Russian Families Mourn War Deaths While Kremlin Hides True Toll


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

Stories like hers are taboo in Russia, where the wrenching pain of many families is buried under the triumphant bombast of state media. The war is portrayed as an existential struggle for survival, both against “Nazis” and NATO, and a virtual news blackout over the bloody toll underlines the Kremlin’s anxiety about the durability of its fabricated support.

However, some stories leak. Vladimir Krot was a 59-year-old Soviet-trained pilot, a retired Afghan war veteran, who begged to serve in the Ukraine. He kept asking despite repeated rebuffs, and in June, as casualties 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 left behind a wife and an 8 year old daughter.

The number of dead in the war is a state secret. It is a crime to question the invasion or criticize the military. Independent journalists speaking to grieving family members or covering funerals have been arrested and told that showing such “tears and suffering” is bad for public morals. Authorities have ordered the closure of some online memorial pages.

The Kremlin’s priority has been to prevent the angry voices of bereaved families and anti-war activists from uniting and gaining strength. Information about the war dead could deter Russia’s increasingly urgent recruitment effort, selecting prisoners with military experience and offering well-paid contracts for deployments.

Internal security agents visited Dmitry Shkrebets this summer after he accused Russian authorities of lying about how many sailors were killed when the Black Sea flagship Moskva was sunk by Ukrainian missiles on April 13. His son Yegor, one of the recruits on board, was listed as “missing”. .” The agents accused Shkrebets of making 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 gave his father a death certificate.

“It will never get 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 unhappier, 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 because of the high number of casualties. Because most people are so cautious about airing dissent, it’s hard to gauge the real level of support for the war. The VCIOM pollster, close to government authorities, reported in June that 72 percent of Russians support the fight.

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

Politically, Russian President Vladimir Putin “has been able to defend this,” said Lo, a former deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy in Moscow. “Partly through control of the information narrative, but also because this is now seen as a war against the West.”

With many families afraid to speak out and no credible count of victims, independent media and rights groups keep their own accounts. His numbers, based solely on confirmed open source kill reports, are modest.

The independent Russian outlet Mediazona and BBC News Russian counted 5,185 war dead as of 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 touched, the two outlets concluded. Moscow, with 12.5 million inhabitants, lost only 11 soldiers and Saint Petersburg, 35.

In 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 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 recruit 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, believes that she wanted to prove his worth as a man. She wonders if he was trying to get his ex-wife back from him.

“He knew it was dangerous,” he said in a recent interview. He set out on May 11, sending joyous messages and videos after arriving in Belgorod in southern Russia. He received little training in his four days there, then made a hasty phone call home. He had been handed a machine gun and he was headed off to war.

“That was it. That was the last time we spoke,” he said. The military told him he was found dead near Mariupol on May 16. “He was a very brave guy, he wasn’t afraid of anything. He was so cheerful, open and friendly.”

Chubarina, a dairy farm worker, does not question the war. She just rereads a poem her son sent her when she was a recruit in 2017, about growing up and leaving her behind: “Forgive me for all the pain that has fallen on your weary shoulders. Please accept my soldier’s bow. It’s from the bottom of my heart.”

Sergei Dustin from Baltiysk refuses to keep quiet. His daughter, Alexandra, married a Marine named Maksim and was widowed at the age of 19. She took her anger out on Facebook, saying the Russians had to ask why her children were dying.

He described the war as a “massacre initiated by crazy old men who believe they are great geopoliticians and super strategists, incapable, in fact, of anything other than destruction, threats against the world, puffing up their cheeks and endless lies.”

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

He refused to hear details about how the young man died and his daughter locked herself in her grief. “It is very difficult for her to understand and acknowledge that her husband was participating in an operation that, to put it mildly, was far from pleasant,” she said. “This whole story brings sadness and tragedy to everyone.”

Not many 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 survey by the independent news site Lyudi Baikala found few residents were aware that more than 250 people from the region had been killed, a tally the site calculated using open sources.

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

The deaths of local basketball players Dmitry Lagunov and Nikolay Bagrov were confirmed on Monday. A woman named Raisa Dugarova responded on the page. “Why does Buryatia have to bury her children 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 early 30s who had been born in the rural town of Tsakir. He became a boxing champion and later trained to be a ranger. He had three children.

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

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