Illustration: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona
Ministry of Defence is persistently offering Russians short-term contracts with the army to go to Ukraine. These ‘volunteers’ are often sent to the front without any training at all, and casualties among this group of soldiers have been growing fastest of all lately. What exactly is going on? We tell stories of two fellow soldiers: both went to war in hope of winning their wives back; both ended up in a trench three days after signing a contract; and both came under fire there. Only one survived.
On the morning of 15th May, Evgeniy Chubarin called his mother. “He was in a hurry: ‘Mum, they are going to give me a machine gun now, there’s no time.’ And that was it, I never heard from him again,” recalled Nina Chubarina, a 50-year-old milkmaid and mother of nine from the Karelian village of Shyoltozero. That was her last conversation with her son.
The next day he was killed in an artillery attack somewhere in the region of Kharkiv. 24-year-old Chubarin had only been in Ukraine for a couple of days. Two days before crossing the border, he had been in his native Karelia. These contract volunteers were not trained at all before being dispatched to the front.
On 9th May, a week before his death, Evgeniy was helping his older brother put up a fence near his home in Shyoltozero; they were joking around and laughing a lot. “Zhen'ka was the merriest of us all,” sighs Nina Chubarina. Evgeniy is the fourth oldest of five brothers and four sisters.
At eighteen, he served in the army, then got married, became a father to his son, and was working at a stone-processing plant in the same village. “He made good money: 80,000, 90,000, 60,000, whatever he could earn,” says Nina Chubarina. “And when he left [to go to war], I asked him: ‘Zhenya, how much are you going to get paid?’ ‘I don't know,’ he said.”
Evgeniy decided to sign a contract and join the fight not for the sake of making money, but because of his broken marriage. “He wanted to prove to his ex-wife that he was like that... not afraid of anything,” explains his mother. “He thought he could win her back this way, he thought she would say: ‘Zhenya, don't go'. But she said: ‘I don't care either way’.”
Referring to her son’s departure, Nina Chubarina says “to the war”, but immediately clarifies that she calls what is happening in Ukraine a war “just for [her] own sake.”
Since March, when the invasion of Ukraine stalled, Russian authorities launched a massive effort to recruit people with military experience back to the army, all the while remaining reluctant to order a general mobilisation. Recruitment notices hang in the streets and on public transport, and reservists receive calls or semi-legal summonses from the military registration and enlistment offices. In the past three and a half months, HeadHunter, a major online recruitment platform in Russia, has posted about 7,000 job vacancies with the specialisation of military contract work, notes BBC News Russian. Another 18,000 vacancies had appeared on Superjob, another online recruiting website.
Usually the minimum length of service in the regular army is two years, but now everyone is being offered short-term contracts. “Within ten to fifteen days at the most you are fully and properly registered as a contract worker,” tells an employee of one office from southern Russia to BBC News. “A short-term contract: three months… six months… a year. And then you travel there.”
Those who have signed such contracts are sometimes called ‘volunteers’. “They rounded everyone up in a couple of days and took us,” one such volunteer told BBC News. “We arrived in the unit at night. In the morning we were dressed: boots, uniform, a Soviet-era duffel bag, a thin towel, a bar of soap and Soviet underwear. Mine was dated 1960.”
There is usually no additional training before going to the front. “There is no training in tactics, no personnel bonding. This alone shocked me. Some of these guys haven't ever held a rifle, haven’t seen a tank in real-life, and in a couple of days they're going to war. I mean, they have to let the soldiers find their feet, let them at least fire a rifle, how could it be like this?” wondered the same contract soldier.
Volunteers now represent the biggest category suffering losses in combat, according our own independent count together with a group of volunteers and BBC News Russian. The most likely reason is their very active involvement in the fighting: by 17th June, the names of 158 dead were already verified.
Evgeniy Chubarin from Shyoltozero went to the military enlistment office in Petrozavodsk at the end of April. He signed a contract for three months, finished a fortnight of work at his kamenka [stone-processing plant], and on 12th May he and a group of other volunteers were sent to Belgorod on a military flight.
On the way, he sent his mother pictures and videos on Whatsapp. “Flown in, all fucking great, amazing flight,” he says in one of the recordings, filming the backs of men striding briskly along the runway. From Belgorod, they were brought to a military base in Valuyki near the border, given weapons and uniforms and sent to Ukraine.
“There was no training, this was clear from our conversations,” says Nina Chubarina. “They arrived, changed into their uniforms, received a rifle, a machine gun, and that was it, off to war.”
The second video shows several dozen men in uniform sitting close together in a truck, assault rifles in hand. “One hundred and twenty-fifth,” one of them says, passing a bundle of items over the heads of the soldiers.
“Like sardines in a tin,” comments Chubarin off-screen. “They just squeeze us in.” He asks his colleagues to look into the camera: the men smile uncomfortably.
Dmitriy Osipov is travelling in the same vehicle, but he is not in the picture. His ex-wife Larisa Osipova recalls that Dmitriy first went to the military enlistment office in St. Petersburg in late April, but “I did not believe that they would let him in.” On 12th May he and other contract servicemen flew from Leningrad Region to Belgorod on the same plane as Chubarin.
“He arrived at the military enlistment office on Fontanka [in Saint Petersburg] at ten in the morning on 12th May, signed something there, I don't know what exactly: there were two different documents, but he wasn't allowed to take photos,” Osipova recalls his story. “They were immediately taken to a military airfield in Pushkin, then they flew to Karelia… He sent me another photo. They took thirty people from there. Then we flew somewhere near Cherepovets, to Vologda Region. At 11 p.m. they flew to Belgorod and spent the night in some gym.”
At this transit point, she says, her husband met military personnel who had returned from Ukraine: “They all chatted and these people told them what was really going on there. In the morning, half of those who had come on the plane refused to go [across the border]. And they returned to their homes by their own means, as I understand.”
On the morning of 13th May, Dmitriy said that everyone had been transported to the military unit in Valuyki, where he had already passed psychological and medical examinations. “I thought they would keep them there for a fortnight, as they should, for some time before being sworn in or something,” reasoned Osipova. “And at five in the evening I call him back and he tells me: ‘Larisa, I'm busy, I'm getting a weapon.’ I was taken aback. The ink on the examination papers is still wet, and they’re already being sent there? So at 10:47 p.m. I got off the phone with him for the last time. And that was it, after that his phone was switched off.”
Evgeniy Chubarin, after receiving his weapon, sent a photo to his mother: he is standing with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, wearing a helmet and an old Soviet-issue heavy flak jacket. The next day he sent a couple more photos: men with rifles posing in unmarked uniforms, laughing and smoking.
Around then, Evgeniy sent one of his last audio messages: “Took this... AK-47 with me too. Just in case... in case the machine gun overheats. Because they say that we are going to hold the line... Khokhly have broken through... A shitload of them. They want to surround us.”
On the morning of 23rd May, Nina Chubarina's phone rings again. A stranger, who introduced himself as an employee of the Karelian Military Commissariat, informed her that her son had died. “We have bad news,” Chubarina recounts the conversation. “Your son is dead, we found him, he was killed. On the 16th or 17th of May, I don't remember which.”
The same morning Artur Parfenchikov, the Governor of Karelia, wrote: ‘Evgeniy served under contract in a logistics battalion. I offer my sincerest condolences to the hero's family and friends.’
It's hard for Evgeniy’s mother to recount further events. She remembers that the head of the district called to announce that the government would take care of organising and paying for the funeral. The head of the village handed over her son's belongings: a torn photo of Zhenya with his two-year-old son Artyom, and a keyring.
“I gave him this trinket when I was seeing him off to the army,” says Nina Chubarina, adding that she now always has it with her. “Inside is a photo of me and him and a poem on the other side, I'll read it to you now: ‘For a mother there is none dearer than a son, for her a son is her own blood. There's nothing stronger than a mother’s love for her son.’ He had it on his keyring.”
Nina does not know why the head of the village, not the military commissar, handed over her son's personal belongings. Nor does she know where his phone is — it was not returned to her.
Evgeniy's body was brought back by the military on 25th May. Nina says that at the funeral in the local church she lifted the lid of the burgundy-coloured coffin and saw her son: "There was a big hole in his neck, and a burn around it. Also, his face was scratched — probably from shrapnel.”
Stolitsa na Onego, a local newspaper, wrote, with reference to ‘the people who knew him’, that Evgeniy was assigned to a logistics battalion as a cook, but that he ‘immediately asked to fight on the front line.’ Nina Chubarina says that her son never said anything like that to her, he had no training as a cook and being sent into battle was mentioned in their conversations.
The whole village turned up to his burial the next day. First the coffin, covered with a Russian flag and wreaths, was placed on a bench outside the local government building. The date of death on the headstone was wrong, says his mother: “For some reason they put the date of death as 14th May, although on the 15th he was still calling me. With an orchestra playing, the coffin was lowered into a grave in the local cemetery, and the flag was given to his mother. “Nina Alekseevna pressed it to herself as if she were hugging her son, and wept,” wrote Stolitsa na Onego.
Evgeniy’s mother says that none of the officials who spoke at the ceremony made an attempt to talk to her personally. A Deputy of the Karelian Legislative Assembly, the Deputy Military Commissar of the republic, and the head of Prionezhsky District — all of them only offered their condolences through the microphone. Among those present there was also Senior Lieutenant Domir Kopkaev who told Stolitsa na Onego that he served alongside Chubarin.
“He died defending his comrade,” the publication quoted the lieutenant as saying. “We had halted near Mariupol. At night the Ukrainians started shelling our positions. Zhenya was standing by an IFV and saw an approaching shell. He pushed his comrade away, but he was hit by the shell and died. His comrade was wounded and is now in hospital in Moscow, but he survived.”
The death certificate, Nina Chubarina notes, also lists Mariupol. This contradicts everything her son told her and sent her: arriving first in Belgorod, then in a unit on the border with Kharkiv Region, and then to Ukraine.
Dmitriy Osipov, who was in the same squadron as him, also talks about the same route. He was wounded by the same shell, but survived.
Larisa Osipova called the Ministry of Defence hotline on 16th May, the third day Dmitriy had been out of contact. “Your husband is performing combat tasks, he is not on the list of wounded, prisoners or killed, everything is fine,” she recalls the reply. “I put the phone down, relieved, and exactly three minutes later my husband called from his own number. My first thought was: “What a job the Ministry of Defence has done, they've given him such a dressing down for him to call his wife. He said: “Larisa, I'm injured, I have a torn artery, at the moment I can still move my arm, I'm waiting for a plane to St. Petersburg.” And he hung up.
The clock, she said, showed 5.30 p.m. Only later did she find out that her husband had called from a hospital in Belgorod. Then Osipova spent two days trying to find out where he was and what was wrong with him, to no avail.
“The Ministry of Defence kept telling me on the hotline that my husband was ‘performing combat tasks’,” she grins. “I wondered if he was bleeding out somewhere, had been told to 'wait for a plane to St. Petersburg,' and had died there. I called our military registration and enlistment office on Fontanka Street and said: ‘Tell me my husband's individual number.’ And the officer there tells me: ‘They are supposed to remember the numbers they were given in Belgorod in the contract.’ I said: ‘Are you OK in your head? So let’s say he wrote down the numbers on a piece of paper but then he got all burnt in a tank somewhere? What are you talking about?’.”
Larisa says that she learned later from Dmitriy that they had not been issued badges. He called her again from an unknown number only in the evening of 18th May, telling her that he had been operated on at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, and gave her his patient number.
“So that's it, I started going through my connections, finding out what's up with him,” Larisa continues. “No one will tell you anything over the phone at the academy, of course. A doctor I know works there, he told me which room he was in. Evgeniy’s doctor gave me a pass, all other relatives had to use the call-centre to try to make an appointment. Only close relatives are allowed in; no cousins or friends. My husband's cousin tried to come, they even have the same surname, but he was refused.”
Dmitriy Osipov refused to talk to Mediazona. His wife says that the Military Medical Academy is “bugged all over”, which is why he is afraid to talk to journalists. But he told Larisa the circumstances of his injury: there was only a couple of hours between the injury and the first call from the hospital.
“For two days they dug trenches,” she recounts. “They had been warned that an attack was being prepared, and that our special forces were active around them somewhere. He told me that it was around 3:30 p.m., and they couldn’t hear the shells coming, couldn’t hear them because of the noise of two engines — there were two IFVs nearby at that moment. Only he didn’t say a word to me about Mariupol. I understood that it happened somewhere in Kharkiv Region.”
A week later, Larisa Osipova happened to see a photo online of Evgeniy Chubarin's funeral. She was born in Karelia and became interested in the article about the deceased. While visiting her husband in hospital in St. Petersburg, she showed the photos to Dmitriy, who surprisingly recognised his fallen comrade. Both had flown to Belgorod on the same plane, spent only three days together on the front line, and Chubarin's body was even carried back to Belgorod in the same car as Dmitriy, wounded by the same shell.
Shrapnel from the shell cut through Dmitriy Osipov's radial nerve and an artery in his hand, his wife explained. He lost three litres of blood and doctors have already carried out six operations, but his hand and fingers are still not functioning.
“I would ask him in hospital before another operation: 'Aren't you scared?’ Larisa recalls. He said: ‘I'm not scared here, I was scared there.’ But he did regret that he was not there long enough. That sense of guilt. I told him: 'You should be happy you came back at all’.”
Larisa Osipova says that Dmitriy “watched too much TV” and went to fight in Ukraine because “children are dying there." He, like Evgeniy Chubarin, also wanted to ge t his family back — the couple has a daughter, but they separated some time ago.
“When it came to talking about this Zhenya, my husband tells me: ‘He went — just like me — to make up with his wife,' chuckles Larisa bitterly. “We have been divorced for a year now, but we still speak to each other. He had a lot of problems: alcohol abuse, and his friends were like that too — I really don’t like that crowd. Well, I mean, he was counting on this to fix our relationship. He has no one — no mum, no dad, he is alone. So now we've ‘got everything in order’ — now I'm trekking from hospital to hospital!”
Dmitriy, she claims, said that they really did not undergo any training. “I thought they would be held back in Belgorod for two weeks, to prepare,” Larisa was indignant. “Do you know how they communicate with each other in the hospital? They show each other pictures: "And this one, he’s in a bodybag, and this one too.”
For several weeks Osipov was in the field surgery department of the Military Medical Academy. Now he has been temporarily transferred to physio, Larisa says: he has had a skin transplant on his arm, and it takes time for it to heal. She says that the hospital has a constant stream of operations: the wounded are constantly being moved around the wards so that they do not take up bed space.
“There's a guy there, both legs amputated from the knee down, one arm amputated too, half his face blown off, crooked like this,” she sighs. “And he doesn't speak, just ‘na-na-na-na-na.’ His mother is teaching him to write again, so that he can communicate somehow... It was horrible there, I have seen so much. I met a girl from the DPR: her husband also has two arms [wounded], his fingers were also torn off, his radial nerve is also severed, like my man. Another, for example, had a shrapnel wound through his head: he did not close the hatch of the tank properly, left a two-centimetre gap. A piece of shrapnel flew into his head, went through his eye and mouth cavity and lodged in his throat. And he's alive. They put his eye back in, saved him. I told him, 'Well, now you're going to close all doors properly for the rest of your life’.”
Larisa found members of Evgeniy Chubarin's family on social media. When her ex-husband is discharged, they plan to meet in Karelia. However, it is still unclear whether Dmitriy’s arm will be saved.
“I thank God every day that he ended up here, the doctors here are golden”, Larisa smokes audibly into the phone. “They bring them everything they need: razors, shaving foam, fruit and vegetables, biscuits, homemade buns, tea... And the hospital has been renovated: the equipment is first class, the best. That's what happens afterwards, if you survive — care is really cool. But what goes on there [at the front] is a mess.”
According to her, the wounded Dmitriy has already been transferred three million roubles to his bank card. At the medical academy, ‘some man in civilian clothing’ walks around telling military personnel how to fill in the paperwork properly to get compensation.
“I don't need that three million, it's on the card right now,” fumes Osipova. I tell him, 'Is it worth it? He says: ‘No’. I asked him: ‘Do you realise that a normal prosthetic limb costs 2.5 million? What if they don't save your arm?’ When someone has no arms, no legs, and half a head, I look at him and think: God, why did they save him at all? How much will he suffer for his whole life?”
Editor: Egor Skovoroda
Translation: Ivan Ignatiev
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