Illustration: Boris Khmelniy / Mediazona
Last September, the New York Times published intercepted calls of Russian soldiers from Ukraine: the soldiers were calling home and speaking frankly about looting and killing civilians, scolding incompetent commanders, and wishing that the senseless war would end as soon as possible. Mediazona tracked down and called the people whose voices were captured in the NYT publication.
In September 2022, The New York Times published a report titled “‘Putin Is a Fool’: Intercepted Calls Reveal Russian Army in Disarray.” The publication included excerpts from phone conversations between Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine last March and their relatives. Journalists obtained the previously unpublished “recordings of thousands of calls” from Ukrainian security services and confirmed their authenticity by “referencing the Russian phone numbers with messaging apps and social media profiles.” They then “spent almost two months translating the recordings, which have been edited for clarity and length.”
The Times stressed that the soldiers and their relatives mentioned in the article were only identified by first names, as criticizing President Vladimir Putin and the military command is a punishable criminal offense. However, phone numbers and in some cases even full names were left in the page code, with notes indicating the degree of the relationship. This information was most likely left in the code for fact-checking purposes.
In January 2023, several months after the publication, Vice noticed the names in the page code. Initially, an NYT spokesperson told reporters that the metadata had only remained in the code for only a “few hours,” and then the publication “took prompt steps to remove it.” However, during a subsequent conversation the spokesperson admitted that the phone numbers and names of Russian soldiers had actually remained publicly available until Vice discovered it.
Mediazona noticed the code leak prior to Vice’s reporting. Through a careful combing of databases of various Russian services, we’ve been able to identify 13 of the 20 Russian military personnel featured in the intercepted phone call recordings.
Only two of these servicemen had called relatives from personal phones, both from Pskov, where the 237th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment is stationed.
Out of the 20 Russian military personnel identified, five had used a shared phone number, all from the 331st Kostroma Guards Airborne Regiment. The remaining soldiers had used another number and called to Rubtsovsk, which is where the 656th Operational Regiment of the National Guard is located.
All of these identified military personnel had returned from Ukraine alive. None of the soldiers or their relatives were previously aware of the New York Times report.
One of the key figures in the NYT report is Sergey, a soldier from Rubtsovsk who describes the war as “the dumbest decision of our state” in conversations with his relatives. He believes there was “no need for it” and that it was “created out of thin air.”
A year later, he still stands by his statement that it is a criminal war, saying to Mediazona, “I had a very positive attitude towards Ukraine and immediately understood that this deadly war was caused by Putin.” Other soldiers from the NYT report either refused to speak to Mediazona or assured us that they approved of the war. Therefore, we withheld only Sergey’s name due to the risks associated with these statements; others’ names are published in full.
There are no indications on Sergey’s social media accounts that he is a soldier. His VKontakte page is devoted to the “Rick and Morty” sitcom, computer games, travel, and photography. On Instagram, he posts breathtaking landscapes and stories from a trip to Sakhalin island in the Pacific Far East with his girlfriend, Elena. Her social media suggest that she dreamed of opening a second-hand store in one of Siberia’s largest cities. In the fall of 2021, Sergey was scheduled to be drafted for military service but instead signed a military contract.
“I decided that I didn’t want to serve to serve as a conscript, which I couldn’t weasel out of, so I signed a contract with the army to at least earn some money. I came to the army purely to fulfil a requirement, but I wasn’t able to leave in time,” he explains. Contract service paid 27,000 roubles per month.
According to Sergey, the beginning of the war and his subsequent deployment to the front came as a complete surprise. “I am an average guy who wanted to leave the country someday, but got into such a mess,” he says. “Of course, I was shocked when I found out what the hell was going on.”
The first conversation between Sergey and Elena that NYT released dates back to March 6, 2022. In an excerpt published by the newspaper, Sergey spoke about his colleagues’ looting with some condemnation, saying that they “helped themselves to TVs the size of our bed, damn it.” He (perhaps jokingly) suggested that Elena choose an LG or Samsung TV for herself. Two days later, Sergey informed her that he had already packed a vacuum cleaner and bragged that he “drives a Kawasaki,” an expensive Japanese motorcycle, while in Ukraine.
On the same day that Sergey offered Elena a choice of TV, he told her about a more serious war crime than looting: the murder of three civilians. According to him, the Russian military stripped them naked and shot them.
“If we let them go, they could give away our position. So it was decided to shoot them in the forest,” he said. “Did you shoot them?” Elena asked in shock. “Of course, we shot them,” Sergey replied. After that, she switched the conversation topic to the consequences of Russia’s economic isolation: “All the popular clothing stores have fucking left,” “There will be no iPhones,” “There won’t even be fucking Coca-Cola!”
According to Elena, she did not suspect that her conversations with Sergey were being intercepted. “They were all chatting, those guys he was there with, literally making calls from one phone, no one suspected it at all! Tell it to anyone, and they would also be shocked,” she says. She admits that she discussed war crimes with Sergey but says that she never approved of them. “What could I do? No one is proud of it, not me, not anyone else. Suppose this happened—so what? I was not there, I am not a participant,” she explained. “I was told this information and I reacted, I was mostly shocked.”
When Sergey told his girlfriend about the massacre of civilians in March, he used the pronoun “We.” Now, he claims that he was not involved in the killings personally. “The conversation is incomplete. Personally, I didn’t kill anyone with my automatic rifle, I didn’t personally take civilians prisoner. It was our guarding troops who did it. The situation was as follows: in front of my eyes, three prisoners were seized and taken away. We were told that they were taken away and would unlikely be released. Civilians or not, I can’t say for sure, it was too far away,” he recalled. “When I saw them, they were already naked.”
Sergey claims that it was not possible to send home appliances stolen in Ukraine to Rubtsovsk. “You could say it was herd behavior. There was a warehouse with new TVs and so on. As a result, I left all the loot, or rather buried it. From the houses, we only took salt, sugar, flour. Going to that warehouse was one of the attractions, so to speak. And later we were forbidden to send stolen goods,” he said. “But I got rid of it all before the commander’s ban.”
During a conversation with Elena in the spring, Sergey said, “I have already become a murderer.” On another occasion, in a phone call with his mother, he spoke of “a sea of corpses in civilian clothing.” Sergey clarified to Mediazona that he stumbled upon these bodies in the forest when he went to collect spare parts. He is confident that his unit had nothing to do with these murders.
“I did not participate directly in shootings during the entire period of the special operation. But we were engaged in cover for the Airborne forces, and then worked with the Wagner PMC. I can’t say exactly what we were doing,” he said. “But our unit was definitely not engaged in the killing of civilians.”
Sergey remained on the frontline without a break until autumn, for half a year. When asked by Mediazona why he did not refuse to obey orders since he considers it an illegal war, the soldier could not answer. “We were intimidated by threats of prison time. I just wanted to withstand it all and come home alive. Of course, I could have called a lawyer, but there was no time for that, we didn’t sleep much, and in general, it was more important for me to talk with my relatives,” he says. “Overall, I somehow didn’t even think about it.”
Elena responds similarly. “We were absolutely shocked by these circumstances. As a result, I honestly do not remember these events well myself because they were very traumatic for me. Perhaps I behaved irrationally at some points. I would like to take responsibility,” she says. “But I can’t because I was in shock and in a terrible psychological state.” She insists that Sergey did not argue with the commanders because of his “legal illiteracy.”
After six months on the frontline, Sergey was unable to resign due to the mobilization announced by Vladimir Putin. He confirmed that he continues to serve but declined to specify to Mediazona exactly where. According to him, upon his return from Ukraine he ended up in a military hospital and was diagnosed with an illness related to the psychological consequences of the war, but he did not say which one. “I was traumatized by shelling, corpses, living in dugouts all this time. When working with the PMC, I was one step away from death. I can’t sleep well; I have panic attacks,” he explains. “If I see something that reminds me of those days, then I experience anxiety immediately.” According to Sergey, he did not go to a doctor at the frontline because “it would not lead to anything,” but “there would only be more work.”
In an intercepted conversation with Elena, he said, “I’m just trying to console myself that if I’m here for a long time, then I’ll earn a lot.” Now he says that the morale and psychological damage from participation in the war cannot be compensated by any money. “Then, any thought was comforting, so I said so. It is very difficult to look for the meaning of life in a war, so any consolation helped,” he explains. “And then I just wanted to go home.”
Yekaterina Semenova, a 24-year-old woman who recently moved from Pskov to Orenburg, has been connected to her former home through her social media accounts. According to publicly available databases, she previously worked at a school in the Pskov region. It’s likely that she met her future husband, Alexander Semyonov, during this time.
Semyonov called Yekaterina using a SIM card registered in his name that was bought in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city where soldiers were deployed prior to being sent to the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Although the New York Times did not publish all of the Semyonovs’ conversations, some of them are of interest.
On March 9, Semyonov complained to his relatives that “Putin, this idiot, wants to take Kyiv,” stating that “we are only taking villages, that’s all.” Two days later, he called Yekaterina with some good news: “Well, look for an apartment, somewhere in Orenburg.” He went on to explain that he and a friend had found a large sum of money in the apartment of “a thief,” which they had calculated to be around 5,2 million rubles. Yekaterina urged him to put the money back, but Semyonov was too excited about his newfound wealth: “Not doing it, do I look like a fool to you? I literally have an apartment in my pocket!”
Yekaterina still uses the same phone that Semyonov called, and was surprised to learn from Mediazona about the publication of their intercepted conversations in the New York Times: “What are you talking about? Did he call this number? And what, and what should I tell you?”
Initially, she denied speaking to Semyonov, but later suggested that the reporter should “call him and ask.” When asked for Semyonov’s current number, she responded: “You all know better.” However, when a fragment of a conversation about a cracked open safe was quoted to her, Yekaterina’s playfulness ceased. She claimed that she and Semyonov were divorced and had nothing in common, and then hung up, blocked the reporter on messenging apps and restricted access to her social media accounts.
Semyonov’s phone number is still online, but he has not responded to calls or messages on WhatsApp: he read them and then deleted his selfie avatar.
Almost all of the servicemen from Rubtsovsk whose conversations were published by the Times had entered into a contract with the Ministry of Defense either immediately upon reaching 18 or after completing their military service.
For example, 27-year-old Eduard Ilteryakov had been serving under a contract since 2014, according to the photographs he had posted on Odnoklassniki, a popular Russian social network. He had served first in the 74th Separate Guards Motorised Rifle Brigade stationed in Yurga and later in the 656th Regiment of the National Guard (Rosgvardia) in Rubtsovsk. Currently, Eduard’s accounts are set to private, but before we contacted him, he regularly liked jingoistic videos typical of this social network with headlines mentioning khokly, a Russian slur for the Ukrainian people.
According to his wife Yulia’s Instagram page, she became the mother of a “little princess” in the autumn of 2019. On March 16 of the following year, a man called the number registered in the name of Yulia, and their conversation was published by the NYT. “Dear, I really want to go home. I’m so fucking tired of being afraid of everything. They brought us to some fucking shithole. What are we fucking waiting for? To be fucking killed?” he said. In another fragment of the intercepted calls, the soldier asked Yulia about his daughter and promised: “I am finished with the fucking army. Maybe I’ll go to Syria one more time so that we can buy an apartment.”
Ilteryakov now insists that it is not his voice on the recordings, even after listening to them. “This definitely was not me, ‘What are we fucking waiting for? To be fucking killed?’ This is something… I’m hearing it for the first time. I couldn’t have said that, for sure,” he says.
He also claims that he could not talk about a tour in Syria because he had already been there, got tired of those tours and did not need money. After returning from Ukraine, he managed to retire from the army and is not going to renew the contract because he was “tired of traveling.” “This is the first time I’ve heard about it! So much time has passed, and then they remembered me!” he is amazed.
At first, Ilteryakov confidently confirmed to Mediazona that he was in Bucha and “popped into” Ukraine from the territory of Belarus. However, after being asked about war crimes, he clarified that he meant only the general direction of advancement and did not know exactly which settlements he passed. “To be honest, I don’t even know where Bucha is. We carried out our tasks, but where, in which... city or no city... Nothing was brought to our attention,” he assured.
At the same time, the soldier called publications about war crimes in Bucha “lies.” Here is his conversation with a Mediazona correspondent:
“I don’t know where the stories about Bucha come from, that people were killed there, or otherwise. I don’t know, this is the first time I hear it. On the contrary, we helped people there, everyone greeted us, and for the first time I am hearing about who killed whom there.”
“The locals welcomed you?”
“There was an investigation: they found the bodies of people with signs of torture, with their hands tied.”
“This is war, military actions. Somewhere, someone just, maybe, got hit by a mine or something else. It could also be that the Ukrainians themselves could have hit the wrong place with inaccurate artillery fire and killed these people. And I had not seen or heard of the Russians killing people in that area. On the contrary, we were only helping the locals.”
However, Ilteryakov did hear about the mass shipping of looted goods from Ukraine into Russia, which was revealed in a Mediazona investigation. He clarified that he had not witnessed such incidents himself, stating, “I don’t know, I didn’t see it, whether it happened or not, I don’t know.”
One of the senders of parcels from the infamous SDEK branch in Mozyr was Vadim Derevnin, who sent three kilograms of cargo to Rubtsovsk.
Among the numbers called by the intercepted Russian military men, one belonged to a phone registered to 36-year-old Olga Derevnina.
On March 9, the man who called her said, “I’m coming back and quitting immediately. I’m fucking done with this army.” On March 13, he asked Olga a few questions about the children and confirmed his intention, “I'm fucking quitting. I'm going to get a civilian job. And my son will not go to the army, I tell you one hundred percent. So tell him that he will be a doctor.”
The intercepted Russian military men called several phone numbers, including one registered to Olga Derevnina, a 36-year-old woman. On 9 March, one of the men said, “I will come and quit my job. I’m fucking done with this army.” Four days later, he confirmed his intention to quit and promised that his son would not join the army and would become a doctor instead.
Vadim Derevnin from Rubtsovsk, whose number Mediazona found on an abandoned VKontakte page, and Olga Derevnina have the same registration address: Military Unit No. 6720, Rubtsovsk.
Derevnin politely refused to speak to Mediazona, saying, “Good luck, don’t call again.” There is almost no information available about him publicly, except for an account on Avito, a Russian marketplace, where Vadim had been selling fresh pork lard, horses, and furniture shortly before the war.
Other soldiers mentioned in the NYT article also refused to talk; at least now we know that they are all alive.
In March last year, Tatyana, the wife of a military man from Rubtsovsk, Ivan Mironov, complained to him that “coffins keep arriving” and they “are burying one man after another.” However, in January 2023, she changed her WhatsApp status to “Finally. Happy.” Tatyana refused to talk to Mediazona, explaining that she “grew up in a military family” and knows that everything related to the army is a “state secret.”
“In general, we did not discuss his work on the internet but only personal stuff, as he warned us not to. So, from February to April, we avoided discussing anything that could be related to his work. Therefore, we can confidently say that there were no missteps on our part in this regard,” she assured.
In September, Yevgeny Semyonov, whose intercepted call reveals that he was happy to be rotated back to Belarus, went on vacation to Lake Teletskoye in Altai Krai with his wife Daria and child, to unwind. Attempts to contact them failed.
After receiving a call from Mediazona, Alina Koroleva, a novice manicurist from Kineshma and wife of 22-year-old Airborne forces soldier Yevgeny Korolev, blocked the journalist's number and deleted photos with her husband. Last year, she complained to Yevgeny that “Wildberries,” a popular online marketplace, was finished, and in response, he told her that only 38 out of 400 people in the Kostroma regiment had survived.
During the beginning of the war, 25-year-old Sergey Pershin from the National Guard complained to his wife, Ksenia Vershina, who works as an brow specialist, that “They wanted to fucking do it in one fell swoop here, and it didn’t fucking work like that.” When Mediazona called the number registered in her name, a man answered and promised to pass the questions to Sergey, but later said that the soldier wasn’t interested in answering them.
Another Airborne fighter from Pskov, Alexander Timofeyev, who had told his half-brother Andrey Platonov about the corpses of civilians were “lying on the side of the road,” rejected calls despite being online.
Similarly, Tatyana, the wife of a military man from Kostroma, Semyon Manchiev, did not answer calls. In the intercepted calls, she had told her husband about the coffins in the city, to which he replied that “there will be even more body bags.” It’s possible that Tatyana was warned by her friend Elena Fateyeva, who had earlier refused to speak to Mediazona. Both women sell clothes on Avito, which their children have outgrown.
The only person in the NYT investigation who confirmed seeing the publication was Tatyana Kozhevina, the head of the craft department of the Lovozero National Cultural Centre and mother of Ivan Kozhevin, a graduate of the Federal Penitentiary Service Academy and soldier of the Kostroma regiment. Ivan had confessed to his mother last year that he was in Bucha region at the end of March. “Of course, I saw it. Don’t bother me with it,” she said and hung up. Based on her VKontakte page, Kozhevina embraces jingoism, Putin, and the fight against Ukrainian “provocations.”
Roman Arkhipov, a 29-year-old soldier from Rubtsovsk who talked about “fucking higher-ups” that “can’t do anything” during a conversation with his wife Tatyana, was likely warned by others. When Mediazona called him, he quickly answered the phone, as if he had been waiting for the call. “Ha-ha-ha, a fucking journalist! Damn, you’re good!” he replied. However, he refused to answer questions; his and his wife’s social media profiles were switched to private shortly after.
This conversation took place on Friday. On Sunday night, Arkhipov sent a WhatsApp message that read, “Hey, how’s it going? Ready to suck?”
“Wrong number, Roman Viktorovich?”
“Ahh, the journalist. Yes, I made a mistake, sure!” Arkhipov laughed.
A few hours later, he decided to continue the conversation: "Do you know if ukropy are keen to suck?”
“What do you think?”
“You know better🤷♂️. I think about 90 percent of them are get humped and consider themselves European 🤣🤔,” Arkhipov replied.
He did not respond to any further questions.
Editors: Dmitriy Tkachev, D. G.
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