Murmansk: A Passion for WWII Artifacts

David and I first met Maxim at the offices of his fish export company, Ice Fish (official motto, written in English: "In Cod We Trust"). A burly, bearded bear of a man, Max waved to us to sit down, a huge ring with an edelweiss glinting on one beefy finger. We talked fish for a little while, then he invited us into another room, to chat about his weekend hobby.

When we walked in, my mouth fell open. Lining the walls were rows of artifacts from World War II -- dogtags, rings, helmets, goggles, gas masks, grenades. There were small vases that soldiers had fashioned from spent artillery shells, a candle holder with a swastika base, bullets, keys and even pairs of glasses. It was an amazing collection.

This artifact from a Nazi uniform was dug up in Karelia, northwest of Murmansk. (David Hillegas)

"We've found heavy machinery, too" Max told us. "There's a wing from an American plane in the next room. We're going to suspend it from the ceiling here."

Every weekend, Max drives out to Karelia, in the countryside northwest of Murmansk, to search for World War II artifacts -- and for the remains of soldiers. He works with a team of eight men, one of about 11 such groups active in the Murmansk area.

There's plenty to find, as fighting between German and Soviet troops in this area was fierce during the war. "Every hill has a German name," Max told us. "There are battlefields all over this land."

Yesterday morning, Max picked us up in his silver Mercedes, Uriah Heep blaring from the stereo, to drive us up to a digging site. He pulled out of our little courtyard at warp speed, and as we got on the road, I glanced at the key ring dangling from the ignition: it was a perfectly preserved Gestapo ID tag. One might even call it beautiful, if not for the malevolent power of the eagle and swastika gleaming on one side.

This past October, remains of Soviet soldiers who died in World War II were reburied at this memorial site. (David Hillegas)

After a few pit stops for gas, food and the like, we finally tore down the road leading out of Murmansk. We had a metal detector in the trunk, and Max told me confidently, "You're going to find something today."

Before we made it to the digging site, we stopped to see a few World War II memorials along the way. The countryside is dotted with dozens of them, but the most moving, by far, is also one of the newest. It's a burial ground for remains that the searchers have found over time.

The greatest find for a Russian "war archaeologist," as Max calls himself, is a "medalyon," a small waterproof capsule containing the identifying papers of a fallen soldier. When a team finds such a capsule, their next step is to track down the soldier's relatives -- many of whom endured years of agonizing uncertainty as to their relative's fate.

This past October, an official burial was held here. The remains of several dozen soldiers were interred, with several relatives having come from miles away -- even as far as Siberia -- to attend. Now, a month later, the most moving sight is of one slightly tattered artificial bouquet. Its ribbon reads, "To dear Papa, from your son."

Tomorrow: Digging for artifacts with the search team.

By Lisa Dickey |  November 10, 2005; 10:20 AM ET
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