Russian families mourn war dead as Kremlin conceals true toll


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

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

Still, some stories ooze 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 refusals, and in June, as the losses mounted, he was finally told “yes.” Krot died a few days later when his SU-25 jet crashed during a training flight in southern Russia. He leaves 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 to criticize the army. Independent journalists who speak to bereaved relatives or cover the funeral were arrested and told that showing such “tears and pain” is bad for public morale. Authorities have ordered the closure of some online memorial pages.

The Kremlin’s priority has been to stop the angry voices of grieving families and anti-war activists from gathering and gaining traction. Reports of war dead could discourage Russia’s increasingly urgent recruiting efforts, pulling out prisoners with military experience and offering high-paying deployment contracts.

Homeland Security agents visited Dmitry Shkrebets this summer after he accused Russian authorities of lying about the number of sailors who died when the Black Sea flagship Moskva was sunk by Ukrainian missiles on April 13. Her son Yegor, one of the conscripts on board, was listed as “missing”. .” Officers accused Shkrebets of making bomb threats and confiscated his laptop, as he detailed on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. On Tuesday, 111 days after Yegor’s death, the army finally gave his father a death certificate.

“It will never be 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 in the face of the high death toll. Because most people are so cautious about voicing their dissent, it’s hard to gauge the true level of support for the war. The VCIOM pollster, which is close to government authorities, reported in June that 72% of Russians supported 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 “knew how to defend that”, said Lo, a former deputy chief of mission at the Australian embassy in Moscow. “Partly by controlling the narrative of the news, but also because it’s now seen as a war against the West.”

With many families afraid to speak out and no credible casualty count, independent media and rights groups are keeping their own accounts. Their number, based only on open-source confirmed death reports, is modest.

Independent Russian media Mediazona and BBC News Russian counted 5,185 war dead as of July 29, with the highest 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, the two outlets concluded. Moscow, with 12.5 million inhabitants, lost only 11 soldiers and Saint Petersburg, 35.

On the other hand, the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6 estimate that at least 15,000 Russians have been killed since their country invaded Ukraine in late February, losses equivalent 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 army. 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, thinks he wanted to prove himself as a man. She wonders if he was trying to win back his ex-wife.

“He knew it was dangerous,” she said in a recent interview. He left on May 11, sending happy messages and videos after arriving in Belgorod, southern Russia. He received little training during his four days there, then made a hasty call home. He had received a machine gun and was heading for war.

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

Chubarina, a dairy worker, does not question the war. She just re-read a poem her son sent her when he was a conscript in 2017, about growing up and abandoning her: “Forgive me for all the pain that fell on your weary shoulders. Please accept my soldier bow. It comes from the bottom of my heart.

Sergei Dustin of Baltiysk refuses to be silent. His daughter, Alexandra, married a Marine named Maksim and was widowed at age 19. He expressed his rage on Facebook, saying Russians needed to ask why their sons were dying.

He described the war as a “slaughter started by crazed old men who think they’re great geopoliticians and super strategists, incapable, in fact, of anything but destruction, threats to the world, puffy cheeks and lies. unending”.

Some responses called him a traitor. Her son-in-law had left in the winter for “training exercises” and ended up in Ukraine. An old friend from Ukraine was fighting on the other side. Dustin hoped neither of them died.

He refused to hear the details of the young man’s death and his daughter locked herself in grief. “It is very difficult for her to understand and recognize that her husband was involved in an operation which, to say the least, was far from pleasant,” he said. “This whole story brings grief and tragedy to everyone.”

Few bereaved 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 few residents knew more than 250 people from the area had been killed, a tally of the site calculated using open sources.

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

On Monday, local basketball players Dmitry Lagunov and Nikolay Bagrov were confirmed dead. A woman named Raisa Dugarova responded 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, on the death of Zolto Chimitov, a corporal in his thirties, born in the rural village of Tsakir. He became a boxing champion, later training to become a forester. He had three children.

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