SHAKUNYA, Russia -- The Soviet-era administration building dominates the snowbound main square of this remote district town of around 20,000 people.
There's a post office and, a little farther along, a train station. The private sector is huddled on the other side of the platforms.
Cameraman Andrei Kostyanov and I have come here to the northeastern corner of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, near the border with Kirov Oblast, following clues we found on the Odnoklassniki social-media site and in phone directories.
Our mission is to find the mother of 26-year-old Aleksei Shikhov, who was believed killed on February 7 along with an untold number of other Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria.
We are hoping to record an interview with his mother, to ask her why and how he ended up in Syria, whether she had been told when she would receive her son's body, whether she had been promised any compensation even though he clearly was fighting as a mercenary for a commercial military company.
We approach a cozy wooden house with a tractor parked in the yard and an SUV outside the gate. A sign warns, "Beware of the dog."
But we're in luck. There are quite a few Shikhovs in Shakunya, but we've hit on the right one on the first try. True, it's not his mother's house; but it's the house of his father's sister, Galina.
Galina is at work, but her husband tells us that they heard the news about Aleksei from their son, who is a bureaucrat in Moscow. He read the reports on the Internet. They don't know anything about a funeral, and no one has called them officially.
'He Did Everything Secretly'
They haven't been in touch with Aleksei in a long time. In general, they had little contact after Aleksei's parents divorced 20 years back. Aleksei lived in Nizhny Novgorod with his mother. His father, Galina's brother, lives about 20 kilometers outside of Shakunya.
Galina's son in Moscow tried to get more information about his cousin but came up empty-handed.
"He did everything secretly," Aleksei's uncle says.
"Once he disappeared and then turned up in the Donbas," he adds, referring to the region in eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed separatists are fighting government forces. "Then he disappeared again, and now they're writing he popped up in Syria."
Shikhov's name turned up on a list compiled by the Conflict Intelligence Team, which found him mentioned in a social-media post by the Museum of Donbas Military Glory in St. Petersburg. The staff of the "museum" posted their condolences about the death of Cadet, which was Shikhov's nom de guerre. The post has since been deleted, but screenshots are easily found. So far, though, that post is the only information about his fate.
We eventually find Galina at work in an office in a Shakunya industrial zone. The furniture is Soviet, the wooden floors creak loudly. There are campaign posters supporting Communist Party presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin. There's a portrait of Josef Stalin on the table.
Galina is not talkative. She asks us not to bother Aleksei's parents, particularly since they still believe he's alive.
"You read such crap these days," says his aunt. "All the photographs are from the Donbas. Today I was on Yandex and saw that all the wounded had already been brought to Russia. We don't think that he died. You aren't going to write the same thing about 'condolences' that everyone on the Internet is writing, are you?"
No, we tell her. It's too early for condolences and, true enough, Aleksei could still be alive.
'A Proper Guy'
We wait for Aleksei's father, Vasily Shikhov, outside the office of the Novy Put collective farm in the village of Krasnogor. He's a veterinarian, and the woman in the office tells us he's "out in the forest." The village is built on a hill -- all around, sunlight pours down over the white fields. Blinding light reflects off the powerlines, the roofs, and a damp bas-relief of Vladimir Lenin that watches over the settlement from the wall of the collective-farm office.
Shikhov soon shows up -- a big man with calloused, worker's hands and a friendly smile. He tells us that he didn't have much contact with his son. Aleksei visited last fall and showed him photographs from the Donbas, told him a little bit about what he did there. Not much about fighting but about the museum, Vasily says.
The RBC news agency, in its report about Shikhov, quoted a friend as saying he started out as a volunteer in the Novorossia Museum. But later (in 2016, Vasily says), Shikhov volunteered for a Luhansk Oblast militia unit called Specter (Prizrak).
"He was a proper guy, "the friend, Aleksei Kuzichev, told RBC. "He had a sense of fraternity, for sure, and was always in the fight."
Aleksei didn't mention Syria to his father. He said he was going on business to St. Petersburg. Vasily also says he doesn't believe what's been written online. His Moscow friends (he is presumably talking about his nephew) consulted immediately with about 10 psychics, he says, and all of them said Aleksei was wounded but is still alive and will recover.
"Now they're looking for him in the hospitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg," his father says.
Vasily tells us that his son always dreamed of a military career. He tried skydiving 13 or 14 times at an airfield in Nizhny Novgorod. He attended a military high school and served his military service in the Khabarovsk region. He wanted to become a paratrooper, but while in military school, "a small explosive" went off in his hand and caused permanent damage. His prospects for a military career were gone.
Some Moscow acquaintances tried to "recommend" him to the Nizhny Novgorod branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB), but his injured hand reportedly blocked that as well.
After he returned from military service, he graduated from the Sormovsky Mechanical Technical School and earned a living doing odd jobs. He worked in advertising, in construction, sold bathroom equipment. But he often had trouble getting along with his managers and co-workers. A family member says Aleksei's eyes lit up when he spoke about the Donbas -- for him, this was finally something real.
We head off to Nizhny Novgorod to continue our search for Aleksei's mother. We find the nine-story, concrete-panel apartment block where he lived with his mother, Natalya, and his grandmother, Valentina.
'He'd Do Anything For Money'
The grandmother opens the door and tells us the mother isn't there. It becomes clear that this side of the family doesn't know anything. They don't have access to the Internet and don't communicate with Aleksei's father's side of the family. We are careful not to tell Valentina anything.
Valentina doesn't really communicate with her daughter or her grandson. For 20 minutes, she criticizes them for all she's worth. He is shiftless, lazy, and can't find a job, she says. "He lived out of his mother's refrigerator until he was 26," she adds.
He brought some sort of flags from Ukraine. He stole a jacket from a department store and they filed criminal charges against him, although they were later dropped. "Why didn't he tell me," Valentina asks. "He knew that I had money. If he'd asked, we would have sat down and talked it over and I would have gotten him clothes and shoes."
For an instance, some warmth creeps into her otherwise harsh tone.
Her grandson, she says, hasn't been home for the last three months. His bank started sending notices that his loan payments were behind, offering Valentina further evidence of Aleksei's shiftlessness.
Valentina expresses the fear that Aleksei might do anything for money. "Maybe something connected with drugs? Or with weapons?" she asks. "He would do anything for money. That scares me. Really scares me."
Valentina also says that Aleksei could sometimes be harsh and even rude. He didn't get along with many people. He often argued loudly into the telephone, quarreling with a girlfriend or some acquaintance. His character often lost him jobs, she says.
"I told him: In this house, no one speaks louder than me," Valentina says. "And I was deadly serious. Say whatever you want, but you do it in a whisper. Everything in a whisper so that other people don't hear."
Talking through the barely opened door, Valentina tries her best to dissuade us from looking for her daughter.
"It's impossible to talk seriously with her," she says. "She won't tell you anything. She only thinks of herself."
To hear Valentina tell it, Natalya is a lot like her son. She also changes jobs often because of her character, she says. Now her daughter is working at a nearby post office. Tomorrow she has the afternoon shift, but even if we find her, Valentina says, there won't be any interviews at home.
"I don't want anybody in my apartment who is connected with their business," she says. "No, no, no!"
'Nothing Is Known'
While we're talking, Valentina's son, Mikhail, shows up. He lives nearby and often visits his mother. We walk down the stairs a bit with him and, after checking to make sure Valentina has closed her door, we explain why we've come. Mikhail hasn't heard anything either and hasn't been in touch with his nephew.
The next day, we're almost at our goal. We walk up to the post office where Aleksei's mother works. On the way, we agree that we won't tell her why we're there if she doesn't already know.
The woman in the first window tells us that there is no Natalya Shikhova working there. I can see from her badge that her name is also Natalya, but the last name is different. The story's the same at the other windows; no one knows any Shikhova.
Confused, we return to the street. I call Mikhail and ask if maybe we went to the wrong post office. He says that she might have changed her last name but he doesn't know what the new one is. Mikhail told her about our visit and had advised her to go to the police and file a missing-person report about her son. As I am talking to him, the Natalya from the first window comes out.
"It's me," she says. "Who are you? What do you want?"
It's like a scene from a movie, but no one is acting. Natalya doesn't want to talk to us. She's defensive and even records us with her mobile phone, keeping it between us like a shield.
"Nothing is known," she says. "Nothing has been confirmed. We hope that he's alive," she insists. "Come back when there's good news. Or bad."
So we leave without properly interviewing Aleksei Shikhov's mother. Although, without knowing it, she has answered our main questions: No one appears to be concerned about the life or death of her son except a couple of out-of-town journalists bringing bad news from the Internet. The state that he went off to a foreign war in support of is silent. Only the psychics are talking.