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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

At A Hinterland Cemetery, Russians Mourn Their Sons And Stand By Putin

This is the other side of the Kremlin's "special operation" in Ukraine. The human cost of the Russian side remains unclear. The reportage takes place in the capital of one of the poorest regions of Russia, in the heart of the Caucasus, where a growing number of soldiers are buried.

photo of snow on graves in Vladikavkaz, Russia

The cemetery in Vladikavkaz, Russia.

Benjamin Quénelle

VLADIKAVKAZ — Throughout Russia, military cemeteries continue to fill up and expand. Looking at the dates on the graves, one begins to gauge the scope of the Kremlin's so-called special military operation in Ukraine.

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"We will win this war," says Taïmouzar, 65. "It will be long. But we will make it all the way." .

At the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, Vladikavkaz is one of the poorest regions of Russia — a fertile ground for recruiters looking for volunteers to fight in Ukraine.

Looking at the grave of his son David, 21, the grieving father speaks with certainty: "He didn't want to fight this war," Taïmouzar says. "But he was right to go and fight there. A year ago, the Ukrainians were preparing to attack us. Russia had to defend itself."

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.

Freshly dug graves in the cemetery in Vladikavkaz, Russia, in March 2022.

Oleg Marzoev/VK

Taboo topic

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.

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