Check facts

Svatove Slaughter: What Was It Like

To stop the Ukrainian offensive on Svatove, the Russian command threw thousands of untrained mobilized people to the front line. Their relatives are telling what happened to them

Svatove Slaughter: What Was It Like
Illustration: Sailorkyz

In the fall of 2022, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) launched a counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast and liberated most of it in a short period of time. It was largely the defeat at Kharkiv that forced Vladimir Putin to declare mobilization.

Further offensives of the AFU threatened strategically important towns in the neighboring Luhansk Oblast — Svatove and Kreminna. To hold this position, the Russian army command rushed thousands of untrained mobilized soldiers to the front line.

Since then, the relatives of many of them have been trying to get any information about their close ones from the Russian authorities. IStories has at its disposal a number of complaints from relatives of those mobilized to Vladimir Putin’s administration. This archive was given by a source whose name we are not disclosing for security reasons.

IStories journalists Irina Dolinina and Rina Nikolaeva talked to some of the authors of the complaints, and they confirmed the authenticity of the documents we had at our disposal. We also managed to verify the identities of almost 300 mobilized men who went missing near Svatove, whose names are mentioned in the archive.

Complaints to Putin are written by different people from different regions, but in many cases, they talk about the same events. Among the thousands of these appeals, complaints about what happened to those mobilized near Svatove stand out in particular.

The IStories movie

“His hands were twisted and he was dragged into this hell”

Igor Khovalkin, 23, from the village of Ponyri, Kursk Oblast, was working in Moscow on a shift. After mobilization began, he and his colleagues were taken right from the workers’ hostel. “Last year my child was seized. I can say his hands were twisted and he was dragged into this hell. Under pressure, he was sent [to the front], by force. He didn’t want to,” — 51-year-old housewife Lyudmila Khovalkina recounts by phone. During the conversation, she cries and sometimes interrupts to take pills.

Igor Khovalkin
Igor Khovalkin
Photo: social networks

Her son graduated from college with a degree in fire safety. Then he served his enlistment in the army, started working, and studied part-time at an institute. “[He studied] everywhere with honors. The child is impetuous. I raised a very good child. I gave him as much education as I could,” — Lyudmila says, choking with tears. — “He was sporty. During his school days, he practiced sports, skiing and running. He took top honors everywhere. He was very good... For some reason, I began to express it like that, ‘he was.’ He is.”

According to Lyudmila, Igor had a negative attitude towards the war: “He told me that things were very bad in our country. ‘Why are they pushing the guys over there to this Ukraine?’ — that’s how he thought. He was totally against this war.”

Igor Khovalkin, along with other mobilized people, was first taken to Valuiki, Belgorod Oblast. On the way, he called his mother and told her that many people did not want to go anywhere and there were even fights because of this. “Guys absolutely did not want to go and resented: ‘We have families. We work, we get poverty wages, but we live and will live on them. And we don’t need the war,’” Lyudmila recalls.

Khovalkin wrote his last message to his parents from somewhere near Svatove: he and other mobilized men were in a dugout in an ambush, they had no communication, no supplies, no officers with them. Then Igor stopped contacting the family.

“Not knowing is the worst”

Unlike Khovalkin, Aleksey Popkov, a 40-year-old father of three children from Orekhovo-Zuyevo near Moscow, came to the military commissariat himself. He worked at a local enterprise producing boiler equipment. There he was handed a military summons. 

“I came from work, checked students’ notebooks,” — recalls Alexey’s wife, 40-year-old Svetlana Popkova, an elementary school teacher. She talks to IStories in her apartment. Many family photos of her together with her husband and their three school-age children hang on the walls: “My husband came and showed me the military summons. I didn’t say anything, I was shocked. We were watching what was happening in the world on TV, and it seemed that it didn’t concern us and it would never happen to us. All evening we stayed silent, we didn’t say anything to the kids. They love their daddy very much, I knew they would cry. In the evening he said: ‘Sveta, you know, it’s my duty. I’m going together with other guys from the town. Everyone will be conscripted anyway, I’m going with the guys now. I have to, I’m a man, so I’ll go.’”

Alexey Popkov and Svetlana Popkova
Alexey Popkov and Svetlana Popkova
Photo: social networks

Popkov was sent to the Taman Division and then to Belarus. In December 2022, while her husband was in Belarus, Svetlana managed to get him dismissed as a father of three minor children. Due to the fact that the command of the unit in Naro-Fominsk left early for the New Year holidays, the official order of Alexey Popkov’s dismissal was signed only on January 12, 2023. But it was too late: by that time he had already been in Ukraine for five days.

“The last time I spoke to my husband was on January 13. He said that they were in Ukraine, about 20 kilometers from Svatove. I said: ‘Lesha [Alexey], go to the commander, the order for your dismissal is ready. I need to know when the commander will receive this information and you will be sent home.’ He told me that he went to the commander, — and the connection was suddenly lost at this point. I tried to call again. He has never picked up the phone since then.”

Illustration: Sailorkyz

A few days later, the wife of one of Alexey's fellow soldiers called Svetlana and told her that Alexey had gone missing near Svatove: “According to rumors among the soldiers, there was an airstrike, and part [of the mobilized] together with my husband just left, crawled away in the wrong direction.”

In the center of the Popkovs’ living room, a large wedding photo hangs above the sofa. Svetlana turns to her husband in tears: “Stop torturing us. It’s impossible to take it anymore. Not knowing is the worst.”

“Why were they thrown into the slaughter?!”

Since Igor Khovalkin and Alexey Popkov went missing near Svatove, their relatives have been trying to get at least some information from the government. They have written dozens of appeals to various authorities, including the administration of Vladimir Putin. But there were no results.   

IStories found the complaints of Khovalkina and Popkova in the archive, which the source passed to us. There we also found hundreds of other appeals from relatives of Russian military personnel who were sent to Svatove.

According to the complaints, the first mobilized men arrived near Svatove as early as the first days of October, just days after they received the military summonses and in the midst of fierce fighting in that area. Relatives complained to Putin: “During the conscription, they were told that they would stand on the second and third lines or somewhere in the liberated territories. Why were they thrown into the slaughter?!” — the author of one of the appeals expressed.

Most relatives of the mobilized wrote to Putin that their close ones found themselves on the front lines without any training or supplies. “I understand if an experienced person goes [to the war] at their own will. But why are you, [Russian government], [taking away] children who have just graduated from school? They have aspirations and a future. You have an army for that [war]. On TV they show all the nonsense: the army and everything. But there is nothing,” — Lyudmila, Igor Khovalkin’s mother, says. — “Excuse me, please, may I express myself very rudely? It’s a naked-ass country! We have nothing.”

What happened to the mobilized at the front, the authors of appeals to Putin most frequently describe with the word “hell.” Many complaints repeat the same story about how the command threw soldiers to the front line with only one light weapon and they died or went missing there. “At three in the morning, they were taken out into the field without special military equipment and given a machine gun with two mags,” — a relative of a mobilized man writes. “They had only two grenades and two mags of ammunition in the automatic rifles, no commanders, no communication either. Then the real hell began,” — a relative of another military man complained to Putin.

Support IStories
With your help, we will continue to tell the truth about war and the people who suffer from it

“A few days after their arrival at the battlefront without proper training and combat coordination, that are constantly told about on TV, they [the mobilized] were sent into battle against superior enemy forces. After they ran out of ammunition, they were simply bombed. And the survivors were dispersed to other units,” — the father of a mobilized man wrote to Putin. “And this is only one section of the front — Svatove, LPR, which is constantly shelled. Why were the mobilized people thrown there without providing everything they needed! No weapons, no food, not even water. Where are our super-modern weapons and our strongest army in the world?!” — the mother of another soldier exclaimed.

Many of the mobilized, after spending several days on the front line — without supplies, communications, and under constant shelling — tried to get out to a safer place. But their commanders sent them back to the front line: “At the checkpoint, our own staff refused to let them in because there was no one from the command. They were told to crawl back where they came from,” — one complaint said. “To those who refused to return to the front line, the commander answered with a swear word: ‘I don’t give a shit, new ones will be sent here,’” a relative of another mobilized man complained to Putin.

Those who still refused to return were put in pits and cellars by the command, locked in garages and other special prisons under the military police control.

Illustration: Sailorkyz

Many complaints from relatives of the mobilized also mention the prison in the village of Zaitsevo in the Luhansk Oblast. It became known when Russians soldiers who were detained there told journalists about the conditions of detention and showed videos taken there.

Hundreds of people were held in the cellars of Zaitsevo. Based on the complaints, concussed and wounded people who were not given medical care were among the detainees. “Our cold-stricken husbands are kept in prison without water and food in order to break them down. Without medical care, food, and water, they might just die there!” — stated the relatives’ collective appeal to Putin.

“They do not refuse to defend their motherland, but it is impossible to do it without training and equipment. And for this, they are put in the cellar and threatened with torture until they agree to return to the front lines!” — a wife of one of the detained mobilized men resented. “They are openly told that it is easier to get rid of them so that there is no fuss. No people — and no problems,” — another one wrote.

The relatives of Russian soldiers asked Putin to investigate and bring to justice the commanders who threw their close ones to slaughter and into cellars. In one appeal, the author even called the officers’ actions “fascism.”

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Zavadsky, commander of a separate motor rifle regiment of an army brigade of the Baltic Fleet, was mentioned especially often in the complaints: “Who is responsible for not taking care of the mobilized? Alexander Zavadsky, who, as it turned out, has no official record of them in his regiment and therefore has no losses? Who will return the dead to us?” — the author of one of the complaints to Putin lamented.

In December 2022, Putin awarded Zavadsky with the Star of the Hero of Russia.

The losses

Along with the complaints, the source sent to IStories the recordings of two conversations between Russian military personnel stationed near Svatove. We checked the phone numbers and made sure that they belonged to real Russian citizens who were mobilized in 2022. You can listen to the recordings in our movie

Both conversations took place last April. One of the mobilized men astonished, tells his relative that a lot of volunteers are coming to them: “This is how people are being fucked up. They watch TV: every day they are told that ‘over the past 24 hours we have killed so many people and so many vehicles.’ They believe it, they come here, and they’re just fucked up. They say: ‘This is such a hard fuck-up! We didn’t know it was so bad here. If we had known, we never would have come here.’”

During the same conversation, a mobilized man confessed to his relative that there were “less than a hundred men left of the regiment [from 950 to 2,000 men] — somewhere around 70.”

In the second recorded conversation, a mobilized man also told about heavy losses near Svatove: “There are no Kaliningrad men left, we have Moscow men, any different ones. There are 64 Kaliningrad soldiers left. Fucking hell. 64 soldiers from three regiments. Well, there is a fuckload of refusers.”

Illustration: Sailorkyz

It is impossible to confirm the reliability of these losses. However, according to open data only, i.e. reports about the dead on social networks and in the media, at least 250 mobilized people died in the Svativka-Kreminna line by September last year.

Earlier, Verstka and even Russian propagandist Anastasia Kashevarova reported on the heavy losses of the mobilized at Svatove: “I will tell you more about the story of the 27th Brigade and the mobilized sent untrained to Svatove. <...> They were all thrown to the strongholds, each had four mags. <...> Communication was practically non-existent. <...> There was no support, during the fighting some units were moved and it was not known where they were. And in such a situation the guys spent about five or six days under heavy artillery fire, round-the-clock drone surveillance.”

“Find our child. Why do we need this war?”

Before the mobilization began, Lyudmila Khovalkina was a common housewife. Now she spends her whole days just searching for her son, looking through photos and videos of prisoners of war, and writing appeals. “My head used to be full of: how to cook pies, how to take care of flowers. Like any housewife, a woman,” — Lyudmila says in a quiet and exhausted voice. — “I worked at the plant. My husband has been a foreman in his work all his life, he received awards. But no one honors anyone, no one appreciates anyone, and no one needs us. They need war, they need children to be slaughtered, they need destruction.”

After her son stopped contacting her, the parents searched hospitals for anyone who could tell them anything about Igor’s fate. The Khovalkins found his fellow soldiers who were with Igor in the trench. They said that there was shelling, after which the command abandoned them. What happened to Igor, none of his fellow soldiers knew. One of them remembered that Khovalkin gave him first aid after being wounded by shrapnel: he gave him an injection and brought him water. But then he was wounded again, and when he woke up in the hospital, Igor was not there.

According to Lyudmila Khovalkina, her son’s commander was another mobilized man named Vitaly. “He was rude to us. He called us drunk at night when he came out of the hospital. He rattled us so much. My husband sat next to me during the call and cried, telling him: ‘If you know the truth, tell us. It may be a bitter truth. But tell us the truth.’”

Lyudmila says that after Vitaliy came out of the hospital, he went on a binge drinking, and since then she has not spoken to him: “These [commanders] dragged the children into that [slaughter], and saved their own skins by running away. I think they wounded themselves just to get to this hospital — there is no other way to get out of this Ukraine. I told him: ‘Be offended or not — you were just dragging children into the slaughter.’”

The Khovalkin family searched for their son in Valuiki, Belgorod Oblast, where mobilized people were brought after being served with military summonses; then they went to Luhansk Oblast, calling hospitals and morgues. But, according to Lyudmila, the officials either ignored her requests or responded rudely.

The Khovalkin family
The Khovalkin family
Photo: social networks

“A whole year has already passed. What else can we expect? We are just tired,” — Lyudmila Khovalkina complains. — “We have gone around a huge circle, we have talked to everyone. Everywhere the same result — total silence, only empty replies with no real answers. Find our child, return it, please, why do we need this war? Did I give birth to a child for this purpose? I gave birth to a child for myself and raised him with my husband. Not for this lawlessness. He understood… understands it perfectly well…” — Ludmila corrects herself. — “‘Who is attacking us?’” — so he reflected. No one. Why should we go there [to Ukraine]? Why?”

All this time Svetlana Popkova is also trying to find some information about her husband. “At first I was lost in life,” — she recalls. — “My friends helped me, took me around, assisted me in writing appeals on websites. First, you look for these sites where you can appeal, and you register. Then you start writing tearful letters for help. Sometimes I forgot where I had already written my appeal, what were the login and password… I did it all at night. I came home from work, did homework with my children, checked my pupils’ notebooks, and then put the children to bed and started writing. And crying.”

Svetlana was told in the Naro-Fominsk military unit that her husband Alexey is already considered a civilian, because he was dismissed from service on January 12. And that they were not going to search for him. “They said that perhaps he was holed up somewhere with friends, with relatives in Ukraine, maybe with a girlfriend of some kind? Well, they made fun of me,” — Svetlana says.

Naro-Fominsk military unit commanders even denied the fact that Alexey Popkov was in Ukraine. Svetlana Popkova sent details of her calls with her husband to officials to prove that he had fought in Ukraine, and appealed to the military prosecutor’s office, the presidential administration, and other authorities. In the fall of 2023, the military unit finally acknowledged that Popkov was in Ukraine, but they never went looking for him. “Just complete neglect, silence. These are your problems, this is your misfortune,” — Svetlana describes the attitude of officials. — “Don’t touch us and deal with it yourself. That is offending ”

“When I found out that my husband was missing, I subscribed to Telegram channels where people are looking for missing soldiers. My day ends with me sitting on Telegram, looking at photos — what if I see [Alexey]. And there are a lot of them there… of guys lying dead,” — Svetlana says.

“Now, given this attitude of the authorities who are supposed to help us, I would like to say that it is better to hide [the men],” Svetlana says. — “It’s scary. It is impossible to prepare for it. It’s impossible to get over it. No one needs this. Especially when I realized that I had a complete family, which I have always been proud of. I’m proud of my kids. They’re doing great in school, honors students. I’ve always been proud of my husband. He loved the kids so much. Now everything is broken... Even the guys who are called deserters, I don’t dislike them now.”

Before mobilization, Alexey Popkov was engaged in construction and dreamed of a house of his own. “He had gifted hands. If you walk through our village, you will see beautiful balconies bricked neatly — it's all his work. We had a huge queue, everyone asked to brick a balcony, to do something on the house, on the plumbing, to set a door. He was always happy to respond. We have a plot of land nearby, and last year we decided to build a house. He made the frame with his own hands, and after work, he was happy to go to the plot. The house skeleton is there, and the project was found. Only now I realize that it will all rot someday and fall down if he does not come back. That’s why when I come to the plot, I say that ‘you started this work, come back and finish it, because I can’t do it…’” — Svetlana says with tears.

“All relatives [of the mobilized] are worried, absolutely everyone. We don’t look like ourselves anymore, we are all gray-haired. Why do we need this hell?!” — Lyudmila Khovalkina exclaims. — “I don’t get involved in these politics. I had my things to do: I grew flowers, baked, and sewed, but I never got involved in this TV. I never listened to it.”

Illustration: Sailorkyz

When asked whether her attitude towards the Russian authorities has changed, Lyudmila says that “like everyone else”, in her opinion: “Even if not everyone has a child there, maybe he or she is still young, maybe he or she has hidden [from mobilization]. But everyone sympathizes [with the mobilized and their parents]. What kind of person do you have to be not to sympathize?”

Lyudmila Khovalkina has not stopped searching for her son Igor. She even wrote to Ukrainian journalists who interviewed prisoners of war, hoping that they might know something about him. “I write to them apologizing for the whole country. I ask, ‘Forgive us for unleashing such madness.’ I don't know why all this was necessary. What, whom to defend against? Who is attacking us? Although my son is suffering and I am suffering, why does Ukraine deserve this hell?” — Lyudmila is sobbing. — “God grant Ukraine to get out of this hell, God grant! And bow down to them. In every monastery I’ve been in, I’m on my knees praying for Ukraine. And for this madness to end. I still don’t know where my son is…”

Editors: Roman Anin, Alesya Marohovskaya