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A Russian Father Left His Family Decades Ago. Now He Wants Half His Dead Son's Ukraine War Compensation.

Natalya Olenikova and her son Bogdan, who died fighting in Ukraine.
Natalya Olenikova and her son Bogdan, who died fighting in Ukraine.

Natalya Olenikova says her marriage to Yegeny Fotin was troubled from the start.

The couple wed in 1996, after Olenikova became pregnant, and Fotin soon ran the family like a stingy accountant, scrutinizing the food she bought for the baby, she says.

By 1999, three rocky years after she gave birth to their son Bogdan and in the midst of a severe economic recession caused by Russia's debt default, Fotin had left.

He took the family refrigerator and furniture, leaving Olenikova initially to raise their son by herself in an apartment that consisted of little more than four bare walls, she says.

Fotin was rarely heard from over the next 23 years -- until Bogdan died while fighting in Ukraine this summer at age 26, opening the door for him to collect substantial state compensation as the biological father, she says.

Olenikova is now fighting in court to prevent Fotin from receiving as much as 6 million rubles ($99,000), an amount 10 times the annual salary in Khakasia, a region near the Mongolian border that is one of the poorest in Russia.

"He did not buy a single chocolate bar for his son over the years...did not give him a single gift, did not meet with him once. And he never acknowledged Bogdan as his son," Olenikova told RFE/RL.

"And then Bogdan died" and that acknowledgement followed quickly afterward, she said.

Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine since President Vladimir Putin launched the unprovoked invasion in February, according to Kyiv and Western intelligence agencies.

Fotin's quest for a big chunk of the compensation is not unique: Among other strains in Russian society, the war is shedding light on the problem of absentee fathers and widening rifts in families that have already fallen apart.

Nearly one-fifth of Russian children are raised by single mothers, with fathers in many of those cases refusing to pay alimony in full or at all and taking no part in the upbringing of their child.

Russia has promised compensation of at least 12 million rubles ($200,000) to families of soldiers killed in what the government calls the "special military operation" in Ukraine.

For the vast majority of Russians, that is a very large sum -- and in some cases it is fueling fights over compensation payments as the bodies of the dead return home, particularly when the soldier killed has been raised by a single parent.

'A Normal Practice'

Many of the soldiers fighting in Ukraine today were born in the 1990s, when the breakdown of the two-parent family in Russia accelerated amid severe economic hardship following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"This is generally a normal practice in Russia, when the father appears and takes the money," said Olenikova, adding that an acquaintance just won a similar fight against her ex-husband.

As the Russian death toll rises, more stores of disputes between parents emerge.

Olesya Badrtdinova, 42, who raised three boys mostly by herself in the Transbaikal region in Russia's Far East, is fighting to prevent her ex-husband -- who has another family -- from receiving millions of rubles in compensation for the death of their 21-year-old son, Vladislav.

In the Volgograd region in the south, Marina Gorbunova is suing to prevent her ex-husband from receiving compensation for the death of their 28-year-old son, Sergei Semyonov. Gorbunova described her ex-husband as an alcoholic who had taken no part in their son's life since he was 5 years old.

At the request of a mother, a court in Saratov in Russia's Volga region ruled a biological father was not entitled to receive compensation for the death of their son after she proved that he had not helped raise him or paid alimony.

Gorbunova and Olenikova also said that their ex-husbands did not pay alimony.

Critics say that Russian authorities do not hold fathers accountable for supporting their children, and women are often hesitant to turn to a legal system widely seen as corrupt for help in obtaining child support. Even if they win in court, there is no strong mechanism to ensure enforcement and many men hide their full income.

Some single Russian mothers who had not been receiving support from their ex-husbands saw a silver lining in Putin's September 21 announcement of a mobilization under which the state says more than 200,000 men have been drafted into service.

They began informing recruitment centers about the whereabouts of their ex-husbands.

The Defense Ministry announced on October 31 that mobilization had ended, though many experts say the Kremlin could again resort to a draft as the war carries on.

Dead To Me

The government has promised to pay mobilized men around 200,000 rubles ($3,300) a month, roughly triple the average wage in Russia. Because the payments are official, ex-wives can legally demand their share as alimony or child support.

Yekaterina Kotova told RFE/RL that she sent the contact information of her ex-husband to enlistment officers because she, like other women, believes they will be "faster than court bailiffs" at securing alimony.

If their ex-husbands were killed, they and their children would be entitled to millions of rubles.

"For me, my ex-husband as a person died a long time ago," Lilia Sergeyeva, who also handed over information about her husband to enlistment officials, told RFE/RL. "If he is sent to fight and he does not survive, I will receive official confirmation that he does not exist and, accordingly, all payments due to the heirs."

Olenikova and Gorbunova said they were not after the money that that their ex-husbands are seeking following the deaths of their sons, but would be happy for it to go to charity.

Olenikova buried her son as Bogdan Khoryushin, using the last name of her second husband of 19 years, who helped raise him.
Olenikova buried her son as Bogdan Khoryushin, using the last name of her second husband of 19 years, who helped raise him.

Olenikova says she only decided to sue Fotin after he tried to claim Bogdan's car as his inheritance. "That was the last straw for me. He doesn't need a car, he'll sell it. For me, the car is the only remaining memory of my son," she said.

Gennady Korovin, Fotin's lawyer, declined to comment when reached by RFE/RL. Olenikova says that Fotin has refrained from appearing in court, claiming he is "embarrassed" by his own behavior.

Olenikova buried her son as Bogdan Khoryushin, using the last name of her second husband of 19 years, who helped raise him.

"My son never wanted to bear this surname -- Fotin. He hated his father with a fierce hatred," she said.

Written by Todd Prince based on reporting by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities