Searchers from the military history association “Forgotten Soldiers” were forbidden to find and rebury the remains of soldiers of the Red Army. This was stated in an exclusive interview in Vilnius to the correspondent of Sputnik Lithuania by the head of the organisation Viktor Orlov.
“We have switched to paperwork, although I am very criticised for this by colleagues, who demand to go onto the field. But they do not imagine the situation: every time when finding remains I, as the head of the organisation, was subjected to criminal proceedings, every time I was accused of possible murder. And now the laws have tightened even more – we even have no right to excavate,” said Viktor Orlov to the correspondent of Sputnik Lithuania.
Digging is not allowed
Viktor Orlov with like-minded people have been engaged in excavations and searching for the unnamed graves of dead Red Army soldiers for almost 15 years. At first, wandering through forests with a metal detector was a passion. But after Viktor first discovered the remains of a Red Army soldier, the search for the remains of soldiers and their burial with all due honours became his main goal in life. And in the first years the Lithuanian authorities supported Viktor Orlov in every way in this desire.
“We signed contracts with various state organisations, with a forensic laboratory – we were able to establish burial sites and to carry out an examination of remains. So, for example, we were able to find Aleksandr Ivanovich Amelfin born in 1920, a Red Army soldier. He was later buried at our Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius. But, unfortunately, after some time the attitude to our activities and in general to everything concerning the period of the liberation of the territory of the Baltics by Soviet troops acquired a slightly different shade,” says Viktor Orlov.
As an example, he cites the story of reburying four soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army who died in 1915 and seven Red Army soldiers who died in July 1944, six of who it was succeeded to identify. The Red Army soldiers, by the way, were found thanks to the message of a forester, who knew about the burial in the forest, and when a road started to be laid there, he contacted the association “Forgotten Soldiers”, afraid that the remains of the soldiers would simply be destroyed.
“The Red Army soldiers in 2007 were reburied with military honours at Antakalnis Cemetery. A company of the Lithuanian army’s honour guard was present at the same time, and these soldiers carried sarcophagi with the remains of soldiers. And a few years later, I was accused of having buried a soldier there almost under the cover of the night, and of illegally installing granite stones showing names and years of death. And they also kicked up a fuss over the star on the stone, accusing me of promoting Soviet symbols. And this is despite the fact that there was no hammer and sickle, as well as other hints of something Communist,” recalls Orlov.
This story caused the searcher a lot of stress and almost led to significant financial losses – the court of first instance ordered him to pay a fine of almost €1500 and to demolish the monuments. But Viktor Orlov managed to get out of the situation as a winner.
“The Department of Cultural Heritage of Lithuania pointed to laws that were adopted after the re-burial and installation of monuments. But how could I be punished if both reburials were authorised by self-governance, and in addition to the honorary guard of the Lithuanian Army there were ambassadors of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine?! Everything was done according to the law, so I won the case,” says the searcher.
Viktor Orlov is glad to win one particular case, but speaks about a general defeat. The military history association “Forgotten Soldiers” in fact stopped being engaged in its main activity – searching for, and reburying the remains of, Red Army soldiers.
“We were not banned, but according to the new law, in order to carry out excavations, we have to give justification for such works, conclude contracts, invite an archeologist and pay for his services, which is several thousand euros per square meter. And now even if the remains of a man are found by, say, black diggers, we cannot come and legitimise the find. Or if we have information that in a specific place there is a soldier, we also have no right to exhume his remains,” shrugs Orlov.
The searcher says that in the past, when he provided the remains of soldiers for examination, criminal proceedings were initiated for murder every time and he featured as the main accused person in them. Then the cases were of course closed. But there was at least such an opportunity to bury the soldiers of the Red Army. Now experts no longer cooperate with the association.
“I still have a soldier found in the Raseiniai forest by black diggers who, through us, have always tried to legalise the remains. It has not been identified. I know they died in 1941, but I didn’t have any personal items that we could identify them by. And I cannot bury them as an unknown as the authorities also do not allow this,” says Orlov about his last soldier.
And he recalls that during his years in “Forgotten Soldiers” he managed to find and rebury about 130 Red Army soldiers, which is about the same number of Germans were found whose remains were transferred to Germany.
From fields to archives
All the “Forgotten Soldiers” association can do today is collect information, systematise archival data to respond promptly to the requests of all those interested in the fate of their ancestors, and clean up the graves of Red Army soldiers.
There are about 300 military graves on the territory of Lithuania. They are in decline and can be demolished at any time on the pretext that monuments pose a threat to the population.
“I was recently sent a picture of a wooden complex in which the soldier’s head fell off. What if it fell on the person who took the photo? But we are not allowed to restore these monuments either, only to maintain them. As long as there is no inter-governmental agreement between Lithuania and Russia on the care of military graves that can regulate all issues about monuments, we can only paint letters, glue fallen slabs, weld gates, and strengthen foundations. And also clean, wash, and tidy up so that no one says that the graves have been abandoned, and use this as an excuse to destroy them,” says the searcher.
Viktor Orlov spoke about obtaining permission in 2017 to renovate a military burial site in the city of Obeliai in the Rokiškis district. The central sculpture of a soldier looked deplorable – its hands were cracked, and parts of the monument had fallen off.
“We received all the permits for the reconstruction of this memorial, ordered in Zhytomyr an exact copy of the monument made of granite, and brought it to Lithuania. We made plaques with the names of Red Army soldiers, also from granite instead of concrete. It is only left to install all this, but in December 2017 the Department of Cultural Heritage took away from us all licenses and permits for the installation of this monument. The excuse – new rules will be adopted concerning carrying out repair and reconstruction work. But so far there are no new rules, no permission, and the monument and signs are stored in a warehouse,” resents the searcher.
He recalls that Russia has long promised to respond to these decisions and actions of the Lithuanian authorities with mirror measures, and responded – it stopped issuing visas to participants of the Lithuanian memorial project “Mission Siberia”, within the framework of which youth units go to restore graves of repressed Lithuanians.
“Instead of sitting down at the negotiating table afterwards, the Lithuanian authorities are only making matters worse. We are a bright example,” summarises Viktor Orlov.
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