The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia’s war dead belie its slogan that no one is left behind

As Russian mothers and widows grieve, countless bodies are unclaimed in Ukraine

Damaged trees and Russian military equipment near a Ukraine military position in Irpin on April 2,2022. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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Editor's note

This story contains graphic images of bodies.

Soon after the invasion began, a hashtag war slogan popped up everywhere in Russia: “We don’t leave ours behind.” But many were.

In Irpin, on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, two Russian soldiers killed in battle lay on a street corner, covered with a sheet of metal, legs poking out. A third lay a few feet away near a burned-out armored personnel carrier, a lower leg gnawed by dogs. A fourth lay further along the road, the victim of a mine.

In Moshchun, a once-idyllic hamlet northwest of Kyiv, another Russian soldier died inside a dimly lit kitchen, lying on a bench with a gruesome groin wound. Ten others were scattered about, several on the fringes of a forest.

While countless bodies have been abandoned on the battlefield, many more have found their way back to their families, but Russia’s overall death toll, though staggering, remains elusive. At home, the Kremlin has clamped down on news of military casualties, apparently wary of how a nation’s grief could turn volatile. In 2015, Putin signed a decree declaring all military deaths a state secret, and last year Russia criminalized statements discrediting the military.

NATO estimates that Russia has lost 7,000 to 15,000 troops during the six-week war, a startling number, while Ukraine puts the toll at 18,600. Those figures rival, if not exceed, the 14,453 lost during the Soviet Union’s roughly 10-year war in Afghanistan and the 11,000 Russian service members who died in the two Chechen wars.

Russia puts the official military death toll of the Ukrainian campaign at 1,351, and state television does not dwell on this figure. With Russia now apparently girding for a grueling war of attrition and analysts predicting that Moscow will keep plowing in massive numbers of troops and material, the media in the Russian towns and cities that have lost the largest number of their sons are strangely quiet.

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Dozens from the Russian town of Aleysk, in the Altai region, reportedly died in the first days of the war in fighting near the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. After news reached families, there was only one cryptic reference on the local community online news page: “Dear military family members! We kindly ask you not to allow people to gather in one place, not to succumb to provocative information.”

A similar notice on the eternal memory page for Chelyabinsk — another Russian city with significant casualties — warned against fake information “created with the aim of whipping up hysteria.” People must not share news of deaths, it added, claiming that “Nazis from Ukraine” were trying to “collect information about our soldiers for the subsequent development of fake information.”

‘The first week was like darkness’

Vadim Kolodiy, a 19-year-old gunner from the 136th Reconnaissance Battalion based in Naro-Fominsk outside Moscow, died after he was attacked and trapped in his armored personnel carrier, the Russian military told his mother, Tatyana, last month, but she never received his body.

“I am hysterical. Vadim didn’t even have a chance to escape. He burned inside,” she wrote on social media. “The first week was like darkness. Pain, tears. I could not sleep or eat.” She said she felt anger at men in their 30s and 40s out drinking beer, while “children” in their late teens and early 20s were dead.

Investigators exhumed 21 of at least 67 bodies suspected to be lying in a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine, April 8. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

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A few weeks after Kolodiy’s reported death, charred remains thought to be his were analyzed in a laboratory in Rostov, but the DNA did not match.

“No one is looking for these children,” Tatyana said. “No one cares about them. How many of these children, husbands, are there? How much pain had this all brought?”

Nikita Deryabin’s widow, Anya Deryabina, buried her husband last month, but still does not have a feeling of closure. Deryabin, 25, of Chelyabinsk had adored his wife and three young children. A sniper who loved the military, he was sent on a “training exercise,” only to be killed in battle March 8.

“I still can’t realize or believe that this is true,” Deryabina said in written answers to questions because she said she could not speak without crying. At night, she dreams of him, feeling he is still with her. “Every day I talk to him. Every day I ask him what for and why.

“My brain refuses to accept the information that Nikitka is dead,” she said, using a diminutive nickname. “I am still waiting for him to call, to come back.”

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Some bereaved family members want Russia to redouble its military campaign in Ukraine so, they say, that their boys will not have died in vain.

Gulnara Valiyeva, 43, whose son Yevgeny was killed with his German shepherd service dog in Hostomel, near Kyiv, called on social media for Russia to keep fighting “to the end.” She buried him, and is begging the military to let her have the female Belgian shepherd pup he was training before he left, so that she can keep part of him.

But there are also flashes of dissent. “People are saying that their relatives are sent (to Ukraine.) What the f--- is this about? For what?” commented Olga Filippova on March 11, under Valiyeva’s online post about her son’s memorial.

Trying to return the bodies

Ukraine has about 7,000 unclaimed Russian corpses in morgues and refrigerated rail cars, according to Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration. He said his government’s figure of 18,600 Russian dead was based on Ukrainian reports from the battlefield and intercepted Russian military communications.

Ukraine tried to return the bodies of 3,000 Russian service members on the third day of the war, he said. “They said, ‘We don’t believe in such quantities. We don’t have this number. We’re not ready to accept them.’ ” Ukraine proposed an exchange several times, he said, but “they won’t discuss this at all yet.”

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So Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs set up a website and Telegram channel where Russians can search photos of the dead and prisoners of war, or fill out an online form seeking information about family members.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for comment.

Yevheni Velichko, the 32-year-old mayor of Voznesensk, a southern Ukrainian town, asked residents to collect Russian corpses after a two-day battle “so that we can send these guys back to their mothers and wives.”

“Russian or not Russian, we treated the bodies with dignity,” he said, adding that they were sent to Kyiv.

In nearby Bashtanka village, Mayor Oleksandr Beregovyi said dead Russians were buried in mass graves after their documents were collected.

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Pivoting to brute force

Keir Giles of the London-based think tank Chatham House said the difference between Western and Russian military attitudes about their war dead was “night and day … in exactly the same way as their attitude to civilian casualties and collateral damage is utterly unrecognizable from how Western militaries operate.”

Russia had planned a swift operation in Ukraine, similar to what it had planned in its wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but then got bogged down. “And then Russia pivots from the clever way to the brute force way of winning wars,” Giles said, and casualties mount on both sides.

Local authorities say Russians used a children’s summer camp in Bucha, Ukraine as a base to stage their offensive and torture Ukrainians in a basement. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

In Chechnya, Russian officials had expected swift triumph. The storming of the capital, Grozny, in 1994 was a catastrophe, with soldiers in armored vehicles getting lost and lacking air support and working radios. But Russia’s media at the time was free, and civil society was blossoming. News programs aired footage of Russian soldiers burning alive in armored vehicles. Horrified parents of soldiers simply went to Chechnya and took their sons home.

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The Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, then led by Valentina Melnikova, was a focal point for protests and anger. In December last year, as Russia’s military massed near Ukraine, her phone was ringing off the hook again, although she is long retired, Melnikova recently told Russian YouTube interviewer Ekaterina Gordeyeva.

Melnikova declined interview requests from The Post, saying that it was dangerous for her or the organization to speak, because of the law against discrediting the military.

Before the Feb. 24 invasion, she gave parents the same advice as she did in the 1990s: Either go and collect their sons from the army and hide them somewhere safe, or tell them to run away, she said in the YouTube interview, the only one she has granted. Not one parent did so, she said.

After the invasion, “I felt like I was back in 1995. It was a terrible feeling,” she said. “It was like Grozny again, when around 2,500 dead soldiers lay on the streets for a month, half-eaten by animals.” She said she believes Ukraine’s list is fairly accurate because it lists names from identity documents.

“But since our army does not collect the bodies of the dead and don’t always pick up the wounded, there can be many discrepancies,” she said, referring to Russia’s figures. “It’s cheaper to report them as ‘missing in action.’”

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Sergei Krivenko, director of the rights group “Citizen Army Law,” said Russians were sensitive about deaths of conscripts. Putin has said that conscripts have not been sent to Ukraine, but some have been. Losses among volunteers or “contract” soldiers in Ukraine, however, are less shocking.

“The mentality is that you’re paid for this and if you are sent to a military operation and you die, it’s your choice,” Krivenko said. “A soldier is just a tool to do a job. … The main task is to destroy the enemy, and how many losses we take is a secondary issue.”

Krivenko said he doubted the mounting Russian deaths would spark enough popular discontent to threaten Putin.

“Propaganda is shouting constantly that we are defeating fascists in Ukraine. So as long as the number of dead doesn’t increase one-hundred-fold, I do not think there will be any instability,” he said.

Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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