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'I Didn't Know He Was Dead': Hundreds Of Wagner Mercenaries Have Been Quietly Buried In An Isolated Russian Cemetery

Journalists reported 607 graves of Wagner fighters in a cemetery in the southern Krasnodar region.
Journalists reported 607 graves of Wagner fighters in a cemetery in the southern Krasnodar region.

"I didn't know he was dead," said Nadezhda Skaleyush after learning that her father's grave had been found in a cemetery for Russian mercenaries killed in Ukraine. "But the date on the grave is his."

Skaleyush had no idea that her estranged father, 40-year-old Aleksandr Skaleyush, had been recruited from prison by the Kremlin-connected Wagner mercenary group. Asked if it sounded like something he would do, she said, "Most likely, yes."

RFE/RL's Idel.Realities found Skaleyush's grave among about 200 others in a cemetery in Nikolayevka, a village whose population was recorded in the 2010 census as 522. About 25 kilometers southeast of the Volga River city of Samara, the village sits on a highway but is not served by public transportation. By car from Samara, it takes at least half an hour to get there.

In mid-April, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin made the trip to Nikolayevka to unveil a monument to the mercenaries interred at the cemetery. "Here are buried fighters of the Wagner private security company who died for their country in 2022-23," reads the inscription on the obelisk.

Although no journalists were invited to the ceremony, Wagner issued a video in which Prigozhin gave a short speech over the howl of a constant wind, saying "our descendants will remember their glory for centuries."

WATCH: After being recruited from prisons to fight in the war in Ukraine, some mercenaries from the private Wagner Group are accused of having committed violent crimes in Russia, including murder.

Returning Wagner Mercenaries Accused Of Rash Of Violent Crimes
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Moscow has not released reliable or up-to-date figures on its losses in Ukraine, where a devastating war continues more than 14 months after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale invasion in February 2022. The United States estimates that about 10,000 Wagner mercenaries have been killed in the past five months alone, most of them convicts killed in the intense fighting in and around the Donetsk region city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin himself has described the trench warfare there as a "meat grinder" and has complained that his forces have been ill-supplied for the fighting. The Ukrainian military has said Wagner's tactics seem to amount to little more than throwing large numbers of troops into battle against hardened positions.

Journalists have discovered seven Wagner cemeteries, six in Russia and one in the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine's Luhansk region.

In early April, journalists discovered at least 69 Wagner graves in a Novosibirsk cemetery. A plot in a cemetery in Irkutsk has been set aside for Wagner burials, with at least 11 graves already there as of mid-April. In March, nearly 70 Wagner graves were found in a village outside of Yekaterinburg. Journalists reported in April that the number had grown to 106. Twenty-two Wagner graves were found in a cemetery near the Moscow region settlement of Fryanovo, many of them belonging to citizens of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the BBC reported, adding that there appeared to be a large area set aside for additional burials.

In early April, journalists reported 607 Wagner graves in the Krasnodar region village of Bakinskaya.

About 100 Wagner graves have been reported at a cemetery in the occupied Ukrainian city of Luhansk.

Although Wagner insists the men died as heroes, the company seems to take pains to put the graves in remote locations and bury its dead without fanfare. By researching the social-media pages of some of the men buried at the cemetery, RFE/RL was able to contact some of their relatives and to learn more about the path they followed to the trenches in Ukraine.

'I Don't Know What To Tell You'

According to court records, Aleksandr Skaleyush, a resident of the southern city of Orenburg, stopped a passerby in June 2020 and stole his mobile phone. He later sold the phone to a taxi driver for 1,200 rubles ($15). It took police almost a year to find and arrest him.

In court, Skaleyush reportedly confessed and repented. On June 30, 2022, the court found him guilty and -- taking into consideration an earlier conviction on robbery and theft charges -- sentenced him to one year in prison.

"None of our relatives wanted to be in contact with him," his daughter told RFE/RL. "He was constantly in trouble with the law. Constantly drunk. I don't know what to tell you. He didn't work. Drank a lot. He disappeared in 2020 and that is all I know."

Skaleyush's social-media pages were active until March 2022. On August 25, his appeal was rejected. According to his grave marker, he was killed in Ukraine on November 19, 2022.

Aleksandr Skaleyush
Aleksandr Skaleyush

After speaking with RFE/RL, Nadezhda Skaleyush contacted Wagner seeking information about her father. She says the Wagner representative sarcastically told her to get a death certificate "from the journalist who told her" that her father was dead. Later, another Wagner representative confirmed that her father was dead and promised to send his effects to her.

Three Weeks At War

The Nikolayevka grave of Mikhail Skripkin is one of the few in the cemetery that bears a photograph. The Orthodox cross is decorated with an oval photo of Skripkin in military uniform from his time in the Russian Army after he graduated from high school. When he was killed on October 27, 2022, he was 32 years old.

"Yes, that is my brother," Dmitry Skripkin told RFE/RL after being shown a photograph of the grave. "I didn't know he was dead."

Although Dmitry Skripkin was unwilling to speak about the matter further, his wife, Yekaterina Koltunova, agreed to be interviewed. "We knew that he had gone to the war on October 1," she said. "He had already passed the midway point in his sentence, but they told him that if he served [as a soldier] for six months, he'd be released."

She added that the fact that he was killed in combat just three weeks later indicates how poorly the Wagner mercenaries are prepared.

Mikhail Skripkin in 2013
Mikhail Skripkin in 2013

Koltunova said that Skripkin had been encouraged to volunteer by an actively pro-war aunt who, she supposes, had supplied the photograph for the grave marker. "She told him that all the guys are coming back from there and that the money was good," Koltunova said. "So, he signed up."

In July 2016, when he was 25, Skripkin picked up a sealed package containing three mobile phones. He later testified in court that he had no idea there were also 14 grams of heroin in the bag, which was wrapped with duct tape.

He took a taxi to the building of Correctional Facility No. 6 in Samara. He was detained outside the prison wall, with prison guards saying he intended to throw the package over the wall to prisoners inside. He was reportedly heavily drunk at the time.

Skripkin testified in court that a friend serving time in the prison had called him and asked him to help smuggle the telephones in exchange for money. He denied any knowledge of the drugs.

Nonetheless, a Samara court convicted him on October 31, 2016, of attempted large-scale drug smuggling and sentenced him to 10 years and one month in prison. The judge took into account the fact that when Skripkin committed the crime, he was just five days into a two-year suspended sentence for theft.

"Misha really wanted to serve in the army," Koltunova said, "to show everyone he was tough. He had earlier been in the army in Lipetsk. He came back normal enough. He was very kind and generous. He didn't have a family of his own. A good boy. I don't know what else to say. He planned to return to the army -- they'd promised to give him an apartment. But then he stupidly ended up in prison."

Koltunova later told RFE/RL that she and her husband were in contact with Wagner in an effort to confirm her brother-in-law's death and secure a death certificate.

'Federal Burial Districts'

Sergei Podsytnik is the editor in chief of the local news website Protokol.Samara. He told RFE/RL that he first heard about the Wagner graves at Nikolayevka in early April.

"We discovered that many of the graves contained convicts from, for instance, Tatarstan or the Orenburg region," he said, describing the Samara region cemetery as a "hub." "Apparently there is some sort of territorial principle -- some sort of new federal burial districts."

He says his research indicated that most of the graves were those of men who had few or no contacts with relatives and who had expressed a desire to be interred with their Wagner comrades.

"These are mercenaries who didn't leave any contact information," he said. "Or the contacts they left were ignored by the Wagner representatives. As a rule, there is one representative per region, and they are supposed to be responsible for reporting the deaths, issuing the documents, and making payments. I don't know why they often don't do this. We have followed online discussion groups of Wagner relatives and they often talk about this topic."

Podsytnik also observes that Wagner takes pains to conceal its losses, picking hard-to-reach locations and conducting low-key burials. "For those of us who are against the war, the losses are obvious," he explained. "But for supporters of the so-called 'special military operation,' the enormous number of crosses could come as a surprise.

'No One Would Come To Get Him'

Another Wagner grave in Nikolayevka bears the name Yury Zhartsev. Through his social-media pages, RFE/RL learned he was a native of Ufa, the capital of the Bashkortostan region. He was 44 years old when he was killed in Ukraine on January 18, 2023.

"My Yurka had a modest biography," said his ex-wife, Oksana Zemlyanskaya. "He came from a large family, was the seventh child. I used to be friends with his sister, and I knew him since I was a child. But when he was 15, he fell into bad company and his life went out of control. After he went to prison, all his relatives disowned him."

He had many convictions, Zemlyanskaya says, including robbery and assault.

Yury Zhartsev
Yury Zhartsev

On July 29, 2021, an Ufa court sentenced Zhartsev to 12 1/2 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter for beating to death an acquaintance the previous March. Zhartsev pleaded guilty but said he had not intended to kill the man. A prosecution witness at the trial said he had known Zhartsev for 30 years and that he "was feared across the whole region."

Zemlyanskaya says Zhartsev did not tell her he was going to Ukraine, adding that was not surprising because they had long been divorced.

She says she would not be surprised to find out that he had requested to be buried in a Wagner cemetery in the Samara region rather than being sent back to Ufa.

"He knew that no one would come to get him," she said, adding that she would make an effort to visit his grave in Nikolayevka.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Russia by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities

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