Ebay, the well known online Internet auction, is known for bringing buyers and sellers together, but this is the first time it has brought an American and a Russian together in marriage, given closure to a bereaved Russian family, and fostered US and Russian goodwill, all in one!
As a collector of Soviet World War II orders and medals, I was surfing on ebay when an item caught my eye. A seller was offering a medal for sale. But it wasn't just an ordinary medal; it was the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union Medal, serial #7836. It was the Soviet Union's highest decoration for valor, similar to our Congressional Medal of Honor. It contained 19.2 grams of 950/1000 parts solid gold.
I wasn't totally interested in such a high priced collector's item until the seller informed me that it had been awarded to a Buryat (ethnic Mongolian) soldier. A quick research revealed that only five Buryat soldiers had been awarded such medals, out of more than 11,600 awarded during the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Only five! That made it a rarity!
I bid the asking price and won the auction. Upon receiving the Gold Star Medal from the seller, I immediately set to work, trying to make the newly purchased item "talk." I have a reputation as a "forensic" historian in making old military items give up their stories. The recipient's name was Vasily Kharinaevich Khantaev, as noted in his awards booklet which accompanied his medal.
Vasily Khantaev was born on August 19, 1924 in the village of Baitog in of what is now Ekhirit-Bulagat District of Ust-Ordinsky, Buryat Autonomous area of the Irkutsuk Region. His birthplace is located in the south central region of Russia's Siberia, near Lake Baikal (the largest fresh water lake in the world), and Mongolia to the south. The young farm boy received a high school education and worked as a bookkeeper until he joined the Soviet Army in July 1941, less than a month after the Germans attacked the Soviet Union.
In April 1945, Jr/Sgt Khantaev entered the street fighting in Berlin where he commanded a five-man 76mm cannon crew. In the intense fighting, his comrades were killed and he was badly wounded, but he continued to fight alone, loading and firing the cannon, and taking a great toll on the enemy. He destroyed three Panther tanks with well aimed shots.
According to his Hero's citation: " comrade Khantaev moved his gun ahead of our infantry and destroyed an enemy column comprising four armored personnel carriers, nine vehicles with Panzerfausts (anti-tank rocket propelled grenades), and seven motorcycles. During the course of the action, he also took 33 German soldiers and officers prisoners."
"During the entire period of the combat operations, comrade Khantaev eliminated over three companies of enemy soldiers and captured 49 prisoners including the Volksturm commandant of the city."
For his valor, Jr/Sgt Vasily Khantaev received the Gold Star Medal, the Order of Lenin, and the title of Hero of the Soviet Union on June 27, 1945.
According to his biography in the Soviet Encyclopedia of Heroes, Khantaev last worked at the USSR Academy of Sciences in Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic.
With all this information at my disposal, I decided to track down the Hero and learn more about him. My ultimate goal was to find out how his medal wound up on ebay!
I jumped on the Internet and typed in "USSR Academy of Sciences" in the various search engines, but there were no hits. Later, I realized that the Soviet Union at collapsed in 1991, and that this institution would not be known today as the USSR Academy of Sciences! But I surmised that this institution would have some connection to a leading university there. Further research turned up the "Buryat State University" website. I simply wrote a short email message in English inquiring about Vasily Khantaev and sent them to five persons on their faculty list.
On March 2, 2000, I received the first of five replies from Buryat State University. All the respondents wrote that Vasily Khantaev passed away in 1990. One of the writers was a young Buryat gal working there as an assistant. Her English was flawless. Intrigued, I started an Internet correspondence with Bayarma Socktoyeva.
I also managed to get the name of a Russian woman named Natalya Poupysheva who lived there. Her name and email address came via a woman in Alaska, who wrote an Internet article about her trip to Ulan Ude, and her visit with Natalya who spoke and wrote very good English. I asked Natalya to please contact the Khantaev Family by telephone and she finally managed to talk to the Hero's daughter on March 23rd.
Lyudmila Kokurina, Khantaev's only daughter in a family of three sons and one girl, was surprised to hear from a stranger inquiring about her father, and she talked guardedly. Natalya did not tell Lyudmila that I had her father's medal, only that I wanted some information about her father for a book that I was writing. Lyudmila provided some information, but felt very uncomfortable about the entire situation. My subsequent letters to her, including a gift parcel, was never acknowledged. As far as she was concerned, she wanted nothing to do with me.