David died in combat on April 27, 2022. At the other end of the cemetery, one finds a more recent gravestone: Feb. 2, 2023.
Mourning and memory
Through mud and melting snow, a woman walks between two graves. Her frail silhouette passes more than 100 temporary headstones arranged in neat rows, their numbers growing regularly. Dressed in black, she kneels, cries and caresses a photo showing her husband with a fixed smile. Atsamaz, 32.
"You were the best of all," reads a note hung by a relative on the portrait.
These cemeteries are the other side of the "special operation."
Like the other graves, buried under flags and flowers, there are candles, bottles of water, toys, candy boxes and other mementos left by the deceased's children. In silence, mothers, wives and sisters take turns, flanked by children with disbelieving eyes.
These cemeteries are the other side of the "special operation," whose human cost, spread amongst Russia's armed services, militia and conscripts, remains unclear. In Vladikavkaz, they are all members of the military.
"My son had just finished his service, and joined the army under contract right away. A month and a half later, he went to the front," says Taïmouzar.
He goes to the cemetery every day, sometimes three times a day. David was his youngest son — brought home in a coffin by his older brother, 23, who is also serving at the front.
Both were students: one in electricity, the other in construction. "Good sons. But their duty was to go," says Taïmouzar. "David received a posthumous medal. Russia knows how to reward its heroes."
Interviews arranged in advance with mothers and wives are cancelled.
In Vladikavkaz, no other family would speak with Les Echos. Interviews had been arranged in advance, but one after the other, mothers and wives have cancelled. "They are afraid, especially to speak to a foreign journalist," a resident says. "Even if they support the war, any fact recounted about their loved ones can be misinterpreted and fall under the new laws on military fakes and discrediting the army."
This city is home base of the 58th Russian Army, whose barracks sit next to the cemetery. Without industry, the region lives on subsidies from Moscow, under constant pressure from the Putin regime. The region is governed by former military officer, Sergey Menyaylo, a loyal Kremlin soldier and former deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet, who went to the front himself to encourage volunteers from his region.
Questioning the war here, even publicly mourning its victims, is simply taboo.