Every spring, when the ground thaws, searchers fan out across Russia's vast swamps and forests armed with metal detectors, shovels and long metal probes, scouring for bones.

Most are are barely teenagers, their nails caked in the dirt of this valley west of Moscow, where up to 30,000 soldiers died before Adolf Hitler's advancing Nazi army in 1941.

While their friends gear up to celebrate the May 9 Victory Day holiday by watching the military parade on Red Square, for the volunteers here the memory of the war is stronger.

"Out here, it's worth thinking about what they did for us. If it weren't for them, we might not be here," said Nikolai Krasikov, 23, standing thigh deep in muddy water and plunging for remains.

"It's our duty to find and bury our heroes with honour."

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