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Mothers Of The Moskva: For Relatives Of Missing Sailors, A Lack Of Information Fuels Grief


Tamara Grudinina still doesn't know what happened to her son, Sergei, who was serving aboard the Moskva.

When news that the guided-missile cruiser Moskva had sunk off Crimea reached Tamara Grudinina, nearly 9,000 kilometers to the east, she immediately sent a text message to a number belonging to the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet asking about the whereabouts of her son, 21-year-old Sergei, a sailor serving on the fleet's flagship.

She said she received a response: "Your son has gone missing. We are sorry."

A couple of days later, she was contacted by a man who identified himself as Pavel Vakula, the deputy commander of the ship. After a fire broke out, he told her, Sergei was part of a line of sailors who were trying to evacuate the ship through heavy smoke, but he got separated from the others.

I drive myself into panic attacks every day. I try to hope that my brother is alive, but it's difficult because there is no information."
-- Ksenia Bergerskaya

"And then the Defense Ministry calls us and says: 'Everything is in order. Your son is alive and well,'" she told Current Time.

But she hasn't heard from Sergei and has received no update from the military since then.

"And I have been calling since the first day. Today is the sixth or seventh day. I call the hotline at 10 a.m. Moscow time every day," she said.

Grudinina still doesn't know what happened to her son. And she's far from the only parent wondering exactly what happened aboard the Moskva on April 14.

Six days after the Moskva sank, there is still little clarity about what is the worst disaster for the Russian Navy since the sinking of the ballistic missile submarine Kursk in 2000.

All 118 sailors aboard the Kursk were killed. There is no public information about how many of Moskva's crew, which was believed to have numbered more than 500, were killed in the sinking.

And parents are increasingly anguished as they struggle to locate their sons.

A photo shared on social media and widely believed to be the Moskva shows it on fire and listing badly.
A photo shared on social media and widely believed to be the Moskva shows it on fire and listing badly.

Ukraine says it hit the warship with two Neptune missiles fired from the shore; Russia has said it sank in stormy seas while it was being towed to port after an unexplained detonation caused a fire.

For the families of conscripts, the draft-age men who are required to do military service, the questions may be particularly acute. Despite Russian law forbidding them from being sent to active combat zones, some have been sent to Ukraine on land or sea -- in some cases without their knowledge or consent.

Grudinina said that sometime before April 10, her son -- a conscript -- was asked to sign a contract, agreeing to serve in a combat zone.

"When I called him the last time on April 10, I told him: 'Just don't sign the contract!' He didn't want to. He really wanted to come home. He didn't sign any contract, that's 100 percent," she said. "But he didn't say anything about the war. 'Everything is fine.' He always reassured us like this: 'Mom, everything is fine. Everything is fine. I'll be back home.'"

Another woman who spoke to Schemes, the investigative program of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, said that she spoke to her son aboard the Moskva on the evening of April 14.

"My son called me…in tears and said, 'Mom, do you understand what happened? We were hit by three missiles! Some of the guys were evacuated…. All survivors were taken to Sevastopol,'" she recalled.

"'They were given phones because they were...only in shorts and vests. They left everything there -- phones and documents. They have nothing,'" she quoted Sergei as saying.

The Moskva in the harbor at Sevastopol after tracking NATO warships in the Black Sea on November 16.
The Moskva in the harbor at Sevastopol after tracking NATO warships in the Black Sea on November 16.

The woman, who asked not to be named because of increasing Russian pressure on civilians who speak to the media, said she had seen photos or reports on social media that the Moskva had suffered a fire.

"He told me, 'No, Mom, that's not true. There's no fire," she said. "He goes on telling me what's happening and he's crying out of terror. He wouldn't just make that up, right? And this isn't just some wooden dinghy that would just catch fire. Nobody explains anything. I just don't understand why the radar that this famous cruiser was equipped with didn't recognize these Neptune missiles."

The woman also insisted to RFE/RL that the warship her son was serving on was on a "peaceful" mission, a remark that may reflect the Russian state narrative that Russia is not at war in Ukraine but merely conducting a "special military operation."

A ceremony in memory of the sunken Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sevastopol on April 15.
A ceremony in memory of the sunken Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sevastopol on April 15.

"Listen to me, as a mother would. I simply turned white as a sheet. When I heard from him, and I saw what was on the Internet, it's terrifying, and you wouldn't wish this even on your enemy," she said. "And this all happened during peacetime."

Asked to clarify what she meant by "peacetime," the woman insisted that the Moskva wasn't on a combat mission.

"In no way was this a combat mission. They were just sailing toward Odesa," she said, referring to a major Ukrainian port city that is seen as a potential target in the Russian war.

'To The Ship And Crew'

The lack of clarity from the Russian Navy, the military, and the Kremlin has compounded the anxiety for many parents, spouses, and other relatives of soldiers and sailors in a war whose very description has been clouded and confused by government statements.

We looked at every burned child. I can't tell you how hard it is, but I didn't find mine. There were only 200 people there, and there were more than 500 on the cruiser. Where are the others?"
-- Irina Shkrebets, mother of missing sailor

Within Russia, officials and the media -- and even people posting to social media -- are forbidden from calling the Russian invasion a "war" or even an "invasion." The government instead insists on calling it a "special military operation."

The military has also declined to release a public tally of deaths among Russian servicemen in Ukraine. The most recent official Defense Ministry toll, as of March 25, stood at 1,370.

Ukraine's military, however, says Russian military losses are more than 20,000. U.S. officials say publicly that Russia has lost at least 10,000 troops; privately, U.S. and Western officials put the figure closer to the Ukrainian estimate.

That would mean Russia has lost more troops in Ukraine than the Soviet Union lost in its nearly 10-year war in Afghanistan.

Russia has said nothing about casualties from the sinking of the Moskva. In a statement shortly after the incident, it said the crew had been "completely" evacuated, but in subsequent statements the reference to "completely" was missing.

The online news outlet Meduza cited an unnamed source close to the Black Sea Fleet command as saying that 37 crew members from the Moskva were killed and about 100 injured; the number of missing was unknown.

On April 16, state-run Russian media reported that the Russian Navy's commander, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, met with the crew of the Moskva in Sevastopol, the Crimean port that is the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet. But a video of the purported meeting released by the Russian Defense Ministry showed two rows of sailors totaling only about 100 people.

Other photographs posted to social media showed wreaths laid at a memorial in Sevastopol dedicated "to the ship and crew," an indirect confirmation that there were deaths on the ship.

Yegor Shkrebets
Yegor Shkrebets

'There Are No Answers'

Dmitry Shkrebets, whose son Yegor served as a cook on the Moskva, received contradictory information about the whereabouts of his son.

"They told us that the entire crew was evacuated," he wrote in an angry, incredulous post to his page on the Russian social media network VKontakte on April 17. "This is a lie, a blatant and cynical lie."

"My son is a conscript and as I was informed by the direct commanders of the Moskva, he is not among the dead and wounded and is listed as missing," Shkrebets wrote. "A conscript who was not supposed to take part in hostilities is listed as missing. Guys! He is missing on the high seas?!!!"

When he and his wife, Irina, who live in Yalta, went to a military hospital in Sevastopol to look for their son, they saw about 200 young men, injured with burns, but did not find their son, Irina said.

"We looked at every burned child. I can't tell you how hard it is, but I didn't find mine. There were only 200 people there, and there were more than 500 on the cruiser. Where are the others?" she told The Insider news site.

Vitaly Bergersky
Vitaly Bergersky

In the Khabarovsk region, on Russia's Pacific coast, Ksenia Bergerskaya's brother, senior seaman Vitaly Bergersky, is still considered missing in action. She said she and her family are desperately hoping he will be found alive.

"I drive myself into panic attacks every day. I try to hope that my brother is alive, but it's difficult because there is no information," she told RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities on April 19. "Everything that you find on the Internet about the cruiser is the only information we know. Nothing more."

Bergersky, who aspired to join the Federal Security Service, kept an Instagram page, where he posted photographs of his life and travels.

In his last post in March 2021, made four months before he joined the navy, he was shown speaking at a school in front of younger classmates and participating in a cross-country skiing competition. On April 19, 2022, one unnamed person posted a comment to the photograph: "The guy was killed in action."

"Today, there were reports on the network that Vitaly had died," Ksenia Bergerskaya told RFE/RL. "But this is unofficial, so we don't believe it yet."

"There are no answers," she said.

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by Timofei Rozhanskiy, Valeria Yehoshyna, and Heorhiy Shabayev. RFE/RL's Siberia Realities also contributed to this report.
  • 16x9 Image

    Timofei Rozhanskiy

    Timofei Rozhanskiy is a correspondent in Kyiv for Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. Born in Russia, he graduated from St. Petersburg State University and also received film and video production training at Bard College in New York. Before joining Current Time’s Moscow bureau in 2019, Rozhanskiy worked for the independent Russian television channel TV Rain.

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    Valeria Yehoshyna

    Valeria Yehoshyna is a journalist for Schemes (Skhemy), an investigative news project run by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. Yehoshyna was recognized as one of the "Top 30 Under 30" by the Kyiv Post in 2019 and has won a number of awards, including the top investigative prize at the Mezhyhirya Festival in 2018. Her investigations have also been short-listed in many other contests in Ukraine and internationally.  

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    Heorhiy Shabayev

    Heorhiy Shabayev is a journalist with Schemes (Skhemy), an investigative news project run by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. He is a graduate of the Institute of Journalism at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and the author of a dozen investigations into corruption in the government, the construction industry, and in large state-owned enterprises.

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