To Russia, with Love

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“Hero of the Soviet Union” recipient’s grandson Mikhail Nikolenko and Seal Beach resident Henry Sakaida. Courtesy photo

Henry Sakaida is a collector, but he is so much more than that. He is really an historian because he breathes life into his collection, which revolves around World War II military history. His love and knowledge of history, combined with his innate curiosity and research skills, has resulted in dramatic, life-changing events. One of those historic events occurred last month, in Russia, with Seal Beach resident Sakaida front and center.

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In 2006, Sakaida was at a collector show in Pennsylvania, looking at Soviet military medals. For $4,000, he purchased a medal called “Hero of the Soviet Union.”  By tracing the serial number (with the help of a friend in Kiev and Russian archives) he learned the medal belonged to a man named Stepan Nikolenko. The medal was awarded to him in 1940, during the Winter War against the Finns. The medal’s serial number, 282, was an early award; about 11,000 were awarded before the USSR collapsed.

Next, Sakaida, 65, went to Russian Google. How could he do that? He was a self-described Russophile at age 9, and through a series of amazing circumstances he was able to take Russian language in high school in Rosemead. It’s one of many languages he speaks.

From Russian Google, he found the medal recipient’s grandson, Mikhail Nikolenko. The younger man had posted on a Russian genealogical site in 2012 that he was seeking information on his grandfather. Knowing a bit about Russian culture, Sakaida went through his friend in Kiev, a teacher who acted as an intermediary.

Mikhail was very wary of the mysterious man who told his friend in Kiev that he had information about his grandfather. Mikhail and his wife suspected a scam, and they were reluctant to cooperate, especially because they didn’t know the nationality or country of the “mystery person.”

But Sakaida kept sending small bits of historical information to Mikhail, finally sending him the medal’s serial number after half a year of correspondence.

“Only two people in the world knew that number: me and him,” Sakaida said. “When he received that number, he knew this was real and sent me tons of information and photos. That’s when I decided to return the medals.”

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In February of 2017, Sakaida traveled to Moscow, at his expense, to meet Mikhail and his family and return the medals. The Russians held an elaborate military ceremony (it was a military holiday there) and Sakaida was congratulated and presented with an engraved and personalized Cossack saber. It was given to him, on stage, by a 3-star Russian general.

Although he was much lighter in the wallet after flying to Russia and giving back the medals he spent thousands of dollars on, for Sakaida it was simply the right thing to do.

“The historian in me pulled me in the direction of returning the medals,” he said.

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It takes a certain type of person to be a collector; quite a different story for a collector to return the items he paid for. But for Sakaida, it makes perfect sense.

“I love the hunt. I hunt history. It’s sort of like being a cold case detective. I’ve got this evidence here, how do I make it talk?”

His love of history explains part of his passion.

Sakaida has also had 10 books he wrote on World War II history published. He has appeared on PBS, as well as The History Channel and the Discovery Channel.

The Russian war medals are not the only ones he has returned. There have been four medals returned to date, and one other medal was also from Russia.

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Sakaida was a nurseryman by profession in the San Gabriel Valley. He retired in 2007 and moved to Seal Beach the following year. His degree from San Jose State University was in advertising.