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Posted on Nov 13, 2007 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Arctic POW Escape

By Lars Gyllenhaal

So, we had established that the man had most probably been a prisoner of the Germans. There had been roughly a hundred thousand POWs in Norway during WWII, almost all employed in the construction of a railway fantasy project, the Polareisenbahn, or “Polar railway”, that Hitler wanted to run all the way to Norway’s border with Finland. There had been several camps for this construction work only some ten kilometers from the site where the skeleton was discovered.

But which of the hundred thousand Yugoslav, Soviet and Polish POWs in Norway had been the man found in 2004? It turned out that the German POW archives have still, more than sixty years after WWII, not been sorted out. Only part of them are now searchable and “our” number was not a lucky one.


But one Norwegian archeologist, Martinus Hauglid, decided to manually go through the German security police archives until he came upon the matching number. Had this archive been digital it would have taken a fraction of a second. Now it could take days as the German archive of “wanted” persons constituted a list of several thousand names and numbers.

The mind-numbing work payed off, Hauglid found the matching serial number on a list of escaped POWs dated  December 20, 1944. The owner of the number had been one Alexey Matveyev. The name is typically Russian. Unfortunately it is also one of the most common male names that exist in the ex-Soviet states.

The general public in Russia was very excited about the discovery of Matveyev. Many Matveyev families who had relatives missing in action during WWII contacted the largest newspaper in Russia, hoping that the discovery would mean closure to their great tragedy. Swedish CSI workers were able to extract the DNA of the skeleton. CSI lab research also revealed that the man had been 30 to 35 and quite probably came from Siberia. By a weird coincidence I was editing a WWII autobiography at the time. The author wrote thus about the POWs he met:

All, without exception, are wounded. I spoke to one. They are fed thus: one beet a day and occasionally 100 grams of bread. I asked where he was from, and it turned out “from Siberia, from Eastern Siberia.”

(diary entry for 27 October 1941, from the book Victims, Victors by Roman Kravchenko-Berezhnoy)

As no Russian or Swedish government agency was willing to DNA test the many Matveyevs who had an interest in the case, it was decided not to bring the soldier home but to bury him by the church closest to the spot where he had been found. Thus, on May 23, 2007, Alexey Matveyev was buried in Arjeplog, Sweden, with full military honors by Swedish Army rangers, and Russian diplomats and officers.

Gyllenhaal photo -- funeral service -- photo 3.jpg
Russian Army officers from the Russian Embassy in Stockholm
with the coffin of Alexey Matveyev, during his funeral in Arjeplog, Sweden.
Photo: Lars Gyllenhaal

Not only the Russian general public has been moved by the Matveyev case, but also Swedes of all ages. The Fourteen-year old Swedish Saami (Laplander) girl Stina Pavval was so captivated by the story of the man who died just after having reached freedom, that she decided to make a burial cross according to Russian orthodox rules.

One can imagine that in his very last thoughts Alexey Matveyev still could find some satisfaction in dying as a free man and not as many of his comrades, as a slave. He obviously had a last wish too, to become identified. The wish came true, although it took six decades before it was realized.

Visitors in Arjeplog can now visit Matveyev´s grave, adorned with a Soviet steel helmet, and may see his personal belongings in the local museum.

Gyllenhaal photo -- wooden cross and Lapp girl -- photo 4.jpg
Underneath this cross are the remains of Alexey Matveyev, found in Arctic Sweden in 2004.
The traditional Russian cross was crafted  by a local 14-year old Saami (Laplander) girl,
Stina Pavval, here seen standing by the cross during the burial. Photo: Lars Gyllenhaal

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  1. I enjoyed this story. A well-written human interest story.

  2. My father, Noel G Slay, T Sgt in the 9th armored division, was a POW at Stalag IIa near Nuebrandenburg, He was captured near Malmady during the Battle of the Bulge, this story touches my heart,

    • Hi Mark, it’s your niece Susan Slay. It’s fascinating to know my grandfather was such a big part of history and made such a huge sacrifice for his country. Hope all is well, take care.