Volunteers in Russia searched a riverbank outside St. Petersburg and located the remains of five Soviet soldiers who died while defending the city in World War II. Among the remains was a corroded dog tag with a small piece of paper that contained the soldier’s identification information rolled up inside it.
After restoring the note, the volunteers were able to track down the relatives of the soldier, Ivan Shagichev. They let the relatives know where Shagichev died so that they could have him buried properly. “I cry and cry,” said his daughter, Tamara Zhukova. “I don’t know how to explain it. I never saw my father, but it is so important that he was found and I’ll have a place to come to speak to him.” When she was born on September 1, 1941, Shagichev had already left for the front. He died two months later.
Search groups made up of volunteers have become more popular in Russia in recent years. People of all ages and professions spend their weekends and vacations digging in former battlefields to find remains. As May 9th approaches every year, the Victory Day holiday attracts new attention to their work. Victory Day celebrates Russia’s 1945 defeat of the Nazis and honors those who fought and died for their country.
Thousands of Russian soldiers have been recovered and buried by volunteers. Often the remains of several soldiers were buried in the same casket. Few of them ever had intact dog tags that would allow them to be identified.
Many of the searches focus on the Nevsky Pyatachok battle site, about 50 km southeast of St. Petersburg. Up to 200,000 Soviet soldiers were killed between 1941 and May 1943 when the Nazis laid siege to the city, which was called Leningrad at the time. The area was bitterly contested by both the Germans and the Soviets.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the siege of Leningrad. The siege was only lifted in 1943 and was one of the most brutal sieges in history.
After burying 400 soldiers, including Zhukova’s father, the volunteers took Zhukova to the river bank so she could see where they had found his remains. She sat down there and tried to imagine what her father had seen at the end of his life. Nearby, a team of volunteers continued digging. There are more Russian soldiers who lie undiscovered in the area and who also deserve a proper burial. Thanks to the continuing efforts of these civilian volunteers, this looks likely to happen for more and more of the Russian casualties of WW2.