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'Mom, This Is Hell': Russians Confront Rising Casualties, Costs Of Ukraine War


Anastasia Avrova poses for a selfie with her son, Nikita Avrov, who died in combat in Ukraine.

"Mom, this is hell, I don't know if I'll come back home," Nikita Avrov, a 20-year-old Russian soldier, wrote in a text message to his mother on February 14 as he and more than 150,000 other troops massed along Russia's border with Ukraine in the lead-up to Moscow's invasion.

That was the last time that Anastasia Avrova, his mother, heard from her son until she was told on April 2 by local authorities that Nikita was killed along with the rest of his tank crew at the end of March near Izyum, the scene of intense fighting in eastern Ukraine.

A contract soldier originally from Luga, a city near St. Petersburg, Nikita's death notice is one of many now filtering down through Russia as news about the harsh reality of Moscow's six-week war in Ukraine begins to hit regular families.

"Nothing is adding up in my head," Avrova told RFE/RL's North.Realities, who says that she was told to expect the arrival of her son's body within the next few days.

Many ordinary Russians are still in the dark about the full scale of their military's losses in Ukraine -- and about the brutal tactics it is using against civilians -- since the February 24 invasion.

The Russian authorities have tightly controlled information about military casualties inside the country. Precise public sentiment for the war is not known, but official polls show high support for the Kremlin's campaign. Still, the government remains wary about how information of the military's losses could alter public opinion and create blowback at home.

Avrova says that it is still hard for her to discuss the death of Nikita and that she is still grappling with whether she sees the war as necessary or not, although she believes "if it wasn't needed, it probably wouldn't exist."

Still, she adds, it is becoming difficult for her as news regularly comes in of young men like her son killed fighting in Ukraine.

"I worry about each child as if it were my own when I see on the Internet that someone has died," she said.

An Information Blackout

The Kremlin has clamped down on the flow of information, targeting and outlawing many independent media outlets and human rights organizations, while Russia's state-run media echo false claims that the Ukrainian government is controlled by Nazis and that the brutal deaths of Ukrainian civilians, such as those in Bucha, are part of an elaborate hoax.

Russian news coverage and public discussion about the war are also subject to strict censorship. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree declaring all military deaths a state secret in 2015 and the country criminalized statements discrediting the military in 2022.

Ilgiz Akhiyarov, a native of Russia's Bashkortostan region whose brother Ilfat was killed fighting in Ukraine, works in the oil industry in Siberia and says that due to long work hours and a poor Internet connection at his work site, he only "realized that there was a war in Ukraine when my brother was killed there."

Ilgiz told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that because his family and many others in his native region are Muslims, many of the bodies of fallen soldiers are being returned quickly in order to comply with Islamic burial customs that dictate that someone should be buried as soon as possible after the time of death.

llfat Akhiyarov was killed fighting in Ukraine and buried on April 3.
llfat Akhiyarov was killed fighting in Ukraine and buried on April 3.

Ilfat was buried on April 3 in his home village of Durtyuli, north of the city of Ufa, and Ilgiz says that the sight of his brother in a zinc coffin made him physically ill. He says that he thought that war was something far removed from him and his family and that he worries about more casualties in Ukraine.

Like many Russians, Ilgiz says he gets his news from state-run television channels and that he doesn't have time to browse the Internet or messaging platforms like Telegram to do his own research.

"You need to finish what you started," Ilgiz said about the Russian military campaign in Ukraine. "So why did my brother and others die? It's not OK to stop halfway."

A New Phase For a Brutal War

After suffering heavy losses in the north of Ukraine and around Kyiv, Moscow is in the midst of reorienting its forces towards the south and east of Ukraine. With more intense fighting expected, continued grim news of casualties could have a large effect on support across the country for the war.

While estimates point to a staggering overall Russian death toll, an exact figure remains elusive.

Russia's Ministry of Defense has said that 1,351 troops have died so far in the fighting, while NATO estimates that Russia has lost between 7,000 to 15,000 troops during the war. Ukraine puts the Russian death toll at 18,600.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry set up a website and Telegram channel where Russians can search photos of the dead and prisoners of war, or fill out an online form seeking information about family members.

However, there's no guarantee that such measures could undermine support or break through the powerful information controls that are in place inside Russia.

"Is everyone [in Ukraine] a Nazi? No, not all, but they are in the leadership," Ilgiz said. "The [Ukrainian] regime needs to be destroyed so that [ordinary people] don't suffer more damage."

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    North.Realities

    North.Realities is a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

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    RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service

    RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service is the only major international news provider reporting in the Tatar and Bashkir languages to audiences in the Russian Federation’s multiethnic, Muslim-majority Volga-Ural region.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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