An Open Secret: How Russia Hides Its Soldiers Killed in the Donbas
1 August, 2018

Editor’s note: The following is a translation of an article published by Hromadske’s partner in Russia, Novaya Gazeta.

Four years ago, in the summer of 2014, anonymous graves began appearing around cemeteries in Russia’s western city of Pskov. This was a clear sign that the fighting in Ukraine’s east involved more parties than just local miners and rebels.

Numbered among the casualties of Ukraine’s war are professional soldiers, namely from Russia’s elite 76th Guards Air Assault Division (based in Pskov). Their stories are shrouded in mystery, leaving questions as to whether these servicemen were fulfilling their military obligations or fighting of their own accord as mercenaries. Amidst all this, their loved ones provide little more than a troubling silence.

Photo credit: Irina Tumakova/NOVAYA GAZETA

The village cemetery in Vybuty near Pskov has changed since August 2014. At that time, the presence of fresh nameless graves at the edge of the yard, as if they were suicides, was striking. A few silent people in camouflage and blue berets had removed the names, dates, and military ribbons from the crosses under orders. Whoever was buried there was meant to be a phantom, and their colleagues only had one message – that they “weren’t there.”

“Everyone in our Air Assault Brigade is alive and well,” Airborne Forces Commander and Deputy of the Russian State Duma Vladimir Shamanov told journalists in Pskov in August 2014.

“Alive and well” is a strange way to describe the individuals buried by the worn out paratroopers, silently grinding their teeth and drinking vodka as they shared their last moments with their fallen comrades.

Ukrainian social media first provided information about the deaths of Russian troops in Luhansk in August 2014. Naturally, the Russian Defense Ministry denied it vehemently, and any information on the alleged deaths remains classified.

Photo credit: Irina Tumakova/NOVAYA GAZETA

“Every one of us was sure that the paratroopers would be solemnly buried in the large cemetery in Orletsy [where there is a special avenue of paratroopers],” recalls Pskovskaya Gubernia journalist Alexei Semenov. “But we soon discovered that they would certainly not be buried there.”

Four years later, a strange sight is now available to anyone. In place of the mounds marked with nameless crosses there now lie monuments of black granite with intricate engravings: names, dates, full-length portraits, poetry verses, military symbolism, all worthy of a proper military burial. Today it seems there is little left to hide.

Phantom Combatants

The largest monument – the grave of Leonid Kichatkin – is visible from afar. The Kichatkin family could serve as a symbol of the mind games the authorities played four years ago to mask the deaths of the paratroopers, and of the nightmare their loved ones endured.

Oksana Kichatkina, Leonid’s wife, wrote about the burial of her husband on social media on August 23, 2014. She named the date and place, and left her phone number. The next day, a laughing “Oksana” responded to calls in a joyful voice, insisting that her page had been hacked and her husband was right beside her.

Photo credit: Irina Tumakova/NOVAYA GAZETA

Four years later, over the phone, Oksana’s voice is hoarse, deprived of energy. “Please don’t call me anymore, I don’t want to talk about it,” Oksana says just before hanging up.

One is left with an eerie sense of what may have happened in 2014, and the question remains as to who was responsible for hijacking the phone of a grieving woman.

Photo credit: Irina Tumakova/NOVAYA GAZETA

According to the Pskov Military Memorial Company, the monument that now stands on Leonid Kichatkin’s grave was paid for by Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Note that compensation for funerals for families of former military personnel should not exceed 32 thousand rubles (around $510), while the going rate for a huge stone with engraving on both sides, according to employees in the memorial business, is about 100 thousand roubles ($1,590).

By funding the monument, the Ministry of Defense has indirectly claimed Kichatkin, who died in August 2014, as “theirs.” Such military assistance is only provided for veterans with 20 years of service and combatants. Kichatkin was born in 1984, so he must have been a combatant. On what battlefields did he manage to serve his country by 2014? One can only guess.

Nothing to Hide

In August 2014, the Ministry of Defense was trying to hush up information about the deaths of servicemen and how they ended up in the places they died. At that time Novaya Gazeta discovered the graves of two paratroopers in the Krestovsky cemetery on the outskirts of Pskov, and three more in the nearby village of Vybuty.

A major in the Airborne Forces and father of one of the deceased accidentally revealed that his son was killed near Luhansk. Lev Schlosberg, then deputy from the democratic party Yabloko to the Pskov Regional Assembly, made an inquiry to the head military prosecutor Sergey Fridinsky, which revealed the names of 12 “military servicemen, serving in military units deployed on the territory of the Pskov region,” who died “outside their place of permanent deployment.”

Photo credit: Irina Tumakova/NOVAYA GAZETA

Pskovskaya Gubernia, an internet news source published by Schlosberg, set out to learn more about these people. However, their relatives shied away from journalists. Some bluntly said that they were cautioned to stay silent. Others agreed to talk about their sons or grandsons, but then called back, claiming the journalist had confused them with someone else with the same last name.

The graves of the deceased now include Alexander Osipov and Sergey Volkov, buried next to Leonid Kichatkin. Their nameless crosses have also been replaced with granite monuments, with portraits and accurate personal information.

Photo credit: Irina Tumakova/NOVAYA GAZETA

The date of Osipov’s death is the same as Kichatkin’s: August 20, 2014. He was 20 years old. He is portrayed in his paratrooper uniform against a sky dotted with parachutes. A blue beret lies atop the monument. Where else besides the Donbas could he have served in combat to earn this recompense from the Ministry of Defense?

A similar monument was erected atop the grave of Vasiliy Gerasimchuk in the Krestovsky cemetery. The front portrays a young man in a suit and tie, the back – a brave paratrooper with a sergeant’s shoulder straps and medals. Gerasimchuk was 27 years old when he died in August 2014.

It doesn’t seem like anyone is hiding anything. Why, then, do the soldiers’ wives and mothers – even in the cases where their loved ones return alive – not speak?

Photo credit: Irina Tumakova/NOVAYA GAZETA

Snezhana Semakina asked us in 2014 to help her find her son who suddenly stopped calling home. Now she hangs up the second she hears the word “correspondent.”

Olga Alekseeva likewise tried to understand in August 2014 what happened to her husband, and even agreed to meet with Novaya Gazeta journalists. She now recalls this with horror.

“You can’t imagine the sorts of things that happened to me and my husband because of us talking to you,” Olga said on the phone. “Thank God he wasn’t fired, but I won’t say anything else.”

The Krestovsky cemetery and the one in Vybuty now have more graves of deceased servicemen. Some are completely new, with temporary markers. Vsevolod Smirnov died in December 2016, he was 26. His photo features him in camouflage in front of an azure sea.

And what happened to Vladimir Stetsenko in January 2017? Thus far there is only a wooden cross, with the serviceman’s photograph covered in plastic attached with pushpins. It’s possible that a military official could walk by and request that even this be removed.

One Token, Two Names

Leonid Kichatkin, Sergey Volkov, Alexander Osipov, Vasiliy Gerasimchuk, and other servicemen killed between August and September 2014 were able to receive posthumous military honors, and their families received some sort of compensation from the Ministry of Defense.

As for those who died in the Donbas later on, we know almost nothing. Their loved ones haven’t even received the minimal compensation for burial. These people have become phantoms, as explained by Lev Schlosberg, who seems like the only one in Pskov who is trying to fight for the rights of the families of the deceased.

“When the active military units suffered losses in Ukraine, and the scale of those losses proved significant, it became clear: it is impossible to hide that these people were killed as active military personnel of the Russian Federation,” says Schlosberg.

Photo credit: Irina Tumakova/NOVAYA GAZETA

It does not matter whether these were special or temporary units, they comprised active Russian servicemen. This means the state holds direct legal responsibility for the presence of its servicemen outside the country, for military operations conducted outside its borders, for everything these servicemen participated in. Schlosberg says that, because they are Russian citizens, the deadly actions of these servicemen and each of their deaths warrant opening a criminal case.

Since fall 2014, the government has changed its tactics: it began forming the so-called armed forces of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (plus Cossack military units to defend “Novorossiya”) from the ranks of its own servicemen. Formally, they are volunteers, no longer subordinate to the Ministry of Defense, and Russia is absolved of any responsibility for them or their families in the case of their deaths.

The contracts with the servicemen were terminated, sometimes even prematurely. “This was a legal formality,” said Schlosberg. “Afterward, the servicemen crossed to the other side – of the border and the law, and began participating in combat operations outside the Russian Federation. They committed crimes, in particular those defined in the article on mercenary work.”

For the sake of reliability and secrecy, it was necessary to destroy the personal identities of these men.

According to Schlosberg, the government began covering up the identities of those participating in the hostilities, even if they were fighting in “other” formations, not under the Ministry of Defense. These people signed contracts under pseudonyms, matching the fake names in their documents.

Photo credit: Irina Tumakova/NOVAYA GAZETA

“The only material evidence of a person’s identity is a token,” explained Schlosberg. “The real name of the person with a given token is in a closed document, accessible only to those in charge of his military unit. So each of these soldiers has one token and two names: a real one and a fictitious one.”

Those with fictitious names were treated in hospitals in St. Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don, using falsified documents. Anyone inquiring about military personnel being treated in particular hospitals would not find the names of the actual citizens of the Russian Federation in the records. Their dates of birth and injuries, which are impossible to hide, are listed. But the “person” in the records is a phantom.

/Translated by Vladislav Yakovlev