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'He Was Just A Boy' -- Russian Mother Grieves For Son Killed In Ukraine

  • Tatyana Volskaya
  • Claire Bigg

Yevgeny Pushkaryov was just 18 years of age when he was killed in eastern Ukraine fighting as a volunteer with pro-Russian rebels.

Yevgeny Pushkaryov was just 18 years of age when he was killed in eastern Ukraine fighting as a volunteer with pro-Russian rebels.

KRONSHTADT, Russia -- On September 5, Zhanna Zalogina returned home after work to an unpleasant surprise -- a note from her teenage son saying he had left to "another city."

"I will be back in two months," read the laconic note stuck on the fridge. "I will call and write if possible. I love you."

Her son, Yevgeny Pushkaryov, 18, never made it home.

He was buried last week in his hometown of Kronshtadt after being killed in eastern Ukraine, where he had joined pro-Russian rebels.

Zalogina struggles to contain tears as she leafs through pictures of her son, known by his friends and family as Zhenya.

She is also seething with anger.

Anger at television channels for deluging viewers with grisly tales of the carnage allegedly inflicted on Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.

Anger at the separatists for not bothering to return her son's body.

Anger, too, at the military youth club where her son spent most of his time after school watching war films and taking part in battle reenactments.

"They hammered these ideas into his head," she says. "He was just a boy."

Yevgeny had been fascinated by the military since he was 12, an interest perhaps fed by life in Kronshtadt. Located on a tiny island outside St. Petersburg, the town takes pride in its military past as the main Baltic Fleet base and the historical seat of the Russian admiralty.

Like many young Russians swelling the ranks of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, Yevgeny was deeply affected by the scenes of violence pouring out of television screens.

Although Moscow has come under bitter international sanctions for backing the separatists, state-controlled channels have denied Russia's involvement and cast the conflict as "genocide" against Russian speakers instigated by Kyiv's Western-leaning government.

"He said it pained him to watch what they showed on the news, children and mothers being killed, people in need of help," says his mother. "He wanted to help, that's why he went there."

While being careful not to take sides, Zalogina accuses the Russian media of spreading "false information" about the conflict.

"We are not being told what's really going on there," she says.

Following her son's death, she logged on to VKontakte, Russia's largest social-networking site, in the hope of finding clues casting light on his departure to eastern Ukraine.

Scrutiny of his account revealed that he was a member of two groups supporting the rebels.

Zalogina also discovered that he had been recruited online.

"It mentioned the Novorossia Army; there was detailed information on how you can fill in the form, wait for a reply, then you buy a plane ticket and someone meets you in Rostov," she says. "He filled in the form. He knew he was going there already in July."

WATCH: A Russian Mother Grieves For Son Killed In Ukraine

According to his comrades-in-arms, Yevgeny died on October 10 in the Ukrainian village of Nikishino.

Despite his inexperience, he had been assigned to a frontline reconnaissance unit -- one of the most perilous jobs for recruits.

Aleksandr, who was part of his unit, said Yevgeny was shot dead after the group was detected by Ukrainian troops.

"We decided to switch over to the other side of the road," he recalls. "A bullet hit him while we were retreating. He was the last one, he was covering our retreat."

Sergei, an older member of the reconnaissance unit, says about two-thirds of pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine are from Russia.

Sergei prepares to return to the front line to continue fighting with the rebels. But he admits that many new Russian recruits are ill-equipped and woefully unprepared for combat.

"Zhenya was not prepared for such hostilities," he says. "To be honest, many young men there are simply cannon fodder."

Sergei and Aleksandr are also painfully aware of the difficulties faced by Russian families seeking to reclaim the body of their loved ones killed in Ukraine.

The two men helped bring Yevgeny's remains all the way to Kronshstadt after separatist commanders went back on their promise to repatriate his body.

Zalogina says she has received no help either from Russian authorities, who, despite growing reports of killed Russian soldiers, still deny sending troops to Ukraine and officially regard Russian fighters there as volunteers.

She was able to give Yevgeny a proper burial only after launching a fundraising campaign, flying to southern Russia, negotiating with separatist commanders, and renting out a special vehicle to transport his coffin.

"The entire city collected money for me; everyone helped me," she says. "Without these people, we would never have brought Zhenya back. Never."

Written by Claire Bigg in Prague based on reporting by Tatyana Voltskaya in Kronshtadt.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


     

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