“Her name was Jeanne…. A brunette, nothing special. But I must find her at any cost.” At 93, Nikolai Vasenin, a former Red Army soldier and Gulag prisoner who fought for the French Resistance in World War II, is searching for the love he says he lost 60 years ago in France.
“I am 93, there is no reason to wait any longer.” Vasenin’s extraordinary nine decades of life have seen him captured by the Nazis, escape from German captivity, join the French resistance and then be arrested on his return to the Soviet Union.
It is believed that Jeanne - the daughter of a top Resistance commander - is still alive but so far Vasenin has been unable to realise his final life’s mission of meeting her.
Born in 1919, Vasenin was conscripted into the Red Army soon after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. On July 9, 1941, his regiment was encircled near Minsk, in present-day Belarus. Wounded, Nikolai - just like 400,000 other Soviet soldiers - was taken prisoner by the Nazis.
Following a failed attempt to escape from prison in Nuremberg, he was sent to a labour camp in the Drome region of southern France, which he managed to flee in October 1943 to join a group of Maquisards, rural fighters of the French Resistance.
“I did not speak a word of French,” he told AFP by telephone from his home in the Urals region of central Russia. “The Maquis (resistance fighters) did not trust me in the beginning but after my first fight their attitude changed,” the old man recollects.
Fairly soon, the young Russian became a commander of a 25-strong guerrilla detachment dubbed later “the group of Nicolas”. Vasenin fought against the Nazis in the north of the Drome region, said the French journalist Laurent Brayard, who has worked on stories on the “Russian Maquis” for the Voice of Russia radio station.
“The Maquisards had a strange way of fighting: before an operation, they were having coffee at home and coming back at noon to have lunch,” Brayard said.
Through encrypted cables, the “group of Nicolas” was in contact with the British who were supplying the resistance fighters with arms.
- ‘The captain was against’ -
When Vasenin was wounded in the leg, his commander, Gerard Monot, took him to his home where his daughter Jeanne, four years his junior, nursed him.
When British-American troops arrived in September 1944, Nikolai had to go to Paris and appear before the Soviet mission’s general staff.
“Before leaving, I asked Gerard for Jeanne’s hand,” Nikolai recounted. The three had a tough talk as the “captain was categorically against”. The Russian had to go.
“Probably, because I was poor,” Vasenin said. “And Jeanne… she was sad, but she was afraid of her father.” In the spring of 1945, just before the end of the war, Vasenin arrived in the Soviet Black Sea port city of Odessa where he was immediately arrested, in a cruel twist of fate suffered by many Soviet ex-prisoners of war.
He was sentenced to 15 years in the Gulag “for treason” but was released early after a few years - he does not remember exactly when - and confined to internal exile in Siberia.
At the end of his prison term, Nikolai married Zinaida, a geologist who visited the mine where inmates worked. He was rehabilitated during the perestroika reforms under the USSR’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.
Since Zinaida’s death five years ago, the old man and father of three lives alone in a small apartment in Novoberezovsky, near Yekaterinburg.
In 2005 he was made Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration, after his story was made public for the first time.
The only survivor of the Drome Maquis group, Vasenin said he will live at least until he sees Jeanne again. “Je t’aime” (I love you) are the only words he still remembers in French, but “it will suffice”, he said.
Will his life have a fairytale ending? It remains to be seen. But his friends and relatives have already made contact with the French authorities in the hope of reuniting him with Jeanne once more.