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article imageRed Army veteran's war years end in Gulag

By Anna Malpas (AFP)     May 5, 2015 in World

Lev Netto felt nothing but delight when a crackly radio loudspeaker in a town outside Moscow announced on June 22, 1941 that the Nazis had invaded and the Soviet Union was now at war.

"I was ecstatic at the thought that finally we would have a real war."

The 90-year-old with bright blue eyes and high cheekbones was just 16 then, too young to be called up.

Speaking in his Moscow flat full of paintings and books, he recalled how he saw the then-Soviet capital hastily turn into a wartime city.

He saw women drag the ropes of barrage balloons, or "sausages", while thousands turned out to dig deep trenches in roads to stop tanks.

Initially there was a feeling that Stalin must be right, he said.

"We thought our supreme command knew what it was doing," he told AFP.

But when he saw Soviet forces firing rockets at Nazis who had advanced to just 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Moscow, he realised "we did not hear such reports on the radio".

He witnessed the notorious panic of October 16, 1941, when a sense caught hold that the Soviet authorities had lost control.

People looted shops and warehouses, taking food, clothes and furniture, he recalled.

His father, who was in the military, burned paperwork.

"There were no policemen in sight."

- 'Risky mission' -

Russian WWII veteran Lev Netto showing his medal during an interview with AFP in Moscow
Russian WWII veteran Lev Netto showing his medal during an interview with AFP in Moscow
Alexander Nemenov, AFP/File

Finally called up in 1943, Netto joined an ethnic Estonian unit, since his parents came from there.

He was recruited for a risky mission -- to parachute into Nazi-occupied Estonia to support a budding partisan movement.

"I don't remember it scaring me", Netto said.

Flying over the frontline at night, he and his companions sang songs, fuelled by alcohol. But he sobered up immediately as he parachuted out.

"I remember well the fresh air on my face and the jolly mood passing and the effect of the alcohol disappearing immediately," he said.

The mission turned out to be a fiasco. Planes never dropped promised supplies of food and ammunition.

Worst of all, there was no sign of any partisan movement.

After several weeks, the men spotted troops and heard them speak in Russian.

"It was just wall-to-wall swearing," Netto said.

But as the troops came closer, they saw they were wearing Nazi uniforms. It was a penal battalion of captured Soviets.

Netto's lieutenant stood up, lobbed a hand grenade and shouted "For the Motherland! For S--" but never had time to say Stalin's name. His head was blown off.

Netto decided to do the same and prepared a grenade.

But in a split second, he pictured his mother crying. He threw aside his hand grenade and stayed lying on the ground.

As the Nazis took them to a prison, locals threw sticks and stones and shouted "Stalin's bandits!"

It emerged the Nazis had lists of their names -- someone in Moscow had apparently betrayed them.

Moved between several Nazi prisoner-of-war camps, Netto worked clearing ruins after Allied bombings.

He was liberated by US forces, which proved to be his undoing.

The Soviet authorities were highly suspicious of those who encountered foreigners and life abroad during the war.

"When our officers and soldiers went abroad to other countries, mainly to Eastern Europe, they started to understand what a difference existed between our two regimes," Netto said.

- Surviving the Gulag -

Russian WWII veteran Lev Netto during an interview with AFP in Moscow
Russian WWII veteran Lev Netto during an interview with AFP in Moscow
Alexander Nemenov, AFP/File

He rejoined the Soviet army but just as he hoped to be demobilised in 1948, Netto found himself heading for a Gulag camp in Norilsk in the far north, sentenced to 25 years for counter-revolutionary activity.

He would not see his parents again until his release in 1956, in the thaw after Stalin's death.

He was forced to work beyond the Arctic Circle, building a copper factory for the city's metallurgical industry.

"I understood well that to survive... you need to work, work, work, because when you work, you're together with friends who help you," he said.

"If your skin turned white from the 50 degrees cold, they would rub it with snow. You needed to help each other, only that saved me."

"In 1956, after 13 years, I had been across Europe, but I came back. I saw my father again. He died at the end of 1956 and I buried him. That was a gift to me."

Rehabilitated by the authorities, Netto studied at university and worked as an engineer. He has written several books about his experiences.

Walking with a stick, the veteran occasionally falters, saying: "My memory is on the blink."

His daughter Lyudmila hands him a bag of medals and a Victory Day card stands on the table.

"For me, May 9 is always a day of joy with tears in my eyes," he said.

"I always remember those who died in front of my eyes."

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