Of Death And Disillusion: Tales Of Young Russians Lured By Glory To The Frontlines
Many Russians have tried to avoid being conscripted to join the war in Ukraine, but many others believed deeply in the constant campaign of state propaganda. Here are some of the stories of the lucky ones who made it back — and those who didn't.
For two years now, Russian citizens have been relentlessly encouraged to embrace a so-called "true man's profession" by joining the military and heading to the frontline as a simmering war in eastern Ukraine turned into a full-scale invasion. They were enticed with promises of handsome salaries, social security benefits for their families and the esteemed status of a hero.
These men and women in uniform, along with their families, recount how they once placed unwavering faith in their government's call, only to be disillusioned and let down.
There was, for example, Andrey...
He joined the Russian army in December 2021, at the age of 18 after having dropped out of college. Six months later, he called his mother Elena, saying he was on the frontline in Ukraine.
“He told me: Mom…I’m here,” Elena says. “He must’ve signed a contract. There’s no other way. He knew I was in poor health, and so he kept silent about his decision until the last moment.”
She adds that if she had known what he was planning to do, she would have tried to dissuade him.
“It's hard to say why he chose to sign the contract. It definitely wasn't because of financial difficulties,” Andrey's mother says. “Maybe they manipulated him somehow, talking about patriotism and such. At 18, you can be made to believe anything.”Her son would call every now and then when he had the chance, but only for about five minutes to say that he was alive. He promised he would be on leave after six months. But now, a year has passed since Elena last heard her son's voice — the last time they spoke was on Sept. 23, 2022.
Worried, Elena started looking for her Andrey, contacting the international Red Cross and the Russian Ministry of Defense. They all told her her son went missing in action.
“He was just 18. I sent him to serve in the army, not to fight in a war,” Elena says, adding that she suffered a minor stroke after she learned her son went missing.
“He left, not knowing that his father died of cancer back in May. We didn't tell him; we kept it from him. I'm all alone now," she says. “No mother wants war, neither Ukrainian nor Russian. Nobody wants to lose their children. Nobody."
Anatoly joined the fight in 2014 and 2015 as a member of the pro-Russian forces fighting in the Donetsk People’s Republic. He had to run away from his home because he knew his mother would never let him go.
"Nobody informed us about our son's death."
His mother, Tatiana, recalls Anatoly would constantly tell her, "If everyone stays behind their mother's skirt, hiding, then who will fight?"
After the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, she tried to dissuade Anatoly from rejoining the fight, for a solid six months. Then, one of Anatoly’s friends was drafted during Russia’s partial mobilization in September, even though he had never served in the army before.
“When my son heard about it, he said he has to go, saying he has combat experience, so why should he sit idly by,” Tatiana recalls.
Anatoly’s younger brother, Semyon, serves in the regular Russian army. Anatoly wanted to join the same unit, but due to his limp and an implant in his leg, the regular army would not take him.
“So, he joined the BARS (combat reserve) volunteer detachment," Tatiana says. “They accepted him even though they knew he wouldn't pass the draft board's medical examination.”
Anatoly's participation in the war was short-lived, as he died only a few months after joining.
“Nobody informed us about our son's death. We found out when someone wrote on social media that my son had died,” Tatian says.
To confirm the information, Tatiana called the mortuary in Rostov-on-Don. Semyon was stationed nearby, so he went to the center to identify his brother.
“They blatantly told us that we had to retrieve the body ourselves because he could lie there for a month, two, three, or even six months,” Tatiana says. “Because he was the only deceased soldier from our village, no one would bring the body to us.”
Tatiana did not have a car and needed to ask the local administration in Smolensk, who helped her hire one in order to retrieve the body.
“Going from Smolensk to Rostov-on-Don and back was very expensive,” Tatiana says. “Neither the draft board nor the head of the BARS unit showed any support whatsoever. The only thing they did was send a band to the funeral, and that's it."
She wrote to the draft board to demand compensation for the expenses, but was dismissed, as “No one forced her to retrieve the body." The authorities also refused to bear the costs of the funeral, and it was Anatoly's friends who took it upon themselves to personally dig his grave, trying to minimize the expenses.
Moreover, because Anatoly was a volunteer, Tatiana was denied the military allowances that should be given to servicemen.
“There is a federal law stating that all members of volunteer formations should be insured. The prosecutor's office wrote to me that the law indeed exists, but somehow my Anatoly wasn't insured. How is that possible? Why? Who is responsible for this?” Tatiana says.
"When they tell you on TV that they help the families of the deceased, it’s all nonsense,” she adds. “And it's not just the state; it's our officials, bureaucrats who sit and don't see what's happening, who don't understand the pain of mothers.”
Eighteen-year-old conscript Andrey and his mother Elena.
Personal file / Important Stories
Valery, a 35-year-old man from Lipetsk, has diabetes but remained eligible for military summons during Russia’s partial mobilization.
“In the first few days, the summons didn't arrive, and I relaxed, thinking that I was in the clear,” he says. “On the sixth day of mobilization, I came to work, and they sent me to the office to receive the summons. That was it—off I went, ready to defend the motherland.”
He did not want to evade the situation, but since he depends on medication, he expected the draft board to conduct a medical examination. Instead, he was immediately sent to the war zone.
“I was scheduled to go to the hospital on Oct. 11, 2022, but instead I went to the frontline,” Valery says.
Due to a lack of treatment, his diabetes worsened. When his mother was in critical condition in the hospital, he was allowed a 10-day leave.
I went to defend my homeland hoping that everything would be quick.
“After that, my blood sugar skyrocketed. They first admitted me to a civilian hospital, and then to a military hospital," Valery says. Other soldiers with diabetes were there as well, he says.
“We signed a collective appeal to be discharged from service," he says. "We sent it to all parties, and my friend's wife personally distributed a copy to various authorities. But the responses were all the same: 'We will look into it.' During this entire time, not a single medical institution provided us with insulin."
After his stay in the hospital, Valery, "reluctantly and under pressure" agreed to join the border guard.
"If I hadn't agreed, I would have ended up at the frontline again," he says. "I went to defend my homeland hoping that everything would be quick. But as it turned out, there's no telling when it will end."
Dobrovlets Anatoly and his mother Tatyana, whose second son continues to fight
Personal file / Important Stories
Anatoly grew up in a large family alongside four siblings. In the fall of 2022, he received a draft notice, got mobilized, and lost his life in less than two months on the frontline. He was only 22 years old.
His elder sister, Agnessa recalls how “the entire family cried” when he received the summons.
“But he went. For some reason he wanted to go,” she says. “Maybe he wanted to look cool.”
“He was worried, but he never showed it," she recalls. "He would walk around the house with a smile, pretending to be happy, but inside, he was worried.”
Anatoly was conscripted on Oct. 27, 2022 and taken to Tatarstan in central Russia, where he underwent training for two months. Just before the New Year, he was deployed to Ukraine.
“They immediately sent them to a hotspot,” Agnessa says. “He said it was cold. There was a shortage of food and weapons. When he called his wife, he told her that they were sitting in a trench. She asked if they had any weapons ... 'What weapons?' he said. They only gave us one rifle. That's it. We're sitting quietly in the trench, afraid to come out."
The last time Anatoly contacted his family was on Feb. 4, 2023. In March, his family started calling the Ministry of Defense and writing messages on Telegram to ask about Anatoly’s whereabouts. The Ministry of Defense hotline said that he wasn't on the list of missing persons, "So everything should be fine."
But in April, Anatoly's mother went to the draft board herself, wanting to search more thoroughly. That's when they told her that Anatoly had died on Feb. 25.
“I don't understand why they delayed and didn't say anything, if he was lying there all that time," Agnessa says.
One of Anatoly’s comrades would later say a fragment from a shell hit Anatoly in the head on Feb. 9, and he was taken to the hospital, where he passed away two weeks later.
“My mother took the news very hard. At that time, I was already heavily pregnant. She came and told me, and we cried,” Agnessa says.
The draft board promised that they would cover all the funeral expenses, including the coffin, crosses and wreaths. But after the funeral, the administration refused.
"The war is unnecessary. I read a lot of news now, and what they show on TV is not the truth," Agnessa says. "They only talk about the good things, but there's still so much they hide. They talk about how many people they've capture and how many died on the other side. But they don't count how many of ours have died in a day."
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