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Hunting For Artyom: One Russian Family's Search For A Soldier's Body

Since finding out about his death in late May, Nadezhda and Polina -- Artyom's widow, who married him in July 2022 -- have been searching for his body.
Since finding out about his death in late May, Nadezhda and Polina -- Artyom's widow, who married him in July 2022 -- have been searching for his body.

It was the evening of May 23 when Nadezhda first heard rumors in her village in northern Russia that her 23-year-old son-in-law, Artyom Ponomaryov, had been killed fighting in neighboring Ukraine. By the next morning, his death was confirmed.

According to the information that she was given at the local military registration and enlistment office, he was killed on May 14 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has been the site of some of the fiercest battles since Moscow's full-scale invasion in February 2022.

But while the news of Artyom's fate trickled back to Shipitsyno, their village of roughly 3,500 people in Russia's Arkhangelsk region, his loved ones have still not received his body back from the front and been able to bury him.

Since finding out about his death in late May, Nadezhda and Polina -- Artyom's widow, who married him in July 2022 -- have been searching for his body, relying on family and friend connections, as well as visits to morgues across the country, to try and find out what happened to the young soldier.

"Many people from our village were [given a summons] to go to Ukraine. We weren't the only girls and mothers to see someone off the day Artyom shipped out," Nadezhda told North.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

In the months since learning of Artyom's death, Nadezhda says that she's discovered that his body has been moved from Bakhmut and is likely in one of three large morgues set up for deceased soldiers in western Russia and Russian-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine.

Through the help of a lawyer, she's also learned that Artyom is officially listed as missing, not deceased, which the attorney says could mean that the body has been lost. Until Artyom can be identified, Nadezhda and Polina will be unable to bury him or claim any of the financial compensation given by the Russian state to families.

"I'm not doing what I'm doing because of money. This isn't about payment," Nadezhda said. "The most important thing for me now is to find Artyom and know that he isn't rotting somewhere."

The Search For Artyom

The search for Artyom's body is one example among many of Russian soldiers or those fighting with the now disbanded Wagner mercenary group who were killed in Ukraine and not had their bodies returned to their families.

In other cases, grinding battles in eastern Ukraine, such as in Soledar and Bakhmut, where Artyom was killed, have left many bodies difficult to identify, leading to a massive backlog in being able to deliver them for funerals and in their families receiving financial compensation.

The exact number of casualties from the war is unknown, but U.S. officials said in August that Russia's military casualties were approaching 300,000, of which as many as 120,000 are deaths and up to 180,000 are injuries. The same U.S. officials estimate that close to 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 100,000 to 120,000 have been wounded in less than two years of fighting.

These growing casualty figures have led the Kremlin's war machine to continue the search for new recruits. In September 2022, it was announced that 300,000 reservists -- billed as a "partial" mobilization -- would be called up, which sparked panic and led to tens of thousands fleeing Russia rather than report to recruiting stations.

Since then, the Russian government has looked to entice men to enlist with benefits and cash bonuses, as well as through a widespread push to issue summons to Russians with past military experience. Russian President Vladimir Putin also signed a bill into law on August 4 that raises the maximum age for mandatory one-year military service for men from 27 to 30, a move believed to lay the groundwork for a potential general mobilization in the future.

Artyom, like many young men from his village, did his mandatory military service out of high school and served in the Russian Army. But he left the service early and returned home. Artyom's father had left his family when he was a teenager and he grew distant from his mother. When he started dating Polina, she says that Nadezhda became like a second mom to him.

The 23-year-old soon received a summons to report to the local recruitment center shortly after the September 2022 mobilization order was announced and he was promptly sent to eastern Ukraine.

Artyom and Polina
Artyom and Polina

Little is known about his exact duties there, but Polina and Nadezhda say that Artyom mostly described having to dig ditches rather than be on the front line in Bakhmut.

Since they learned of his death, the pair have been hunting for information and often joined forces with other families from their home village who are also trying to locate their loved ones' bodies.

It's through this string of Telegram chat groups, family connections, and friends who work as doctors and nurses at hospitals and morgues, that Polina and Nadezhda have been able to shed some light on where Artyom's body might be.

Through that research, they learned that Artyom's body had been moved to a morgue in Luhansk, a city in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists. From there, they learned that Artyom was supposed to be moved to a military morgue in Rostov-on-Don in southwestern Russia.

Nadezhda says that she spoke with an employee at the Rostov morgue, who was unable to locate Artyom, but did manage to find the body of another soldier from Shipitsyno who was killed on the same date and location as Artyom and he's since been returned to his family and buried.

When Nadezhda presented all her findings to the military registration and enlistment office, she says they "shrugged their shoulders." Frustrated by their lack of assistance, she says that she also went to the local prosecutor's office and filed a statement, but was not encouraged by their response.

"They said 'how do you know all this?' and then that's been all," Nadezhda said. "They say they're working on it, but as far as I understand, they aren't doing anything."

'They Told You To Wait, So Wait'

Nadezhda believes that if someone from Artyom's same unit that was killed at the same time as him on the battlefield was found in Rostov, then his body must also be there.

She says she took note of criticism over the last year leveled at the Russian military by Yevgeny Prigozhin -- the now deceased former Wagner boss who launched a short-lived rebellion in June -- where he said thousands of bodies lay in the Rostov morgue and were not being sent back to relatives because the authorities wanted to hide the scale of their battlefield losses.

Through the help of an attorney, the family has also learned that they have the right to a DNA test, which they pushed to be done at the Rostov morgue. But Nadezhda says the test was carried out incorrectly, noting that she learned that it was sent from the morgue in a paper envelope by regular delivery that cannot be tracked. The family has not learned the outcome of the test or if the results were even shared correctly.

The attorney has filed a legal request on behalf of the family to the military commissariat of the Arkhangelsk region. Polina and Nadezhda were told that they would receive a timely reply once the letter was received, but it arrived on July 20 and there has been no response.

Nadezhda says that she has tried to follow up, but the military registration and enlistment office was not helpful.

"They said rudely: 'They told you to wait, so wait.'"

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