Memory Watch 2021: Snow Troop finds remains of 10 soldiers who died in 1942

Another search expedition of a Kazan joint search party to the Death Valley in Novgorod Oblast became possible with the support of TAIF JSC workers

Memory Watch 2021: Snow Troop finds remains of 10 soldiers who died in 1942
Photo: Snow Troop Non-Profit Partnership

A long spring with snow, rains and low temperatures didn’t manage to impede another expedition of Snow Troop joint search party from going to the Death Valley near Myasnoy Bor village, which is located between Spasskaya Polistya and Podberezye in Novgorod Oblast. The 2nd assault army of the Volkhov Front that was heading towards besieged Leningrad turned out to be surrounded was almost completely destroyed there in the spring of 1942. Members of the expedition shared details of the spring trip with Realnoe Vremya’s journalist.

Ordinary forest...

Birds sing, the sun shines, trees and the grass grow... At first sight, almost nothing talks about the tragedy that took place here 79 years ago. And only when you start to look closer, notice the remnants of rusted helmets, pieces of barbed wire and plates on trees. You get closer to them and see names...

Another plate appeared here in the forest on 2 May 2021 reading “Getmanov Ivan Grigoryevich, 1909, Red Army soldier, Kemerovo Oblast, Kiselyovsk, died in 1942. Found on 23.09.2020 by Snow Troop Non-Profit Partnership (NPP).

Another plate appeared in the Death Valley in the spring of 2021. The name of another hero returned from oblivion. Photo: Snow Troop NPP

The plate was placed exactly above the place in which the joint search party from Kazan and Tatarstan districts that are close to the capital managed to find the remains of the soldier and a dog tag during the same expedition last autumn. “A schoolboy boy joined us. Karim. Not for the first time. We were unearthing a shell crater. He simply found a dog tag during the works. Then we tried to read it. It was tough. We read it with great difficulty but established the identity,” said a member of the expedition Yekaterina Zhezlova. She has dedicated 13 of her 27 years to the hard but very noble and necessary activity — to return soldiers of the Red Army who sacrificed their lives for the Homeland during the Great Patriotic War from oblivion.

Yekaterina Zhezlova has been an active member of the search movement since year 8. Photo: Snow Troop NPP

This time Karim didn’t manage to go on the expedition. The boy is graduating from year 11. Final exams are ahead. This is why his teammates fixed the plate with the name he brought back.

Now Mr Getmanov’s relatives are looked for. The job is as meticulous as the finding of the remains of the soldier himself who went missing back in 1942. They are calling and chatting with regional military commissariats, archives, local searchers and departments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Relatives of a number of such soldiers whose remains had been found previously are also looked for. The searchers believe that this job will be crowned with success. And they go to the Death Valley twice a year — in spring and autumn — during their school breaks and holidays to look for and find heroes who didn’t come back from the war again.

The Lyuban Assault

Late 1941. Leningrad is encircled. The Red Army is taking desperate steps to liberate the city from the enemy’s invasion. January 1942. Troops of the Volkhov Front are starting to attack. The 2nd assault army has achieved the biggest success by breaching the German defence near Myasnoy Bor village (at that moment, this territory was part of Leningrad Oblast). Despite the obvious imbalance of forces, the army goes to Lyuban through a corridor whose width varies from 3-4 kilometres to easily perforated 300 metres. Every metre of advance costs a lot of victims. Germans have hurriedly deployed fresh units to the gap. Two divisions, six divisions. Including the Spanish Blue Division.

Scheme of Lyuban assault. Photo: in-istra

Soviet troops’ attacks have faced a hail of the enemy’s bullets. The spring break-up disrupted communication with the main forces. Supplies stopped. The Luftwaffe is downing Soviet planes trying to get in with a stock of foods and ammunition. On 19 March, German Fascist troops managed to seize the beginning of the corridor, and the ring around the 2nd assault army that continues desperately opposing is becoming narrower. Eight divisions and six brigades turn out to be encircled. The centre of the army’s headquarters is destroyed. Troop management is undermined. Vehicles have stalled, fuel has run out. Injured people have stopped being transported.

Red Army soldiers who died in the Volkhov pocket. Captured photo of the Third Reich’s chroniclers. Photo: waralbum

In May and June, the management of the Red Army tries to unblock and liberate the debilitated units from the encirclement. Hero of the Soviet Union Musa Jalil was seriously injured and taken into captivity during this operation o 26 June. During unsuccessful attempts to escape from the blockade, tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers and commanders died under heavy fire of rifles, mortars and artillery and the literally incessant bombardment. The 2nd assault army’s Lieutenant General Vlasov became a captive too. His road as betrayer began at that moment.

A Soviet machine gunner who died in the Volkhov pocket. Captured photo of the Third Reich’s chroniclers. Photo: russian7

The battle near Myasnoy Bor turned out to be so bloody that a small line of torn forest that became a swamp in the west of the village started to be called the Death Valley years later. While historians still fail to name the accurate number of people who died there.

Locals remembered how horrifying it was to enter the forests deformed by the war decades later: people stumbled over human bones and ammunition everywhere. In the middle of the 1960s, according to the government’s decree, Myasnoy Bor fields together with the remains were thoroughly ploughed and planted with trees. But it is impossible to forget the soldiers who had fought for the Homeland. So search parties have been gathering in the Death Valley for nearly half a century, from all over the Soviet Union first, from all over of Russia now. Because the war hasn’t ended unless the last soldier who died on its battlefields is buried.

Death Valley’s call

“It becomes clear during the very first trip if it’s your thing or not. Somebody can do this only once, while somebody is hooked so that he cannot resist the call anymore, goes on an expedition over and over every year,” Yekaterina Zhezlova shares her impressions. She believes that there is, indeed, a call of the Death Valley. And almost everybody who she goes to this place year after year with start to prepare to come back to Novgorod Oblast, shortly after the previous expedition is over.

Camp of the search party in the Death Valley in the spring session of Memory Watch 2021. Photo: Snow Troop NPP

The team consist of different people of different ages. The eldest members are 40-50 years old. Many began to come here as students and schoolchildren. It is pleasant, notes Zhezlova, that more and more youngsters join the movement year after year. Military and patriotic work in educational establishments of the republic bears fruit. Senior students often start to ask to take them to the next expedition after expositions and lectures about the search party’s work. Not all people are lucky. Candidates go through a real selection process — it is necessary to prove that you are in good physical shape, stress-resistant, ready to learn new things and obey a nearly military discipline. The deadly iron that has lied in the soil for 79 years can kill even today. A tragedy near Volgograd where two searchers died from exploded WWII ammunition during such an expedition confirmed this sad fact.

“We learnt this sad news when we still were in the forest. We cannot yet understand how this happened. Safety is taken very seriously in the search movement: heads of parties together with their lads give people classes on types of ammunition during the training process. The rules are repeated once again in the forest, on the site. A briefing takes place and a signature is put. And there is a simple rule: if you have found something in the process and doubt, if you are afraid to take it, call somebody older than you. He knows what to do next. We all perfectly know that one cannot drop ammunition, knock on it and jump over it. Better put it under the tree, then give it to sappers when they arrive,” noted Yekaterina Zhezlova.

The remains of another soldier who died in 1942 were found. Photo: Snow Troop NPP

Some of the schoolchildren cannot hold back their tears after they find their first soldier, some seem to be petrified. Novices realise the terror of the war and the meaning of the job they do precisely at that moment.

A mine probe is the main search tool. It has a wooden handle and a steel rod made of thick wire. The soil is carefully examined centimetre after centimetre. An experienced searcher detects what kind of obstacle the end of the probe came across in the soil by ear: a stone, iron, a root or bone. They have metal detectors too. But they are needed only to find the source — some personal belongings made of non-ferrous metal. Then the mine probe, a shovel and hands get to work again.

This spring, the search party’s expedition arrived in Myasnoy Bor on 27 April. The main part of the joint team Snow Troop including searchers not only from Kazan but also districts of the republic that are close to the capital — Homeland from Stolbishche village, Laishevo District, Flame from Rozhdestvensky village, Laishevo District, Bolshiye Kabany Secondary School of Bolshiye Kabany village, Laishevo District, Contemporaries’ Traces, Kazan — arrived on 30 April. This time the party consisted of 38 people. The first soldier in 2021 was found on the first day of the common work, on 30 April.

The search often takes place in knee-deep swamp and mud. Photo: Snow Troop NPP

“This year, we have had a soldier who was almost on the surface in a fir grove, it is where we have recently worked. And this can be considered our personal success that we collected the soldier completely. And when you collect such a soldier, of course, you hope there will be dog tag somewhere nearby,” Yekaterina said.

The remains of some soldiers lie almost on the surface. In the place where he met his death. For nearly 80 years since the soldier’s death, there has been as much as 10-20 centimetres of soil over him — the dust and soil, rotten leaves and fir needles. Such superficial findings, especially entire bodies, not separate bones spread at a long distance, in Myasnoy Bor after the plough in the 1960s is very uncommon. Just small fragments are mostly found. They aren’t left in the soil, everything around is examined, they dug deeper. The work gets complicated because the place in the search area is swampy. Nothing can be done there without high boots. You simply cannot get anywhere.

Meticulous, careful and hard work

During this expedition, the search party started to examine a huge shell crater that is over 12 metres in diameter and 5-6 metres in depth. It is highly likely a trace of an air bomb. A heap that was probably left by illegal diggers in the 1990s drew the attention. They either lost their patience or didn’t have the time or maybe experience to dig better.

The beginning of the exploration of a shell crater, which is 12 metres in diameter. Photo: Snow Troop NPP

Several fragments of human remains were found first. Then ammunition, personal belongings were found. They will probably have to continue this work only in autumn. They didn’t have the time to do it this time. Also, there was too much water. In September, they plan to install a power pump and get rid of the main flood. Then, they will anyway have to work with their hands.

“When the lads get to the bottom, we bail water out, there is slurry that is also examined. We, all girls, examine the findings, palpate this slurry, clay. We examine everything with fingers not to miss anything,” Yekaterina said. We have our hands in cold water for hours and days hoping to find at least one soldier. Not only to find but also return his name.”

Unfortunately, they aren’t often lucky. This is why when they find a dog tog, a Bakelite cylinder, the whole search party shouts: “Hooray!” Another “Hooray!” is out if the foreman of the search party finds a form after carefully opening the dog tag. It becomes especially joyful inside if the form is filled out. But this rarely happens. Rumour had it among soldiers that if they filled out the form, they might not return from the battle. And the cylinders themselves are not frequently found. In this expedition, the Snow Troop has found none for the first time in 5-6 years. While they have unearthed 10 soldiers. Six of them are entire bodies.

Time and wet soil destroy metallic parts of weapons and human remains but can leave a thin piece of newspaper entire and readable, even 79 years later. Photo: Snow Troop NPP

One of the neighbouring search parties working nearby, also in Novgorod Oblast, was luckier. They managed to find an Order of the Red Star. They identified the soldier by the number.

On Victory Day’s eve

Search work in the Death Valley has been done for decades. And the remains of hundreds of dead people are found and unearthed on every expedition. During the spring Memory Watch, it already became a tradition to gather all search parties united by The Valley expedition at a military cemetery near the memorial in Myasnoy Bor village.

On the eve of Victory Day, all search parties united by The Valley expedition gathered near the memorial in Myasnoy Bor village. Photo: Snow Troop NPP

On 8 May, on the eve of Victory Day, tens of search parties united by The Valley expedition gathered at a military cemetery and memorial in Myasnoy Bor village. A mourning ceremony of the burial of the remains of the Red Army’s soldiers and commanders found during the spring Memory Watch 2021 took place.

10 of 364 remains of soldiers found during the spring Memory Watch 2021 were found and unearthed by the Snow Troop. Photo: Snow Troop NPP

Another 364 soldiers finally found eternal peace. Only 14 of them were identified.

“Valley, we’ll be back in autumn”

Just a few days have passed since the end of the spring expedition of Memory Watch 2021. While the joint search party is already preparing for an autumn trip. The huge shell crater — 12 metres in diameter — left to be unearthed. Several promising sites are outlined. There is still a lot of work to do.

Every expedition lasts for several days. The spring expedition did for around two weeks. To get to the site, purchase and maintain necessary equipment in a proper state, provide reliable communication, water and food — all this costs money. Without funding, the organisation and the work of search expeditions would be almost impossible. Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Navy Public and State Organisation in Tatarstan, the Federal Road Agency, Transneft — Prikamye JSC, Yoshkar-Ola Meat Factory JSC have helped the Snow Troop. The searchers express special words of gratitude to TAIF JSC — the head company of TAIF Group and its workers.

Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC has been supporting Neftekhimik search party for 17 years already. Photo: Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC

TAIF Group has a special careful attitude to the history of the homeland and conservation of the memory of WWII heroes. Veterans of the Great Patriotic War as well as home front workers are paid attention not only by memorable days, support, including financial aid, is provided regularly.

Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC has been supporting Neftekhimik search party for 17 years already. This spring, Nizhnekamsk searchers also participated in the work aimed to find the remains of soldiers who died during the Great Patriotic War but in Vyazemsky District, Smolensk Oblast. They managed to find and unearth four soldiers. Previously, they had had successful searches in Leningrad, Smolensk, Rostov Oblasts and the Republic of Karelia.

Late last year, which was a jubilee year, the 75th anniversary of Great Victory, the management of TAIF Group decided to reprint a calendar that came to the light 80 years ago, in January 1941. In their addresses to the reader, Director General of TAIF JSC, Board Chairman of Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC Ruslan Shigabutdinov and Director General of Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC Ayrat Safin note:

“Dear friend,

We treat the history of our country with profound respect and reverence, revere the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for our common peaceful future, who forged the Victory in the home front, spared no effort and health, who raised the country from ruin. This is why we decided to recreate the calendar for 1941 and give you a chance of getting closer to the events that happened 80 years ago, to learn the huge country cared about and what it strived for in the last peaceful New Year before the great and horrible war.”

Photo: cover of the calendar for 1941

The more than 270-page book that contains unique information about the country’s accomplishments in manufacturing and agriculture, the development of educational and health care systems, the history of the Fatherland, its heroes and plans for the next years, what people living in the Soviet Union aspired to and dreamed about when welcoming the last peaceful New Year before the great and horrible war is handed over to libraries, universities, colleges, schools free, it is sent to former USSR countries.

TAIF Group will continue actively supporting the patriotic education of the younger generation and the search movement.

By Arseny Favstritsky
Tatarstan