NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia -- Dozens of crates are stacked in rows at what is said to be a hangar at Tolmachevo Airport in Novosibirsk, in Russia’s Siberia region, a video that has gone viral in recent days shows.
Zooming in, the footage indicates what appears to be death certificates tacked on to each wooden box, apparently serving as coffins. Each document contains a surname and initials.
One of those documents has the name “Gerbold. Buryatia” inscribed on it.
Relatives of Gennady Gerbold, 39, from Buryatia, in the Siberia region, confirmed to RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities earlier this week that officials from Wagner had informed them two weeks earlier of his death while fighting with the mercenary group in Ukraine and later that his body had been returned to Novosibirsk.
Officials at Tolmachevo Airport, however, deny that the video was filmed there.
“This is false information. The premises, which are broadcast in this video, do not belong to and are not located on the territory of Tolmachevo Airport,” a spokesperson for the facility told Russian media.
While not commenting on the video, local officials have recently confirmed that many former inmates from the region have died while fighting as contractors for Wagner in Ukraine in recent weeks.
Young men from Russia’s hinterlands, including Buryatia, an impoverished Russian region in Siberia with a significant ethnic Buryat population, have borne the brunt of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, launched just a year ago on February 24, 2022, dying in disproportionate numbers compared to other areas of the country, especially in and around the richer capital, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.
The purported Novosibirsk video has emerged as numerous reports indicate that Russian losses in Ukraine have risen dramatically in recent weeks.
Spike In Casualties
The BBC Russian Service reported earlier this month that, during the first two weeks of February, the number of Russians killed in the war in Ukraine was five times higher compared to the previous month.
Citing senior U.S. officials, The New York Times reported on February 2 that fighting around Bakhmut had caused Russian casualty figures to spike.
Intense fighting has been raging for weeks around Bakhmut and the nearby towns of Soledar and Vuhledar.
For months Russia's main target in eastern Ukraine has been Bakhmut, where the Wagner mercenary group had reportedly made some inroads.
In the purported Novosibirsk airport video, documents attached to coffins also include a six-digit number with a K, the letter used by Wagner to indicate a former inmate fighter that is tacked on to the serial numbers found on their dog tags, Siberia.Realities reports.
Before Gennady Gerbold was deployed to Ukraine, Olesya Gerbold said she last spoke on November 27 by phone with her brother, who was incarcerated at Penal Colony No. 8 in the Omsk region on a murder conviction.
“He swore to me that he would never go to Ukraine. On November 28, the next day, he disappeared, he stopped communicating. And on November 29, the penal colony informed me of his ‘departure,’” she recounted, adding that her later attempts to find him were met by an official wall of silence.
“Of course, I tried through the Federal Penitentiary Service, and it was like he never existed and there hadn’t been anyone with that name’,” Olesya Gerbold recounted, adding that her calls to the Russian Defense Ministry went unanswered.
By early December, she knew her brother had been recruited by Wagner and was somewhere in Ukraine.
Wagner began recruiting prisoners in Russia's sprawling penal system in the summer of 2022, with the organization’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a catering entrepreneur who served nine years in prison during the Soviet era, offering convicts a pardon if they survived six months in Ukraine. On February 9, Prigozhin announced that Wagner had stopped the practice.
On December 11, after weeks of silence, Gennady finally called his sister.
“It was a quick call. He asked me to dictate my passport details so that the money he had earned for his ‘work’ could be immediately sent to me,” Olesya Gerbold explained, adding that her brother left behind two small children.
“I asked him how he ended up in Ukraine? For what? He didn’t answer, and I understood he was afraid someone else could be listening. I think he was taken by force to [fight in] the war. How he got there and why is still a mystery to us,” she said.
By the start of February, Oleysa Gerbold was informed only that her brother had died, with no further details provided.
“They said the coffin would be brought to Novosibirsk. ‘Open it and check whether it is yours or not,’” she said bitterly, adding that at least two other ex-prisoners from the same penal colony as her brother were among those returned in coffins to Novosibirsk.
More Inmates' Deaths Confirmed
In the video purported to have been filmed at the Novosibirsk airport, another document alleged to be a death certificate is inscribed with the name of Sergei Yumashev.
Siberia.Realities was able to piece together that Yumashev was 39 years old and from the village of Arshanovo, in the Siberian region of Khakassia.
According to Siberia.Realities, Yumashev died on January 27 in fighting around Bakhmut. Local officials in Khakassia confirmed his death on February 22, adding that he had been serving in the Wagner mercenary force at the time.
“The whole village already knows that he died,” a former classmate of Yumashev told RFE/RL.
“Now on February 25, the body should be brought to Arshanovo, where he will be buried. I heard that he was in prison, but I don’t even know why. For drugs? Anything can happen in life, but he was definitely not a drug addict,” said the former classmate, who requested that his name not be used.
Yumashev had been serving a prison sentence for drug dealing and had run up debts worth 75,000 rubles ($986).
On February 22, the same day that authorities in Khakassia confirmed Yumashev’s death, they also announced that three other local former inmates had died, apparently also as a result of fighting with Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine, including Vladimir Rakhmonov, and Viktor Fisher.
Fisher, a 30-year-old whose parents had died during childhood, had been incarcerated on several drug-related convictions.
“Yes, Vitka died there,” a friend of Fisher told RFE/RL, referring to him by a diminutive name.
“He was the type of guy who from childhood was in and out of jail and living here and there. But he was more or less harmless. I bet he was forced to go [to fight with Wagner in Ukraine], because it wasn’t like he was serving a 20-year prison sentence. Then, it would have been understandable.”
Rakhmonov had been sentenced to prison several times for robbery, the last time in July 2022, when he was found guilty of stealing 8,000 rubles ($105) and handed a 13-month prison sentence.
Before joining Wagner, Rakhmonov had been serving his sentence at a penal facility in Khakassia.
Another inmate from that same facility who also died recently fighting in Ukraine as a Wagner contractor was Aleksei Bazhin, who in 2017 was involved in a prison riot that resulted in the death of another inmate who died from injuries sustained in a brutal beating.
Authorities in Khakassia also confirmed that 45-year-old Aleksandr Nyudikov, another local resident and former prisoner, had recently died in Ukraine while fighting with Wagner recruits.
In January 2019, Nyudikov, then a major in the Russian military serving in the Arctic city of Murmansk, was sentenced to 10 1/2 years in prison by a military court after being convicted of stabbing his wife to death in a fit of intoxicated rage.
A relative of Nyudikov confirmed to RFE/RL that he had died while fighting in Ukraine.