Medvedev orders precise Soviet WWII death toll

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

By IRINA TITOVA, Associated Press Writer



Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday ordered officials to determine the precise Soviet death toll in World War II as the nation marked the 65th anniversary of the battle that broke the Nazi siege of Leningrad.

Russia, which suffered hugely in the conflict it calls the Great Patriotic War, places substantial importance on commemorating its sacrifices. An estimated 27 million Soviet civilians and soldiers died in the war. Much of the western part of the country was ravaged during four years of epic battles.

"Data about our losses haven't been revealed yet," Medvedev said at a meeting with officials and veterans in the Konstantin Palace near St. Petersburg. "We must determine the historical truth."

Medvedev said that a special panel involving officials from various government agencies will be created for the purpose.

He said that more than 2.4 million people are still officially considered missing in action. Of the 9.5 million buried in mass graves, 6 million are unidentified, he said. Remains are still being found across western Russia and other ex-Soviet republics.

The meeting marked the anniversary of the battle that broke the siege of Leningrad on Jan. 27, 1944. The siege killed an estimated 1.5 million people.

Roza Ivanova, a 78-year old survivor who was in Medvedev's audience at a separate meeting with veterans later in the day, said she survived the siege thanks to animal skins her father brought from the tannery where he worked.

"We cooked a sort of stew out of those skins. The stew made of pork skin was especially good," Ivanova, who was 10 years old when Nazi troops closed in on the city, told The Associated Press.

Desperate for heat but without fuel, her family stoked their small cast-iron wood stove with shards of furniture and books.

"I remember how we wanted to eat and live then!" she said. "God save anyone from such experience."

Yulia Likhova, 72, who was 5 when the siege began, said she remembers a seaman sharing a loaf of bread with her and her four siblings. "It was such unbelievable happiness," she said.

To avoid starvation, Likhova said, she and her family boiled leather belts and drank a kind of broth made by boiling earth they gathered near a defunct food-storage warehouse where sugar had melted during the fire that destroyed it.

She and her siblings survived, but her mother and grandparents starved to death.

Medvedev used the occasion to condemn what he described as efforts to rehabilitate Nazis in some neighboring nations. Russia has harshly criticized authorities in the ex-Soviet Baltic nations of Estonia and Latvia for allowing gatherings of local veterans of Nazi SS units.

"We must toughen our stance on the issue," Medvedev said. "There is no room here for delicate diplomatic wording. Our stance must be more combative."

Medvedev also vowed military spending plans would not be cut as a result of the current financial crisis, and urged the government to provide free apartments to some 50,000 war veterans before Russia marks the 65th anniversary of the end of the fighting in Europe next year.

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