WW2 Red Army veteran campaigns for help from Russia

RIGA (Reuters Life!) - For World War Two Red Army veteran Nikolai Ponomarenko the 65th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany on May 9 will be a bittersweet affair.

Proud of the role the Soviet Union played, Ponomarenko, 85, has for 17 years waged another kind of battle: to persuade Russia to look after men made invalids by the war, but who have been caught on the wrong side of history.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, men who had been ordinary soldiers in the Red Army and who became citizens of the ex-Soviet state of Latvia or took no citizenship at all no longer qualified for the special benefits and help which Russia, the legal successor to the Soviet Union, gives its veterans.

At the same time, the Latvian state had no sympathy for men who fought on the side of what it sees now as Soviet occupiers.

“These men have been abandoned to their fate. They returned as invalids from the war and for them to get nothing is complete nonsense,” Ponomarenko told Reuters, his voice getting louder with anger.

“Russia is the legal successor of the Soviet Union and how can these be people be abandoned?”

When he began his campaign, there were about 1,000 such men. In the Soviet period, they received benefits, but that stopped when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The men have all kinds of injuries, including a man made blind by a head wound and a man who lost his legs. He said that now the number has dwindled to about 600 or 800.

Ponomarenko, who occasionally wears a special corset due to the wound he sustained in his side and walks with difficulty, took Russian citizenship, so he is not fighting for himself.

He says he is more or less okay with his Russian veterans’ pension and his Latvian employment pension, giving him a total 360 lats ($683) a month.

But he continues to fight for the others and has taken his campaign to every imaginable institution, including the Russian president, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and even Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.

So far his efforts to persuade Russia to change its policy of providing war pensions and other aid only to veterans who are Russian citizens has been fruitless.

He has focused on veteran invalids as he sees their needs as greater due to medical costs and their inability to work, which means they will have built up less employment pension.

But aside from the invalids, there are about 9,600 veterans who fought in the Red Army and who live in Latvia and get no benefits from Russia, unless they become citizens of Russia.

For officers, it is a different story -- even being citizens of Latvia or without citizenship, they get a Russian pension.

“The officers are all right, they get what they want. But the soldiers who were made invalids and are not Russian citizens, even though they fought for the Soviet Union and were injured, they get nothing, absolutely nothing,” Ponomarenko said.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy confirmed that under current legislation only citizens of Russia qualified for veterans’ and invalids’ benefits.

“But we try to help them (non Russian citizens) as much as we can,” the spokesman added.

However, Ponamerenko still tirelessly takes his message to the Russian authorities. “I cannot stop this work, I have to carry on,” he said.

Editing by Paul Casciato