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Russian families mourn war deaths as Kremlin hides true toll

Written by Javed Iqbal

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When Yevgeny Tyubarin told his mother he was joining the Russian army to fight against Ukraine, she cried and begged him not to go. But his enthusiasm shone through. On May 15, he had an AK-47 and was on his way. The 24-year-old stone factory worker was killed the next day.

Stories like his are taboo in Russia, where the heartbreaking grief of many families is buried under the triumphant bombast of the state media. The war is portrayed as an existential struggle for survival against “Nazis” as well as NATO, and a virtual news blackout on the bloody toll underlines the Kremlin’s anxiety about the durability of its manufactured support.

Still, some stories trickle out. Vladimir Krot was a 59-year-old Soviet-trained pilot, a retired Afghan war veteran, who begged to serve in Ukraine. He kept asking despite repeated rejections, and in June, as the victims mounted, he was finally told “yes.” Krot died a few days later when his SU-25 jet went down under one training flight in southern Russia. He left behind a wife and an 8-year-old daughter.

The number of war dead is a state secret. It is a crime to question the invasion or criticize the military. Independent journalists who speak to bereaved relatives or cover funerals has been arrested and told that it is bad for public morals to show such “tears and suffering”. Authorities have ordered some online memorial sites to be shut down.

The Kremlin’s priority has been to prevent angry voices from grieving families and anti-war activists from converging and gaining traction. Information about war dead may deter Russia’s increasingly urgent recruitment effortsscrape prisoners with military experience and offer high-paying contracts for deployments.

Homeland Security agents visited Dmitry Shkrebets this summer after he accused Russian authorities of lying about how many sailors died when the Black Sea flagship Moscow was sunk off Ukrainian missiles on April 13. His son Yegor, one of the conscripts on board, was listed as “missing”. The agents accused Shkrebet of making bomb threats and confiscated his laptop, which he posted on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. On Tuesday, 111 days after Yegor’s death, the military finally gave his father a death certificate.

“It never gets easier,” Shkrebets wrote in a post. “There will never be true joy. We will never be the same again. We have become different, we have become more unhappy, but also stronger, tougher. We no longer fear even those who should be feared.”

But independent analyst Bobo Lo of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, believes the Kremlin has largely contained the risk of unrest over the high number of casualties. Because most people are so wary of airing dissent, it is difficult to gauge the real level of support for the war. Pollster VCIOM, which is close to government officials, reported in June that 72 percent of Russians support the fighting.

Patients and staff in the town of Borodyanka are still recovering from the brutality of a three-week Russian occupation. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Jon Gerberg, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Politically, Russian President Vladimir Putin “has been able to defend this,” said Lo, a former deputy chief of mission at the Australian embassy in Moscow. “Partly through controlling the information narrative, but also because this is now seen as a war against the West.”

With many families afraid to speak up and no credible victims, independent media and rights groups are keeping their own numbers. Their numbers, based only on confirmed open source death reports, are modest.

Independent Russian outlet Mediazona and BBC News Russian counted 5,185 war dead as of July 29, with the heaviest losses in remote and impoverished areas such as the southern region of Dagestan and the Siberian region of Buryatia. The wealthy cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg were barely touched, the two outlets concluded. Moscow, with a population of 12.5 million, lost only 11 soldiers, and St. Petersburg, 35.

In contrast, the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6 rate it at least 15,000 Russians have been killed since their country’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, casualties equal to the ten-year Soviet war in Afghanistan. And that was “probably a conservative estimate,” MI6 chief Richard Moore told the Aspen Security Forum last month.

Chubarin’s death was an ominous reflection of the desperation of the Russian military. A former conscript from the Karelia region, he signed a three-month contract and was too excited to ask how much he would be paid. His mother, Nina Chubarina, believes he wanted to prove himself as a man. She wonders if he was trying to win his ex-wife back.

“He knew it was dangerous,” she said in a recent interview. He left on May 11 and sent cheery messages and videos after arriving in Belgorod in southern Russia. He got some training in his four days there, then quickly called home. He had been issued a machine gun and was on his way to war.

“That was it. That was the last time we spoke,” she said. The military told her he was found dead near Mariupol on May 16. “He was a very brave guy, wasn’t afraid of anything. He was so cheerful and open and so kind.”

Chubarina, a dairy worker, does not question the war. She has just re-read a poem her son sent her while she was conscripted in 2017, about growing up and leaving her behind: “Forgive me for all the pain that has fallen on your weary shoulders. Please accept my soldier’s bow. It is from the bottom of my heart.”

Sergei Dustin of Baltiysk refuses to be quiet. His daughter, Alexandra, married a Marine named Maksim and was widowed at 19. He vented his fury on Facebook, saying the Russians should ask why their sons died.

He described the war as a “massacre started by crazy old men who think they are great geopoliticians and super-strategists, in reality incapable of anything but destruction, threats to the world, puffing cheeks and endless lies.”

Some responses called him a traitor. His son-in-law had gone in the winter for “training exercises” and ended up in Ukraine. An old friend from Ukraine fought on the other side. Dustin hoped that none of them would die.

He refused to hear any details about how the young man died, and his daughter closed in on her grief. “It is very difficult for her to understand and acknowledge that her husband participated in an operation that was far from nice, to say the least,” he said. “This whole story just brings sadness and tragedy to everyone.”

Not many grieving families publicly question the war effort. The silence serves to minimize public understanding of its impact on the home front. In the eastern Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, a recent investigation by the independent news site Lyudi Baikala found that few residents knew that more than 250 people from the region had been killed, a count the site calculated using open sources.

Even so, cracks have appeared. In Buryatia, a group of wives of Russian soldiers made a video in June to demand that the military bring their men home. Hundreds of soldiers from the region contacted an activist group there for information on how to break their contracts, according to Alexandra Garmazhapova, the founder of the Free Buryatia Foundation. Casualties on a local memorial page on VKontakte are increasing daily.

On Monday, the deaths of local basketball players Dmitry Lagunov and Nikolay Bagrov were confirmed. A woman named Raisa Dugarova answered the page. “Why does Buryatia have to bury its sons every day?” she asked. “Why are we doing this?”

The following day there was another post about the death of Zolto Chimitov, a corporal in his early 30s who was born in the village of Tsakir. He became a boxing champion and later trained as a forest officer. He had three children.

“Oh god, please stop this war. How many of our guys can die?” wrote a woman named Yevgenia Yakovleva. “My soul is torn with pain. I don’t know how to accept this, survive and live with it.”

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Javed Iqbal

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