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‘Every day, I lose hope’ In their own words, the children of Russian soldiers recount losing their fathers to the war in Ukraine
Story by Meduza. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
In the almost six months since Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry has published official data on troop losses only twice. The most recent update came in late March, when the agency reported that 1,351 Russian servicemen had died in Ukraine. According to estimates from the BBC Russian Service and Mediazona, the true number of Russian soldiers killed in the war is several times higher. Meduza spoke to the children of soldiers who went to fight in Ukraine and never returned home.
All of the names in this story have been changed for safety reasons. In some cases, we've also omitted information about people’s ages and locations.
‘He's the only blood relative I have left’
Yelena, 25 years old, Donetsk. Her father is missing.
I’m tired of war. I was 17 when it started. Now I’m 25, and it’s still going on, only now it's getting worse. [...]
My dad didn’t want to go to war. Just a few days before February 24, they sent a summons to his house, then to his work. That day, Dad came home to get his things. He took his passport, his military ID, his flip phone (the only kind permitted), warm clothing, some food, a mug, and a spoon. I didn’t even realize what was going on. It wasn’t clear where they were taking him or why.
The next day, he called me from a bus and said he was being sent to some kind of training area. I realized he wasn’t able to speak openly, so I asked him some leading questions.
“Did they give you any weapons?”
“Did they give you a uniform and boots?”
“Well, I mean…”
“Are they feeding you?”
“Not really.” [...]
That night, he and the other conscripts were loaded into cars and sent somewhere near Volnovakha (Editor’s note: the Russian army and the armed forces of the self-declared DNR captured Volnovakha in March 2022), where there was already fighting going on. We spoke a couple of times after that. Dad sounded crushed.
When I asked him whether there were a lot of guys there, he said, “They keep sending in more and more.” God, he didn’t even want to be there. It turned out to be a full-scale war, not a “special operation,” as they so eloquently call it on TV.
When he stopped contacting me, I decided they must have sent him to Mariupol, where there wasn’t any phone service. For some reason, it didn’t even occur to me that my dad could have died or been captured.
After about two weeks, my heart lurched: “What am I doing? I need to go to the base.” So I went. They told me, “Don’t worry: [the soldiers] just don’t have service.” I went multiple times; every time, they told me the same thing. Then, at the end of April, they told me my dad had been declared missing. I broke out in tears. I didn’t know what to do, who to call, or where to go. Nobody at the base could tell me anything else about his disappearance.
I reached out to all of the authorities that deal with missing persons. [...] I asked other women who have been in this situation what to do. They suggested I go to the central morgue, where photos of unidentified bodies are sent [from the battlefield]. Dad wasn’t listed anywhere as having been killed or injured, so the only option left was for him to be unidentified.
I went to the morgue. I looked at the photos and didn’t see anyone who looked like my father. The pictures were awful: burnt corpses, pieces in bags — sometimes you couldn’t even tell that what you were looking at was a person. I also took a DNA test so they could compare my DNA with that of the unidentified bodies.
So much time has passed, and I still don’t know whether he’s alive or dead. All I can do is wait. Every day, I lose hope. Nobody knows anything. It’s the uncertainty that’s killing me.
I’m completely alone; I don’t have a mom. Being alone is really hard. Dad was a real hard worker. Quiet, peaceful, soft-spoken. Even though it was my grandparents who raised me, not him, that’s cold comfort; no matter what, he’s still my dad, and the only blood relative I have left. And so I’m worried. I keep searching. I hope he’s alive and he’ll return home.
The authorities announced a mobilization and took all the men, including my dad. So are they going to return him? It’s hard for me to forgive. There are a lot of us women searching for our fathers, sons, brothers, and boyfriends. Who are we to the authorities? Nobody. They don’t take us into account. “Someone disappeared? Well, then screw him. Do whatever you want, search wherever you want — we’ve received your statement.”
‘They use volunteers as cannon fodder’
Tatyana. Her father died.
My father went to Ukraine as a volunteer, because “it’s not right for a Russian officer to just sit at home when young people are dying.” He was principled, responsible, and honorable. He always believed his own fate was inseparable from that of the motherland.
Dad and the other volunteers didn’t learn until they were in Rostov that they were going into the thick of it to fight; they had thought they would just be volunteering in the rear. Dad didn’t leave, because “only cowards run away from the battlefield.”
Many reserve officers go to serve as volunteers with honorable intentions. Some of them are ready to lay down their lives for the motherland. That’s why they don’t desert; they realize that things aren’t as simple as they might seem.
[As I understand it,] volunteers are used as cannon fodder. Their task is to serve as the first line of defense in the initial cleaning operation. They’re poorly armed. First go the LNR and DNR [forces], then the volunteers, then the peacekeepers, and only then the Kadyrovites. That’s what I heard from one of Dad’s fellow servicemen who returned alive. It’s what they did with convicts and traitors in the Great Patriotic War; now it’s what they do with volunteers. I want as many people to know about this as possible.
‘Dad said that if he came back, he would be seen as a coward’
Alina, 21 years old. Her father died.
When the war began, I thought for the longest time that it was a joke. It just didn’t feel real. We didn’t want dad to go. Who would want their family member to risk his life?
My dad was a military instructor. Before the military activities began, he and several other people were sent on a two-month assignment to Crimea or somewhere else — I don’t know for sure. When the special operation was announced, Dad said he was already on the other side of the border [with Ukraine] and if he came back, he would look like a coward.
Other instructors returned, but he stayed behind. Essentially, he was a volunteer. A lot of his friends believe he stayed for the money [from a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry], but I don’t think so.
In the beginning, he called home a lot, but it soon dropped to one call every week or two. He said they were defending a bridge or guarding some warehouse that was right on the border itself. I didn’t realize until the very end that he was participating directly in the war.
I don’t think his death was in vain. Some soldiers who are closer to my age and who were out there with him have come to visit us. He helped them out there. He told Mom that if he didn’t help them, they were going to be left for dead.
Since Dad’s death, I’ve had no interest whatsoever in the war; overall, I don’t care what the outcome is. To be honest, I still can’t wrap my head around what happened.
‘A lot of people couldn’t care less that someone disappeared’
Darya, 14 years old. Her father is missing.
My dad joined the DNR army as a volunteer. Mom and I tried to talk him out of it, but he told us that his homeland needed him.
Dad underwent a 10-day training in Ilovaisk. I consider that too short. Volunteers should get at least a year or two of training minimum.
He called us every day from Ilovaisk, and at the end of April, he said they were sending him off somewhere. Several days later, they notified me and Mom that Dad had disappeared. We didn’t understand how that was possible.
The next day, we went to his base in Donetsk. We were told that had Dad disappeared in Zaporizhzhia. We don’t know anything else. Mom and I have driven around all of Donetsk. We’ve written statements — no response. I’ve realized that a lot of people couldn’t care less that someone disappeared.
I’m sick of this war. I’m constantly afraid that a shell will blow up right next to me. Civilians are dying, many of them children. Sometimes I don’t even want to go online and read the news.
I just want there to be peace throughout the world. And I want Dad to come home.
Cover photo: Vladimir Gerdo / TASS
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