was good luck. It is seen that every second was either a Komsomol member, or a party worker, or a member of the Communist Party, because in the earth there are a lot of traces of red covers — but they are made of such material which only accelerates paper decomposition. Therefore you see red splotches from the party membership card, and it is impossible to read anything there any more — just pieces of the cover remained, and that’s all.”
– “I.e., there is no way to identify these people. Or are there options?”
– “There are options, but it involves enormous money. In theory, materials for DNA extraction should be selected from all the remains. But what will we compare it with? A relative is needed, even better if it’s a direct relative — either a son or a daughter, who already aren’t aplenty, or a grandson, although in this case there will be less of a match. I will repeat, it is huge money. And besides, not everyone looks for their relatives who died in the war. But we all the same still collect the maximum amount of information that can be useful later, because we can be contacted even years afterwards. We take anthropological data — a man, a woman, approximate age, approximate growth, even the presence of lifetime injuries; we investigate the circumstances of the person’s death and what military rank they were. Even a little key in the pocket says something. We just now gave to a daughter the personal belongings of a found fighter now — two trihedron keys that train conductors carry in order to open a compartment. They didn’t carry them in military units. Who was he? And so, in her photo album – a person before the war, before conscription. He’s in uniform, obviously an employee, and judging by the uniform, most likely a railroad employee.”
– “Where are the remains stored until they are handed over to relatives, or those who have not been identified at all?”
– “If there are any leads and there is a chance to find relatives, we, as a rule, do not bury these remains, they are deposited. And those who already, alas, couldn’t be identified, we bury in agreement with the local authorities in mass graves. We bury them in those villages near where we find remains, and in them there are restrictions. There it is possible to bury 100, in another place another 100, and then what? This should be sorted out systemically at higher level. If to take the quantity of remains in Barvenkovo, then, most likely, it will be necessary to raise the question at the regional level — to allocate either a cemetery or something else.”
“Aliens will have to attack”
The “Cargo 200” Gazelle stops at a clean field 20 kilometers from Slavyansk. There is no snow, everywhere you look, plowed black soil with the remains of stubble from sunflowers – “badyllya”, as they call it in Ukraine. The fog was hanging low, and behind it almost no forests were visible at the very height where bloody fighting against the SS tank division took place.
“Now we have to walk,” says Aleksey.
He gives me rubber boots – it’s not possible to walk in a wet open field in trainers – and a camouflage jacket to keep out of the cold wind. I refuse to wear a pea jacket (since 2014 I can’t even look at this colour), pull up my wellingtons, and put two hoods on my head. Two comrades of Aleksey, who joined us on the way, get shovels and a metal detector and confidently walk with it all in the field. I clumsily try to catch up with them, twisting my joints on the mounds of black earth and gasping for breath, asking questions, but the wind takes my words the other way. Fortunately, Aleksey does not need to be asked about anything — he lives by searching and tells everything himself.
– “There is a problem with underground diggers, but not all underground diggers are so underground. Among them are many who are really interested in history. When they come across the remains, they don’t touch them in most cases, but call us. There are also adequate familiar tractor drivers. They also report if they find something during ploughing. But it doesn’t happen that often. In Donlina they are adequate, they make contact. My grandfather once told me that during the first ploughing after the war, there were lots of bones here. But it was necessary to quickly lay pipes, to establish irrigation, and so on, – there was no time for burials. However, already at time of independent Ukraine during ploughing remains were found and raked into a heap somewhere… Nobody needs anything. My grandfather also said that there was a hillock and helmets were laid out on it – it was a mass grave.”
– “And nothing. It was ploughed over by tractors. Then in the 1960s-1980s those who were found by surname were immortalised on a monument. But the soldiers themselves are now somewhere here, lying under our feet.”
– “And the state?”
– “The state is not helping in any way. Only officials come to the burial when everything is already done. I think that humanity is hurting. It all the time tends to feud, to measure who is cooler, who is stronger, who is better. Humanity has everything to live for, people grow, create, and then for some reason fight and take everything from each other. If everyone knew that we were all inhabitants of planet Earth, the wars would have stopped. But that probably requires us to be attacked by aliens.”
At that moment it’s I who feel like an alien in a spacesuit, awkwardly walking through unfamiliar territory after earth guides. As long as we got where we needed to, I no longer wanted anything. Despite the sharp cold wind, I’m soaking like a mouse, but you mustn’t remain standing on the spot – as soon as you cool down, a hypothetical pneumonia will turn into an objective reality.
Black Tulips of Donbass
The office of Yaroslav Zhilkin is warm and cozy, this is not a field near Slavyansk. But without this office, an expedition would have been impossible.
“This year we have not been able to secure any projects,” says Yaroslav about the participation of the state in its initiatives. “Earlier we received two grants from the civil service of veterans, as we participated in the Black Tulip mission, we have several people with the status of combat veterans, and in fact we have already received even the status of a veterans’ organisation. That’s why we could claim the money this department allocated. We succeeded a couple of times, but then the funding stopped. I would love to find some international grants, but unfortunately I can’t. For some reason, no one is interested in this topic.”
– “You mentioned the Black Tulip mission. What is it?”
– “You are certainly aware of the events that started in 2014. After their climax, the Ilovaisk cauldron, the contact line shifted deep to the west; then there was a rapid retreat, the UAF and the volunteer battalions were encircled, many died. On the other side there were many videos and photos of burned bodies, broken equipment, and so on. Naturally, there was a flurry of requests – relatives and mothers appealed to the command and the president with a request to collect and bury their relatives. They negotiated with representatives of the separatists, they agreed without problems: ‘we will not let the military in, but civilian volunteers are welcome’. Since we have some experience and, as it turned out, a little carefreeness, they came to us. Anyway, we went. But we thought that we would do everything during one session, but it turned out that the work there is a lot of work there. The backbone there was from the searchers, the main work was carried out until September 2016. We are also conducting now, but only on our side, since the military refused to work with us.”
– “Which military exactly?”
– “Both. Why, I do not know.”
– “Do you do something together with searchers from other countries?”
– “Of course. There are German guys who work on the Seelow heights. They have a German pedantry and approach to the organisation of work and safety. We are trying to adopt their methods as much as possible. In Belarus we are not working now, because there is a state search battalion and public activists can not dig there. We go to Lithuania and Poland, our methodology is shown. We also come into contact based on the results of searches. They find some Ukrainian, we search for relatives, we help with the transfer, with the organisation of a burial – and vice versa, we appeal to our colleagues in Russia and Belarus so that they help to find the relatives of a soldier we’ve found. We very recently came from Belarus, where in the city of Talachyn in the Vitebsk region the burial of the soldier Vasily Belanovich, who is not even on the ‘OBD Memorial’ lists of losses in the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, was carried out. And in Talachyn’s memorial book his surname appeared. There are relatives who remember that Vasily Belanovich went to the frontline and disappeared. And we found him. This proves that the official death lists are incomplete. There are 27 million people, but the true number is much higher.”
They are awaited at home
Under their feet are dug trenches – the result of a week’s work of the searchers. In the trenches the skeletons of dead Red Army soldiers in the positions in which a German shell caught them. An eerie picture – the feeling that for a moment you moved to 1943, that you hear how things fly in your direction… But no, nothing ‘s flying right now. Only the State Emergency Service of Ukraine car driving to pick up the grenades found next to the Red Army soldiers.
“There are six soldiers in each of these two digs,” says the member of the search team Andrey Bondarenko, a simple Donbass uncle aged 50, looking directly up from the pit. “There are some preserved personal things here – a pot, a razor, fragments of straps, shoes, buttons from a trench coat, two spoons, a Guard’s badge, and a little star with an epaulette. Concerning weapons – PPSh rifles, cartridges for 1943 assault rifles and basic 1942 rifles.”
– “Are you able to find out where these people come from?”
– “Here there was a lot of fighting in the winter-spring of 1942, the Barvenkovo cauldron – the offensive started from here. There might have been divisions of the 1st Guards Strike Army that shouldn’t have been here, but they were retreating as they had to, and some units ended up here. Violent fighting took place in the summer of 1943. And Batyuk’s 79th Division came here, and the 39th Guards, and the 60th Guards, and the 244th, and the 203rd. Their task was to create an anti-tank node here and prevent enemy tanks from breaking into the crossings of Bogorodychne. This field was likely under binoculars and shot at. As soon as they tried to step in Dolina, they were immediately hit by shelling or airstrikes. Therefore, a lot of shrapnel wounds are visible, or the soldiers are completely ripped to pieces.”
– “I.e., it’s surely not all the Red Army soldiers who can be found here?”
– “There are still a lot of people lying here. We surface where there is something to go by, where there is lots of metal. As it is, the remains are ploughed into the fields, and that’s all. During the year, 215 people were found here, about 40 of them were Wehrmacht soldiers, the rest were Soviet soldiers. In the last month alone, 51 people. 15 of them were plowed across the field by agricultural machinery, and the rest were in ditches, trenches, and craters.”
– “You managed to find out who they are?”
– “Some soldiers had documents on them. But there is less and less hope of getting their names back. And they are awaited at homes throughout the former USSR — here people of different nationalities fought: Georgians, Armenians, Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians. We managed to identify Lysenko from Severodonetsk, Kostarev – the commander of a tank battalion from the Sverdlovsk region. We found where Lysenko’s brother lived – the village of Soleny, Voroshilovgrad, i.e., Lugansk region. It was not possible to identify others. The reburying is going to be held next year for Victory Day, May 8th-9th, in the village of Nikolskoye.”
In September 2019, in the village of Ivanovka-2 (Barvenkovsky district of the Kharkov region), “People’s Memory Union” conducted the All-Ukrainian Search Military-Historical Expedition “Barvenkov cauldron – 1942”, dedicated to the 1942 Kharkov defensive operation, which ended with the encirclement of the troops of the Red Army in the so-called Barvenkov cauldron. It was from there that the fascists started their offensive towards the Volga and the Caucasus, which ended in their defeat near Stalingrad. 270,000 Soviet soldiers found their death there or were captured in the Barvenkov cauldron. From them, only 8,000 were buried. During the week of the expedition, searchers discovered the remains of 142 soldiers, seven of whom (natives of the Penza, Stalingrad, Tula, and Moscow regions, Astrakhan, and the Chechen Republic) were solemnly handed over to the “Search Movement of Russia” on November 30th on the border of the Kharkov and Belgorod regions. The head of the “People’s Memory Union” Yaroslav Zhilkin personally took part in the transfer.
– “We’ve handed over the remains many times. More often we transfer them there than there to us, because from the ten fighters found, there are likely to be five Russians, three Ukrainians, and so on. It is not about nationality, but from which republic of the USSR they were conscripted. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic had the highest population, and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic has the second highest. This is approximately the ratio of the remains. In addition, a person could be conscripted, say, in Nizhny Novgorod, and their relatives now live in Odessa… The uniqueness is that for the first time so many were transported at once. Relatives were given remains before, but it happened somehow not solemnly, not adequately, from my point of view: some person came in a ‘Zhiguli’, put a coffin in the back, and took them away… This time we decided to do it properly. People who fought to the end, went missing, died, are worthy of an honorary convoy. We are now discussing a memorandum with our colleagues from Russia, and we will make it a rule that the movement proceeds in this way.”
– “And the law does not stipulate such things?”
– “Of course not. It is written that the transfer of the body is permitted if there is a death certificate, a certificate from the sanitary service for biological threats, and a certificate from the customs service on the absence of prohibited objects inside coffins. The latter two can be obtained, but where can I get a death certificate? We have a substitute – permission to exhume, the conclusions of a medical examiner, which confirm that it is Ivanov, not Petrov, an anthropologist, who marks that it is a man of such height and age. Border guards – both Russians and Ukrainians – look at such a substitute for the death certificate loyally, but the law does not stipulate this. Nor is there a developed handing over ceremony. Therefore, we decided to settle this issue somehow at least at the level of social activists. In order to ensure on our part that there is a green corridor with proper documents and to carry out transfers regularly, twice a year. There are difficulties with Russians of conscription age arriving on the territory of Ukraine, so it is easier for us to go there, we have no restrictions on entering Russia. We showed the initiative – to come ourselves, so we handed over the remains when we crossed the border of Ukraine, on the territory of the Russian border service.”
– “What about your grandfather, because of who everything started? He’s been found?”
– “No, he hasn’t. I have already searched the archives of Arolsen, the international search service, where the documents of all prisoners of war who entered Nazi Germany have been digitised. I looked in the Berlin archive, where there are many records of prisoners of war – suddenly my grandfather was captured and disappeared somewhere… But there’s no mention. I assume that he died somewhere there and rests in an unnamed grave. I took my grandmother there, even introduced her to the searchers. But nothing was found – it’s not that simple. I wait for a miracle. I find someone’s relatives, maybe someone will find mine.”
What is wanted by all?
It is not Aleksey Yukov who is taking me to the Slavyansk railway station in a Gazelle “Cargo 200”, but Evgeniya Kalugina, a member of the “Bridgehead” military historical heritage researchers association, in her “Niva”.
“We are cooperating with the Russian Federation on the ‘Way Home’ project. This is their project,” she says, driving a Russian off-road vehicle through country potholes in the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donbass. “They hand over to us the remains of Ukrainian soldiers – we hand over Russians ones to them. This year the remains of my namesake Yakov Kalugin were handed over. We did a transfer for the first time in 2015, and now this is the second case. We have a warm correspondence with the relatives of this Kalugin. They still write and congratulate us on holidays.”
Badges and icons with ‘Azov’, ‘ATO’, and ‘Ukrop’ inscriptions, and a pair of kolovrats with inverted SS “Reich” division runes cover the bodywork of the “Niva.”
On the way, Evgeniya, who gave 17 years of her life to the Slavyansk Museum of Local History, shows the pillars of closed and destroyed Soviet enterprises, without which the city couldn’t function, colourfully describing how the city was looted by pre-Maidan officials and oligarchs and continues to be looted by post-Maidan ones.
“You understand, we want life in our city to get better, but people around – they all want to go to the Soviet Union, and what to do about it?
Probably, to live, to chat, to congratulate each other on the holidays, to sign memoranda, to transfer to relatives the remains of Red Army soldiers who gave their lives for the sake of the peace and freedom of all who were born on the territory of a once-united state. Throw badges with strange symbols into the landfill and never lift an assault rifle up at each other. It is so simple. This is wanted by everyone.”
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