‘Apparently our guys have been forgotten’ Parents of Russian conscripts who disappeared aboard the Moskva still seeking answers one month later
A month has passed since a Ukrainian missile strike sank the Russian warship Moskva. In total, there were around 500 people aboard the vessel, which was the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship. The Russian Defense Ministry has only acknowledged that one sailor was killed, while claiming that another 27 are missing. On condition of anonymity, the mother of a conscripted sailor who disappeared aboard the Moskva told Meduza about her month-long battle with the Russian authorities for information about her son.
At the start of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian officials assured that draftees wouldn’t take part in the “special operation.” However, they later acknowledged that conscripts were in fact sent into combat. The crew of the Russian missile cruiser Moskva could have been more than half draftees, sources told the investigative outlet Agentstvo in early May. This is typical on board warships, where conscripts do all the “grunt work.”
After a Ukrainian missile strike sank the Russian warship on April 14, the first person to report the disappearance of a conscript serving on board was Dmitry Shkrebets — the father of draftee Egor Shkrebets. On May 6, the Russian Defense Ministry sent Dmitry Shkrebets a letter that said Egor “had been declared missing from [his] military unit.” At the same time, the letter claimed that the Moskva didn’t enter Ukraine’s territorial waters and “was not included in the list of military formations and units involved in the special military operation” in Ukraine.
Dmitry Shkrebets published the letter on VKontakte, but deleted the post from his profile a few days later. He then wrote another post, thanking the command of the Black Sea Fleet for its “honest decision and humanity.”
The Russian Defense Ministry has maintained the official position that the Moskva sank after an “ammunition detonation” on board the ship triggered a fire. The exact number of wounded and survivors has not been officially disclosed. According to a Meduza source close to the Black Sea Fleet’s command, at least 37 sailors were killed. Relatives of the Moskva’s missing crew members have been trying to get information about what happened to them for more than a month. Here is one mother’s story.
Name changed at her request
Now I understand that I need to ring all the alarm bells because apparently our guys have been forgotten. When I arrived in Crimea the first thing I did was go straight from the train station to the 810th Military Unit — where some of the surviving sailors from the cruiser Moskva were transferred. The captain [of the ship] met me there. He told me that he was involved in rescuing the guys, but it seemed to me that this wasn’t true. I looked at his hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, and hands — his body didn’t have any signs that he was there [like burns].
They [representatives of the Black Sea Fleet] really didn’t want me to talk to anyone from the media. They called every day and said that they were trying to find the missing sailors. The fleet’s leadership also assigned two women to me, who followed me constantly. I know that they followed me. I know perfectly well that none of them even lifted a finger.
I spoke with [the Black Sea Fleet’s Commander Igor] Osipov, he didn’t explain anything to me. At first he told me there were 19 people missing and three dead. The next day it turned out that there were 27 missing and one dead — [Ivan] Vakhrushev, who was a warrant officer on the ship.
Osipov said there was a fire on the ship, however all of the guys who were there talked about thick, black smoke that made everyone vomit — no one saw a blazing fire. I tried to get information from them about what happened there and where our children are now.
Of course, they did a head count — and they know how many dead they have. Everyone understands everything, but I have no information. No one told me anything.
Representatives of the Black Sea Fleet didn’t want to take me to the hospitals [where the sailors from the Moskva were being treated], but I managed to get into three. There, I saw normal, living guys, there were about 20 of them in total. I found out that they had signed something like a non-disclosure agreement for five years.
I tried to speak with one of the boys, he was with my son at the same time and place. But as soon as he started talking, the two women in uniform came over — and then he said that he couldn’t say anything because of the NDA. One boy managed to tell me in a whisper that they [the surviving sailors] were “scattered all over Russia.”
The next day, I returned to the hospital again, but the boys flatly refused to talk. Some of the guys were in a very depressed state. I understand them perfectly. I tried to talk with them, albeit unsuccessfully. I showed them [the sailors in the hospital] photos of all the [missing] guys that I had. Some recognized them, but they conferred [with each other] and didn’t tell me anything about anyone.
I went to hospitals and the military units, I went digging wherever I could. There’s no information anywhere. As if there was no one anywhere. I wasn’t given any information and I had a feeling that I was being strung along. They didn’t show me any of the seriously wounded; I asked Osipov about it and I was even prepared to look in intensive care.
I realized that no one was going to show me anything else and I left [Sevastopol] for home. A woman met me at the train station [in my city]. It turns out they got a call from Sevastopol to keep an eye on me. I don’t know who exactly she was, but I can guess that she was from a law enforcement agency. She and I agreed that we would continue to look for my son in hospitals, but they didn’t do anything.
I contacted the conscription office in our city with a request for an investigation into where my son is and why a draftee was a participant in the military operation.
I promised them I wouldn’t speak to any media outlets. I said that if I find my child, then I’ll move away from here and even change my SIM card. They sent me a response, but there wasn’t a single word about combat activities [Editor’s note: Meduza is in possession of this document — it says that “these actions are not within the purview of the military commissariat” and recommends contacting the military prosecutor of the Black Sea Fleet].
I was also given paperwork to sign, saying that I agreed to reclassify him from “missing” to “deceased” — so I would receive money, more than 1 million rubles [$15,000]. But I turned it down. How can I bury my child when I believe he’s alive?
I went to see [the father of another missing conscript] Dmitry Shkrebets and his wife. He said he was going to find out the truth one way or another, and that he knew lawyers. I thought he’d see it through. I said to him: “Dima, ask the bosses what happened there.” But he didn’t talk to me. He seemed to be in communication with the command, but I can’t confirm this. He recently wrote a post [expressing his] gratitude to the Black Sea Fleet. It shocked me. What gratitude? For the fact that they killed our children?
I called him and he started saying in a low voice that “they’ll come for us, he won’t say anything else.” Then I realized that we had nothing to talk about. Today, I broke down and wrote to him: “What, were you intimidated?” But he didn’t answer me. [Editor’s note: Meduza also tried to speak with Dmitry Shkrebets, but received no response].
A lot of people from Ukraine have written to me. They said: “It’s good that your son died.” They also asked when I was coming to pick up my “construction set” — and that they could send him to me in pieces. Only now do I realize what the word “war” means — it’s terrifying. I really want everyone to know about it. It really hurts me, but I have no other choice. All of the information is being hidden from us. I’m convinced that my child is alive, I just want to find him — may he be wounded, but found.
Translation by Eilish Hart