MOSCOW—Russia has been fighting in Ukraine for more than 100 days, but the last time the government officially announced the number of casualties in the Russian army was in March, when 1,351 Russian troops had been killed. At the time, Ukrainian officials claimed the death toll among Russians was more than 15,000; now, they give a total of 30,000 military personnel killed. However, the figure can’t be independently verified.
From time to time, the leaders of Russian regions publicly announce the names of troops who died in Ukraine after Feb. 24 and offer their condolences to families. State-owned regional media also post short obituaries about killed soldiers. Once in a while, they publish comments from family members who tell about the soldier’s personality and how proud they are. On June 3, the Russian independent outlet Mediazona confirmed more than 3,200 deaths based on these sources. Most of the deceased whose ages were mentioned were between 21 and 23 years old, and hundreds were under 20. Obituaries in the local press sometimes include quotes from their school teachers because it was not so long ago that the soldiers graduated. Most deaths were of soldiers from small towns and villages in poor Russian regions. Mediazona found just six troops from Moscow among the dead, though the capital represents 9 percent of Russia’s population of 147 million. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has never mentioned the deceased in his speeches.
At first, Russia emphasized that conscripted soldiers weren’t being sent to take part in the “special operation”—only those who signed contracts. (Conscription in Russia obliges men aged between 18 and 27, with no serious medical issues, to serve in the army for one year. As the head of the Defense Committee of the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, Vladimir Shamanov, said a year ago, 30 percent of the Russian army are conscripts, while the remaining 70 percent are professional, contract personnel.) After previous denials, however, in March, officials admitted that some conscripts had been sent to Ukraine by mistake and promised to punish those in charge. One of the reasons why so many young men from villages with almost no job opportunities sign contracts are decent salaries. “In a peaceful time, contract troops earned 30,000–70,000 rubles per month [$500–$1,100] or even more,” says Sergei Krivenko, the coordinator of the human rights initiative Citizen and the Army.
Relatives of Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine are reluctant to talk to the media. After Vladimir Putin signed a law saying that spreading “fake news” about the Russian military can lead to up to 15 years of prison, it has become unclear what information can or can’t be shared. Also, families might be afraid that if they speak out, they won’t get compensation: The family of a fallen soldier is entitled to a payment of at least 7.4 million rubles (about $120,000). “The government is obliged to pay this money. However, to get it, families have to submit many documents. In Russian reality, this process turns into begging different officials to sign papers, so it seems that it depends on their mercy, though it doesn’t. So, relatives are afraid that they will offend officials with any public actions, and authorities won’t give them what they owe,” says Krivenko.
Additionally, many don’t trust foreign media. “Foreign press twists facts and shows everything in a bad light,” the sister of a fallen soldier, who declined to be interviewed, said to me. “I should think if it is appropriate to talk about my husband, Russia’s patriot, with an American outlet,” another woman who never got back to me said. However, I found others willing to talk about family members killed in Ukraine on duty and their thoughts on “special operation” and its consequences.
Daria Kajya, 22 years old, told that her fiancé, Vladislav Yakshamin, 28 years old, died in Ukraine on April 15. She is originally from Moscow, but for four years, she has lived more than 150 miles away with Vladislav in Ivanovo. They planned to get married at the end of June. Daria also mentioned that Vladislav’s great-grandfather was from Ukraine and fought on the eastern front of World War II. She says:
It was Vladislav’s second deployment overseas after Syria. First, he was sent to the drill at the end of January. And then he was deployed to Ukraine. The connection was poor there. On March 30, his birthday, he called me via video first time, and I saw how his appearance changed. He didn’t say much; it was not allowed. He could tell me that they ate, slept in the tanks or vehicles, and were at the banya [sauna], which was a special event for them. He and his colleagues were caught in shelling in Kharkiv Oblast, but it is still unclear how he died exactly because different commanders say different things. He was a driver and was in a vehicle. According to one version, he left the vehicle to help the wounded fellow troops and was killed himself.
When he called me, he always said: “Everything is fine. I will come home soon.” Once I tried to convince him to return. I told him: “You don’t have obligations, neither military mortgage nor loans, you don’t owe anybody. So, if the situation becomes tense, you can quit and come home.” But he answered: “We don’t leave our people.”
I am not into politics; I don’t watch the news. I started to read some only when the “special military operation” began. I read RIA Novosti [a state-owned news agency] and some Telegram channels about our army. I can’t say anything from the political point of view, but while Vladislav was there, I could only support him and be on his side. Now I don’t know what to think. We fought enough, I believe. I wish there were no more losses in our army and in general. The husbands of my friends have been deployed to Ukraine, too.
As for sanctions, it was apparent that the consequences of “the special operation” would follow. I don’t blame anybody except countries that introduced measures without getting to the bottom of the situation. However, everybody has their opinions. I hope sanctions will help restore and develop local production, which was overlooked because of imported goods.
According to the Russian state-funded pollster VCIOM, as of May 30, 72 percent of Russians support the “special military operation.” On June 2, the independent polling organization Levada Center reported an even higher number of those who back the actions of Russian armed forces in Ukraine: 77 percent. The center also found that only 56 percent of Russians are closely following the situation around Ukraine, and 53 percent believe that reports on state-owned TV are objective.
A Russian who asked to remain anonymous told me that his friend, a 25-year-old serviceman named Artyom from the Ural region, died in Ukraine on March 21. He said that he doesn’t watch TV but approves of the “special military operation”:
Artyom was killed in [the self-proclaimed] “People’s Republic” of Luhansk. He died from a … gunshot wound in his chest. In December, he was deployed overseas [to another country other than Ukraine], and in March, he went to Ukraine. He called once a week or two weeks. We were not allowed to ask him anything except maybe, “How are you?” He mainly was asking us questions.
When Artyom came to Ukraine, he didn’t tell his parents that he was there not to worry them, but he told me. Artyom and I are optimistic people. We always think that we will get through anything. Before he was sent to Ukraine, he texted me saying that everything would be fine. First, he didn’t want to go, but he thought it would be OK since the fellow troops he was going with were decent people. That is why he went.
I don’t watch the news on TV; most of the content there is lies, I used to read news updates on Telegram, but I am not following anything right now. I support Vladimir Putin. I believe that “the special operation” is the right thing to do. Russia is fighting against nationalists in Ukraine. Artyom and I are patriots. Talking about losses among civilians and the destruction of cities, what can I think about it? There is no war without casualties. It was inevitable.
I blame Europe for sanctions. However, around 80 percent of Russians haven’t been affected by them. They live as they used to do before. The cars and apartments have become more expensive, but prices on groceries and other things haven’t gone up.
Many Russians whose family members died fighting in Ukraine put Russian flags on their social media profile pictures as well as the “Z” and “V” military symbols to express their support of the “operation.” The Radio Free Europe project Sibir.Realii told the story of Valentina Berezovskaya, a woman from a small Siberian village who complained that she couldn’t get compensation after her brother, who supported her and her children financially, was killed in Ukraine. Despite a lack of help from the government, she told the outlet that she approves of Russia’s actions in the neighboring country. I tried to reach out to her on Odnoklassniki social media, where she wrote her name as Valentina BereZoVskaya, but she told me that it was too painful for her to talk about her brother.
Most profiles of grieving relatives on social media are private. On pages that allow comments from strangers, there are plenty of mean messages from bots, supposedly from Ukraine; the bots repeat the same messages under different posts.
When parents of some soldiers don’t hear from them for a long time, they use Russia’s largest social media platform VKontakte to look for their sons. Alexander Krasotkin, the father of Dmitriy Krasotkin, who had been deployed to Ukraine, published a post in a community of a Russian military unit his son served with on March 29: “I haven’t heard from my son since February 22. He said that on February 23 he was supposed to be brought to Kharkiv. On March 26, I got a call from the military unit: They said that my son was missing. I am looking for those who received the same calls.” At least four people answered him that they were in the same situation. On April 28, Krasotkin told Mediazona that his son had been killed. He learned it from his son’s fellow soldiers; according to him, Russian officials were helpless in providing him information. His concern was getting the body of his son, which was left in Kharkiv. “If I had a chance, I would go fight myself. I am waiting till our troops take Kharkiv, then I will go there,” he told Mediazona. (Krasotkin didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Still, there are families who disapprove of what Russia is doing in Ukraine and wish their relatives had not been deployed to serve there. Yelena, the sister of 24-year-old Aleksei from the small town of Shumikha in the Ural region, said that he was survived by his wife and 2-year-old son. She shares:
It was his second contract. The last time the family saw him was on Jan. 16, and then he was sent to the drill. Afterward, Aleksei was deployed to Ukraine. Of course, we didn’t want him to go there, but we didn’t know where he was. On Feb. 24, he called us and said … [to] watch the news and disconnected. The last time he called his wife was on March 1, and he said that everything was fine. He was a very cheerful and helpful person. On March 5, he died after his vehicle was hit by shelling.
We don’t follow news now; it hurts. We haven’t calmed down yet, and we cry every day. Also, we tried not to watch the news back then in order not to overthink, as we worried a lot.
I don’t support the special military operation because young, innocent men die. We don’t talk about it in the family, but I think that our parents and Aleksei’s wife don’t approve of it, either. I wish it all to end soon.
While Russia supposedly doesn’t want to show its losses in Ukraine and doesn’t update the information on casualties in the army, it is hard to hide fresh graves in cemeteries all over the country and control what relatives of those killed say publicly. Many families prefer to show solidarity with fallen troops by not dismissing their sacrifices. But many don’t comment because they understand that the special operation is “unfair, illegal and pointless,” says Krivenko. “Saying it out loud and processing it will mean that the troop died for nothing. This is incredibly hard to bear.”