Russian families mourn the death of the war as the Kremlin hides the real toll


When Yevgeny Chubarin told her mother that he had joined the Russian army to fight Ukraine, she cried and begged him not to go. But his joy broke through. On May 15 he had an AK-47 and it was on its way. A 24-year-old stone factory worker was killed the next day.

Stories like his are taboo in Russia, where the painful grief of many families is buried under the triumphant bombardment of state media. The war is portrayed as an existential struggle for survival against both the “Nazis” and NATO, and the virtual blockade of news of the bloody harvest underlines the Kremlin’s concern about the durability of the support it produces.

However, some stories get out there. Vladimir Krot was a 59-year-old Soviet-trained pilot, a retired Afghan war veteran who pleaded to serve in Ukraine. He kept asking despite repeated refusals, and in June, as the death toll grew, he was finally told “yes”. Krot died just days later when his SU-25 jet crashed during a training flight in southern Russia. He left a wife and 8-year-old daughter.

The death toll is a state secret. It is an offense to question an invasion or to criticize the military. Independent journalists who talk to bereaved relatives or hide funerals were arrested and said that displaying such “tears and suffering” was detrimental to the morale of society. Authorities have ordered the closure of some internet memorial sites.

The Kremlin’s priority was to prevent the gathering and awakening of angry voices from mourning families and anti-war activists. Information about those killed in the war may discourage Russia from increasing urgent recruitment efforts, eliminating prisoners with military experience and offering high-paying deployment contracts.

Homeland security agents visited Dmitry Shkrebet this summer after he accused Russian authorities of lying about how many sailors were killed when the Moskva flagship was sunk by Ukrainian missiles on April 13. His son Yegor, one of the conscripts on board, was listed as “missing”. “. Agents accused Shkrebets of bomb threats and confiscated his laptop, as detailed on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. On Tuesday, 111 days after Yegor’s death, the military finally handed his father a death certificate.

“It will never be easier,” wrote Shkrebets in the post. “There will never be real joy. We will never be the same again. We have become different, more unhappy, but also stronger, tougher. We are no longer afraid of even those who are to be feared ”.

However, independent analyst Bobo Lo of the Australian Lowy Institute think tank believes the Kremlin has largely reduced the risk of unrest due to the large number of casualties. Since most people are so cautious about voicing objections, it is difficult to judge the actual level of support for the war. The VCIOM pollster, who is close to the government authorities, reported in June that 72% of Russians support the fighting.

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

Politically, Russian President Vladimir Putin “was able to defend it,” said Lo, the former deputy head of mission at the Australian embassy in Moscow. “Partly by controlling the information narrative, but also because it is now seen as a war with the West.”

Since many families are afraid to speak up and there are no credible numbers of victims, independent media and human rights groups keep their own accounts. Their number, based only on confirmed open source death reports, is modest.

The independent Russian service Mediazona and BBC News Russian counted 5,185 killed in the war on July 29, with the greatest 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 affected, two outlets ended. With 12.5 million inhabitants, Moscow lost only 11 soldiers, and St. Petersburg lost 35.

By contrast, the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6 estimate that at least 15,000 Russians have been killed since their country’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, losses equal to the decade-long 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 pay him. His mother, Nina Chubarina, believes he wanted to prove he is a man. He wonders if he was trying to get his ex-wife back.

“He knew it was dangerous,” she said in a recent interview. He left on May 11, sending hilarious messages and videos upon his arrival in Belgorod in southern Russia. He underwent a brief training in four days, then rushed home. He was given a machine gun and he was going to war.

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

Chubarina, the dairy farmer, is not questioning the war. She is just rereading a poem her son sent her as a conscript in 2017 about growing up and leaving her behind: “Forgive me for all the pain that fell on your weary shoulders. Please accept my soldier’s bow. It comes from the bottom of my heart.

Sergey Dustin from Bałtiysk does not want to be silent. His daughter Aleksandra married a marine named Maksim and became a widow at the age of 19. He vented his rage on Facebook saying the Russians had to ask why their sons were dying.

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

Some responses called him a traitor. His son-in-law went to “training exercises” in winter and landed in Ukraine. An old friend from Ukraine was fighting on the other side. Dustin hoped neither of them would die.

He refused to hear any details about the young man’s death, and his daughter shut up in her grief. “It is very difficult for her to understand and admit that her husband was involved in an operation that was, to put it mildly, not pleasant,” he said. “This whole story brings sadness and tragedy to everyone.”

Few of the bereaved families publicly challenge the war effort. The silence serves to minimize public understanding of its impact on the home front. In the city of Ulan-Ude in eastern Siberia, a recent study by the independent news service Lyudi Baikala found that few residents knew that more than 250 people from the region were killed.

Nevertheless, cracks appeared. In Buryatia, a group of Russian soldiers’ wives made a video in June demanding that the military bring their people home. According to Aleksandra Garmazhapova, founder of the Free Buryatia Foundation, hundreds of soldiers from the region contacted a local activist group for information on how to break contracts. The number of victims on the local memorial site on VKontakte is growing daily.

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

The next day there was another entry about the death of Zolto Chimitov, a corporal in his 30s who was born in the rural village of Tsakir. He became a boxing champion, later training to be a forester. He had three children.

“Oh God, please stop this war. How many of our people can die? a woman named Yevgeny Yakovlev wrote. “My soul is torn in pain. I don’t know how to accept it, survive and live with it. “

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