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9 May, 2009 06:36

Courage and faith: Russian pensioner builds a chapel on mass war grave

As the 64-th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany approaches, the older generation remembers the cost of winning the battle. And for some, it has been a long process to overcome the pain of the war

79 year-old Maria Volkova has been on a spiritual mission for decades. Her story is one of unbending courage, strength, and faith.

It began in 1945 when Maria found out her brother Vladimir had died in combat during the Second World War. His distraught sister vowed to find his final resting place and never gave up.

For over thirty years she pounded the streets of Moscow, visiting army colleagues and even Red Army generals to find out her brother's fate. Her quest came to an end in a small town in Hungary in 1978.

When Maria discovered her brother’s remains were buried here in a mass grave on the outskirts of a small cemetery in Hungary, she began coming twice a year to pay her respects.

When she found out local authorities wanted to destroy the grave, she came to put up a fight.

Visiting from Moscow as often as she could in Soviet times, Maria cared for the site, and searched for the names of Vladimir's fallen comrades in the mass grave.

But in 2001, she was horrified to learn a local businessman wanted to buy the land and destroy the Soviet graves. Maria was incensed and began another battle, this time to save her brother's resting-place. She went right to the top.

“I sent Putin a telegram explaining that I didn’t have enough money to go to Hungary and protect the grave, and he answered, giving me money for tickets,” she said. “Then Moscow’s mayor gave me money, and now our Foreign Minister helps me with all my travel fees.”

But travel tickets alone would not be enough to stop the destruction of her brother’s resting-place.

The Hungarian authorities decided that restoring the grave would cost thousands of euros – money which wasn't available. So Maria decided to do it herself.

"Her faith is incredible,” said Maria Volkova’s friend Ettila Horvatne. “She believes and is very strong."

With her small pension, Maria knew she would need lots of help, so she turned to the state and the Orthodox Church. But no-one could come up with the cash.

Then her pastor in Moscow, Father Leonid, allowed her to collect money outside their church.

With some generous large donations, incredibly she managed to collect the 30,000 euros it would cost to restore the grave and build a small chapel.

"I didn't think she would be able to do it,” said Pap Paal, the head of Kistelek Cemetery in Hungary. “But she managed step 1, then 2, then it was complete. It is a miracle, really."

Maria travels to the new chapel in Hungary by train a couple of times a year. She carries crosses, icons, and candles given to her by small churches in Moscow.

"Maria not only found her brother, but she helped those who lay next to him. God bless her," Father Leonid said.

Her many friends in Hungary say her perseverance is inspirational. But for Maria, it's a family duty.

”I pray,” she said. “My mother would have liked to see all this. He was her first son."

She's still collecting donations as her expenses grow, but vows her mission to preserve her brother's memory which began the day he died is far from over.