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Russia: The Book Of Memory Records The Dead

  • John Varoli

St Petersburg, 30 January 1998 (RFE/RL) - Sergei Orlov, a soldier-poet, who fought on the front in World War Two, wrote: "The bravest soldiers, were those who did not return home. On Victory Day in May 1945, they became the dearest forever."

As Russia next week marks the 55th anniversary of the German surrender at Stalingrad (Volgograd), Orlov's words ring dear to many Russian families. And, they are especially meaningful to someone like Olga Kuptsis, who, like hundreds of thousands, do not know the final resting place of the loved ones they lost during the War.

For the past decade, Kuptsis has petitioned military archives for information concerning her father, Ivan Burtsev, a Soviet communications expert, who perished in September 1941 in the environs of Leningrad. "It was extremely difficult to get information from the military archives about my father. In fact it was a struggle. They treated this information as if it was top secret," she remembered.

In an interview with RFE/RL St Petersburg, Kuptsis says that, in the end, she got information after searching the archives herself. Though she knows the village where her father was reported killed, the village was long ago bulldozed and new buildings were constructed on the site.

Though deprived of a grave to visit, Kuptsis and all the people of Leningrad/St Petersburg now have a 'war monument' to their dead that commemorates each victim individually.

The last book in the 18 volume "Kniga Pamyati" (The Book of Memory) was presented by St Petersburg city governor Vladimir Yakovlev January 21. This 18-volume series lists the names of 265,967 Leningrad residents who died during the war. This new 'monument' is significant for Russia, because Soviet-era stone-and-steel monuments were often humongous, abstract structures that emphasized the collective effort - not the individual.

Now, each volume, line by line, lists the names and basic biographical information of the deceased. For many surviving relatives and loved ones such words are all that remain of the dead. Forty-two percent - or more than 111,000 Leningrad soldiers - were listed as missing in action.

Though the last volume has been submitted, the work is not over. "New material is coming in all the time," said reserve Colonel Viktor Shapovalov, who is in charge of compiling and publishing the volumes. "So our work will go on, and there will be extra volumes, so that all the war dead will be included," Shapovalov tells RFE/RL.

The Kniga Pamyati is not just a local effort, but part of a national program. Every region in Russia is preparing its own "Kniga Pamyati", and most have been completed.

A few lines in a massive volume might not seem in proportion to the sacrifice. But, as Kuptsis said, "the Kniga Pamyati is important, because nothing has remained of these people, who were so full of patriotism, that they gave their lives for their country. Something has to remain of them."