Bones, teeth and hair gel—the life of a materiel marauder in Russia
My nerves were frayed and I needed a change of scenery. Walking my dog on St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect in the summer of 1997, during Russia’s violent, helterskelter transition to the free market, I’d witnessed the assassination of the city’s deputy mayor by a hit man firing a German-made Blaser R93 tactical sniper’s rifle from an abandoned loft. So when my friend Anton, a junior editor at Komsomolskaya Pravda, invited me to join him and some friends for a weekend in the woods, I agreed.
I went to Anton’s flat, where he treated me to a breakfast of fried eggs and pork fat before we pulled down a tent, two sleeping bags, a khaki backpack from the top of a chest of drawers and a spare fufaika, a thick cotton-filled jersey worn by workers in Soviet times, which he had me wear instead of my Canada Goose jacket. We loaded the gear into the sidecar of his heavy Dnepr-650 motorcycle, and rode to the city outskirts, where we stopped at a gas station and filled the tank with 76-octane fuel. Soon a green Lada pulled up and four guys piled out. I shook hands with Igor, the long-haired driver, who looked a little less hungover than the rest, a wildeyed, porcupine-haired guy named Oleg, another Oleg—this one cleancut, and a Kostya.
We headed out of town and joined the Murmansk highway, one of the longest, straightest roads in the world, which pointed northeast. It was cold with the wind-chill, but bearable in our fufaiki. I was glad I wasn’t in the cramped car that followed behind. The ride was smooth and Anton’s boxer twin hummed contentedly. The landscape was pleasant to look at: forest interspersed with patches of meadow, and clusters of quaint farm buildings.
When we reached Lake Ladoga, we turned into a rutted, rock-solid dirt road that led into the forest. Blackand-grey crows circled their nests in the trees. The woods went from mostly fir and birch to a sparser pine. Before us, a snow-covered dell opened up; a frozen stream meandered through it like a white snake. Anton downshifted to first gear and stopped at the far side of the meadow. “We’re here,” he said.
The car parked behind us and the guys spilled out. High in the pines, a magpie shrieked. After we smoked, we tossed the butts into the snow and stomped on them. Then we got the gear from the sidecar, and two Soviet army metal detectors, three shovels and two axes from the Lada’s trunk.
Soon we approached what looked like a dilapidated hunter’s lodge. But it wasn’t what I thought. This was an underground dwelling built at the centre of a Z-shaped ditch. The dugout was a little bigger than two phone booths, but not that much more to shout about. Its floor and walls were made of soft, rotted birch.
We started out in two teams. Antsy Oleg and I followed Anton. The others followed Igor. Zigzagging back and forth, we covered terrain about forty metres wide. The Red Army had fought horrific battles in these woods against the Wehrmacht and its allies between 1941 and 1943.
Half an hour later, Anton broke step. “I’ve got metal,” he smiled over his shoulder, and called the others over.
Three of us began digging. The earth was soft beneath the frozen topsoil. My shovel slid into it like caramel. Then, with a ping, it struck something.
“Yes!” exclaimed Oleg, and he got down on his knees, blinking excitedly. He dug with his bare hands until he pulled out a German helmet with a bullet hole in it, discarded cartridge belts, pots, a gas mask and an empty blue-and-white tube of toothpaste that said Dr. Hittel’s Blendax Zahnpasta on it. Something strange, too: hair gel.
“The Germans needed hair gel in these godforsaken woods?” asked straight-laced Oleg.
“Yes,” nodded Anton. “It made them feel human. It wasn’t just louse powder the Nazis kept. And they drank dark beer and coffee, and smoked pipes instead of cigarettes.” “Why pipes?”
“Kept their hands warm,” he explained. “But toward the end, they used dried cabbage leaves laced with nicotine extract.”
“Let’s move on,” Igor said with a frown. “This is a garbage heap.”
About an hour later, the other team signalled us over. Kostya had unearthed an unexploded Soviet F1 hand grenade. “Wow!” leered mad-hatter Oleg. “Careful with that thing,” said Anton. He took it from Kostya, wiped it carefully with a cloth and put it in his rucksack, cleverly placing it inside the helmet. If the grenade went off, it might not kill anyone.
“I’m starving,” said Igor.
“Okay,” said Anton. “Let’s bivouac for lunch.”
Using an axe on dead branches, I helped gather firewood. When we had the fire going, we sat around it on fallen logs. Igor put sausages on a grill and Oleg cracked open a bottle of Moskovskaya. I thought he looked like a character out of a comic book. Hair cut unevenly, with an expression of permanent surprise.
We passed the bottle around until it was empty. When the sausages split on the grill, Anton handed them to us. Oleg produced a second bottle. Our stomachs filled with meat and drink.
Our kommandir, as the others called Anton because he’d been a materiel marauder the longest, told us that every day in 1942 thousands of soldiers had died in these woods. He said the bodies were stacked high on the platform at Mga Station a few kilometres away. He told us he’d once dug up a young German lieutenant who looked like he’d just died or fallen asleep, he was so well preserved after all those years in the mud. Then, when his body made contact with oxygen, it began to stink like a corpse. Two hours later, he said, only the lieutenant’s bones, teeth and fingernails remained inside his uniform.
Anton then told us about a trench he’d once found with five dead Italian soldiers in it. He said it was queer because there was no jewellery on any of them, not even watches. Walking away, his metal detector went wild. He dug down and solved the mystery. It was another dead Italian with all his dead comrades’ valuables in his pockets.
Oleg went off to relieve himself. The wind had picked up, and the leaves rustled. The trees were whispering tales of gore, I fancied darkly.
Now Anton recounted the most gruesome of his finds: a group of eight Red Army corpses scattered not in a trench but in a small open field with a large hole in its centre. None of the bodies had any legs. His guess was that the men had been sitting around a campfire, resting and warming themselves, when German artillery scouts spotted them and radioed their coordinates to a battery. The shell must have sliced into the soft clay and exploded directly under them, blowing their legs off.
“They died a hellish death, bleeding, crawling about and screaming,” Anton said. “We found all of them with their mouths wide open.”
Oleg returned. Instead of sitting back down at the fire, he went over to one of the bags—anton’s—and pulled the hand grenade out of its nest in the helmet. That made me nervous, especially when he began to pick at the clay that was caked on it.
I wasn’t the only one. “Hey, genius!” Kostya snarled at him. “Go farther away if you’re going to mess with that thing.”
“Relax, I just want to take a look,” he grunted.
“Put it back into the fucking bag!” Igor shouted, tracking him with angry eyes.
Seconds later, a dull thump filled the air, followed instantly by Oleg’s piercing yells as he jumped up and down like a jackrabbit, cursing fluently and clutching his right hand, blood spouting forward like water from a garden hose.
“Shit!” yelled Igor, who was the first to reach him. “His hand’s gone! The idiot unscrewed the grenade and the primer blew his fucking hand off!”
I didn’t care to see what the grenade had done to him, but I removed my belt, grabbed a piece of wood, and
gave both to Igor and the others, who applied a tourniquet to Oleg’s arm.
The difficult part lay ahead. In agitation the guys debated whether or not to return to the car and drive Oleg out of the forest, which they figured would take us at least an hour. Igor suggested we walk him out. From the occasional sound of vehicles in the distance, we knew there was a paved road about two kilometres away.
Igor’s view won out. Now we had to carry Oleg. But he solved that problem himself. Looking like an electrocuted cartoon character, he called us all gomiki—homos—and took off in the direction of the road, moving very fast. We jogged after him through the snow-covered thicket for about fifteen minutes before we came to a one-lane asphalt road. There were no vehicles on it, but the sound of a car engine reached our ears.
“Fuck!” said Anton, who spotted it first. “It’s the police!”
The UAZ jeep’s door was flung open and a militioner jumped out before it had come to a full stop. “What the hell are you doing out here?!” he yelled at us, eyes ablaze. “You’d better not be digging!”
“We need to get him to a hospital right away.” Anton pointed to Oleg. “He’s lost his right hand.”
Another cop climbed out of the jeep. “Eh, partisani!” His lips didn’t exactly form a smile. “The war ended over fifty years ago, haven’t you heard?” Then, still shaking his head at us, “We’ll take your friend to Mga clinic.”
“I’ll come too?” This from Anton. “Get in.”
“One second.” Anton winked meaningfully at me and gave me the keys to his bike, along with his licence and registration.
We made our way back to the vehicles. The Dnepr wouldn’t start. I fidgeted with the fuel petcocks and gave it about fifteen kicks on the starter before it came alive.
A small blue hole had formed in the sky. The clouds would get lighter soon. Highballing down the trail, I held the throttle pinned wide open. Soon a frozen lake opened up before me. In the distance I made out grey patches of asphalt beyond the tree line, and saw cars: Murmansk highway.
Evel Economakis is the author of several books in English, Greek and Russian, including From Peasant to Petersburger, published by Macmillan. Economakis contributes political commentary to the New Statesman (UK). He lives in Greece, where he teaches history in high school and works construction.