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POSTCARD / ST. PETERSBURG : Hero’s Past Catches Up With Him in Special Way

It is hardly possible to walk away from Mikhail Bobrov without feeling that you have met a special person. He not only survived the Germans’ 900-day, World War II siege of Leningrad, in which more than 1 million people died, he was among the brave soldiers who made sure the city survived.

Bobrov, an official with the St. Petersburg Organizing Committee for the Goodwill Games, told his story Friday.

A national junior alpine skiing champion and an expert mountain climber, he was selected at 17 for a harrowing assignment while on medical leave here--his hometown--after being wounded at the front.

Upon learning that the Germans scored direct hits upon Leningrad--now St. Petersburg--by aiming at the city’s magnificent golden domes and spires, the Soviet army assigned Bobrov and three other soldiers--Olga Firsova, Ella Prigogeva and Alois Zenbo--to camouflage them.

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Using gray warship paint and black sails, they completed their first three projects in three months. The fourth was the most ambitious, covering the 120-foot needle spire on the 360-foot Peter and Paul Cathedral.

They worked by night in the bleakest months of winter, December through February, sleeping by day on tombs of former czars inside the Cathedral. They were fed the equivalent of one slice of bread, a little macaroni and a little grain each day, which they supplemented by eating small birds that they trapped and cooked over a fire.

Near the end of their ordeal, the army thanked them for their efforts by doubling their food rations. It was too late for Prigogeva and Zenbo, who died that spring of malnutrition.

By then, Bobrov had been assigned to the Caucasus Mountains, where the small unit of Russians that he commanded came across a small unit of Germans one day the next winter. After a brief battle in the snow, all of the Germans had been shot.

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While checking for their identities, he discovered that two were still breathing. Rigging skis for the wounded men’s descent from the mountain, he escorted them over harsh terrain to a Russian medical facility, where they remained until healthy enough for transfer to a prisoner-of-war camp.

After the war, Bobrov resumed his athletic career, competing in the modern pentathlon in the 1952 Summer Olympics. Eight years later, while coaching the Russian modern pentathlon team during the 1960 Games at Rome, he kept crossing paths with a German rower who looked familiar. The German also seemed to know him.

One day, they sat together in the cafeteria of the athletes’ village and discussed where they might have met. It was not long before they realized that the rower was one of the German soldiers captured in the Caucasus. “You saved my life,” Otto Bauer told Bobrov.

They were close friends until Bauer’s death five years ago.

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