Murmansk: Hunting for WWII Artifacts With An Expert

The sun was already starting to set as Max, our "war archaeologist" tour guide, drove us to a digging site northwest of Murmansk. We'd stopped to visit a couple of World War II memorials on the way, and now as we sped along in his silver Mercedes, Max told me for the second time, "You'll find something today, for sure."



Photo Gallery: Max, a self-described "war archaeologist," has spent his weekends searching for artifacts for the last 23 years. (David Hillegas)

We were carrying a state-of-the-art metal detector in the trunk, but I was skeptical as to how Max knew I'd find any war artifacts with it. Two of his fellow searchers were already at the site, and I found myself wondering whether he'd asked them to bury something for me to "find." It didn't seem like the kind of thing he'd do -- but then, how could he be so certain?

When we followed Max into the woods, just a few dozen yards from the highway, I got my answer. There were piles of artifacts lying around, newly dug up by the searchers. Bottles, sardine cans, mess kits, ceramic cups, even a packet of cigarettes -- this area, apparently a German campground, was an absolute treasure trove of historical objects. I meandered around one pile, picking up bottles and marveling at the idea that for 60 years, they'd lain undisturbed just beneath the dirt.

Max handed me the metal detector, gave me a quick lesson in how to swoop it left to right, and waved me off. No matter which direction I took, I literally couldn't go more than a foot or two at a time without the telltale warble indicating the presence of metal below. Each time I got a strong signal, one of the searchers hurried over to start digging. And within about 15 minutes, we'd uncovered a pickaxe head, an aluminum hook, and an airplane wing. I was agog.



Photo Gallery: Lisa stands with the metal detector while a member of the search team prepares to dig for WWII artifacts. (David Hillegas)

This was definitely fun, though undercut by the seriousness and sorrow of what happened on this land. Max takes his hobby seriously, studying accounts of the battles fought in the area and even traveling abroad to hear the firsthand recollections of German army veterans. He's also studying German, Finnish and Norwegian, to broaden his research options.

When the sun finally disappeared for good, we shivered our way over to the campfire and sat as close as we dared. One of the men roasted chunks of sausage over the flame, while Max passed around a bottle of cognac. Rounded off with a few slices of brown bread and some hot tea, it was one of the finer meals I've had in Russia.

Looking at the lean, smudged faces of the men around the fire, it was almost possible to imagine we were all soldiers from a faraway time. That is, until Max suddenly started blasting heavy-metal music out of his car speakers to accompany our meal. Alas, imagination only goes so far.

Next week: St. Petersburg, our final destination! We'll catch up with Larisa Fedotova from 1995's chewing gum wars and the surviving members of the five-generation family of Maria Mikhailovna Gurevich.

By Lisa Dickey |  November 11, 2005; 9:30 AM ET
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Thanks for this fascinating account. What is the underlying sentiment in Murmansk towards Germany in 2005? The US has very close ties to Japan today and we even consume some Japanese pop culture. But we did not have the bloody ground war that the Soviets and Germans had in WWII. Can you expand a bit on the sentiments of those people you met in Murmansk with respect to Germany today?

Posted by: joejoejoe | November 11, 2005 06:16 PM

"War archaeologist"? And I thought Murmansk was boring and dull! Fascinating person, and kudos for such a great story!

Posted by: Mark | November 11, 2005 06:55 PM

Лиза и Дэвид,привет!
Наш линк можно скопировать здесь http://www.eismeerfront.com/eis_html/links_eis.htm

Posted by: Максим | November 16, 2005 07:42 AM

Joe - Apart from the WWII hobbyists, we didn't ask many people in Murmansk how they feel about the Germans now. But generally, in Russia, people seem to feel that whatever happened 50 years ago shouldn't be held against the Germans of today. There are, of course, exceptions, but that's what I've been told by a number of people.

In 1995, I attended a reburial of WWII remains of both German and Soviet soldiers. The organizers invited a Lutheran minister to pray for the Germans, and they feared this would cause an uproar. It didn't at all -- just the opposite, in fact. Most of the participating Russians seemed moved by the gesture.

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | November 17, 2005 11:13 AM

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