One Man’s Mission to Give Soviet World War II Soldiers Decent Burials


The skeletons are never far away from Konstantin A. Dobrovolsky. Sometimes he sleeps above them in a tiny olive-green trailer in the woods. The people they might once have been appear in his dreams.

For 44 summers, he has traversed the hilly scrabble northwest of Murmansk, the most populous city above the Arctic Circle and the northernmost frontier in World War II, in search of the remains of Soviet soldiers who died defending it.

He has continued unearthing those bones even as descendants of the soldiers — of Russian, Ukrainian and other ethnic origins — are dying on a new front line, in Ukraine. While the Kremlin has sought to draw parallels between the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia, and the current war, it is a comparison that Mr. Dobrovolsky, who is categorically opposed to the invasion of Ukraine, wholeheartedly rejects.

He tries to identify the remains whenever possible and track down any living relatives, which as time has passed is an increasingly rare occurrence. On a recent weekend, his assistant, Aleksei S. Smolev, pulled out a barley malt sack from the trailer that serves as Mr. Dobrovolsky’s digging base and delicately laid out its contents: a heap of bones blackened by almost eight decades underground.

Three people stand in the snow among bare trees in an open space. One rests on a shovel, another has a metal detector, and a third holds up a small ammunition cartridge.
Konstantin A. Dobrovolsky, right, inspecting an ammunition cartridge found in the Murmansk region of northwestern Russia.
Mr. Dobrovolsky’s assistant, Aleksei S. Smolev, displaying the remains of a soldier found by the group.

“One leg is broken,” said Mr. Dobrovolsky, 67, whose forensics training is self-taught. “The skull is missing, but we can see from the jawbone that he was very young, teenage or early 20s, because his teeth have not been ground down.”

Mr. Smolev, right, and Sasha V. Stolyarov, another who helps search for remains, outside a reconstructed cabin at a former German position from World War II.

The bones were from one of the more than 20,000 soldiers that Mr. Dobrovolsky and the group of searchers he oversees have found in the rocky tundra that was the front line from 1941 to 1944. Nazi soldiers sought to take Murmansk, home to Russia’s only port with unrestricted access, via the Barents Sea, to the Atlantic Ocean, because it played a crucial role enabling the United States and Britain to supply the Soviet Union with weapons, food and fuel.

Map locating the Russian city of Murmansk, which is situated above the Arctic Circle, and forty miles from the city of Polyarny. It also locates the region of Smolensk which is norhwest of Moscow.

By The New York Times

In 1979, when Mr. Dobrovolsky began searching for fallen soldiers, he said their corpses “seemed more plentiful in the forest than mushrooms.” He and fellow veterans who joined his quest — part of a decentralized national movement that would come to be called the Searchers — were deeply upset that the state had not cared more for the fighters its leaders hail as heroes.

Video player loading
Mr. Dobrovolsky removing remains from his car.Anastasia Trofimova for The New York Times

Black-and-white photographs from Mr. Dobrovolsky’s initial efforts in the 1980s show heaps of bones in the former trenches, lying right on the surface, where they had been abandoned.

These days, finding the fallen has become more difficult, requiring the team to use metal detectors to uncover munitions or personal effects. The earth is still riddled with shrapnel, nails, bullet casings and other reminders of the war.

Mr. Dobrovolsky and his team have spent years reconstructing the German and Russian positions, which included wooden dugouts and homes that the Nazis built for themselves in the hills (the Soviet soldiers had only tents, he said), as well as monuments to the fallen (when they can be identified); all this, largely without government funding.

Mr. Smolev, second from left, and others in a restored World War II outpost.
A form for the exhumation of human remains and a picture of Stalin hanging in Mr. Dobrovolsky’s trailer.

The Soviet Union lost 27 million lives during the war, touching almost every family. As time has passed, a culture of commemoration has become embedded into many facets of public life. It has taken on even greater importance recently as part of President Vladimir V. Putin’s efforts to militarize society, and it has been invoked to falsely justify the full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a similar war against Nazism.

“Today, as part of a special military operation” — as the Kremlin refers to the war in Ukraine — “the guys are again defending our country, and our people while fighting Nazism,” Murmansk’s regional governor, Andrey V. Chibis, said last month at a ritual burial of the remains of World War II soldiers, which is done yearly in former frontline regions.

Mr. Dobrovolsky, in addition to his antiwar stance, has made no secret of his displeasure with the official rhetoric glorifying the World War II sacrifice while doing little to care for the dead, and he says he fears a repeat of that with the conflict in Ukraine. For the first time in 40 years, he was forbidden from speaking at the Murmansk ceremony.

He is also vocally opposed to any comparison between the two wars, even in the face of harsh punishments for expressing opposition to the Ukraine war. “The Soviet soldiers won because they were defending their homeland, just as Ukraine is today,” he said. “This is a shameful war, a shameful one. How many generations will it take for us to overcome this?”

Murmansk is the most populous city above the Arctic Circle and was the northernmost frontier in World War II. Nazi soldiers sought to take it because of the port’s access to the Atlantic Ocean.
A memorial in Murmansk commonly known as the Alyosha Monument pays tribute to the Soviet troops who fought in the Arctic during World War II.

Mr. Dobrovolsky’s group includes many active duty and retired military personnel — his hometown, Polyarny, 40 miles from Murmansk, is a military town. Many of them support the war in Ukraine and believe that Mr. Putin was effectively forced to invade because of creeping Western aggression. They also cite the Kremlin’s false narrative about Nazis in Kyiv.

Mr. Dobrovolsky has argued with some of them, but for the most part they still dig side by side. However, he has been under increasing pressure from the authorities to stop being so outspoken about his views, which he has refused to do.

He has also rejected invitations to speak at schools about the heroism of Soviet soldiers as part of the government’s effort to bolster patriotism and militarism among young people.

Video player loading
Murmansk’s regional governor, Andrey V. Chibis, speaks at a ritual burial for World War II soldiers.Anastasia Trofimova for The New York Times

He says he tried hard to persuade his son, Sergei, who grew up seeing the human toll of war as he searched for corpses with his father, not to listen to the government’s messaging about Ukraine.

Sergei, who Mr. Dobrovolsky says was serving a five-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter, had only two years left when he signed up in September to join a unit of convicts fighting with the Wagner mercenary group, lured by the promise of freedom and a substantial bonus after six months of service.

“I begged him not to, I reminded him that his cousin lives in Ukraine,” said Mr. Dobrovolsky over shots of vodka and homemade pickled tomatoes in his trailer as a wood-burning stove crackled. But Sergei insisted, he said, parroting the government’s talking points.

“I don’t know what happened to him, who got that nonsense into his head,” Mr. Dobrovolsky said.

Like many, if not most, of the convicts who signed up with Wagner, Sergei was killed, dying on April 15 during the bloody battle for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine two months before his 42nd birthday and five days before he would have earned his freedom.

Mourners at the mass funeral in Smolensk last month.
The funeral in Smolensk. Mr. Dobrovolsky and the group of searchers he oversees have found more than 20,000 soldiers in the rocky tundra that was the front line from 1941 to 1944.

Mr. Dobrovolsky buried him in his hometown, rather than in the section of a Murmansk cemetery dedicated to soldiers who died fighting in Ukraine.

“When the war ends, I want to go to the place where my son died, where he spilled his blood in this unjust war,” he said, referring to Bakhmut. “I don’t know if he killed anyone or not while he was fighting. But I think I am guilty and I want to ask the Ukrainians for forgiveness because of what my son did. It’s a shame, it’s a shame.”

Many Russian officials say, “‘The war is not over until the last soldier is buried’,” Mr. Dobrovolsky said, citing the words of an 18th-century Russian general, Aleksander Suvorov.

“I respond to them by saying that for our people, the war will never end,” he said. “We will never find the last dead soldier. And today there is a new war. So this lesson wasn’t enough for you?”

The northern lights above the Valley of Glory memorial in Murmansk, where the remains of World War II soldiers are buried.


Leave a Reply