Sinyavino―A skull and bones laid out carefully on a piece of oilcloth are all that remain of a Red Army soldier who died fighting the Nazis outside Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg.
Thanks to volunteers who carry out regular digs at battlefield sites outside the city, the soldier will finally be buried, decades after the end of the war.
The digs began in the 1980s but in recent years volunteer numbers have risen as patriotic rhetoric from politicians focuses public attention on the Soviet victory in World War II.
Some 42,000 people are involved in looking for remains of Soviet soldiers across the country, according to official figures.
Every spring, groups go to a hilly area called Sinyavino to the east of Saint Petersburg that saw heavy fighting from 1941 to 1944, as Soviets attempted to break through a Nazi blockade.
One such group is called Ingria―a historic name for the region―that was formed in 2000.
Two dozen Ingria volunteers were spending a fortnight camping out in Sinyavino in the run up to Victory Day on May 9, a public holiday in Russia that sees events in all cities and most towns.
Ranging in age from 15 to 65, they used spades and metal detectors to search in overgrown woodland.
The group seeks to identify each soldier―though this is often impossible―and pay its final respects before burying them in military cemeteries.
“When you are there at the dig, you realize what price was paid for victory and how hard and cruel the war was,” said 30-year-old chemist Alexei Chupikov.
“It’s nothing like the beautiful images in films.”
At Sinyavino, trenches and shell holes are still visible and volunteers turn up shell casings, hand grenades, helmets, cutlery, coins, medals, and even a soldier’s razor.
Ingria “found the remains of 16 soldiers here” on their latest dig, said the group’s leader, 64-year-old historian Yevgeny Ilyin.
Over the last two decades, Ingria volunteers alone have found the remains of more than 3,000 Soviet soldiers.
A total of 714 soldiers found by groups at Sinyavino were interred in nearby military cemeteries this week.
Coffins were lowered onto pine branches in a mass grave as a Russian Orthodox priest read a funeral service, watched by local officials and some relatives of the dead.
One of the soldiers was identified through his name scratched on a flask.
The soldier, Pyotr Novikov, died in 1942 and the diggers managed to track down his niece Maria Gavrilova, 60, who had traveled from a region south of Moscow to pay her last respects.
“We’re so grateful. All my life, our family thought he was missing in action, but now he isn’t any longer,” she said with tears in her eyes.
Diggers were only able to name 18 of the soldiers buried this week, and the leader of the Ingria group Ilyin acknowledged that identifying remains is very difficult due to army customs at the time.
Red Army soldiers were issued with metal medallions where they were supposed to put a piece of paper with their name, surname and date of birth in case they were killed.
“The majority of the soldiers left their medallions empty and didn’t fill in their names for reasons of superstition,” Ilyin said.