UST-KIRAN, Russia -- A government truck bought the coffin of 31-year-old Stepan Oseyev the 500 meters from his family’s home to the House of Culture in this tiny village in Russia’s Far Eastern Buryatia region for a farewell service. The truck was followed by a military honor guard, a small orchestra, and the grieving wife, sister, and mother of the soldier, who was killed in combat in Ukraine on March 14.
The coffin was brought into a dim foyer and placed under a memorial to World War II dead with the slogan, “They Fought For Their Motherland.” A line of local and regional officials formed at the front of the room.
The Russian military hasn’t said, but Oseyev’s family believes he was killed near Makariv, in the Bucha district outside of Kyiv. It was the scene of intense fighting from March 9 until Ukraine declared the area retaken on March 22.
At the funeral ceremony on March 26, remarks from officials echoed the Russian government’s baseless narratives about the war, while comments from relatives underscored the plight of people growing up in regions where jobs, money, and opportunities are scarce.
“He was always loyal to his oath and fought against Nazi filth,” the House of Culture official who led the ceremony said, repeating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s false claims that Ukraine is run by fascists and that Russian forces there are rooting out neo-Nazis.
The administrative head of the Kyakhta district, Bimba Nimayev, made similar remarks.
“We are proud of our boys who are fulfilling their military duty with honor and virtue in Ukraine, on the fertile Ukrainian land, where, alas, Nazism has risen again,” he said.
Russian troops in Ukraine “are fighting for peaceful skies above our homes,” he said -- though while Putin has described the invasion of Ukraine as a forced measure to defend Russia, there was no threat of an attack from Ukraine or NATO as he amassed troops at the neighboring country’s border. Several other officials echoed such remarks, some of them drawing concerned murmurs from the audience when they mistakenly called Oseyev “Aleksandr.”
'The Only Way Out'
“For me, of course, Styopushka is the most beloved name, my term of endearment,” said Lidiya Oseyeva, Oseyev's mother and the director of the village school, using a diminutive version of her son’s name.
Although he enlisted in the army in 2014, Oseyev was never meant for a military life, his mother said.
“He had no choice,” she told RFE/RL. “I couldn’t give him a good education to open opportunities for him. Joining the army was the only way out for us. Styopa was a builder by nature. He wasn’t made for war. But he ended up having to fight.”
Oseyeva tried to avoid speaking about her former husband, Oseyev's father, saying only that “he lived badly” and that she worried constantly that he would “shame her.”
“His life ended badly,” she added.
In school, Oseyev stood out as a curious and hard-working student with a passion for volleyball that he maintained to the end of his life.
“He was such a good kid,” his school Russian teacher and coach, Pavel Tsydypylov, recalled.
In February 2021, at the age of 30, he married his wife, Veronika. Her mother also works at the village school and has been a lifelong friend of Oseyeva’s.
“It is very hard for Veronika now,” Oseyeva said.
Oseyev was based at a large military facility in the regional center of Kyakhta. He was able to combine his service with studies in economics and was nearly ready to take his final exams when he was sent to Ukraine.
A senior sergeant, he was a machine-gunner on an infantry fighting vehicle (BMP). In 2017, his crew took second place in an international military competition across the border in China, for which he won a car.
His unit was sent to the Ukrainian border shortly before the Russian invasion was launched on February 24.
“I cut myself off from everything,” his mother recalled of the early days of the war. “I didn’t want to hear the news. I didn’t watch television. I didn’t watch social media, TikTok. Nothing.”
'War Is Unfair'
On March 14, Oseyev telephoned his wife. She could barely recognize his voice, she said. He was upset, although he assured her that all was well.
Two days later, Oseyeva emerged from her office at school and saw her daughter, Olga, and Veronika standing in the corridor. Immediately she knew what it was about. She ran from the building, she said, not wanting the children to see her crying.
For the next 12 days, before Oseyev’s body arrived in Kyakhta, his mother held on to the hope that he could still be alive.
“Those were 12 torturous days,” she said. “Some officials said he was on the casualty list. Others said he wasn’t.”
She read in Ukrainian media that soldiers from his unit were in a hospital in Belarus.
When Oseyev’s body arrived, his mother went to identify him. He had been washed and shaved.
“I know that they were hungry there, so I expected that his hair would be gray and he’d be thin, a skeleton,” she said. “But he looked like he did when he was alive. So I went home, and I felt better. Finally, I could bury him.”
At the funeral service, the military handed Oseyeva her son’s posthumous Order of Courage. They said he had shot down a Ukrainian helicopter. That medal and his other decorations are now affixed to a small pillow on Oseyeva’s sofa.
In his remarks at the funeral, the military representative, Colonel Rustam Kinebayev, didn’t bother using the Kremlin’s preferred euphemism about a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
“War is unfair,” he said. “It takes the lives of the best. Stepan was one of the best -- in military studies, in military discipline. He was among the best in this war.”
Not Some 'Special Military Operation'
At least 112 soldiers from Buryatia have been officially reported killed since Russia launched the war in Ukraine in February, raising speculation that Moscow is relying on soldiers from poor, largely nonethnic-Russian regions to do a disproportionate share of the fighting.
WATCH: At least 112 soldiers from Russia's Buryatia region have been killed in Ukraine since February, according to the Free Buryatia Foundation. Current Time reports on some of those who have died and spoke to people in the region.
Many of them were sent to the combat zone from the Kyakhta base where Oseyev was serving. Locals say as many as 90 percent of the troops who were stationed there have been shipped out. The base is actively recruiting new enlistees. A local employment website has 941 advertisements for soldiers, as well as 200 openings for military drivers.
Oseyev’s coach, Tsydypylov, said that “half of Stepan’s class” was in the military and most of them had been sent to Ukraine.
“Kolodin, Badatarov, Paderin, Tretyakov, Chernoyarov, the Tsyrempilov brothers,” he said, listing their names.
A second memorial service for Oseyev was held at the Kyakhta base. Oseyeva found herself sitting at a table together with the young wives of men fighting in Ukraine.
“There are no plants, no factories, in Kyakhta,” Tsydypylov said. “So the young people mostly enlist in order to make some money and feed their families. They think they’ll just live and work and there won’t be any war. And then this happens.”
Tsydypylov was quick to add that he felt that Putin made the right decision to send troops into Ukraine.
“They have been beating us and abusing us for 30 years,” he said, without specifying who “they” are but echoing another government narrative: that Putin and Russia are finally standing up to the West, three decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse. “Everywhere we are shunted aside.”
A soldier from Oseyev’s base who asked not to be identified and whose brother is currently in Ukraine said he was ready to deploy as well if orders came.
“The whole country has understood that this is a war,” he said. “It is not some ‘special military operation.’ People are dying -- soldiers on both sides. Civilians are suffering.”
Asked what the war was about, the soldier replied with an answer that echoed arguments heard on pro-Kremlin media: “I guess it is against fascism…. Our grandfathers fought against fascism. Now it turns out that fascism isn’t dead.”
For her part, Lidia Oseyeva agrees that the “special military operation” must be completed.
“If we stop now, what has it been for?” she said. “A comrade of Stepan’s said that they were sent there under false pretenses. They weren’t psychologically or morally prepared. But now it is clear what we are fighting for…. They have learned how to fight.”
Oseyev was buried at the Ust-Kiran cemetery, a few steps away from the wooden village church. He was buried in his military dress uniform. But the photograph on his tombstone shows a young man in a suit and tie.
“I wanted to see my son in civilian clothes, because that was the time when he was happy,” the soldier’s mother said.