Soviet War Dead

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
I received an e-mail about this yesterday.

Dont know if its true or not.

This may not be an exact answer to your query, but it may be
peripherally interesting. There is a chapter in Dmitriy Loza's "Fighting For The Soviet Motherland" (Neb.1998), titled "Graves Registration" in which the author, a former Red Army tank commander, touches upon this sorrowful aspect of the
aftermath of battle. He says first, that field regulations indicated
that "specially designated teams to bury the dead" were to be established for internment of those who fell on the field of battle, but without any further guidance. He then contemplates, possibly thinking back upon the numberless running battles and skirmishes he fought against such an implacable foe, "where is one to set aside a day for burying the dead, when, as the poet wrote: `a sacred and just battle is being waged, a deadly battle not for the sake of glory, but for the sake of life on earth." Which is to say, that
they buried their dead when and where time and circumstances
allowed. Loza said: "The duration of this sad ritual and the nature of its form depended on the time available to the living – the comrades who were still fighting. Sometimes we buried our fallen friends hurriedly and moved on, into the snow, the dust, and the exhaust fumes. There were other occasions when we had more time." He says, `During the entire war we tankers buried our soldiers ourselves. We did not turn this duty over to any `burial details'.
If this tragedy occurred during a moving battle, battalion or
brigade support units placed the fallen in the earth. But generally speaking we attempted, even if hurriedly, to place our crew, platoon, and company members (including `tankodesantniki' or `tank-riders', the Red Army's armored infantry) in the ground with our own hands." As a rule, the Red Army dead were buried close to the site at which they fell. If there was a settlement nearby, they used the village cemetary or the town square. In foreign countries such as Poland, Germany, or Czechoslovakia, they used Roman Catholic church grounds. If they were bereft of any other choice, they chose a place with a verifiable topographical or terrain feature nearby which was recorded and indicated on a sketch drawn up by battalion staff and
submitted to higher headquarters. Loza says that these documents are preserved to this day in the Central Archive of the Ministry of
Defense of the Russian Federation in Podolsk (where he worked for many years before retiring from the military.)
Loza notes that there were other occasions (too many) where both
armor and infantry units suffered such significant losses that the Soviet dead were interred in mass-graves. The unit assigned the responsibility for burial drew up a map-sketch that indicated the location of the site, the identity (rank, last name, first name, patronymic) of each casualty, and the location of each soldier by row and number, from the left or right in the row. He says there were several of these mass-graves along the Simferopol highway around Kursk and Prohorovka, and that a tradition grew that when drivers
passed by these places of honor, they would blast their vehicle's
horns in `salute' to the honored dead. When there was time for ritual, the men of Loza's battalion would wrap dead tankmen in tarpulins, or the `tankodesantniki' (inf.) in their greatcoats (caskets were rarely if ever, available). They lined the bottom of the grave with pine boughs or straw, or whatever was at hand, attentive to inter the dead head west, feet east (probably in keeping with Russian Orthodox rites), accompanied by a volley or rifle fire or main-gun salvos, finishing the grave with a simple pyramid with a star. Then, right there they would drink their daily ration of a
hundred grams of vodka, in memory of the fallen, and quickly return
to battle.[*]
On to the more serious business of Soviet soldier losses during the
Great Patriotic War, and how they were calculated and or ignored in the aftermath of the war, I turned to Nina Tumarkin's classic work, "The Living The Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia" (Basic,1994).
Though Tumarkin is not a scholarly statistician or degreed historian,
she has a lot to say about the remains of millions of Red Army soldiers listed as MIAs, (by some estimates between 2-3 million or more), left to rot, unremembered, and unburied on numerous battlefields across the Baltic states, Byelorussia, Ukraine, and elsewhere inside the former Soviet Union. She writes that, "For many years after the war, the Soviet Army was loathe to address the challenge of burying its war dead. Often the work was perilous, since the battle areas were mined. Besides, if they buried the dead in cemeteries, the upkeep of those graves would be the army's
responsibility. In 1946 a directive had come down from on high that
all territories that had seen battle were to be brought "into order."
But the impoverished local organs of administration were supposed to pay for the work. The regime of Stalin and his successors had turned its back on its last – and most primal duty to its fallen soldiers."

Which means that in the post-war era, no concerted effort was made
to properly identify or honorably intern the millions of Soviet soldier
casualties who had fallen around the great slaughterhouse
battlefields, forests, swamps, and rugged terrain of places like Rzhev, Smolensk, Murmansk, Vitebsk, Voronesh, et al. She notes that even in the post-Stalin era, when the cult of veneration for the memory of the Great Patriotic War dead reached its apex as a main source of resolve bolstering Soviet propaganda during the Cold-War period, the knowledge of millions of soldiers remains littering vast tracts of Russian terrain was kept at an official minimum for various reasons. Her most scathing evaluation was that the Soviet govt. didn't want to acknowledge the millions of MIA's because the families of same would then be entitled to benefits previously denied them by Soviet law. Stalin's regime had relegated MIA's to non-person status. The
paranoiac reason being that if a soldier's status was `missing' then
he very well could have gone over to the Germans or the western allies as an enemy agent. This stigma continued to haunt the families of the MIAs well beyond the death of Stalin. With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachov and `perestroika' a renewed interest in the MIA's of the GPW took hold among a number of citizens groups and youth organizations interested in finally resolving the troubled past of thier nation. In the 1990's, Soldier search groups with names like `Dozor'(Patrol), `Poisk'(Search), `Iskateli' (Seekers), and `Dolina' (Valley) sent thousands of volunteer workers into the
environs of the former battlefields to seek out, hopefully identify, and then properly bury the remains of the honored Red Army dead from the Second World War. Tumarkin personally took part in some of these expeditonary proceedings at former battlefield sites, and reported that it was particularly difficult, after nearly half a century, to indentify the soldiers and their units. She noted that the average `frontovik' or Red Army man, was initially issued with a `smertnyi medalion' or literally, `death medallion', a faceted wooden
capsule with a twist-off top, hung around his neck on a cord, which
contained a tightly rolled paper scroll detailing all of the soldier's
pertinent personal information. This would have been the equivalent
of the US `dog tag' or the German `Erkennungsmarke' (identity disc). She speculated that so few remains of Red Army men were found with this `death medallion' because the name itself spooked them, and being superstitious, as most soldiers in battle are, they discarded them at first chance.

In any event, it would seem that the estimates of Soviet war dead
have gone through a number of changes over the years according to the prevailing trends in the Kremlin and Politburo. Stalin's first public
announcement concerning overall casualties was 7 million. After his death in 1953, Kruschev jacked it up to 20 million. After numerous learned studies and post-Soviet era calculations, it now stands at somewhere between 27 million and 40 million, depending on which study one takes seriously. In any event, one statistic which should give pause and put into context the heroic struggle and great losses of the Russian people during the war is the death-toll at the Soviet Hero City of Leningrad. More people died during the siege of Leningrad from 1941-1944 , than the total war dead of all of the
Allied nations combined. Certainly food for thought.

- Russ Folsom

For more information on this topic see:

"Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: A Note", by Miichael

S.Maksudov (Europe-Asia Studies, Vol.46, No.4 1994, p.671-680).

[*] Speaking of vodka and rituals, there was (and probably still
is), a tradition in the Red Army when receiving medals and orders known as `rinsing the order' – a newly awarded medal or badge would be dropped into a large glass of vodka, and the soldier recipient would drink up until he held the order between his teeth, much to the applause and delight of his attendant comrades.

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