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Russia’s ‘Captain Tom’: 97-year-old Stalingrad veteran raising money for COVID-19 doctors

Captain Tom Moore (Just Giving Fundraiser/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

When “Captain Tom” Moore captured the hearts of Great Britain, walking 100 laps of his garden and collecting more than 32 million pounds ($40 million) for doctors fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the centenarian World War II veteran’s fund-raising drive also drew praise from around the world.

And in Russia, Britain’s wartime ally, it inspired another former combatant to do her part.

Zinaida Korneva, a 97-year-old woman who was conscripted at age 19 and took part in the Battle of Stalingrad, learned of Moore’s initiative when Dmitry Panov, her great-granddaughter Darina’s husband, showed her a news report about it.

“Tom [Moore] appealed to his nation, so I thought: Why don’t we in Russia also help our doctors, like the English?” Korneva said in a Skype interview from her home outside St. Petersburg, where she is sitting out the pandemic with her granddaughter Yelena Fomicheva.

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On April 30, the same day Moore turned 100, completed the final lap of his garden, and passed $37 million in donations, Korneva donned her own military medals and, with help from Fomicheva, recorded a video address to the Englishman.

“You are a strong person, and a real soldier,” Korneva, whose job in the war was to spot enemy aircraft, said in a video posted that afternoon to YouTube. “Together, we defeated fascism in 1945, and now, together, we are fighting this virus.”

She told Moore she couldn’t do 100 laps of her garden like he did, “because I haven’t left my house in a long time.” Instead, she promised to film herself every day telling stories from the war, and use them as a fund-raising platform for the families of Russian doctors who have died fighting the virus.

And as a birthday gift, she promised to knit Moore a pair of socks to keep him warm, “from Russia with love.”

Since then, Korneva’s monologues have appeared daily on a dedicated YouTube channel and a special website Panov created to promote the project. She recounts her call-up for military service following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941…

…and how International Women’s Day was celebrated during the war.

Hard-Hit Doctors

As of May 6, Korneva has raised more than 2 million rubles ($27,000). The initial target was 300,000 rubles, enough to help the families of 10 doctors in St. Petersburg. Now, she says, it is 3 million rubles, and the list of families that will get support has expanded to encompass an unofficial tally of victims updated daily by Russian doctors, which now contains 111 names.

“It’s very nice for my grandmother to receive this attention. We honestly didn’t expect it,” Fomicheva said.

Like Moore – who is known as “Captain Tom” but was made an honorary colonel on his 100th birthday — Korneva was inspired to do her part after receiving treatment from local doctors. For several weeks last year, she lay at St. Petersburg’s Hospital for War Veterans recovering from a hip fracture, following an operation that her family feared she may not survive.

“They had to put her back together,” said Fomicheva. “She owes her longevity to genetics, but she also owes it to the doctors.”

Around the same time Korneva learned of Moore’s fund-raising drive, news surfaced that two doctors at her hospital had died from the coronavirus. So Korneva and her family decided to help.

The fund-raising drive has received praise in Russia, as well as attention from officials and government media.

Shortages of protective equipment among doctors are a sensitive issue in Russia, where more than 165,000 coronavirus cases and more than 1,500 deaths have been recorded amid widespread suspicion that the real toll is higher. And authorities have clamped down on other activists gathering donations to equip medics across the country.

But Korneva, who is a great-great-grandmother to Panov’s two sons, said her campaign is very deliberately apolitical.

A Pair Of Socks

“We’ve appealed to the nation without politics,” she said. “We have no special connections to any organizations with lots of money, or ties to the government. This is a simple appeal for people to unite.”

There’s another motivation, too. Like many Russians and their government, Korneva believes the Soviet Union does not get due credit for its contribution to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. The stories she tells and promotes online are part of an effort to change that.

“Of course, we achieved victory together. England, America, France — they all helped us,” she said. “But the Soviet Union did the lion’s share. And it offends us to hear otherwise.”

Moore had yet to answer Korneva’s video from April 30, she said, but her family hopes the two veterans can connect via video link soon. Korneva’s fund-raiser will end on May 9, the day Russia celebrates 75 years since the victory over Nazi Germany.

As for the socks she promised to knit for Moore, Panov said he is organizing a DHL express delivery to the Englishman’s house in a village near Milton Keynes, northwest of London.

“She’s already knitted them. They’re ready to go,” he said. “If all goes well, he’ll have them by Victory Day.”