Illustration: Kostya Volkov / Mediazona
The invasion of Ukraine is often compared to the Chechen wars: the unexpected attack, the bombing of civilian targets, denial of heavy losses of the Russian Army and conscripts on the front lines. Two decades ago, mothers of soldiers took it upon themselves to search for their sons in Chechen villages without any help from the Ministry of Defence. Today, most mothers are, as human rights activists say, “in a frozen state”; they are not even trying to defend the rights of their sons or find out the truth about their placement after they disappeared or died in the war.
Nursery teacher Ekaterina Nogayeva was the only woman on board the military aircraft that flew from Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia to Ulan-Ude, the capital city of the Republic of Buryatia in Siberia, on the night of 15th April. Sitting in a side chair with her back to the aeroplane windows, the mother of two children was transporting home a sealed zinc-lined coffin with her thirty-six-year-old husband Ponteleimon, whose body was kept for about a month in the mortuary of Rostov Military Hospital.
Having handed over the dead body of her husband, the military offered Ekaterina to fly home on a passenger plane, but she refused. “I said I wouldn’t fly without my husband,” she says. “On the plane, beside me, there were contract soldiers, officers, and there was also a civilian—the father of a dead soldier, a gruz 200. A zinc coffin lined with cloth and placed in a wooden box.”
Thirty-two-year-old Ekaterina is a short brunette with a tired look. Military Base No. 69647 in Kyakhta, a small city in Buryatia, an ethnic republic and a Russian region, informed her about the death of her husband on 12th March, three days after his death on 9th March. After that she spent a whole month trying to find her dead husband, Corporal Ponteleimon Nogaev.
“In the documents, he was listed as dead,” she explains. “But we thought of it as a possible mistake, and a real mess began. I wrote twice to Putin’s office and to the military prosecutor’s office of Kyakhta. The Eastern Military District also knew about the situation... Never in my life, I had turned to psychics, shamans, and Romani fortune tellers, but here I spent two weeks running from one to another. I tried everything, I went to church every day, and I didn’t know where to go. I stopped eating, drinking, and even washing. I basically stopped taking care of myself at all... for a whole month. Then, at work, I said: “Fire me, I’m off to search for my husband.”
The last time Ekaterina spoke to her husband was on 23rd February. Ponteleimon was in a hurry, and his voice trembled. “As if he himself did not know where he was going—in January they announced that there would be military exercises. I felt that he was scared to share over the phone. And then he went: ‘Well, that’s it, Katya, off I go, bye.’ I asked: ‘What does it mean, is this the last time you are talking to us?’ He replied: ‘The last time for now,’—and hung up.”
On 12th April, Ekaterina arrived at her husband’s military base in Kyakhta and demanded that she and Yuriy Nogayev, her husband's brother, be issued military travel documents to Moscow and Homiel in Belarus.
“We hoped to find him in a hospital either in Moscow or in Homiel,” she says. “I thought he was somewhere: unconscious, maybe lost his memory, no documents... I cried my eyes out for the tickets because, in theory, neither the base nor the military recruitment office have the right to issue travel documents to me until there is a body. In the end, the base officials allowed this.”
Ekaterina assumes that the military base reported to the Ministry of Defense that she and Nogayev’s brother had set out to search for Ponteleimon. Already at Ulan-Ude airport, Yuri Nogayev, who also serves in Kyakhta, received a phone call from ‘some Lieutenant Colonel from the Eastern Military District’. As Ekaterina recalls, he asked them if they were already in Belarus. And, upon arrival in Moscow on 13th April, Nogayeva unexpectedly received another call—this time from a distant relative, a retired military man.
“He had already helped us before by with various inquiries using his connections... And so he told us: “You should go to Rostov, for body identification, Katya. They said they’ve found Ponteleimon,” says Nogayeva.
Ekaterina does not remember how she made it to Rostov-on-Don. After landing, she and Yuriy went straight to the military hospital at 10 Dachnaya Street.
“It’s a large area: the examination building, the hospital on the right and some kind of a hangar on the left. We had to pass through the checkpoint,” she says. “Honestly, I have never been to a morgue. They carried out my husband covered with an army sheet. He was naked, frozen. Only the top of his body was revealed. I went in, saw the back of his head and immediately recognised him. I remember thinking: “I’m definitely going to pass out now.” But anyway I made my way to him very slowly, step by step. I wanted to hug him really tight,” Ekaterina starts to cry. “And then I started losing it… and they took me out of there.”
Nogayeva recalls that she suddenly began to scream and blame everyone in the room for the death of her husband: “I said that I would take revenge on all of them for keeping him there for so long.” While Ekaterina was handed over to psychologists for help, Ponteleimon Nogayev's brother was in the neighbouring building with an investigator signing papers to take his brother’s body.
“When we just arrived there, I began to ask the investigator where my husband was.” Ekaterina explains that she was very nervous and only remembered that the investigator had the name Kozlov on his shoulder mark. “And he said to me: ‘What do you want? A scandal—or results?’ He meant the body. And then he went on: “What are you upto here? We’ve still got unidentified bodies from the Chechen War. Be grateful that your husband was found so quickly!” And when we left, I did indeed thank him.”
They buried Ponya—that’s what Ponteleimon’s family members called him—on the fortieth day after his death, on 17th April.
“He had shrapnel wounds on his face, his left ear was missing. There were eight small wounds on his face and the entire right side of his body was pierced by pieces of metal,” Ekaterina describes the body of her husband. Our daughter immediately understood everything, she cried at nighttime. Our son is just nine years old, he started crying really badly when… when his dad was unloaded from the truck and brought into the house. Now he seems to be scared of talking about his dad—he immediately changes the subject when I try to say something. I think he avoids it so as not to cry.”
After their children were born, Nogayeva tried to claim child benefits twice, unsuccessfully. After her husband’s death, she says, “social services finally made a real effort and issued everything straight away,” additionally issuing summer camp vouchers to both kids.
For years, the family dreamed of living in the country: Ekaterina and her husband purchased a plot and building materials for a future house. In July, the house was finished—Ekaterina hired the builders using state compensation for her husband’s death. She also bought a car to take children to their school in Ulan-Ude.
“The state provided for us, a man’s death is worth twelve million roubles,” she laughs nervously. “The payments are divided among the parents and us, the family that lost the breadwinner, plus an additional payment via the Combat Veteran Certificate.”
Ekaterina says that she misses her husband a lot and is still angry, because they had so many plans and they “were just starting to live.” She is confident that only her own efforts helped her to trace and find the body.
“If it wasn’t for this special operation… as they call it… although it’s not a special operation, it’s a real war,” the woman cries into the phone and minces her words. “They go there like cannon fodder. If not for this, he would be with me.”
Angela is from the city of Kondopoga in Karelia, a region in the Russian North. She is the mother of twenty-six-year-old Vladislav Terentyev who lived in Pskov and died in the Donbass on 22nd May. In the army he served as driver-mechanic of the 76th Guards Airborne Division. Anzhela spent over a month waiting for her dead son’s body after Terentyev’s fellow contract soldier broke the news to the family.
“He sent a message to our daughter on social media on 17th June—I will forever remember this date,” says Angela Terentyeva. “He said that there was a battle on 22nd May, they were sitting in a shelter. At some point their commander arrived, saying “We need to help pick up the wounded soldiers. Who can drive the car?” Vlad stood up. He and two other driver-mechanics left, and no one else saw them ever again. One of his army colleagues later said that after the battle they tried to extract their bodies twice, but both times the bodies were booby-trapped.”
When Terentyeva called the hotline of the Ministry of Defence, they told her that Vlad was missing, but after several days they confirmed that he died under artillery fire. Soon Terentyev’s family was asked to have a DNA test. The military unit sent the family of the deceased a referral for this test. A month later, Vlad’s body was brought to Karelia, and on 27th July he was buried.
Angela Terentyeva, in a conversation with Mediazona, argues that she would not have gone to the military base trying to find her son: “You know why? In April, my son was on sick leave after injuring his back—as I understand they were taken out to Belarus,” she recalls. “We talked, and I said: ‘Come on, Vladik, we will get you out of there, we’ll think of something.’ Do you know what he replied? ‘I won’t leave my boys, dead or alive.’ And then I go: ‘Vlad, what’s in it for you out there?’ He says: ‘What do you mean, mum? I am here to fight for the motherland, so there’ll be no more fascists.’ That’s it”.
Terentyeva believes that her attempts to discover truth about the circumstances of her son’s death would tarnish his memory.
“I will never go out with banners up,” she says angrily. “Yes, I may be dissatisfied with something, but I will never stand up and dishonour the name of my son. He went [to the war] consciously and stayed there consciously. For th dead or for those alive, he told me. I won’t protest. I have no right to do this, my son chose the profession of a military man. His contract says: ‘Defend the homeland,’ you understand?”
At the same time, Angela mentions that Vlad, whose fourth army contract ended up being the last one, told her every two years that he was going to leave the army. The soldier’s mother isn’t sure whether he enjoyed this duty.
“Every time I called him, I asked: “Well, when are you coming back?” And he immediately said: “I am carrying on, I signed a new contract,” she says. “He probably would have served there until retirement.”
In the VKontakte community for Vladislav’s School No. 3, a farewell message was posted on the day of the funeral. His former class teacher spoke about Vlad as “distinguished by the ability to listen to adults and not argue with them, even if he disagreed with them in some way.” Teachers recall him as kind, modest, and “even a bit of a shy boy.”
“Well, what can they really tell us at the military base?” Angela Terentyeva ends the conversation. “Say, the commander will lower his eyes and ask for our forgiveness... But my son chose the profession of a military man. You get it? It was his choice.”
The mother of paratrooper Vladimir Zozulin, who died in Ukraine, said at a posthumous ceremony in April that she was proud of both her son and Vladimir Putin. At the ceremony, Zozulin was posthumously given the Hero of the Russian Federation award. Streets both in occupied Luhansk and his native Ivanovo were named in honour of Senior Lieutenant Zozulin, Russian state media agency RIA Novosti reported. The footage of his mother’s speech was then published by the Tsargrad TV channel.
“I see now that we, me and my husband, brought up a real warrior, a real man,” the woman says, swallowing her tears. “He was always very responsible, very attentive, sometimes too attentive, very caring. He loved us very much and protected us. As for the military operation, I would like to say that my husband and I immediately supported it. We knew that Vova [Putin] would go there. But we are still proud and will always be proud—of our Russia and of our president. We respect Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin very much and are proud of him, too. And we are proud of our nation, our soldiers, and our Russian army. And to the West I say not to pressure us, we will not fall, they will not scare us, this will only make us bolder.”
Elena Evsigneyeva from the southern village of Komsomolskiy also lost her son at the front, but continues to support the war, Yuga.ru reports. Evsigneyeva learned that her son actually went to war in Ukraine after he had already been killed in Donetsk. According to the woman, Igor was hiding his plans until the very end.
"What do I think? Even though I lost my son in this special operation, in these hostilities, I supported and will always support the president and his policy. Yes, I lost my son, but I understand that this had to be done. If we hadn’t done this, then someday all this would probably have come to us,” she believes.
Twenty-two-year-old Dmitriy Platonov from Ufa was killed in action during the Russian assault on the Hostomel airport in March. His father told Verstka that he was glad that his son’s body was found and returned home. Dima was the only child in the family.
“I thank the Good Lord,” says Oleg Platonov. “Naturally, earlier I asked him for my son to return alive and healthy. But if he was destined to die, I prayed for him to die instantly and not be forgotten on the battlefield. Lord heard my prayers.”
The Platonovs did not see their son’s body: they decided not to open the transport coffin delivered to Ufa at the end of April. “My wife asked [to open it],” Platonov explains. “But I said: “We remember our son alive and healthy, we remember him smiling. Why should we live with what we might see if we open it?”
On 2nd August, Dmitriy Shkrebets, the father of one of the conscripts from the Moskva cruiser that sank on 13th April, wrote on his social media account that he received his son’s death certificate—110 days after the death. Shkrebets was one of the first parents of the navy who publicly spoke about the loss of his son after the cruiser’s sinking.
“Shkrebets Yegor Dmitrievich, a conscript sailor, a senior supply unit steward, who is officially recognised by the General Staff as part of the Moskva cruiser crew, has died. Now it’s documented,” wrote the father.
In the photographed document published by Shkrebets, the date of death is the day when the cruiser sank. Shkrebets added that he ‘made serious conclusions’ from the ship disaster and the death of his son. Earlier, Shkrebets wrote that the navy were ‘drowned along with the cruiser,’ and promised to ‘tell the whole truth.’ Later he deleted those posts. On 8th August, the relatives of two more soldiers, Ivan Frantin and Leonid Savin, received documents about their deaths.
Anastasia Gorelova, the mother of another conscript who went missing on the sunken cruiser, tells Mediazona that some parents of the missing sailors refused to look for their children from the very beginning. She believes that these people “could not stand it emotionally.” There has been no information about the missing soldiers from the Moskva cruiser for more than three months. There are at least ten of them.
“Some joined the parents’ chat group, then realised that we were searching for missing sailors and left, saying: ‘I’m done, I can’t, I won’t be able to see my child [dead]’,” she says. “There were those who said: ‘Yes, he died, but I will not go against the leadership of the Black Sea Fleet, otherwise I will not receive payment.’ But, really, we don’t know what each family’s situation is—maybe there are three, four children there... And they think, OK, I will make a fuss, and then…?”
Private Andrey Fomintsev died on 21st March in Kharkiv region of Ukraine. Shortly before his death, he told his mother over the phone that his fellow serviceman had deliberately shot himself in the hand so as not to return to the battlefield. In a conversation with Novaya Vkladka, Alexandra Fomintseva, the mother, is blaming herself for not persuading her son to do the same.
“Why didn’t I tell him to do the same?” she cries. “I only told him to pray. And he answered: ‘Mum, I don’t have time to pray. There is no time to sleep even’.”
Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg leader Oksana Paramonova believes that most of the relatives of Russian soldiers are in a ‘frozen state’: they are grieving, but are unable to defend their rights—their own and their sons’.
“It’s not an ‘I don’t care’ state, although there are some like that as well,” says Paramonova. “But this is not a state of ‘I’m ready to do something.’ Many are willing to wait, but very few are willing to take action. They, too, obviously reflect and think about what happened, but all this does not result in anything. You know, there are only a few who have this internal impulse—something happened, and I need to act.”
Paramonova explains that the actions of the missing or dead soldiers’ families depend on the situation: sometimes one needs to ask at a military base, sometimes in Moscow, sometimes directly at the border. “Sometimes it’s not enough just to sit and write official letters,” she says. “If action is taken, the army sees that there is someone behind the soldier.”
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg has received about 300 applications from the parents of military personnel. Paramonova lists rare cases when relatives of soldiers have traveled to look for their sons or information about them. Sever.Realii published one of these stories: at the beginning of the war, a cosmetologist from Belgorod region had two conscript sons sent to Ukraine, and she “went to look for them in her car from one field to the next,” but never found them.
“There was a case when a mother began to write formal letters in advance that her son had certain religious beliefs when he was still in Russia, near the border, but of course with a looming threat of being sent [to Ukraine],” notes Paramonova. “And she had had such a word with everyone there, that the officer summoned her and they talked. She told me: ‘Oksana, I had a goal: to separate him from the general grey mass.’ And she succeeded.”
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, relatives of military personnel penned several collective statements. The very first one was on 20th March, when six women blocked the road in Karachay-Cherkessia republic, demanding information about missing servicemen sent to Ukraine. At the same time, four more women held a rally in front of the military recruitment office.
Both protests were swiftly dispersed, with police officers launching administrative cases against the women for participating in ‘unauthorised rallies’ that disrupted the traffic. The court later dismissed these cases for lack of ‘indisputable evidence’ of guilt.
On 28th June, a video message from the wives of Buryat servicemen appeared on social media. The women were addressing the head of Buryatia republic, Alexey Tsydenov. More than ten women stood around a girl in a green T-shirt, who reads out from a piece of paper a request for the soldiers of Military Base No. 46108 to be given permission to go on leave. According to the woman speaking, their husbands “left for Belarus in January for military exercises” but “have been active in the battlefields of Ukraine for five months already.” The women asked Tsydenov to “consider the issue of replacing and rotating” their relatives.
“Servicemen are exhausted mentally and physically,” says the girl with the sheet of paper. “All of them have mild or moderate contusions. Soldiers have been in the field from January 2022 to the present day. Many suffer from colds. They need a medical examination due to their prolonged exposure to difficult military conditions. Please note that many military personnel have not been granted leave for more than a year.”
Vera Partilkhaeva, who posted the video online, added to her post complaints about ‘lawlessness’ and ‘gag orders,’ but after a few hours deleted both the post and her account.
“Let the death of every military man in this unjust war be on your conscience! We demand the return of our sons and husbands to their homeland,” she wrote in a now deleted post.
On 21st July, relatives of nine contractors from Military Base No. 32364 demanded these men to be released from a Luhansk pre-trial detention centre. According to Alexandra Garmazhapova, President of the Free Buryatia Foundation, those were soldiers who refused to fight in Ukraine. Some of their families came to Luhansk to “free the soldiers and get explanations,” The Insider reports.
On 5th August, lawyer Maxim Grebenyuk reported that ‘Krasny Luch’, a pre-trial detention centre for Russian soldiers in Luhansk, has been closed. He estimated that about 140 soldiers were kept there, citing two of his clients. According to him, some were taken to the rear, others were released, allowing them to return to Russia. Grebenyuk explains that there were appeals to the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office and the Main Military Investigative Department of the Investigative Committee of Russia.
In the recent months of the war, parents of Russian servicemen became “somewhat more active,” but this is not enough, believes Oksana Paramonova. She is glad that there are some families “who understand there are people around who have the same problem.” But she admits that these people do not necessarily take an anti-war stance, not seeing any link between their personal tragedy and the situation in the country.
“Such a position could become a uniting point for these parents,” says Paramonova. “They do not understand the logic of events—why is this all happening? If only they realised that their children, whether dead, missing, or taken hostage, are all a result of the situation in Ukraine, and a result of public silence... Their silence, above all.”
Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg is one of the regional human rights groups that was launched in Russia in the 1990s. Before that the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers was founded in the late 1980s. The first meeting of the committee in Moscow was attended by several dozen people, said human rights activist Valentina Melnikova.
“Forty people turned up, all with different problems,” she recalls. “I had an idea to create some kind of group even before I heard about the committee: I always knew that I would not send my children to the army—they were exactly of military age back then. I made this decision in 1979, when troops entered Afghanistan. I thought I just need to bring parents together so we can try to somehow clean up all this monstrous mess and stop conscription.”
Until the summer of 1990, the authorities did not interfere in the organisation’s activities, Melnikova says. But then the Armed Forces established twin organisations: The Union of Parents of Servicemen of Russia and The Council of Military Personnel Families. Their chief task was, according to Melnikova, “to go around military bases and tell everyone to serve.” The next step was to take away the premises from committee organisations across the country.
“They wanted a split, and they succeeded—you can always buy someone off,” said Melnikova. “The plan was to support these new organisations so ours died out… In general, twin front organisations are being established all over the world. Often when I visit international human rights conferences in ’third world‘ countries, there are always complaints about the state creating its own units to counterbalance genuine efforts. There is a name for this, GONGO, ‘government non-government’.”
When the conflict in Eastern Ukraine took off in 2014, the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg were branded ‘foreign agents’. It happened after human rights activists spoke out about the large number of wounded soldiers in hospitals in southern Russia. In October 2015, the status was lifted, but six years later the organisation basically stopped working with serving military personnel due to a growing list of reasons for being branded a ‘foreign agent’. Now Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg only help the families of military personnel.
During both Chechen wars, the Soldiers' Mothers movement helped families to look for missing soldiers. In 1995, the activists organised a March for Compassion and Peace in Chechnya. In 1999, at their office, a Chechen prisoner "whose participation in the crimes has not been proven" was officially exchanged for a captured Russian soldier for the first time.
Some mothers of Russian soldiers walked around the Chechen villages with photographs of their children for years, like Roza Khalishkhova from Kabardino-Balkaria. She was taken prisoner after four years of searching for her son, a conscript of the First Chechen War. Lyubov Tumaeva conducted her own investigation and, six years after beginning her search, found and buried her son, who was previously buried in an unnamed grave.
Colonel Vitaly Bencharsky, who in 1996 led a search and release group for Russian prisoners of war, told Novaya Gazeta that “only mothers saved soldiers” during the Chechen wars, and “the state practically abandoned them.”
“Almost every morning they went to the mountains, walked into the villages, wandered around the markets of Grozny, and showed photographs of their sons to locals,” Bencharsky said in an interview. “If they found out about other soldiers, they always shared this information. I have sometimes been asked for the source of these findings and I answered: ‘Mothers are the most reliable source.’ Even the FSB did not always have this information.”
The former Chairman of Soldiers’ Mothers of Petersburg, Ella Polyakova laments that for many it is “still a revelation” that a Russian man can choose alternative civilian service instead of serving in the army.
Having been a human rights activist for many years and having helped so many Russian mothers to look for their sons in Chechnya, Polyakova believes that there had been drastic changes in Russian society since then due to the fact that people constantly live in need. “It’s a value exchange system, and so far human life has not become a value in Russia,” explains eighty-one-year-old Polyakova. “Society has been tempted by money, this was due to poverty and the fact that many families have been destroyed as a consequence of wars. As a result, there are many mothers with sons who are not so dear to them after all. They don't feel valued. Then came the mortgages, loans, and these people got into debt. This put pressure on their minds, shutting them off from hopes and seeing new horizons, money being the only end value. A horrible substitution of notions happened, and people lost themselves as a result. Mothers are no longer mothers, sons are no longer sons.”
Editor: Agata Schcheglova
Translation: Ivan Ignatiev
Support Mediazona now!
Your donations directly help us continue our work