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‘I just wanted to survive’ Journalists contacted the Russian soldiers whose intercepted calls from Ukraine were published by The New York Times
Nearly six months ago, The New York Times released audio of phone calls Russian soldiers had made to their families while deployed in the Kyiv region at the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine. In the calls, the men complained about the incompetence of Russia’s military leadership and recounted atrocities they had witnessed or participated in. Though The New York Times didn’t reveal the soldiers’ full names, journalists from the independent Russian outlet Mediazona managed to use information accidentally left in the article’s metadata to contact the servicemen and their relatives. In English, Meduza summarizes what they learned.
In September 2022, The New York Times published audio of phone conversations between Russian soldiers and their relatives back home that took place during the first month of the full-scale war in Ukraine. Journalists used open sources to verify the authenticity of the recordings, which were made by Ukrainian law enforcement.
In the recordings, Russian servicemen are heard saying that the invasion was presented to them as a training exercise; that they don’t want to fight; that they’ve witnessed looting and engaged in it themselves; that they’ve seen dead civilians or killed civilians themselves; and that Vladimir Putin has “made a mistake” and Russia will not be able to capture Kyiv.
The New York Times didn’t reveal the identities of the people heard in the recordings (it only published the soldiers’ first names). But in January 2023, journalists from Vice found the soldiers’ phone numbers and the names of their family members in the article’s metadata, where it was likely put for use by fact-checkers and accidentally left in when the article was published. The data was removed after Vice notified The New York Times of the error.
According to the independent Russian outlet Mediazona, it noticed the leak long before Vice did. After analyzing the New York Times article’s source code, Mediazona’s journalists determined that the recordings published by the paper included audio from calls made by 20 Russian soldiers, 13 of whom they managed to identify. Two of the men were from Pskov, where 237th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment is stationed, five were from the Kostroma-based 331st Guards Airborne Regiment, and the rest of the soldiers made their phone calls to Rubtsovsk, where the Russian National Guard’s 656th operational regiment is based.
All of these men returned from Ukraine alive. Mediazona reached out to them and their relatives, and almost all of them said they were unaware of the New York Times’s reporting.
One of the soldiers, whose name is Sergey, can be heard on the original recording saying that he hasn’t seen “even a single fascist” in Ukraine, and that the war is “unnecessary” and was “concocted out of thin air.” He told Mediazona that his views haven’t changed in the year since the recording was made: “This is a criminal war. I had a very positive view of Ukraine, and I understood immediately that this deadly war was started by Putin.”
According to Sergey, he signed a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry for the money; in the fall of 2021, he was due to be conscripted for his year of mandatory service anyways, and he “hadn’t managed to get out of it.” He told Mediazona that the full-scale war in Ukraine came as a complete surprise to him: “I’m a regular guy who wanted to get out of the country eventually, but I ended up in the middle of this shit.”
In the recording from last year, Sergey told his girlfriend, Yelena, that his fellow servicemen “took TVs the size of our bed,” and that he had “already packed up” a vacuum cleaner. He also recounted the murder of civilians, and said he participated in it himself:
We restrained them, stripped them naked, and examined all their clothes. Then we had to decide whether to release them or not. Because if we released them, they could reveal our positions. So we decided to just shoot them.
Sergey told Mediazona that he didn’t send the vacuum cleaner home, and that he didn’t personally participate in the murders he described.
The conversation was incomplete. I personally didn’t kill anybody with my machine gun, nor did I personally take anybody captive; that was done by our security troops. The situation was like this: three [people] were captured and taken away in front of my eyes. We were told that they’d been taken away and would likely not be released. I can’t say for sure whether they were civilians or not — it was all too far away. They were already naked when I saw them.
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Yelena, who also spoke to Mediazona, admitted that she discussed war crimes with Sergey, but said she never encouraged them. “What could I do? Nobody’s proud of this — not me, not anybody. Let’s say there was a moment like that — so what? I wasn’t there, I wasn’t a participant in those events, I was just told about it, and I gave a reaction, mainly a shocked one,” she said.
At one point in the 2022 recording, Sergey told Yelena that he had “become a killer.” But he insisted to Mediazona that he didn’t kill civilians and didn’t take part in any “direct exchange of fire” during the entire time he spent on the battlefield.
In total, Sergey spent six months in Ukraine with no break. When asked why he didn’t refuse to obey his commanders’ orders, he said: “They threatened us with jail time. I just wanted to get through all of this and return home alive.”
Yelena also said that the reason Sergey didn’t push back against his commanders was his “legal illiteracy.” As for herself, she told Mediazona: “It’s possible that there were moments where I acted irrationally [in the phone conversations]. I’d like to take responsibility, but I can’t, because I was in shock and in an awful psychological state.”
Because of Russia’s mobilization campaign that began in September 2022, Sergey was unable to leave the army. He’s still serving to this day, though he didn’t reveal to Mediazona what unit he currently belongs to. He said that after he returned from his first six months in Ukraine, he was diagnosed with a condition “related to the war’s impact on his psyche.” He didn’t name the condition, but he said he suffers from insomnia and panic attacks: “I was traumatized by the shelling, the corpses, and living in dugouts for all of that time. When we worked with the [Wagner] private military company, I was one step away from death.”
Sergey is the only person from the New York Times article whose last name Mediazona did not reveal; he’s the only person who condemned the war, which can lead to criminal charges in Russia. The rest of the soldiers from the recordings either refused to speak to Mediazona or said that they approve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Alexander Semyonov told his wife, Ekaterina, over the phone last spring that “Putin, that idiot, wants to take Kyiv,” but that “all we’re taking is villages.” Two days later, he told her that he and his fellow servicemen had broken into somebody's safe and found cash worth the equivalent of five million rubles (about $66,500). His wife told him to “put it back,” to which Alexander replied, “I’m not going to put it back. What am I, an idiot? I have an entire apartment in my pocket!” Semyonov didn’t answer Mediazona’s calls, but Ekaterina said that the couple is in the process of getting divorced.
Eduard Ilteryakov, a National Guardsman, promised his wife, Yulia, at the start of the war that after he returned from Ukraine, he would quit the army. Ilteryakov told Mediazona that he has indeed left the army, but he denied that the voice in the recording is his. He also initially confirmed that he was in Bucha, but later in the conversation he denied it. He called the evidence and reports of war crimes in the town “lies”: “On the contrary, we helped people there; everybody welcomed us, and this is the first time I’m hearing of anybody killing anyone there.”
Tatyana Kozhevina, the mother of soldier Ivan Kozhevin and the head of the craft department at the Lovozero National Cultural Center in Russia’s Murmansk region, was the only person from the New York Times story who told Mediazona she was already aware of the article. “Of course I saw it. Don’t bother me with that,” she said, before hanging up. Mediazona was unable to get in touch with her son.
The other people featured in the New York Times article either didn’t respond to Mediazona’s calls or refused to speak.
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