It was late December 2021 when Igor Ivkin, a 19-year-old contract soldier from Pskov, a city in northwestern Russia, was sent to the Ukrainian border as part of a massive military buildup ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But after spending more than a month posted with his unit along the border in winter conditions, Ivkin received some good news on February 7: His 23-year-old wife, Yulia Ivkina, had given birth to their daughter, Ksenia.
As Yulia told RFE/RL's North.Realities, Ivkin was allowed four days of home leave from the front to meet his daughter. He then returned to the border and fought as part of Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, until he was killed on March 8.
“Happiness lasted four days,” Yulia said. “He would have been a wonderful dad. He gave me a rest at night and would rock her to sleep and change diapers. He called me his queen and our daughter his princess.”
Buried on March 30 in the village of Vorontsovo, not far from Pskov, Ivkin is now one of thousands of Russian soldiers believed to have been killed fighting in Ukraine, and Yulia is one of the many young war widows in Russia left to grieve and deal with the aftermath of a conflict whose aftershocks are only beginning to be felt inside the country.
“The last time he called, he talked about how scary it is there, how scary it is when his fellow soldiers die…. I don’t know exactly how many died. They were under fire all the time,” Yulia said. “He had not been to any hot spots before, so, of course, he was scared, but he didn’t want to tell me that. He said that he would do everything to survive. The main thing is to return home.”
According to Yulia, Ivkin was attracted to military life and signed on as a professional contract soldier because he believed in service to his country, saying to her that “if you didn’t serve, then you’re not a man.”
With his young family in mind, he was also attracted to the stability and benefits that the army offered on paper and planned to save money and own property. Ivkin didn’t come from a military family and, along with his brother and two sisters, helped to support his widowed mother who lived in a nearby village and picked up shifts at a local factory.
But his wife says that he soon became disillusioned with the military, especially after he was sent to the 25th Brigade based in Luga, a city close to St. Petersburg.
“Igor did not like it very much. The equipment was broken and old,” Yulia said. “No one prepared them for war there.”
Frustrated with what he called a lack of discipline, he soon began to speak to his wife about leaving the military and plan for when his contract would expire and how he could rejoin civilian life.
“We saw each other only on weekends when he came home to Pskov,” Yulia said. “But when he came home, he always cursed a lot, saying how tired he was of everything there.”
He had a growing list of grievances -- from not receiving enough food at the mess hall to dealing with drunk or high soldiers in the barracks.
“[Igor] was annoyed by the usual army sloppiness. He said that in the unit everyone liked to drink and many guys were on drugs, which were not at all difficult to get,” Yulia added. “He said that all the exercises basically boiled down to digging trenches and building toilets.”
An Escalating War
The fighting in Ukraine shows no signs of stopping as the Russian military is preparing to launch a new offensive in the east of the country that Ukrainian and Western officials warn could be the most intense yet for the nearly 2-month-old war.
Exact casualty figures for the conflict are elusive. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry claims to have killed more than 20,000 Russian troops, while Russian figures have been issued sparingly and are believed to be severely undercounting losses, with the government saying that 1,351 troops have died so far in the fighting.
NATO estimates, meanwhile, show that Russia has lost between 7,000 to 15,000 soldiers.
But Russian officials have also indirectly acknowledged the significant casualties they have suffered in Ukraine, with the country’s Federal Security Service (FSB) recently asking the government to increase its budget for funeral services for soldiers and for tombstones.
As a young widow with a 2-month old child, Yulia will also be entitled to payment from the government, although she says that she has low expectations for what she will receive.
“There will be payments, but this won’t be much,” she said. “It would be better if I could have my husband back. No money would be needed.”