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The Long Farewell Of Russia's First Casualty In Syria

Russian servicemen carry the coffin of Vadim Kostenko at his funeral in the village of Grechnaya Balka on October 28.
Russian servicemen carry the coffin of Vadim Kostenko at his funeral in the village of Grechnaya Balka on October 28.

GRECHANAYA BALKA, Russia -- People began gathering outside the blue and brown house at the end of Sovetskaya Street early in the morning. By the time Vadim Kostenko's open coffin was carried out into the chilly autumn day, there were about 400 people to fall into the procession behind him and follow him down to the cemetery.

Kostenko, 19, was buried in his home village in Russia's Kuban region, about 65 kilometers northwest of Krasnodar, on October 28 -- the first Russian serviceman confirmed to have died while serving in Syria. The Russian military says Kostenko hanged himself, distraught over a rocky relationship with a young woman. His family, though, is not so sure.

"At first, they didn't tell us anything, no details," says Vadim's uncle, Igor. "Then all these lies began appearing that he hanged himself because of some SMSs from a girl. But he didn't have any particular girlfriend. Look at what a good-looking guy he was -- he had lots of girls, like all boys his age."

In the coffin, Vadim is smartly dressed in his light blue uniform. His cap is neatly placed on the cushion beside his head. His collar is buttoned tight and pulled high, but it is still possible to tell that he has a broken neck.

His mother, 40-year-old Svetlana, weeps inconsolably beside the casket as mourners file past. His father, 42-year-old Aleksandr, and sister, 14-year-old Yekaterina, accept condolences from well-wishers at the door.

"Look how many people Vadik gathered together," one woman says, using a nickname for Vadim. "They are coming from the whole region."

'He Didn't Know How To Say No'

Vadim was born in 1996 and attended the village school where his mother still teaches. He was a good student who loved playing soccer.

"He didn't drink. He didn't smoke. He was a great guy," says Valery, who knew Vadim from childhood.

Vadim Kostenko "really liked" being in the air force.
Vadim Kostenko "really liked" being in the air force.

"He was always ready to help. Didn't know how to say 'no,' says Vera, a doctor from a neighboring village who has long been a friend of the Kostenko family. "If we were planting potatoes or needed help loading them into the car to take to the market, we could call him and he'd always help. Or if your motorcycle broke down, he was there."

Vadim signed up for the air force as soon as he finished school in 2014. He loved the service and wrote about his experiences frequently on social media. Every man should serve in the military, he said.

When his contract finished in 2015, he briefly returned to Grechanaya Balka, but in June he signed up again.

"For one thing, he really liked it," Vadim's uncle Igor says. "For another, what else is there to do here? There are no jobs and all the young people are leaving. His mother is a teacher and his father is a mechanic."

For two months, Vadim worked at a base near his home, in Krasnodar Krai. He was paid 18,000 rubles ($280) a month, plus housing. But on September 14, he was told he'd be shipping out to Syria.

"He didn't particularly want to go," Igor says. "But he said if he refused, they would kick him out of the service." He'd already planned to apply to flight school.

Saying goodbye to his family, Vadim left first for Krymsk and then on to Syria.

'This Man Couldn't Have Hanged Himself'

On the evening of October 24, someone from the Defense Ministry called the Kostenko home and said someone would be stopping by later that day. At 10:30 p.m., a delegation came and told Svetlana and Aleksandr that their son was dead.

From the beginning, Vadim's relatives refused to believe he had committed suicide. His parents had spoken to him earlier that very day -- he had sounded fine and didn't complain about anything.

"In general, he called every day and wrote via the Internet," Igor says. "He didn't have any problems there. He was friends with everyone. Guys from his unit used to come to the house to visit. He said his officers were good."

The coffin was delivered on October 27. Vadim's sister told Reuters there were signs of rope marks around the neck, but Igor adds that when they moved the body to its final coffin, other injuries were clear.

"His jaw was completely dislocated," Igor says, "and there was a hole in the back of his head. His neck was broken and his knees were scraped up. But his ribs and his arms and legs were fine."

"They put makeup all over him before he came back and they reset his jaw so that you couldn't tell immediately," he continues. "But if you looked carefully, it was obvious that this man couldn't have hanged himself."

Igor says the family ordered an independent medical examination, which was carried out on the evening of October 27 and the following morning. The conclusions aren't in yet. Vadim's father declined to confirm or deny this information, telling RFE/RL that he was waiting for the official military report.

WATCH: Russian Soldier's Friends React To Suicide Claims

Russian Soldier's Friends React To Suicide Claims
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0:00 0:01:39 0:00

On the day of the burial, representatives of the Defense Ministry were always near the coffin. "That man in dark glasses has been constantly leaning on Sasha [Vadim's father]," Igor says, pointing to a bald man in civilian clothes standing with a couple other men.

"Have you ever served in the army?" one of the men -- who declined to identify himself -- asked when questioned about Vadim's family's doubts. "No? Well, if you had served, you'd know not to ask such questions. And do you have children? No? If you did, you'd understand that parents aren't in a position to judge such things and will never believe that their child could kill himself," he continued.

"We live in a law-based state. We have the conclusions of the medical examiner, so why not believe them? He would be criminally responsible and could end up in prison if he wrote something that wasn't true."

A colonel who was standing nearby refused even to say hello. "That's understandable," Igor says. "He doesn't want to lie and he can't tell the truth."

A Whole Life Traversed By A Single Street

First they brought the coffin lid out of the house and then the coffin itself. The mourners formed into a long, loose procession, following a metal cross that was carried down Sovetskaya Street. In the distance, the endless rolling countryside of the Kuban rose and fell in every direction, dotted with autumn-yellow birch trees.

Small towels hung from the cross. It is a local custom here to tie on such a towel and then collect it later from the graveside as a memory of the deceased.

"If you have a headache, you just bind it up with such a towel or kerchief and it will go away," one woman explains.

Her husband cautions her not to say such things to journalists. "They are just going to write that we are completely uneducated here," he says.

WATCH: Relatives attended the funeral of Vadim Kostenko, a Russian soldier who died in Syria four days earlier in what military authorities say was a suicide.

Funeral Held For Russian Soldier Who Died In Syria
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The long column passes from one end of Sovetskaya Street to the other. It passes the school where Vadim studied. It passes the memorial to local residents who gave their lives in World War II. It passes by the village club where Vadim used to dance with his friends. At the edge of the village, the procession turns into the cemetery. Vadim's whole life traversed by a single street.

The grave is piled high with flowers and wreaths. The cemetery is full of mourners -- many of them unable to get anywhere near Vadim's grave. The women are weeping.

As the soldiers lower Vadim's coffin into the ground, a honor guard fires a salute. The entire crowd startles from the sharp report. A second is fired, and a third.

A cloud of grief covers Grechanaya Balka. The village mourns for Vadim and for their own sons. "This is just like the funeral of my nephew," a woman in a beret says.

"They brought him back from Chechnya -- I don't even remember which war it was," she says, referring to two post-Soviet separatist conflicts that killed many thousands of Russian soldiers. "They didn't even let us open the coffin."

An elderly woman in a puffy red coat joins the conversation. "I have a nephew in Syria myself," she says. "He only has two months left in his contract. We are so afraid for him."

Robert Coalson contributed to this story
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    Sergei Khazov-Cassia

    Sergei Khazov-Cassia is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker who has focused his reporting on embezzlement and corruption in Russia's political elite.

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