Europe

Remembering Russia's unknown World War Two soldiers

Sculpture of Arkady Gidrat at Revolution Square metro in Moscow
Image caption A sculpture of Arkady Gidrat in a Moscow metro station immortalised his athletic prowess

Russians are marking a new memorial date, Day of the Unknown Soldier, in honour of some four million Soviet soldiers who fought in World War Two but are still considered missing in action.

All of Russia's towns and cities have monuments to unknown soldiers and some of those missing in action were quite famous when they were alive.

Arkady Gidrat set the USSR high-jump record in the 1930s and was one of the top 50 in his field in Soviet history.

He was declared missing in action in 1941 but his image lived on, in the hall of a Moscow metro station at Revolution Square.

Image caption Arkady Gidrat was a famous high jumper before the war but died not long after it started

Young and good-looking, Gidrat had been selected to posed in 1937 for a sculpture student after it was decided that the hall should be decorated with sculptures, representing all walks of Soviet life, including farmers, soldiers and scientists.

As well as being a high jumper, Arkady Gidrat taught at the State Central Institute of physical culture and was writing a PhD when war broke out.

He volunteered and was soon sent on an officer course aimed at raising a new generation of talented lieutenants, which the Soviet army lacked at the time.

His family never heard from him again. Arkady Gidrat went missing in September 1941.

For decades his wife and daughter paid their respects to his sculpture in the hall of the metro station. Every May, on Victory day, they would bring flowers. His daughter Olga remembers him as a wonderful father.

"My father's fate was unknown. So this was the only place we could come to commemorate him,

"I still remember him lifting me on his shoulders and carrying me around. One summer's day in 1941 he put me on his shoulders and then left and never returned."

Image caption A team of volunteers uncovered the remains of two soldiers in 2000

Volunteer diggers are still searching for the remains of soldiers killed in World War Two, as the government says it cannot spare the resources.

And 14 years ago it was one of these volunteers who found the remains of two soldiers in a forest, under a thin layer of leaves and moss, 45km (28 miles) south-east of St Petersburg. Fierce fighting had been taking place in the area, as Germany's invading forces were trying to blockade what was then Leningrad.

Image caption Volunteers took four hours to decipher the name from the paper identity tag with Arkady Gidrat's (R) remains

The two soldiers had most likely been killed in action and had been left unburied on the battlefield. A paper identity tag was found on one of the soldiers. Soviet ID tags were not made of metal but small pieces of paper folded inside ebony capsules.

"The paper was so badly preserved that we decided to read it straight away," says volunteer Ilya Prokofiev. "It was dark already, so we had to ask all our guys to bring their torches."

For four hours they tried to unfold the paper tag as the temperature dipped towards freezing. Finally, they were able to make out Arkady Gidrat's name and, at the bottom, his final wishes to his wife: "Live happily, my dear."

According to classified documents, he had been one of the brightest students on his lieutenants' course. But in September 1941 the lessons stopped and his student squadron was sent to halt a convoy of German tanks.

"I will never forget the day when the volunteers called me and told me my father's story," says his daughter Olga, tears welling up in her eyes. "It is so great to know he is not missing in action."

Her father's remains were buried near St Petersburg with military honours.

Now, it is not only Olga Gidrat who lays flowers at Arkady Gidrat's sculpture. The volunteer diggers come too, as a reminder of how important their work is, even though the sculpture remembers his athletic prowess rather than his bravery in war.

"The best way to honour the unknown soldiers is to give them back their identities," says volunteer Ilya Prokofiev.

Even 70 years after the end of the war, they still hope to find and identify more of the missing.

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