Thousands of Russian mothers exchange messages every day online in desperate bids to find their missing sons serving in the Russian army. This is the story of one such mother who has been looking for her son for seven months.
Irina Chistyakova lives in Petrozavodsk, Russia, a city about 300 kilometers northeast of St. Petersburg. Her 20-year-old son Kirill was called up on the eve of the war, signing the enrollment contract without his mother knowing.
The last time he called her was on March 22 from a basement in Malaya Rogan, a village near Kharkiv, as his unit was getting ready to retreat.
Since then, Chistyakova has looked through hundreds of photos of corpses, and in several cases identified the sons of people she knew. But not her own. Kirill is neither on the lists of the dead, nor on the register of missing people.
This is a mother's story.
The last time I saw him
I don’t know why he didn’t see himself in civilian life — well, I guess this grown-up bureaucratic machine didn’t suit him. He was preparing for the army. He had downloaded lots of military videos; he was preparing. Kirill joined the army on Oct. 28 . He loved everything about the army. He called me the day before the New Year and said that he had signed something and that he would serve.
To be honest, I was so far removed from this – he's serving in the army, so what. I visited him in January. I brought treats to eat, apples for everyone in the platoon, and cakes for the commanders. That was the last time I saw him. He called at the end of January and said that they were leaving for training in Kursk [a city in western Russia].
I believed them
For some reason, they began to take away their documents and phones. On Feb. 22, they were told that they would be placed on the border with Ukraine and guard it. I didn't understand where this was heading. I haven’t watched the damn TV for five years now, and Kirill said not to watch, that everything on it is a lie.
On the morning of Feb. 24, I went online and saw that our people had entered Ukraine. I was completely calm. I was sure he was still on the border. They told me there would be no conscripts there, and I believed them.
[Editor's note: Kirill did not tell his mother that he had signed a contract. From the documents that Irina Chistyakova received, it seems that her son was sure that he was not signing a contract, but a paper on the choice of a military specialty.]
A final phone call
I remained calm up until March 14th. Then Kirill called via video link, the number was unfamiliar, Ukrainian. He said that they were in a deep shit there, that they had no weapons. He said "we do not shoot"; their task was to protect the locals. He said that they would not return him with conscripts — the commander did not sign the document on his return to the unit. He said he was in a safe place. Now I already know it was a real disaster, not a safe place. Heavy shelling began and communication was lost.
On March 21, heavy shelling began there, and on March 22 he called me for the last time from the basement. They were getting ready to retreat, to leave. The reason why none of them was taken out remains unclear. Later, I met a guy in the hospital who was also in the Kharkiv region: “Everyone who was in [the region where my son was] are all doomed to death.”
I said, "What do you mean?"
He replied: “The command called a helicopter for themselves and quickly left ... leaving the guys there.”
I got a call from the Ministry of Defense. They said that my son was in captivity. They called back the next day: no, your son went missing. And then complete nonsense began: either he was captured again, then he was missing, then he is not reported as dead, which means he is serving. I started looking for my son myself.
Looking for Kirill
A visit to Mariupol
I began to look through VKontakte [a Russian social media site] for parents from other units, then I got into a chat with mothers. The military of the Armed Forces of Ukraine [editor's note: Chistyakova assumes that she was corresponding precisely with the Ukrainian military] were mocking them. They sent photos of dead soldiers, saying things like “I killed him.” I took their contacts and wrote to these numbers: “I understand everything very well, you feel bad, we feel bad, but aren’t you humans? How can you write such horrible things to a mother at night? Don't you have anything human at all? Then we will actually believe that you are all fascists there, all Nazis.”
And he started talking to me. I decided to ask: “Is my son there?” And he answered me: “I’m sorry, I feel that you are a good mother, that you have a good son, you would not allow this. But if he was in intelligence [in Malaya Rogan, the place were Chistyakova's son was], then no one was left alive.”
Every day there are new parents, new people, new tragedies
Of course, I wouldn't let that happen now. I would lie there myself in front of those tanks. I would take him from there.
In July, I went to Donetsk. Volunteers and I arrived at the hospital there. There were containers with dead soldiers from Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic. Before getting there, I met with the military, with doctors, gave all the details, albums with photographs of our boys.
On the same trip, I managed to visit Mariupol — we brought humanitarian aid, talked to the locals. When I arrived in Mariupol, I’m telling you, I forgot that I needed to go to the morgues. The shock I experienced there stayed with me for a very long time. When you see this destruction with your own eyes. I was in a village, too — I’m serious, every house is a heartbreak. We were not allowed into the hospital. Only later did I find out that our soldiers were there too. I left with nothing.
Thousands of mothers like her
In August, I went to a military hospital in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia. I saw a photo of a guy in the Telegram channel very similar to my son, who was supposed to be in Rostov. That's the only reason I went. That was not my son. There was a man from Dagestan [a region near Georgia] with me. He was looking for his nephew, then mothers and wives from Samara [a city in south-west Russia] arrived — there were nine of us.
All bodies were photographed. There were photos of everyone who was there. There were no names in the photos, only numbers. They were all unknown. I put together an entire album of photos of the boys we were looking for. So, we looked at the tattoos, some special markers. We immediately identified one guy who served with Kirill. He had a tattoo on his arm — a bear's paw. There were a lot of photos, about 440. One woman wrote to me that her husband had a chain and a ring on the chain. And I immediately told her that I saw him there.
When I didn't find Kirill in those photos, I had some hope. That meant he was alive, that meant he was in captivity. But, to be honest, I am a reasonable person, I understand everything perfectly: a platoon of 40 people, 32 are dead, four are alive who got out, we all know about them. And four are missing. If they were captured, it would have been known long ago.
I created my own chat for mothers — and every day there are new parents, new people, new tragedies. The largest group chat of mothers has about 600 people. If you count other groups, that's about 3,000 mothers in total. There are many who found the dead and many who buried their children in seven months. There are many stories of negligence. The wrong one was taken for burial — then they had to exhume the body. And now the woman again does not know where her loved one is, he is listed as missing.
Ukrainian mothers like me
I understand the Ukrainian mother who is crying is just like me — she doesn't know where her husband, son or brother is. In any case, these are someone's children. I know what this pain is. Neither Putin nor [Russian Defense Minister Sergey] Shoigu knows it.
That is why I agreed to tell my story publicly. My goal is to convey this to Putin. That not everything is as rosy as he describes on TV. You, as the head of state, should be aware of all the shortcomings.
So, Vladimir Putin, I hope you will see this and hear me, the mother of an only son, I have no other son. My son is an ordinary soldier. We are waiting for him; you have taken our only man from us.
Find and return my son to me.
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