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Russian families grieve war deaths as Kremlin conceals the true toll

Russian families grieve war deaths as Kremlin conceals the true toll

Remark

When Yevgeny Chubarin told his mother that he would join the Russian army to fight against Ukraine, she wept and begged him not to go. But his joy radiated through it. On May 15, he had an AK-47 and was en route. The 24-year-old brick factory worker was killed the next day.

Stories like his are taboo in Russia, where the poignant grief of many families is buried under the triumphant bombast of state media. The war is portrayed as an existential struggle for survival, against both “Nazis” and NATO, and a virtual news blackout about the bloody toll underscores the Kremlin’s concerns about the sustainability of its manufactured support.

Still, some stories are seeping 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 rejections, and in June, as casualties mounted, 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 behind a wife and an 8-year-old daughter.

The number of war casualties is a state secret. It is a crime to question the invasion or criticize the military. Independent journalists speaking to relatives or covering funerals have been arrested and told that displaying such “tears and suffering” is bad for public morale. Authorities have ordered that some online memorial pages be closed.

The Kremlin’s priority was to prevent angry voices from grieving families and anti-war activists from gathering and gaining momentum. Information on war casualties could deter Russia’s increasingly urgent recruitment efforts, pick up prisoners with military experience and offer well-paid contracts for deployments.

Internal security agents visited Dmitry Shkrebets this summer after he accused Russian authorities of lying about the number of sailors killed when the Black Sea flagship Moskva was sunk by Ukrainian missiles on April 13. His son Yegor, one of the conscripts on board, was listed as “missing.” The agents accused Shkrebets of making bomb threats and confiscated his laptop, as he described on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook.Tuesday, 111 days after Yegor’s death, the military finally issued his father with a death certificate.

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

But independent analyst Bobo Lo of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, believes the Kremlin has largely mitigated the risk of unrest over the high casualty count. Because most people are so careful about expressing dissent, it is difficult to measure actual support for the war. Pollster VCIOM, which is close to government authorities, reported in June that 72 percent of Russians support the fighting.

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 because of controlling the information narrative, but also because this is now seen as a war against the West.”

With many families afraid to speak out and with no credible victims, independent media and human rights organizations keep their own numbers. Their numbers, based only on confirmed open-source death reports, are modest.

Independent Russian outlet Mediazona and BBC News Russian recorded 5,185 war dead 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 affluent cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg were barely affected, the two branches concluded. Moscow, with 12.5 million inhabitants, lost only 11 soldiers, and St. Petersburg, 35.

In contrast, the CIA and British intelligence MI6 estimate that at least: 15,000 Russians have died since their country invaded 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 army. A former conscript from the Karelia region, signed a three-month contract and was too excited to ask how much he would get. 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 cheerful messages and videos after arriving in Belgorod in southern Russia. He received little training in his four days there and then quickly called home. He had been given a machine gun and was on his way to war.

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

Chubarina, a dairy farmer, does not question the war. She is just reading a poem her son sent her when she was in the military service 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.”

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

He described the war as a “massacre started by crazy old men who think they are great geopoliticians and superstrategists, in fact incapable of anything but destruction, threats against the world, puffing their cheeks and endless lies.”

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

He refused to hear details of how the young man died, and his daughter locked herself in her grief. “It’s very difficult for her to understand and acknowledge that her husband was taking part in an operation that was, to put it mildly, far from nice,” he said. “This whole story only brings sadness and tragedy to everyone.”

Not many grieving families publicly question the war effort. The silence serves to minimize public understanding of its impact on the home front. In the East Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, a recent survey by independent news site Lyudi Baikala found that few residents knew that more than 250 people from the region had been murdered, a count the site calculated using open sources.

However, cracks have emerged. In Buryatia, a group of wives of Russian soldiers made a video in June demanding that the soldiers bring their men home. According to Alexandra Garmazhapova, founder of the Free Buryatia Foundation, hundreds of soldiers from the region contacted an activist group there for information about breaking their contracts. Victims on a local memorial page on VKontakte are rising daily.

On Monday, the deaths of local basketball players Dmitry Lagunov and Nikolay Bagrov were confirmed. A woman named Raisa Dugarova responded to 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 report of the death of Zolto Chimitov, a corporal in his early thirties who was born in the rural village of Tsakir. He became a boxing champion and later trained as a forest 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.”