Immediately after it was released on April 16, doubts emerged about the authenticity of a video the Russian Defense Ministry said showed surviving crewmen from the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, which had sunk in the Black Sea three days earlier.
A photograph obtained by RFE/RL has deepened those doubts. It appears to be a still from the same video -- but the sailor it depicts has not returned to his family, and his mother, after initially being told he survived, was later told he was missing and still later that he was dead.
Questions about the Defense Ministry video added to the intrigue over the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which Ukraine said it hit with two Neptune missiles fired from the shore – a claim the United States has backed up.
Russia has said only that the warship sank in a storm while being towed after ammunition on board exploded -- a claim that suggests it was an accident. After nine days of silence about casualties, the Defense Ministry said that one crew member was killed, 27 were missing, and 396 were safely brought ashore.
Doubts about the accuracy of those figures have been fueled in part by the Defense Ministry video, which showed two rows of sailors who appeared to number no more than 200. But there has also been widespread speculation that the video itself was shot before the sinking, not afterwards.
The photograph sent to RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities by an aunt of one of the sailors on board, Sergei Grudinin, 21, is some of the strongest evidence suggesting that the video is not what the Russian military made it out to be, but rather footage shot at some point before the sinking.
Looking identical to parts of the video, it shows Grudinin standing, chin up, in a row of sailors in dark uniforms and caps. A total of about 10 men are in the frame.
Grudinin’s aunt, Tatyana Grudinina, told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities in late April that her nephew was still missing.
She said that his mother, Tamara Grudinina, was told when she called a hotline after the sinking that her son was alive -- but that she later got a call from a man who identified himself as Vakula – the last name of the Moskva captain’s deputy – and said that he was missing.
Separately, Tamara Grudinina told the BBC that another representative of the navy called later and told her that her son had “gone down with the ship.”
RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities contacted Grudinin’s parents in the Amur Oblast, in the Russian Far East, to ask them to confirm that the man in the photograph was their son. They said they did not want to talk to journalists, citing psychological trauma.
A cousin of Grudinin’s, Tatyana Tulupova, told the BBC that the family had last heard from him on April 10, when he said he said the ship was setting sail.
Grudinin was a conscript, meaning that, by law, he was not supposed to be sent into a combat zone. While Russia is fighting a war against Ukraine, with some of the fighting occurring along Ukraine’s Black Sea and Sea of Azov shores, the Defense Ministry has claimed that the ship was not involved in a combat operation.
Several other families have been seeking information about sailors missing following the sinking of the Moskva.
The loss of the flagship -- the worst disaster for the Russian Navy since the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk sank in 2000 -- was an embarrassing blow and one of many setbacks that the Russian military has faced since President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.