Until Death Convinces Us

IStories spoke with relatives of three dead, recently mobilized soldiers. They discussed why their loved ones decided “not to run” and go to war — and whether they consider this choice to have been the right one

28 Dec 2022
Until Death Convinces Us

IStories has calculated a death total of at least 59 mobilized soldiers in the month following Russia’s announcment of its mobilization. The actual number is certainly higher — we counted only cases that were publicly reported. 

Some soldiers died before they reached the frontlines, in training centers, at training grounds and in military units. At least 39 recently-mobilized soldiers died on Ukrainian territory. People without combat experience and military skills were sent into fierce fighting after a few days of preparation — some even with no preparation at all. 

IStories spoke with relatives of the victims. Judging by their reactions, people are beginning to realize that TV reports are filled with lies, cover-ups of losses, and a lack of care for the lives of those serving in the military.

The opinion of the heroes differs from the opinion of the editors

“‎I have already told my eldest son everything, because he is five — he understands”‎ 

Natalya Vasenina, Minusinsk

Natalya Vasenina is an orphan. At the age of 19 she met Igor Puchkov, and six months later they got married. Today, Vasenina studies in college and has two children. Her husband helped her in every area of life. On the 11th day following mobilization, Puchkov died in Ukraine, in the Sumy region.

Vasenina's husband died on the 11th day of mobilization. He left behind Vasenina and their two children.
Vasenina's husband died on the 11th day of mobilization. He left behind Vasenina and their two children.

We met when I was 19 years old. We lived in the same city, and he wrote to me on VKontakte (russian social media -Ed. note). We got married half a year after we met. Now we have two children.

Igor studied electrical engineering, but didn’t finish his education and joined the army (one-year mandatory military service in Russia -Ed. note). After the army, he worked in sales, selling laptops. He did this for about five years, for several different stores. He said that he was tired, the job didn’t bring any money. Recently he’d been working as a taxi driver. 

Before mobilization, he wanted to get a job at the Federal Penitentiary Service (at the prison -Ed. note) . Igor's friend who works there called him. He said that the salary is good, and afterwards you receive a pension. [Igor] doesn’t have the education [for highly qualified work], but they could have taken him on at the prison anyway. Igor lit up at the idea, and was already lining up the paperwork — he didn’t have time to finish it, he needed something about half a month longer. If he had gone to work at the prison, they wouldn't have taken him [for mobilization]. 

When mobilization began we thought that he might be called up, but we didn't think it would be so soon. When the summons arrived, he wasn’t home. I was asked to deliver it. I signed and gave it to my husband.  

We were dispirited, worried — it was scary, we were both very nervous. Igor said: “What is there to do? Hide? I won't hide." He didn’t want to hide, so that there wouldn’t be problems later. We were said that there are fines, that there is a possibility that they might put you in prison. So he went. (For failure to appear after a summons, the maximum penalty is a fine of 3,000 rubles — about 50 euro. Read more about how to act when a summons arrives in our guide. -Ed. note)

I didn't know what to do. I could read from his face that he was worried. He said he was anxious. Igor understood that this was a war and anything could happen. He didn't want to leave us alone. I cried every day until he was taken away, worrying. But how could I stop it? I didn’t know. 

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When he left, we were on the phone every day from morning till evening. He was trained only once, when they were still in Omsk: they were taken to the shooting range. He shot, said that out of 30 [attempts] he hit 23 times, and the rest of the guys generally managed fewer. There was no more training. He was nervous, saying: “What the hell, we just sit around — they aren’t teaching.”

I asked at the military registration and enlistment office why they didn’t practise, but no one could say anything. We thought maybe they would be taken there later, there would be some kind of training. No one expected that they would be sent out right away. On October 2, they were already in Ukraine. 

On Friday [October 14], I got a call from the military registration and enlistment office; they asked me to come [to the office]. They said they had bad news. I already understood. I was hysterical, I had a hellish pain inside. I thought I was going crazy. I cried at first, and then paced. And even smiled. I paced around for about three hours and said that they were lying, that everything was fine with him and that my husband would call soon. I didn't accept it. 

They said that Igor died in some village in the Sumy region. I don’t remember exactly: a wound to the head — lethal — and a shrapnel wound to the chest. 

The most difficult thing was to accept Igor’s death. In the early days it seemed I just couldn’t believe it. I still don’t; there’s denial in my head. We lived together for six years, we have two small children. He loved me very much, I loved him. He loved the children, everything was fine. They couldn't imagine that this would happen. I already told my eldest son everything. Because he’s five, he understands that something is wrong, and he was crying. The youngest doesn’t understand yet. 

I'm not working now, I'm in college. I receive a scholarship and [support] for the children. Of course, I have to pay for an apartment — not to say that we live in luxury, but we get by somehow. I had gotten used to the fact that Igor is always here. If it was time for a trip to the store, or to take the children to daycare, he never refused. We had a car, he drove us on vacations. Everything was fine. And now I am left alone with two children. I probably don't fully understand how it really is. 

We had a car, he drove us on vacations. Everything was fine. And now I am left alone with two children.
Natalya Vasenina, wife of a deceased mobilized soldier

Igor’s father died a year ago, on October 31. His mother died on October 12. Now a year has passed, and I’ve lost him. I have no parents, I'm an orphan. The children now have no grandmother, no grandfather, no father. 

If I could rewind everything now, I would not have signed that summons. I was told later that Igor needed to hide, not to take the summons. Then maybe it would all settle down. But I didn’t even think that he would be taken away at that moment. I thought that these were some kind of training assemblies, that they would talk and come home. 

I used to live, not considering that there was some kind of war going on. Of course, when they brought a load of KIA to us. It was scary. But then it was forgotten. War and fighting, it didn't concern me at all. And now I have felt the war myself. My husband died in the war. How awful it sounds.

“‎Let our country know what is going on and where we are sending our men”‎ 

Yulia Kuznetsova, St. Petersburg

Yulia Kuznetsova's brother, Andrey Nikiforov, lawyer in the Neva Chamber of Advocates of St. Petersburg, was taken away on the third day of mobilization. Thirteen days later he died. Now the summons have come for Kuznetsova’s son and husband, and her younger brother wants to go as a volunteer to avenge their brother’s death. 

A woman tries to save her family from the war, and says that she will not survive another KIA.

The last photo that Andrey Nikiforov sent to his sister from military exercises, where the recently mobilized soldiers were not trained at all
The last photo that Andrey Nikiforov sent to his sister from military exercises, where the recently mobilized soldiers were not trained at all

We have a large family. Our parents are dead. I am the oldest: I’m 50 years old, my sister is 44, then comes Andryusha (affectionate version of the name Andrew -Ed. note), he is 40. We lived together in St. Petersburg. Our youngest brother, Zhenya, now lives in Moscow. He is 36.

My younger sister received Andrey's summons. The doorbell rang, they handed it to her, and she signed. He came home from work, and she said, "Andryusha, there is a piece of paper for you." He said, “What am I, a fool that’s going to run away at the age of 40? First I will go, then Zhenya [the younger brother].”

Andrey went to the military enlistment office. He was given a day to resolve his cases; he had criminal cases pending at work. He handed over the cases and managed to make a power of attorney for his ex-wife. How did he feel? My brother was legally savvy and understood where he was going. He had combat experience, having taken part in the Chechen war. 

On the day of departure, he drank tea in the morning. I took my child to school, and [Andrey] went to the military registration and enlistment office. There was not even a thought that he would be sent to war. We thought that this was military training: they would train and come back. It was said that there would be mobilization without military action, but then what happened. We are shocked.

They were not provided with anything. We made a wire transfer to him. With the money he bought everything he needed in Belgorod. He said that he needed sleeve protectors, knives and so on. Not to mention food. They ate dry rations that they had taken with them. There was no portable kitchen: they sat in the field without any light, without any water — without anything. He spoke to me with optimism, saying, ‘Don’t piss yourself, Yulia, we’ll battle through.’ I think he understood everything, though.

Our commander-in-chief gathered so many people for mobilization. And the most annoying thing is that the army is left bare-assed — nothing is provided. Wives of the mobilized collect parcels; we buy everything and send it. 

Today journalists write that [Governor of St. Petersburg Alexander] Beglov raised his salary by eight percent. I was just shaking [with anger] from this. You give this money to the army, to the country that you supposedly serve. These assessors that are sitting in the parliaments — if they would try to send their children [to the war] [...] Then the money would be found immediately. 

There was no training. They were brought out to Kamenka (military training ground -Ed. Note) twice - into the field without anything [munitions, etc]. They just stood and smoked for a while. I asked him to send a photo in his uniform. Here, he sent it to me. The last in his life.

The last time he called was when he was in the fields near Lysychansk. And then he was offline, offline, offline. My friends then called me and said that there was shelling from HIMARS in Lysychansk. And from the sixth to the seventh of October, it happened [he was killed].

People from the military registration and enlistment office came to his ex-wife with a death notice, along with emergency care: “Hello, webrought it for you.” There was an error in the notification: the birth month is wrong. Unable to sleep the night, we worried, “Is it him or not?” So in the morning we went to the military registration and enlistment office. They came out and told us that it was a mistake in the office. That's how easy it is for them.  

We wanted to have a service for him in the morgue, but we were not allowed: neither to meet the flight [with KIAs], nor to be in the morgue. Allegedly, this is all military [policy] and the like. I think he just wasn't alone. Imagine, the whole shipment [of KIAs] arrived! We only saw a zinc coffin at the cemetery. It just doesn’t fit in my head — two weeks — and that was it.

In the morgue they said we were lucky that he was not mutilated, and that there were documents. Therefore, the body was handed over to relatives. I think that because Andrey is a lawyer, this is why there was such an interest and they sort of met us halfway. How many others are there? (According to official figures, Andrey Nikiforov is the only dead man mobilized from St. Petersburg. -Ed. note)

Now we have hysteria and discord in the family. Our younger brother, Zhenya, a VDV [airborne] officer, shouts: “Why him and not me?” Now he wants to go [to Ukraine] as a volunteer: he has a grudge, he wants revenge. I said that I would kill myself, rather than let my second brother go. Chaos is what is happening there now with these military actions. Maybe, at least in a month, something will change with our comrades, they will start supplying [them with] something. But this first mobilization is just cannon fodder. 

A summons for my husband was also delivered. They brought it to his mom. After the incident with Andryusha, she simply kicked them out down the stairs, and they left the summons on the door for my son. We didn't sign anything. There are many round-ups like this in St. Petersburg; they are grabbing up everyone. I'm scared.

My youngest child is disabled. He has cerebral palsy, but legally I have nothing to refer to so that my son and husband are not taken away. The lawyers with whom Andryusha worked told me to go to the administration as a last resort — to appeal to their humanity. What humanity? They even said the wrong date of death at the funeral. It wasn’t their own relative who died. It seems to me that these are just bureaucrats, and they don't give a damn about people. 

My husband accuses me: “Aren't you ashamed to hide me behind skirts, behind the media. Stop complaining." Why shouldn't I complain? Let our country know what’s going on and where we’re sending our men. I explain to my husband that if he goes he will not change anything, but he will be leaving me. One has already left. Tribute has been paid to the Motherland. Enough. 

I explain to my husband that if he goes he will not change anything, but he will leave me. One has already left. Tribute paid to the Motherland. Enough.
Yulia Kuznetsova, sister of a deceased mobilized soldier

I'm on pills: I pop them, sleep and wake up. My head pounds from the whole situation. I pray now only that my younger brother and husband can be convinced. Because if another zinc coffin comes, I'll go crazy. I can hardly walk now. My leg is paralyzed, I’m dealing with memory problems, I start babbling. “Yulia, I don’t recognize you,” my younger brother said. I say, “Here, look how all this has dragged me down.”  

Of course, we watched about Ukraine, this TV stuff. Everything on TV: "‎Time,", "‎News," Solovyov (russian propagandist -Ed. note) — it's all blah blah blah. We now understand that it’s 30% truth and 70% lies. We ran into this when Andryusha died. When we found out everything on our own, recreated the course of events via acquaintances, through local chats, we realized that information was given belatedly, or it was hushed up. How many more of our people will be put out there? These are our men, children, sons. 

The Ministry of Defense reports about how many tanks, how many Ukrainians were overwhelmed. Is this what I'm interested in? Better to tell us about our own, how our boys are doing there, how they were provided for. It would be better if a report would be put out about this. It's just disgusting and embarrassing.

“I have changed my attitude on everything, but if the summons comes I will not hide.”  

Igor Solondaev, Minusinsk

Five of Igor Solondaev's friends were taken away on the fifth day of mobilization. His best friend, Alexander Parilov, died just nine days later. The fate of the remaining four is unknown. They were sent to the frontlines without training or necessary uniforms. Solondaev has a wife, two children, his own business, and is an active citizen: he ran for the City Duma, for the Greens, to fight for clean air in the city. He understands that the mobilized are sent to be slaughtered, but he has already bought everything he needs to be sent to the front. He says that he will not hide from the summons if it comes.

Before the war, Alexander worked in construction. He died nine days after leaving for training for the war.
Before the war, Alexander worked in construction. He died nine days after leaving for training for the war.

Alexander (Sasha) Parilov has a wife and two children. He was self-employed, working in construction. The only connection he had with the military was a stint in the special forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the age of 18. No one expected that he would receive a summons.

The first summons came to our mutual friend, Ruslan, who has three small children. Sasha then phoned me and said, “Of course, I’m glad I didn’t get a summons. But I don’t understand: [Ruslan] is a motorized rifleman, he has three children, they came for him, but not me.” On Friday we went to see Ruslan off. On Saturday at lunchtime, Sasha's mother brought a summons; she had signed for him. 

We knew that if we didn’t follow this summons, we wouldn’t be held accountable. But Sasha was not a sissy. He did not hide from his military duty. The notice came, so he went. He didn't even think about quitting. Like some others, he was not going to go to Georgia. And Ruslan, our friend, who has three children, when the summons came, he got ready, stocked up and went. 

They were given only a uniform and body armor, the rest [they had to buy] themselves. Combat boots were also handed out, but they’re the type that you rip off your legs and throw straight in the trash. He served in the special forces for two years, he knows how it is — he took good boots for himself. They cost 20,000 [rubles] (315 euro -Ed. note) now. He bought thermal underwear, a first aid kit. A total of 35,000 rubles (550 euro, -Ed. note) was spent in the end. The only thing is that he did not have time to buy a sleeping bag; he was worried he’d be without one.

On Monday, September 26, they were put on a bus with the inscription "Children," and taken to the train. Five of my friends went to war. Until the evening they sat on the train without light, and then at night they left. On Wednesday they arrived in Omsk, and finally on Thursday evening they were fed for the first time. 

Sasha called me from training. I asked how they train, what they do. He said, “We are standing and listening — they haven’t given us guns yet.” On October 3, he sent a photo showing that the uniform had been handed out. On the 4th, he phoned his wife, and said that they were brought to Kherson. And on the 5th he was killed. The military enlistment office said that the cause of death was shrapnel to the head. 

Nobody expected that they would send people unprepared. It looks like they just bombed them down to the dirt. Because he had multiple shrapnel wounds. Along with him, three more dead with a last name starting with the letter “P” were brought to Minusinsk. Like schoolchildren, they were distributed according to their last names. And it was these [guys with "‎P" surnames‎] that the shell hit. Maybe someone else will come [among the dead], who knows. They are silent about everything. They only talk about Ukraine’s losses, but no one talks about our own losses. 

According to unofficial data, many of our [military] columns were bombed. Someone said that a russian fighter got in touch by phone, and the Ukrainians spotted the convoy. Someone said that their column got lost, turned the wrong way, went into the enemy formation and was shot at. There are a lot of rumors going around. This is not reported through official channels. We are told only what good fellows we are; where we screw-up, everyone is silent.

When I found out how the mobilization was going, how the boys were being sent, my attitude toward everything changed. But if the summons comes, I will not be hiding — I won’t run anywhere. In fact, I will buy everything I need. I’ve already bought almost everything in advance. I have two small children, it’ll be three soon, but I have to go. If no one goes, what will happen next? Will all kinds of unstable people come and do something to our girls? All of Russia will not go to Georgia.  

And if no one goes, what will happen next? Will all sorts of unstable people come and do something to our girls? All of Russia will not leave for Georgia.
Igor Solondaev, best friend of a deceased mobilized soldier

No matter how people feel about the authorities and leadership, people go to war. Not for just anyone, but for family, children, and the homeland. Imagine, what might happen if Ukraine retakes the territories of the Donbas and Crimea? What do you think, they’ll stop, wave flags and say bye? Haha. They will continue to bomb Belgorod and other cities. And where are the proofs that other countries will not attack us later? They say that once in a hundred years, Europe gets a hell of a beating from Russia. Well, almost a hundred years have passed. 

After Sasha's death, it's been hard for everyone — for me, my friends and relatives. Four days later, we are still shaken by everything. We understood it could happen, though. He went there; he understood it, too. He was not planning to die, of course — he didn’t even drink on the way. No one thought that a shell would land and he’d die from shrapnel. But it happens. Everyone mourns, weeps, but they understand why he went there.