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'They Don't Want To Cause Panic': As War In Ukraine Rages, Russians Begin Grieving Over Dead Soldiers

Lyudmila Khanygina was notified on February 25 of the death of her son in Ukraine.

OZYORNOYE, Russia -- The cemetery here is shrouded in snowdrifts and silence. Near the end of the central alley, a freshly dug grave draped in plastic sheeting opens out under a birch tree.

It is the grave of Maksim Khanygin, born and raised in this village west of the Volga River city of Saratov. But his body is not here -- and may not be laid to rest before Russia's war in Ukraine is over.

A conscript, Khanygin died in the early hours of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24 -- the day before his 22nd birthday.

"Everyone is asking, 'When? When? When?,'" Khanygin's grandmother Natalya told RFE/RL, referring to the funeral plans.

"But we don't know when. A military representative came and said they will not bring my grandson home until after the 'special operation' is finished," she said, the wording the Russian authorities use -- and are pressuring all Russians to use -- to refer to the unprovoked war that has killed thousands of soldiers and Ukrainian civilians. "They don't want to cause panic."

This is the grave of Maksim Khanygin, but his body is not here -- and may not be laid to rest before Russia's war in Ukraine is over.
This is the grave of Maksim Khanygin, but his body is not here -- and may not be laid to rest before Russia's war in Ukraine is over.

Over the past eight years or so, funerals of soldiers and mercenaries have drawn what for President Vladimir Putin's government is unwelcome attention to deaths in the wars in Syria and in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow claimed to have had no troops before the new invasion, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

Following the massive new escalation, with Russian forces targeting cities across much of Ukraine, the government said nothing about Russian casualties for days and then announced on March 2 that 498 Russian soldiers had been killed and 1,597 injured.

Ukrainian officials have said more than 9,000 Russian servicemen have been killed or wounded in the fighting. It is not possible to confirm these figures independently. The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a Russian-based open-source-monitoring group, has estimated Russia's war dead at about 700.

"But that doesn't mean the number isn't larger," CIT analyst Ruslan Leviyev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. "It might be 1,000 or even 2,000."

Ukraine has not given casualty figures for its own military, but its emergency service said on March 2 that more than 2,000 civilians had been killed since the invasion began.

Reports Of Deaths Arriving

Word of Khanygin's death came to his family in Ozyornoye on February 25, when the head of the regional military office called his mother, Lyudmila Khanygina, with the news.

"During the day on Friday, my youngest grandson, Fyodor, came running to me and shouted: 'Grandma, come quickly. Mama has fainted. Maksim is dead!,'" Natalya said.

Written notification came shortly afterward.

By the next day, the whole village had heard the news. They brought money and flowers, and hung wreathes around town. The director of the collective farm where Lyudmila works helped secure a burial plot and paid to erect a cross.

Reports of soldiers being killed have begun slowly accumulating in Russia.

Ilynur Sibratullin, a soldier from the city of Nizhnekamsk in Tatarstan, north of Saratov on the Volga, was killed in Ukraine on February 26. A plane carrying his body arrived in Tatarstan on March 2, and he was, in keeping with Muslim custom, buried the same day.

On March 3, a veterans' group reported the death in combat near the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol of Major General Andrei Sukhovetsky, one of Russia's most decorated and experienced combat officers.

The same day, the governor of the Novosibirsk region, Andrei Travnikov, confirmed the deaths of two unidentified soldiers from his region.

On March 2, local authorities said on Instagram that 31-year-old Ali Batyrov, a native of the settlement of Batazhnoye in the southwestern region of Astrakhan, was killed in Ukraine on February 28. He held the rank of major, had been wounded and decorated in Syria, was a battalion commander, and left behind a widow and children.

The same day, officials in the Selenginsky district of Buryatia reported the death in Ukraine of Lieutenant Ilya Semyonov, who was also a veteran of the war in Syria, where Russia has given government forces crucial military support since 2015.

The day before, Astrakhan region Governor Igor Babushkin confirmed the death in Ukraine of a local soldier named Arman Narynbayev.

Arman Narynbayev
Arman Narynbayev

Officials in the North Caucasus republics have also confirmed the deaths of about a dozen servicemen.

Galina Zinoviyeva lives in the village of Nizhny Ures, in Tatarstan. She hasn't heard from her serviceman son, 21-year-old Maksim, since January 28, when he reported that he had arrived in Belarus for exercises. He was due to return to his home base on February 20 -- the last scheduled day of the drills in Belarus, which lies north of Ukraine and has been a staging ground for the Russian invasion.

"We are in a state of uncertainty," she told RFE/RL's Idel.Realities. "Where is Maksim now? Why doesn't he call?"

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson, Idel.Realities, Siberia.Realities, and RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.
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    Anna Mukhina

    Anna Mukhina is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service.

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    Mark Krutov

    Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service and one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia's political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. Krutov joined RFE/RL in 2003 and has extensive experience as both a correspondent and a TV host.