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Russia’s war dead belie its slogan that no one is left behind

The arm of a dead Russian soldier pictured here on the outskirts of Kyiv. Russia’s overall number of those killed in the war in Ukraine, though apparently staggering, has remained elusive.Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

Soon after the invasion began, a hashtag war slogan popped up everywhere in Russia: “We don’t leave ours behind.” But many were.

In Irpin, on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, two Russian soldiers killed in battle lay on a street corner, covered with a sheet of metal, legs poking out. A third lay a few feet away near a burned-out armored personnel carrier, a lower leg gnawed by dogs. A fourth lay further along the road, the victim of a mine.

In Moshchun, a once-idyllic hamlet northwest of Kyiv, another Russian soldier died badly inside a dimly lit kitchen, lying on a bench with a gruesome groin wound. Ten others were scattered about, several on the fringes of a forest.


While countless bodies have been abandoned on the battlefield, many more have found their way back to their families, but Russia’s overall death toll, though staggering, remains elusive. At home, the Kremlin has clamped down on news of military casualties, apparently wary of how a nation’s grief could turn volatile. In 2015, Putin signed a decree declaring all military deaths a state secret, and last year Russia criminalized statements discrediting the military.

NATO estimates that Russia has lost 7,000 to 15,000 troops during the six-week war, a startling number, while Ukraine puts the toll at 18,600. Those figures rival, if not exceed, the 14,453 lost during the Soviet Union’s roughly 10-year war in Afghanistan and the 11,000 Russian service members who died in the two Chechen wars.

Russia puts the official military death toll of the Ukrainian campaign at 1,351, and state television does not dwell on this figure. With Russia now apparently girding for a grueling war of attrition and analysts predicting that Moscow will keep plowing in massive numbers of troops and material, the media in the Russian towns and cities that have lost the largest number of their sons are strangely quiet.


Dozens from the Russian town of Aleysk, in the Altai region, reportedly died in the first days of the war in fighting near the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. After news reached families, there was only one cryptic reference on the local community online news page: "Dear military family members! We kindly ask you not to allow people to gather in one place, not to succumb to provocative information."

A similar notice on the eternal memory page for Chelyabinsk — another Russian city with significant casualties — warned against fake information "created with the aim of whipping up hysteria." People must not share news of deaths, it added, claiming that "Nazis from Ukraine" were trying to "collect information about our soldiers for the subsequent development of fake information."

Vadim Kolodiy, a 19-year-old gunner from the 136th Reconnaissance Battalion based in Naro-Fominsk outside Moscow, died after he was attacked and trapped in his armored personnel carrier, the Russian military told his mother, Tatyana, last month, but she never received his body.

"I am hysterical. Vadim didn’t even have a chance to escape. He burned inside," she wrote on social media. "The first week was like darkness. Pain, tears. I could not sleep or eat." She said she felt anger at men in their 30s and 40s out drinking beer, while "children" in their late teens and early 20s were dead.

A few weeks after Kolodiy’s reported death, charred remains thought to be his were analyzed in a laboratory in Rostov, but the DNA did not match.


"No one is looking for these children," Tatyana said. "No one cares about them. How many of these children, husbands, are there? How much pain had this all brought?"

Nikita Deryabin’s widow, Anya Deryabina, buried her husband last month, but still does not have a feeling of closure. Deryabin, 25, of Chelyabinsk had adored his wife and three young children. A sniper who loved the military, he was sent on a "training exercise," only to be killed in battle March 8.

"I still can’t realize or believe that this is true," Deryabina said in written answers to questions because she said she could not speak without crying. At night, she dreams of him, feeling he is still with her. "Every day I talk to him. Every day I ask him what for and why.

"My brain refuses to accept the information that Nikitka is dead," she said, using a diminutive nickname. "I am still waiting for him to call, to come back."

Some bereaved family members want Russia to redouble its military campaign in Ukraine so, they say, that their boys will not have died in vain.

Gulnara Valiyeva, 43, whose son Yevgeny was killed with his German shepherd service dog in Hostomel, near Kyiv, called on social media for Russia to keep fighting "to the end." She buried him and is begging the military to let her have the female Belgian shepherd pup he was training before he left, so that she can keep part of him.


But there are also flashes of dissent. “People are saying that their relatives are sent (to Ukraine.) What the f--- is this about? For what?” commented Olga Filippova on March 11, under Valiyeva’s online post about her son’s memorial.