SOVIET “MEDALS OF HONOR” FIND THEIR WAY BACK TO THEIR FAMILIES

BY HENRY SAKAIDA

I’m sure that many of you have lost something very dear to you…perhaps a family ring, a special souvenir or keepsake, a photo album, letters, awards, books,…you name it. From time to time, you do read about such items being found and returned after a journey of decades and thousands of miles. It gives me a thrill to share in their joy!

These are my stories.

PART I

I started collecting Soviet orders and medals in 1997. My first purchase was the set of the Order of Glory, an enlisted man’s “Medal of Honor.” In order to receive the 1st Class award, it was necessary to win the 3rd class first, followed by the 2nd class. The hero, Sgt Vasily Telkov, died in 1976. His medals were taken by a military commissar after his funeral and exhibited in a museum. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Telkov’s medals were stolen and made its way to a dealer in America.

soviet order of glory

Order of Glory, I, II, and III. The 1st Class is 950/1000 gold and they are all serial numbered. It was instituted in November 1943. Only 2,620 were awarded the 1st class up to 1989, making it much more rarer than the prestigious Hero of the Soviet Union medal.

soviet hero vasily telkov

Sgt Vasily Telkov (1911 – 1976) won the 1st class award and became a Cavalier of the Order of Glory.

Sgt Vasily Telkov was a sapper. He had to perform an extraordinary feat for each class of three classes of the  medal. He was awarded the 1st Class Order of Glory in January 1945. His citation reads:

“During the crossing of the Neisse River comrade Telkov together with his platoon ferried a company of submachine gunners and a rifle company of the 34th Guards Rifle Regiment by landing boats under enemy fire during the artillery barrage. After that, comrade Telkov and his platoon cleared the paths through enemy minefields and trenches thus facilitating the river crossing and breakthrough of the enemy defense. Comrade Telklov ferried a total of 180 men, 10 mortars, 12 machine guns, and deactivated over 82 anti-personnel mines. During subsequent advance comrade Telkov kept up with infantry. Comrade Telkov’s platoon constructed two bridges across creeks and removed four obstructions…”

I located the only living daughter of Telkov, Mariya Kuprina, who lived outside of Moscow in a small village. I was able to determine who the recipient was through the serial numbers on the medals. For a small fee, a research service in Moscow provided the recipient’s military dossier to me. One old document had his home address. I had no idea that he was deceased. I mailed him a letter and 3 months later, I received a letter from his daughter. She included information about her father and 2 original photographs and asked for nothing in return.

Mariya was a poor pensioner with health problems. But she was very proud of her father and happy that an American had such interest in him. After trading a few more letters, I finally admitted to her that I held her father’s medals. She was shocked! She still thought they were in the museum. When I offered to return them at no charge, she stunned me by her reply: “Do not send them back. Please keep them safely in your hands.” So every December since 1997, I would send her a letter, telling her that her father’s medals were safe. But I always felt uncomfortable holding them. More on this later.

soviet hero medal winner

Mariya Kuprina by her father’s grave. She passed away in 2011.


PART II

soviet hero mookhudin umurdinov

Sgt Mookhudin Umurdinov (1912 – 1981)

Sgt Mookhudin Umurdinov was one of only 69 Uzbeks from the Soviet Union to become a Hero of the Soviet Union. I acquired his medal though an antique dealer in Germany. The purchase was rather strange. The dealer, who didn’t know me, mailed the medal to me unregistered, even before I sent him payment!

On 5 June 1943, Umurdinov’s platoon was nearly wiped out in heavy combat and his CO was killed. The young Uzbek then assumed command of  7 survivors and advanced 2 kilometers into enemy territory; they killed over a hundred Germans. This action stopped the enemy’s advance. He held their position until relieved.

I researched the serial number from the Russian archives and wrote a letter to the hero from an old address on a document. Three months later, I received a reply from the hero’s 2nd son, Rahmatjon Umurdinov. He informed me that his father died of throat cancer in 1981. The son had no idea that I had the medal and order booklet. I explained that I was a historian, wanting photographs and information about his father for a book I was writing  (Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941 – 1945, Osprey Publishing, 2004). He was very accommodating. I casually asked about his father’s gold star medal.

“My father’s medals were stolen when our village flooded,” Rahmatjon explained. “We evacuated and returned a few days later. Our house was ransacked and his medals and other items were gone.” I knew he was telling the truth because the order booklet had water stains on it! It had been under water. A few months after it disappeared, I bought it from a German dealer who had just acquired it.

soviet hero medal gold star

The order booklet and medal of Mookhudin Umurdinov. Notice the water stain. This confirmed the story that these were stolen!

After about a year, I felt comfortable with Rahmatjon; he was kind to send me lots of personal information about his father. I finally informed him that I had his father’s medal, then waited for his reaction. I did not hear from him for over 3 months and thought I had offended him. Then I received a letter from him. After conferring with his extended family members, Rahmatjon offered to buy the medal back; it was important for his family’s legacy. All of the relatives were going to chip in. That night, I had a dream. The hero was smiling and talking to me, but I could not understand him. An omen? When I woke up, I decided to return the medal.

The family did not have a formal portrait of their patriarch wearing his hero award but that soon changed. I went with friends to a gun show in Las Vegas.  There was a Russian dealer there, selling, amongst other things, photographs of Heroes of the Soviet Union. I was thumbing through dozens of these old photos when I stopped to check one out. I could not read the bad Cyrillic handwriting on the back and asked the dealer if he could read it. “Umurdinov Mookhudin!” came the answer.

“@%$#W#!!” I thought. My head was spinning. “You know this guy?” asked the dealer.  “Yes!!!”  I shouted. “Then my friend, you can have it for… $100!” he joked. I paid him $20 and left the table extremely happy! Finding Umurdinov’s photo in Las Vegas – now, what are the odds???!! An omen?

Umurdinov’s HSU medal and order booklet were returned to the family in August 2002 at the Uzbek National Museum in Tashkent. Since I could not travel to Uzbekistan, I sent it to our embassy’s mailing address in Virginia. It arrived at the US Embassy in Tashkent via diplomatic pouch. I thanked our ambassador, John Edward Herbst, and his capable assistant, Stefanie Altman, for their kind assistance.

soviet hero medal returned henry sakaida

General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hands Rahmatjon Umurdinov his father’s medal at the Uzbek National Museum in Tashkent.

Mookhudin Umurdinov is greatly respected. “He was such a great man,” say the locals, “his medal came home every time it was lost!” I can’t argue with that! As a former radioman, he wired his village for electricity which brought modern conveniences like electric lights and radios.

henry sakaida russia gold star hero medal

The author at the grave of Mookhudin Umurdinov in 2014. Rahmaton and his older brother on the right. The hero’s medal was lost 3 times, but each time, it returned home! Uzbekistan is a very modern country, with a blend of old and new. The country is famous for their farm produce, and has a rich history. The family asked me for over 12 years to come visit them.


PART III

The next medal I bought and returned was the gold star Hero of the Soviet Union medal. This was the Soviet Union’s “Medal of Honor” for all ranks, from privates to generals. It was purchased from a collector named John Rupp in Florida on eBay for $2500.00. It had belonged to a Soviet minority, a Buryat (Russian of Mongolian heritage). During the Great Patriotic War, only 5 Buryats received the highest honor, out of over 11,000 awarded.

soviet hero vasily khantaev

Vasily Khantaev (1924 – 1990) with his granddaughter Masha.

Sgt Vasily Khantaev won this honor while fighting in Berlin on 26 April 1945. He commanded a 76mm anti-tank team. During the vicious fighting, they team destroyed 11 machine-gun positions, a tank, 6 armored cars, an anti-aircraft gun, and three companies of enemy soldiers. He personally killed 9 Germans with Panzerfausts (shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon), and captured 49 including the district Volksturm commander, all while wounded. During the war, Soviet minorities were discriminated against when it came to the highest honor. His incredible feat could not be overlooked, and his general nominated him for the HSU award. Khantaev lived and worked in Ulan-Ude (Siberia) and died there in 1990. After this death, workers fixing his apartment stole the medal. It made its way to America where it was sold twice before I got it.

Khantaev medal & booklet copy

Hero of the Soviet Union medal was 23k gold. After service, the recipients continued to wear the medal. Heroes were  instantly recognized and treated with great respect and admiration. The accompanying award book, “Hero of the Soviet Union” embossed in gold, brought many privileges. Just by flashing the booklet, the person received free bus transportation and could go to the front of the line at entertainment and pubic events.

While doing research on Khantaev’s medal, I became involved in bringing together, a Buryat gal in Ulan Ude where the hero had lived, with an American guy. They decided to get married and I was invited to the wedding there. And since I was going to travel to Ulan Ude, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to return the stolen medal to the hero’s daughter.

Darima Soktoeva of Ulan Ude and Craig of Redwood City, CA holding Khanteav’s medal in my office in 2000. They met when Darima was studying in Monterey, CA on a grant. She was required to intern for 3 months at a high tech firm in “Silicon Valley” before going home. Trying to find an affordable place to stay during the “dot com boom” was impossible for her. A friend of a friend told me about Craig; his roommate had just moved out and he had a spare bedroom. I called Craig, whom I did not know and asked, “How would you like to have an interesting room-mate for a few months? She’s GORGEOUS!”

August 2003. Darima and Craig were married in a traditional Buryat wedding ceremony. The professional couple are happily married with 2 kids, a cat and a dog. Their love story is well known in Ulan Ude.

Khantaev’s Gold Star medal was returned on 3 August 2003 in Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic in the Russian Federation of Siberia. On hand to receive the lost family heirloom was Ludmila Khantaeva. She teaches deaf students in a special school for the hearing impaired and is greatly loved.

soviet hero medal return henry sakaida

National newspaper “Pravda” carried the headline: “Star of Khantaev.” Left to right: The author, Ludmila Khantaeva, and friends Darima and Craig.


PART IV

soviet hero stepan nikolenko

Lt Stepan Nikolenko left his medals back at headquarters before he went into his last battle. His comrades were supposed to return them to his wife if he was killed. His wife never got them.

Then there was Gold Star Medal No. 282.  It was one of the earliest awarded. It belonged to Senior Lt Stepan Nikolenko, a heavy tank commander who received the highest honor in 1940, fighting against the Finns during the Winter War. On 5 February 1940, his tank was disabled. He dismounted and proceeded 600 meters into the enemy’s defense line alone, shooting and throwing grenades. This action cleared the way for the infantry to advance. Two days later, he saved a burning tank and its crew during battle. He killed a Finnish gun team and hooked the cannon to his tank and dragged it away to his own lines. Nikolenko was killed in battle in August 1942, and his body was never recovered.

In 2006 at a collector show, I bought Nikolenko’s medal from a hunter. This was the only non-hunting item he had for sale at his table. The seller told me that it once belonged to a Ukrainian man, who lost it in a poker game! He bought it from the poker winner. The hunter didn’t know exactly what it was; he bought it for the gold content to resell. An acquaintance saw it and told him that it was a rare Soviet medal, and that he should get it authenticated. He did. And the price shot upwards to four grand!!!

Ten years later while still conducting research on the medal, I accidentally found his next-of-kin, in Moscow. I was not going to return it until I made it “talk.” When I first contacted Nikolenko’s grandson via a friend in Kiev in 2016, he thought it was a scam and so did his wife. I didn’t blame them. A stranger, unwilling to divulge his identity, was making inquiries about his grandfather through a stranger in Kiev, Ukraine. What nonsense!

Mikhail Nikolenko and I played “cat and mouse” for over 6 months. I wanted personal information about his grandfather. I sent him some documents which I had from the archives, just enough to keep him from walking away and he did the same. I became frustrated and was ready to give up.  I never told him that I had his grandfather’s medal.

As a last resort, I sent him a photo of the back of the medal with no correspondence. There were only 2 people in the world who knew what the serial number was: me and him. The photo stunned him! Mikhail responded with a load of information and photos! And that is when I admitted via my friend that I had his grandfather’s medal. When I made a promise to return it, he didn’t know what to think! It was lost back in 1942. How could it possibly show up now??? Was this an elaborate scam or some sick joke??!

soviet hero medal henry sakaida

Serial number 282 identified the recipient. It was missing from the Nikolenko family for 75 years.

Due to the bad relations between the US and Russia during the Obama Administration, the US Embassy in Moscow had no desire to get involved. They were afraid that my good intentions might backfire. So I simply wrote to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador in Washington DC. My request was handled by Maxim Alekseev, acting head of the Russian side of the US – Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs. With the assistance of James Connell, Maxim’s counterpart in the US, and Iskander Galiev (well known Russian writer and film maker), it all came together just outside of Moscow.

henry sakaida

Maxim Alekseev, Iskander Galiev, and I got together in California to discuss the medal return. Iskander wrote the movie 9th Company, a landmark Russian movie which I covered in an earlier article on this website.

A veterans ceremony at the Barvikva Concert Hall outside of Moscow was held on 24 February 2017. This resort town is where President Putin maintains his home. The event was organized by Battle Brotherhood, a Russian veterans organization which helps veterans of all nations including Americans.

henry sakaida russian soviet hero medal return

Mikhail Nikolenko, the author, Vladek Tumasyan, and Rahmatjon Umurdinov at the Barvikva Concert Hall; it was snowing. Rahmatjon is the son of the Uzbek hero whose medal I returned in 2002.

After I handed over Nikolenko’s medal to his grandson on stage, I placed the cased set of the Cavalier Orders of Glory into the hands of  Vasily Telkov’s granddaughter Natalya.

henry sakaida hero medal return russia

Mikhail Nikolenko shows the audience his grandfather’s medal. The woman on the right is the granddaughter of Sgt Vasily Telkov.

At the conclusion of the medal return ceremony, 3-star Col General Valery Vostrotin, one of the last Heroes of the Soviet Union from the Afghan War, came up on stage to give a short speech. He then presented me with an engraved Cossack saber in appreciation. You can see the entire ceremony HERE on YouTube. The medal return segment begins at 28.10.

henry sakaida soviet hero medal return russia

Telkov granddaughter Natalya holding his Cavalier Order of Glory set. I was relieved to finally return it to the family.

Since I am a historian and not a collector, it was easy for me to part with the medals. My goal was to make the medals give up their stories. It is a time consuming and challenging process, but I enjoy the the hunt. Think of a hunter or a fisherman, same thing. My intention was never to buy and then return the medals. I only returned the medals when I discovered that they were stolen. As far as I am concerned, I bought the custodianship of the medals and do not own them.

Returning the medals have brought fun and excitement to all concerned! Before I returned my first medal, I received no replies from Russian and Ukrainian museums, archives, veterans organizations, and historians when I requested photos and information. Now, my “batting average” is 110%! I still maintain very close contact with the families.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some museum employees stole items during the chaos. Poor families sold their medals in order to eat. They received just a fraction of the eventual selling price. These medals made their way to Europe and the US, although the export of such items are  still illegal.

soviet hero medal return ceremony henry sakaida

General Valery Vostrotin, himself a Hero of the Soviet Union, presented me with a personalized Cossack saber while Rahmatjon Umurdinov looks on.

I was aided and abetted by forensic historian and aircraft wreckage specialist Justin Taylan of  www.PacificWrecks.com. “Cold cases” are never solved by a single person. Justin has found and returned WWII American dogtags to the next-of-kin from the jungles of New Guinea; he also found the wreckage of a Japanese Zero fighter there, identified the pilot, and brought this to the attention of the Japanese government. His accomplishments are simply too numerous to mention.

justin taylan alejandro castro

Justin Taylan, a fellow historian and journalist, with Fidel Castro’s son, Alejandro, also a historian. Justin brings closure to MIA/POW families, investigating WWII aircraft crash sites.

As I was saying  goodbye to Mikhail Nikolenko, I couldn’t help but tell him: “Hey Michael, this whole story about you getting that medal back is absolutely ridiculous! Stop dreaming and wake up!”


For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941–45


Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45


I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft Carrying Strike Submarine, Objective Panama Canal


Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai


Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945


B-29 Hunters of the JAAF


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