«Forgive us, fighters, for what's going on here»
Text by Tatiana Britskaya
I find them in the twilight among the trees. The men are warming themselves by a fire, whose weak light gives brief glimpses of the coffins covered with red cloth. Nearby are perhaps 10 plastic bags. Inside the bags are the bones of fighters from the Great Patriotic war who have been found here and in other regions by search teams. In the morning when it gets lighter, these bones will be placed in five coffins. A loaf of bread emerges from the darkness and Uncle Kostya, Konstantin Dobrovolsky, the chairman of the Murmansk region search team council is admonished to take a break. More men are coming with more bags and the work will continue until morning.
«Only five coffins?» sighs Dobrovolsky, «How much money was enough? There are already 48 people in these bags and in the morning, there will be 72!»
There are already 48 people in these bags and in the morning, there will be 72!
There are 18 search detachments in total. But there is only one day a year when you can bury the remains in the Valley Glory, a military cemetery 75 km from Murmansk, also known colloquially among soldiers as Death Valley. They will be bringing found remains from the whole region tonight. If they don’t get them here on time, the bones will remain in garages and on balconies or wherever the search teams can store them, until next autumn. According to the documents, the remains should be kept in local morgues. But what kind of morgue would agree to hold the remains of 70 people for a whole year?
Now there are 7 thousand people interned the Valley of Glory. The remains of 25 thousand soldiers have been found on the Kola Peninsula. When the identity of a found soldier can be established, relatives sometimes take the remains back to their homeland. But more often they are buried here and many people come to visit the graves of their grandfathers. But the curators of the Valley of Glory only curse a situation they are no longer entrusted to manage. In the beginning, the Valley of Glory was only considered a search cemetery but now, it has become an official memorial and its management has been turned over to other officials. And those officials, making esthetic decisions from a distance, have created two beautification projects, the second of which took place this last summer. But these “esthetic” changes have only generated consternation among both the search groups and the families of fallen soldiers. Monuments and tombstones have been moved from their original locations in order to create more symmetrical gardens and the names of thousands of fighters have been erased from the granite markers.
The search council of course raised a scandal and in response, the officials at first simply denied everything, saying that the memorial had become better. But then the head of the Murmansk regional cultural committee, Sergei Ershov, visited the memorial. Ershov agreed that ignoring the displacement of memorials which occurred during the reconstruction had been a bad decision and that the situation should be corrected by moving the tombstones back to their original places.
Dobrovolsky is waiting for the morning. He is sure that Ershov in particular will come to the funeral. And if he does, he will certainly apologize to the search brigades for the mudslinging that they had to endure for all the noise they had to make. And probably, this apology will be made in front of the soldiers who have been deprived of their gravestones.
But Dobrovolsky will have to wait yet another year to receive back curatorship, which is all he has ever wanted. The Valley stood for 50 years without a host except for the work of the search groups under Dobrovolsky’s supervision until it became a “valuable cultural landmark” 8 years ago. In a year, the maintenance budget will be transferred to one of the districts and the curatorship, will return to the search groups. It will not be their property, but it will be under protection. Perhaps there should be some lights. There is not a single lantern anywhere on the huge memorial. The officials say it’s too expensive to light the memorial though. And Dobrovolsky would like to lead excursions for visitors. It seems like every other car on the Murmansk-Kirkenes road stops here. And he’d like to have the snow plowed in winter, though he has also been told that this would be too expensive.
“They clean the snow only once a year, in the spring. And the tractor of course goes straight across the graves.”
But they will never give up the cemetery.
“Uncle Kostya” knows these lands as if he himself had been there for the fighting. And his version of the events of the war often differ greatly from the official history. In his version, the “Defeat of the Nazi troops in the Arctic” is a relative concept.
«The Red Army did officially attack in 1944,» he says, «but the truth is, they met almost no resistance. In the autumn, a company of soldiers was sent to the valley but were given only summer uniforms, caps and sweatshirts. The weather became very cold so the Germans chose to retire beyond Kirkenes in Norway on their own. In general, they left all by themselves. But those soldiers who came to fight them, without proper attire or provisions, all froze to death without ever firing a shot.»
And of course, it was impossible to speak about all this for a very long time and even now, such truths are not welcome. When veteran Lev Zhurin began collecting and burying the sun bleached bones he found in the hills in the 1980s, he was accused of falsifying history. They accused him of detracting from the feat of the Soviet Red Army soldiers who, according to history books, crushed the Germans. After all, the motto is “No one is forgotten”.
And officially, search brigades are still considered outlaws. Dobrovolsky curses, remembering how a couple of years ago one of the opposition deputies in the Murmansk Duma offered to approve a regional medal for search teams. The project required almost no money and the medal did not give any benefits but all the same, the initiative was rejected.
And more, these days everyone travels at their own expense. Earlier, search detachments were given some money for fuel and canned meat. Now such opulence is considered “inappropriate spending”.
Technically, there is an article in the budget for the search season in Karelia. In fact, according to the Federal Law “On perpetuation of the memory of those who died while defending the Fatherland,” regional authorities are supposed to help in every way, including providing premises, equipment, uniforms and logistics free of charge. At one time, starting in 1993, there was a government commission created to coordinate search work but it has since been completely disbanded. Now, officials in each region have the autonomy to decide how much conscience is enough for search projects. In some places, the search activity is generally seen as being the same as commercial projects and search teams, in order to obtain the rights to search, are forced to participate in a bidding process. But in others, because there has never been specific details as to what kind of help specifically should be made available and because the procedure for providing “everything necessary” has also never been defined, there literally is nothing.
«The last time anyone was given money for gasoline was about 8 years ago,» someone from the dark offers.
The last time anyone was given money for gasoline was about 8 years ago
The men fall silent. Someone softly sings “Goodbye, rocky mountains” as the first snow begins slowly falling from the sky.
“Farewell, rocky mountains. The Fatherland is calling us to war. We have sailed into the open sea for a harsh and long distance tour.”
All this looks like a frozen frame from a film. This song is the unofficial anthem of these places. This and the hopeless and burdensome “Ah, it is not evening yet but little have I slept. It is not yet evening and yet, I have slept so little.”
Morning comes abruptly. The boys break the ice on the river to gather water to boil tea. The bones are laid in coffins. And now you can really see how old and decayed everything is. There are also the documents and personal belongings that are often found with the remains. They use these to help find the relatives. And then the military begins to arrive. The Northern Fleet has sent an orchestra, a guard of honor and a funeral team. Sergei Ershov does indeed make an appearance but does not even begin to seek out the search groups. A crowd of children in red berets pours out of a bus unfolding the national patriotic youth organization “Yunarmiya’s” banner. “Only the Victory banner must be flown over this ground!” yells a volunteer standing next to the open coffins. He is explaining The Valley to the children. “These are your grandfathers!”
Meanwhile, a man from the government busily makes sure that the children avoid the temptation to make selfies with the bones.
Dobrovolsky is sure that the governor will come to the funeral. He says she cannot ignore it and has always been the first person involved. But the governor does not come. The crowd of people gathered is about 100 strong. Usually, the yearly funeral in the Valley gets about 1000. A Volunteer makes his way to the microphone, but he is not on the list of speakers. But he pushes his way through demanding to have his say. “Forgive us, fighters,” he yells, half into the mike and half while being pulled away, “for what is going on here!” And then a priest begins the dirge.
Dobrovolsky stands on the edge of an open grave, alone in the middle of the Valley, a small man in a shabby coat, his shoulders shaking with sobs. Some members of the search team jump down into the hole to help lower the coffins. Dobrovolsky covers his face with his hands and turns away as the grave is covered with sand.
And later, he is angry. “You see how they don’t even apologize? Ok, apologizing to me is nothing. But they would not even apologize to the fighters. They won’t even show respect for the dead. They are pigs, do you understand? I cannot stomach being a part of their farce. I swear, next time I will unload these bones in bags on the porch of the government house. Can you imagine, they called me from the youth committee and asked what time the presentation would start. They called it a presentation, can you understand? This is not a funeral to them. It’s a goddamned show!” And with that, he leaves the cemetery before the end of the ceremony with his search group right behind him.
Forgive us, fighters, for what is going on here!
And along the way Dobrovolsky drills his command like an officer preparing his troops for battle: “So, what else is there to do?”
«We’ll do the right thing, what else?» they answer him. «We will keep on going exactly as we always have.»
«And how many more years will you dig?» I ask.
«As long as we are alive,» Uncle Kostya replies. «Do you know the expression: “The war is not over until the last soldier is buried”? So, we have a war that will never end.»
This story is originally posted by the Novaya Gazeta and re-published as part of Eyes on Barents, a collaborative partnership between news organizations and bloggers in the Barents region