At half past six in the morning in early September, a captain from Russia's 106th Guards Airborne Division arrived at the outskirts of a remote village in the Samara region, a triangular stretch of southern Russia between Kazakhstan and the Volga River. A local military representative picked him up at the Samara airport. The two drove through the countryside for hours, rows of birch trees giving way to flat farmland, until a signpost beside a small cemetery announced the village of Podsolnechnoye. The vehicle bounced along a rutted road, past clusters of dilapidated single-story houses, and came to a stop in front of a modest white brick home.
The captain had traveled nearly 870 miles from Rostov, on the Ukrainian border. With him was a sealed zinc coffin containing the body of a 20-year-old paratrooper named Sergei Andrianov.
Relatives were waiting to greet them outside. Andrianov's older brother and uncle stepped forward with an angle grinder. His mother, Natasha, remained inside. "I was hoping there was a mistake," she said. Outside, the men managed to pry open the coffin. Natasha heard her daughter begin to scream.
To his relatives, Andrianov was barely recognizable—his expression frozen in a grimace, eyes and mouth wide open. The left side of his face had turned blue, while his nose was twisted as if someone had yanked it to the side. His body was covered in dirt, which had caked under his fingernails. The fatal blast wound to the heart was hidden beneath a fresh military uniform intended for a man twice his size. A pair of flimsy rubber flip-flops dangled from his feet.
The family had spent five days waiting for the body to arrive, during which time Andrianov's brother called anyone he could reach in the 106th Division in a maddening attempt to find out how his brother had died. At one point, an exasperated officer told him to give up. "Quit calling," the officer said. "They'll give you a hundred thousand rubles [a little over fifteen hundred dollars]—more than enough to drink and remember him. What more do you want?" The paperwork accompanying Andrianov's body offered no clues as to how or where he'd been killed. According to a military forensics report, at 9 PM on August 28, Andrianov was carrying out a "special mission" in a "place of temporary dislocation." There was "an explosion, from which Corporal Andrianov received a traumatic injury not compatible with life, as a result of which he died on the spot."
"They make it sound like a government secret, but honestly, I want to say that it is a government crime," Natasha said. "How did he die? Where did he die? My son is gone, and no one can explain to me how it happened."
Russia isn't officially at war, but her soldiers are dying. Andrianov is one of dozens—possibly hundreds—of active-duty Russian servicemen believed to have been killed in Ukraine. The Kremlin denies sending troops into battle, claiming it has no direct involvement in the conflict raging across the border. But Andrianov's story is one of numerous accounts I gathered from soldiers' families, human rights workers, and government officials that cast doubt on the official narrative.
Last February, heavily armed men in unmarked green uniforms fanned out across parts of Crimea in an operation that would lead to Moscow's annexation of the peninsula. Asked whether the so-called little green men were actually Russian soldiers, President Vladimir Putin insisted they were "local self-defense forces" who probably acquired their Russian-looking uniforms in Crimean shops.
But during a nationally televised broadcast in April, Putin calmly announced that Russian troops had in fact been deployed to occupy and annex Crimea. In one fell swoop Russia redrew international borders, appropriating a territory that had been part of an independent Ukraine for 23 years. The move provoked furious denunciations abroad, with threats of sanctions and diplomatic isolation. But domestically it was a watershed event for Putin, unleashing a flood of patriotic fervor. His approval skyrocketed from 65 percent last January to 80 percent in the aftermath of the Crimean referendum, and would continue to climb even as the economy tanked.
As Putin spoke, pro-Russian gunmen were seizing control of government buildings in Eastern Ukraine—a region the president now called Novorossiya, or "New Russia," as it was known under Tsarist rule. Were Russian forces involved there as well? "Nonsense," Putin scoffed. "There are no special units, special forces, or instructors there."
By August, the Ukrainian military was making gains against the pro-Russian rebels, pushing them back toward their strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk. In danger of being encircled, the separatists renewed calls for Moscow to send troops to their aid.
Russia embarked on a massive military buildup on the border, reportedly doubling the number of combat-ready troops to an estimated 20,000. Television reports portrayed the Kiev government as a "fascist junta" bent on slaughtering Russian speakers in Ukraine. Programs were rife with conspiracies about a "fifth column" threatening Russia from within. As NATO and American officials warned of an outright invasion, soldiers like Andrianov were being deployed for what Moscow described as training drills. Just like Andrianov, dozens would return home in body bags with no information as to where or how they had been killed.
Situated near the Estonian border, about a five-hour drive from St. Petersburg, Pskov is one of Russia's oldest and most beautiful cities, teeming with onion-domed churches, some of which date back to the 12th century. It was here that Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in 1917, sounding the death knell for the Russian empire and paving the way for the creation of the Soviet Union. These days, it's known largely as a military city—home to the 76th Guards Air Assault Division.
Pskov's paratroopers deployed to Rostov in early August; families quickly grew anxious when the soldiers stopped calling and writing. On August 21, Ukrainian officials announced the capture of two Russian armored vehicles following a clash near Luhansk. Inside were documents allegedly belonging to a unit from Pskov. It wasn't necessarily a bombshell—the internet was rife with forgeries—but it set off panic among the families, which caught the attention of local news media. Russian officials insisted nothing was amiss. "A pure provocation," said the commander of Russia's airborne troops, who flew to Pskov the following day. "In our airborne assault brigade everyone is alive and well."
That weekend, word of losses within the division spread rapidly across the city and online. "Leonid died," wrote the wife of Sergeant Leonid Kichatkin, posting an invitation for friends to attend his funeral. The post would soon be taken down, but not before going viral. Irina Tumakova, an independent journalist from St. Petersburg, intended to cover the funeral, but when she phoned Kichatkin's wife, the woman on the line insisted that her husband was alive and well.
On Monday morning, a church at a small cemetery on the outskirts of Pskov began to fill with people. Officers in dress uniform were milling about outside. According to Lev Schlossberg, a local politician and the publisher of an independent newspaper, "This wasn't a funeral for Kichatkin, but likely a goodbye ceremony for servicemen who were later buried there and in other regions."
Having gotten lost along the way, Tumakova arrived at the cemetery several hours late. By then the area was deserted, save for four soldiers leveling the dirt on two freshly dug graves. The first belonged to Kichatkin, killed on August 19, and the second to Sergeant Alexander Osipov, who had died on August 20. Mistaking the reporter for a fellow mourner, a man offered Tumakova a swig of vodka. "My son is here," he said, pointing to Osipov's grave. "Wanted to be a hero." She nodded toward Kichatkin's grave and asked whether he'd also been killed in Ukraine. "Where else?" came the reply.
On August 26, Schlossberg's paper broke the story of the deaths, just as Ukraine announced it had captured ten Russian paratroopers on its soil. That afternoon, Putin flew to Minsk to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko. By the time the two men awkwardly shook hands in the Belarusian capital, Kiev had released interrogation videos of the soldiers in its custody. In what appeared to be forced confessions, the soldiers said they'd been misled by their commanders, who'd told them they were going on a training exercise and instead sent them across the border.
The Kremlin admitted to the incursion but claimed it had been a mistake. "What I've heard is that they were patrolling the border and could have ended up on Ukrainian territory," Putin told journalists in Minsk. A group of tearful mothers held a press conference, begging Putin to bring home their sons, and the Kremlin eventually exchanged 63 Ukrainian soldiers for the ten paratroopers, who returned alive.
On the evening of September 5, all three state-controlled TV channels aired a report about a Russian soldier killed in Ukraine, the first time the death of an active-duty serviceman was covered by state media. Viewers were shown footage of a funeral for the 28-year-old paratrooper, who was buried with full military honors, complete with a gun salute. The soldier was described as a patriot "who could not idly observe events in Ukraine." All three networks said he was a "volunteer" who didn't tell his wife or commanders he was heading to Ukraine to fight alongside pro-Russian rebels.
This was hard to believe. In order to take a vacation, a Russian soldier needs to fill out a report to his commander detailing where he'll be during his time off. To leave the country, the process is even more complicated. Moreover, Russian criminal law doesn't distinguish between someone who goes abroad to fight for a personal belief and someone who fights for money. In either case, he is considered a mercenary, a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Meanwhile, the grinding conflict in Eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 5,000 lives. It is difficult to imagine that a war in the center of Europe could be waged with any semblance of secrecy in 2014. Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted that Russia "might have gotten away with this before invention of cameras." Still, only a quarter of Russians believe their troops are fighting in Ukraine, according to a December poll.
So the families of Russia's dead, maimed, and missing soldiers keep waiting for answers. As in the case of Sergei Andrianov, they have been told little about how and where their loved ones died. Documents all list the place of death as "point of temporary dislocation."
In Podsolnechnoye, Andrianov's funeral was a quiet affair. The only official present was the captain who'd brought the body home. Andrianov's mother said the family of another soldier killed in Ukraine came down from a nearby village to pay their respects. Seeing Natasha's distress, the father of the slain boy pulled her aside. "Don't listen to anyone, Natasha. Our sons are heroes—real men," he told her. "Live with this thought. And for now, keep quiet."
For a closer look at this story, watch the documentary Russia's Ghost Army_, now playing on VICE News and embedded below:_