Searching for bodies with the Ukrainian captain collecting Russian corpses

Capt. Anton works to recover a decayed body in a field near Tsyrkuny, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, on Sept. 24. (Sasha Maslov for The Washington Post)

TSYRKUNY, Ukraine — When there’s a Russian corpse that needs collecting, Capt. Anton gets the call. Sometimes, he’ll receive a text with coordinates of where the body is located. Other times, people offer to lead him to the site.

After single-handedly bagging more than 250 dead enemy soldiers, Anton has created something of a reputation in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region. Rather than spending time and energy searching for corpses, he can now work off referrals.

On one recent weekend, he followed a car of soldiers down a dirt road in Tsyrkuny, a village outside Kharkiv. At the edge of a field was a decayed body still in its military uniform. Anton hunched over it, snapping on gloves and sliding his hands into all of the dead soldier’s pockets, looking for the man’s documents. He carefully ran his fingers up and down the body before abruptly stopping at the boot.

“Everyone back away,” Anton warned.

Four of the corpses he’s recovered have been booby-trapped with explosives. This was a false alarm. He took off his gloves and put on a new pair.

As a member of a small volunteer search unit code-named J9, Anton’s macabre wartime profession is to find the dead Russians scattered around Ukraine after seven months of war. Anton said he often talks to the corpses he collects. Sometimes, he said, he can sense where they’re located, as if they’re calling out to him.

The remains go into a white bag and are then delivered to a morgue, where DNA samples are collected. The plan is to eventually return the bodies to Russia and to retrieve the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in action in an exchange.

But sending the corpses back to Russia also sends the soldiers’ families, and by extension the Russian public, a clear and certain message about the cost of President Vladimir Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine. Their loved ones are dead. It is also an unmistakable warning to the men who are now being called up for military duty as part of Putin’s recently announced partial mobilization.

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Although Putin said only men with previous service in the armed forces would be activated, there are widespread reports in Russia that the rules are not being followed. Military analysts say many of these reinforcements could be sent to the front lines with little training, and end up poorly equipped and poorly led, given losses in the ranks of Russian officers.

Anton said he expects to be kept busy for the next few months helping those newly mobilized soldiers go home.

“Welcome to Ukraine, Russian meat,” he said sarcastically. “My job will be around for a long time.”

The job gives Anton, who offered only his first name and rank in keeping with his commander’s orders, a unique perspective on Russian military losses during its war against Ukraine.

He said he alone has collected 100 corpses in September — since Ukraine’s sweeping counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region forced Moscow’s military into a hasty retreat. But he’s also still collecting bodies that have been lying around since March, including the corpse he was called to collect in Tsyrkuny last weekend.

Kyiv has claimed that more than 50,000 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine — a number that can’t be independently verified. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently claimed that approximately 6,000 Russian soldiers had died so far in Ukraine.

Kharkiv children went to summer camp in Russia. They never came back.

U.S. officials have cited heavy Russian losses but have estimated about half as many deaths as the Ukrainian figure, with tens of thousands more wounded.

As he examined the corpse in Tsyrkuny, Anton didn’t put on a face mask, seemingly unbothered by the smell. In fact, he said he likes it, calling the stench “raw” and “real” and comparing it to getting an adrenaline rush on the battlefield. The remains were so decayed after lying around for months that the skull snapped off when Anton tried to move the body into a bag.

He picked up the skull and brought it close to his own face. “Oh, what a fool you are,” he said, before setting it down. “At least someone came for him after all of this time,” said a soldier watching Anton work.

Another soldier cynically commented that this corpse was unlikely to be worth any sort of return.

Bodies of dead soldiers of higher rank tend to be more valuable, especially if they’re immediately identifiable. This one didn’t have any documentation on him, but his uniform was from the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” — the Russian proxy force in eastern Ukraine. The arm bones from the elbow down were ripped off, probably by a dog. Anton found them in a field and packed them with the rest of the body.

Anton typically works alone, driving his matte green Mitsubishi SUV to wherever he’s called. He always has white body bags in the back. To keep the trunk of his car from getting too dirty, he tries to double-bag the corpses. On occasion, when there have been too many to fit inside the vehicle, he has strapped the bagged bodies to the roof before driving them to the morgue.

Anton got custom lettering for the bumper of one of his cars: “Collector of corpses of Ruzzian soldiers.”

Anton’s knapsack, where he keeps his gloves — he might go through more than six pairs during one body collection — is a trophy he said he lifted off a dead Russian national guardsman. “There wasn’t even blood on it — and I washed it,” he explained.

According to the Geneva Conventions, countries at war must make every effort to search for, record and identify the dead left on the battlefield.

The enemy dead’s personal dignity must also be respected. It is a violation of the Geneva Conventions to defile dead bodies, but Ukrainian soldiers often keep small souvenirs from the Russians. At one point, Ukraine had accumulated so many enemy corpses that it was keeping them in a refrigerated train car.

More than 500 Ukrainian bodies had been repatriated as of August, with trades sometimes happening in person in the Zaporizhzhia region, which is partially occupied by Russian troops. Those are the moments that make Anton’s job meaningful, he said.

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Otherwise, Anton said he has no interest in helping dead Russians return home where they can receive a proper burial — especially because the bodies he tends to might have killed his own comrades.

“I think about our Ukrainian mothers every time I go retrieve one of these Russian corpses,” he said. “I want our mothers to bury our boys here at home. I don’t care about the Russian mothers. It doesn’t matter to me what will happen to these bodies later.”

Sasha Maslov and Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.

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