Cover me. How Lieutenant Kirill Gontarenko became the unlikely recipient of 180 tonnes of blankets on the frontlines in Ukraine
Никита Сологуб|Дата-отдел
Cover me. How Lieutenant Kirill Gontarenko became the unlikely recipient of 180 tonnes of blankets on the frontlines in Ukraine
6 June 2024, 20:11

Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Investigating data from Russian Post about all packages sent to the front, Mediazona was surprised to discover that every fifth parcel was addressed to a single person—Lieutenant Kirill Gontarenko. In the winter, Russians unexpectedly began sending him old blankets and other warm items, an epidemic that swept nearly all regions. Appeals to stop sending blankets went unheeded, and by the end of 2023, around 180 tonnes of packages had been sent to the lieutenant. What became of the old blankets and where they are now remains unclear. Here’s what we learned about this odd story.

Why everyone is sending blankets. Key findings

  • In December 2022, the Defence Ministry launched the option to send packages to the front via Russian Post branches;
  • Analysing all these postal items, we found that every fifth one was intended for one person—medical Lieutenant Kirill Gontarenko;
  • The blanket sending began with posts on small Telegram channels and engulfed the entire country—only three out of seven dozen Russian regions didn’t send him a single package;
  • Every second package from Bashkortostan and every third from Kuban was intended for the lieutenant;
  • “Since now everyone is sending, we’re sending,” senders explained their reasons for dispatching old blankets to the war;
  • By the end of 2023, Russians had sent 37,901 packages to Gontarenko, totalling 177,511 kilograms (178 metric tonnes, 196 US tons) in weight;
  • What ultimately happened to the blankets is unknown. Kirill Gontarenko himself cannot be contacted.

The Defence Ministry announced in December 2022 that letters and packages could be sent to the front via Russian Post—previously this option didn’t exist. They should be sent to the address Moskva-400 (postcode 103400), specifying the military unit and recipient’s name. Such items end up at a Russian Post logistics centre in Moscow, then are handed over to Defence Ministry representatives, who deliver them to addressees in the combat zone. By September 2023, Russian Post reported that Russians had sent over 80,000 packages to the front.

Packages weighing up to 10 kg are delivered free of charge. The number of packages an individual can send is unlimited. So even if relatives have prepared a large parcel for the front, they could split it into several small ones at the post office and send them at no cost.

Russian Post’s website has a package tracking service. Using it, Mediazona gathered information about all letters and packages sent to the front in 2023 and early 2024. This is over 188,000 items from all corners of the country—upwards of 14,000 unique sender post office postcodes in every region without exception.

The postal data doesn’t allow an assessment of the number of Russians fighting—in an entire year, slightly under 39,000 unique names accumulated in the “Recipient” field. This is obviously less than the Russian troop numbers in Ukraine. The dynamics of letter sending are also virtually meaningless. Each month some new recipients are added, but in all that time there was only one significant surge—before the start of 2024, when relatives apparently began mass sending New Year’s gifts to the front.

Another anomaly immediately catches the eye: the lion’s share of packages Russians are sending to the front from all over the country is addressed to one single person—Kirill Nikolayevich Gontarenko from military unit 52890.

In 2023, Russians sent 37,901 packages to Gontarenko, totalling 177,511 kg—every fifth package from the moment the Defence Ministry launched their delivery.

How all of Russia began sending tonnes of blankets to one lieutenant

In early November 2023, as Russian troops were launching a major offensive on Avdiivka in Donetsk region, identical messages began circulating on Telegram calling for people to send packages to Lieutenant Kirill Gontarenko. The first public appeal appeared on the Lensk News channel on November 5, stating that a hospital near the front urgently needed used blankets for wounded soldiers being evacuated.

“A hospital on the Artemovsk front line needs used blankets. Cold weather has set in, the wounded must be warmed during evacuation to Luhansk or Rostov. Accordingly, they practically don’t return. Request for caring people to respond, post an appeal in their groups. They can be sent by post for free,” the message stated.

The appeal was quickly picked up by a regional deputy and other war supporters, followed by pro-government volunteer organisations. The nationwide “#WEARETOGETHER” network assisting military families also joined in, urging students to send packages to Gontarenko.

Data collected by Mediazona reveals that by December, sending old blankets to the lieutenant had become a nationwide trend. Senders included individuals, schools, kindergartens, veterans’ councils, post offices, tax inspectorates, even a Seventh Day Adventist Church, and various other organisations and groups across Russia.

Moscow region, Moscow, and St. Petersburg sent the most packages by weight, with every second package from Bashkortostan and every third from Kuban intended for Gontarenko. By the end of 2023, only Chechnya, Ingushetia and the Jewish Autonomous region hadn’t sent anything to him.

People interviewed by Mediazona said they sent blankets simply because “everyone is sending” and “the whole country is living by this.” Some learned about the appeal from friends, neighbours or announcements in their aparment buildings.

An elderly St Petersburg woman, Natalya Zanegina, was told by a pensioner friend that soldiers needed help—the friend also sent the address to which the package should be sent. Collecting old blankets and bed linen in a sack, Zanegina put them in a box and took it to the post office. “As I understood it, it’s winter, and when the wounded are transported there isn’t enough bed linen, blankets—so the front needed our help,” she recalls.

50-year-old Liliya Lessirar, an entrepreneur in the field of medical certification, also says she decided to help the soldiers since “now we all have the same story.” “I have relatives in Ukraine, and we want this all to end as soon as possible,” she says. Lessirar lives in a town near Moscow and sends packages together with other residents of her dacha partnership. Knowing about the initiative, “military commissars of certain units” pass requests for supplies directly to her. In November, the woman learned about the need for blankets and bed linen, contacted her neighbours and sent four sacks weighing about 30 kg in total.

Many people interviewed by Mediazona didn’t even remember Gontarenko’s name and certainly didn’t question who he was.

The elusive Lieutenant Gontarenko

Kirill Gontarenko, now 30, began military service around 2013. He had previously worked as a pharmacist and no later than 2020 was serving in a unit near St. Petersburg.However, the blanket appeals specified a different unit number, leading to doubts and suspicions among some potential senders: what if this is all some sort of a Ukrainian psy-op?

Mediazona was unable to contact Gontarenko himself—the phone numbers registered to him have long been unresponsive, and he ignores messages on messenging apps. Gontarenko’s friends were also unable to help.

In September 2023, before appeals for helping Russian soldiers in Avdiivka began spreading, the Rossiya-1 TV channel aired a report about Zarina Gontarenko—a “delicate girl from Baksan [in Kabardino-Balkarian Republic]” who completed medical college in Nalchik, and in autumn 2022 went to work as a surgical nurse in a military hospital at the front. The report mentioned that at the front she met “her loved one, a serviceman from St Petersburg,” whom she married. The nurse’s VK avatar shows a joint photograph with that same Kirill Gontarenko.

She also didn’t respond to messages and calls from Mediazona. The couple’s evident unwillingness to communicate with strangers may be explained by the fact that in mid-November 2023, OSINT Georgia, a Telegram channel, which posts personal data of people supporting the war to the public domain, wrote about the Gontarenkos.

Blankets without end

The volume of old blankets and other warm items sent to the lieutenant continued to grow—despite the fact that from late November, requests to finally stop sending blankets to Kirill Gontarenko began spreading everywhere. By the end of 2023, the total weight had nearly reached 178 metric tonnes.

Screenshots even circulated of messages allegedly from Gontarenko himself asking for the collection to be stopped as so many had already responded.

With the front line post delivery, tracking only seems to show packages arriving at a sorting centre, not reaching the addressee—we checked several random shipments through the Russian Post website, all of them had the status “Arrived at sorting centre.” Many senders complained their parcels weren’t delivered.

Tyumen resident Denis Tokuntsev was so outraged by an “undelivered” package that he even sent a statement to the Prosecutor General’s office. He received notification the blankets had been delivered on November 19, but since then the package has been listed as awaiting handover.

“Then I saw on quite official resources that the required number of blankets had been received. But patriotically minded people continued sending blankets, from their heart! So that’s why it’s like this,” Tokuntsev explains.

The Prosecutor General’s office sent his statement to the military prosecutor’s office. A Defence Ministry official then told him over the phone that the addressee Kirill Gontarenko was a real person. But “there are a great many packages,” the official continued, so sorting them out isn’t possible.

The ultimate fate of the massive quantities of blankets sent remains a mystery. The only person who could definitely know whether he received all these blankets is Lieutenant Kirill Gontarenko himself.

Packages addressed to Lieutenant Gontarenko continued to go at least until March 2024—and possibly some people are still sending him blankets to this day.

Text and data: Nikita Sologub, Data Department

Visualisation: Data Department

Editors: Dmitry Treschanin, Maxim Litavrin, Yegor Skovoroda

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