Earlier this week, I came across an online documentary in parts made by de Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper. It’s called Generatie Poetin (‘Generation Putin’) and was made for the occasion of the FIFA World Cup; each episode takes place in one of the playing cities. It’s about young people in Russia today: those who were born during Putin’s regime and are now old enough to vote in the upcoming election. There was one fragment that struck me. It was about a girl in her twenties called Nastja. As a volunteer, she exhumes the graves of German and Russian soldiers on the plains near Stalingrad, modern-day Volgograd, which in 1942 became the stage for the biggest and bloodiest battle of the European theatre of WWII.
I’m not sure if the English subtitles on Youtube work for everyone, so I’ve provided a transcript below just in case.
More than a million and a half soldiers died at Stalingrad, which is more than the war dead of America, Great Britain, France and Canada combined. It’s a mindboggling figure. The site is home to the biggest Russian war monument in the world and still houses memorial services every year.
For more info on the ongoing process of reinterment, I’d recommend taking a look at the project Spuren Traces by German photographer Claudia Heinermann, who has documented German efforts to locate the remains of German soldiers in Russia with her camera. On her website, she mentions that it took years for archaeologists to get down to Volgograd. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, people were strictly forbidden to go out searching for those who lost their lives on the battlefields. As a result, German citizens have only been allowed to travel to the places where their fathers and grandfather in the Wehrmacht died for the past thirty-odd years. The Wehrmacht left at least 0.4 million soldiers unaccounted for on the battlefield, many of whom are still missing in action. Now, an organization called the Volksbund is stationed in various locations in Russia to restore order and reinter the soldiers they identify.
The efforts of both women help to shed a new light on one of the most infamous episodes of the Second World War. I’m glad for the Dutch media’s efforts to shine a light on daily life in Russia, and to pay attention to this aspect of the war. Where I’m from, the Eastern front is hardly discussed – after all, the Nazis are our historical bad guys, so whatever they got at Stalingrad, they surely deserved. Many people also don’t know how many Russians died during World War II – Russian war dead number over 25 million, with soldiers alone accounting for 8.7 million.
Small wonder that the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call it, still looms large in their national consciousness. Also, the Soviet Union was the only country in the war that allowed women to fight side by side with the men. Plenty of Soviet women became legendary even in their own time, from the Night Witches, the all-female bomber crew, to Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the Red Army sniper who was credited with 309 kills during the war, making her the most successful female sniper in history. It’s not odd at all, then, that Russian women today feel those stories belong to them – “There but for the grace of God go I”, etc. – and are proud of this history.
For more info on the Russian perspective of the war, I can highly recommend the books of Svetlana Alexievich, and in particular The Unwomanly Face of War, which is a collection of testimonies from women from all walks of life about World War II.
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Please bear in mind this is based on the Dutch subtitles. Sadly, my Russian isn’t that fluent.
I: “Is that a bone over there?”
N: “Yes, that is a bone.”
N: “The war isn’t over until the last soldier has been found.”
I: “When we talk about Russia, we usually talk about one in particular. I’m Tom Vennink, a correspondent with the Volkskrant, and on this show I want to introduce you to the ambitious young people who have grown up under the regime of Vladimir Putin. They will show us their Russia, in each of the five World Cup cities.”
[Why Natsja spends her free time digging up the bodies of soldiers]
I: “We’re standing on the steppe just outside Volgograd. It’s incredibly windy. Volgograd used to be known as Stalingrad, where the biggest battle of World War II took place. Over 1.5 million soldiers died here, and many of them were never found. And that’s why our volunteers, who are standing over there, are looking for the remains of Russian and German soldiers. Nastja is one of these volunteers.”
N: “We’re nearly finished at this spot. We’ve dug up a soldier here before. Now we’re checking the land once more for any remains.”
I: “Is that a bone over there?”
N: “Yes, that is a bone, but it’s not completely visible yet. It’s hard to define what kind of bone it is, it looks like an arm. The soldier’s bones were already scattered on the ground. He may have died in an artillery raid, or maybe a tank drove over him later on. (…) We’re going to try and get some rest after all the digging, to try and distract ourselves for a while. (…) The breakfast crew gets up at 6 am every day to prepare our food. We take our lunch into the field with us.”
I: “We’re now at the campsite Natsja and the others have set up. They’ve been here for two weeks and they’ve been digging every day. All of them are volunteers, but the project is overseen by the ministry of defense. You can’t just go about digging and looking for bones – you have to get permission from the ministry. We’ve noticed the same thing: we’re being driven around by an army employee in a beautiful military van. The bones Nastja and the others have gathered are around here somewhere, but we’re not allowed to film them. Not until they’ve been photographed by the ministry of defense. It’s all very official. (…) Nastja and the others are now on their way to lay flowers on the graves of the four soldiers they dug up in previous years, who have been reinterred in this cemetery.”
Woman: “He was born in 1923. In 1942, his life was taken from him.”
N: “Yes, it’s very emotional. Lots of things come together in this place. We hold remembrance services here. This is where the soldiers are reinterred, this is the final resting place of our countrymen. (…) The Soviet soldiers are on this side, the Germans are buried on the other side.”
I: “That’s the German cemetery over there?”
I: “Do any Germans visit here?”
N: “Yes, they usually visit the Russian cemetery first to pay their respects. And then they move on to the German side.”
i: “Do you respect each other?”
N: “Yes. Respect is the most important thing. As long as there is respect, there won’t be any war.”
I: “Krisjiko is a Ukranian name, isn’t it?”
N: “Yes, and so is Dolzjenko.”
I: “Isn’t that odd, what with all these problems between Ukraine and Russia right now?”
N: “I don’t want to talk about that.”
I: “Why not?”
N: “I’m not a politician, and I consider the Ukranians a friendly people. In fact, they are my people, because my mother is from Ukraine. I don’t know all the details, but some of my family members used to live in Ukraine and only came to Russia later on. It used to be common policy to be transferred to another region to work after you finished your studies.”
I: “What does being Russian mean to you?”
N: “I’m not an ethnic Russian, but if you’re asking me what it means to be a Russian citizen… perhaps it’s being proud of our history. (…) On this day, everybody remembers their family members who participated in the war. They all fought for their piece of land. They fought for their family, their village, their house – for their favourite place, their place of peace, to remain unharmed.”
I: “The Russians suffered such great losses in the war that the war still plays a huge role in their lives, even in those of young people, like Nastja. On this hill, and in the city surrounding the hill, more than 1.5 million soldiers lost their lives. That’s more than the combined number of all the American, British, French and Canadian soldiers who died for the whole duration of the war. In this place alone.”
N: “It doesn’t matter if they were born here or in another part of the Soviet Union. It was a great motherland, and they were the ones who protected it; filled with dedication and courage, and without giving up.”
I: “Do you feel you are a protector of the motherland?”
N: “I see myself as a patriot of the motherland. But the most important thing is that there is no war.”
[singing] “I don’t have the strength to call to him, but here is his medallion, clutched in his hand. They tell us so much: a name, a place, a date. We smoke a cigarette and hoist our packs on our backs. And we’re off, looking for the missing battalion.”