A soldier carries a photo of Yury Dushkin through Inza: The 23-year-old, who died in Ukraine, was born in the small town.
https://www.spiegel.de-Foto:Yevgeny Kondakov / DER SPIEGEL
The first of the soldiers killed in fighting in Ukraine are now being brought back to their homes in Russia. Families are waiting for the remains of the fallen, young men like 23-year-old Yury Dushkin, who has been buried in his hometown of Inza.
The zinc coffin is standing in the entrance hall of the university. A flag in the Russian national colors – white, blue and red – along with an olive green cap lies on top on the lid of the coffin.
Yury Dushkin was a private in the Russian army. A notice in the hall states that he died in combat in Ukraine under artillery fire. Dushkin was 23.
His mother Olga is sitting on one of the folding chairs next to the coffin, holding a photo of her son in her hands. It shows a young man in uniform peering earnestly into the camera with a narrow face and slightly protruding ears.
It is quiet in the vestibule of the University of Inza. Olga struggles to hold back her tears. At times, you can hear her sobs. Every now and then, the wooden entrance door bangs shut when relatives, friends and neighbors enter. For a few seconds, the sunlight from outside enters the anteroom. Mourners hug the parents and lay wreaths and flowers to say goodbye to “Yura,” as they call Dushkin.
His father Mikhail puts his hands on the red cloth of the coffin and stands there for several minutes, as if he doesn’t want to let go of his son. The body had been brought during the night to Inza, Dushkin’s hometown, located about 740 kilometers southeast of Moscow. At the funeral service, it is said that Dushkin got hit in the head by shrapnel.
He had entered Ukraine on the orders of Russian ruler Vladimir Putin, as so many soldiers have since the war began on Feb. 24. In Russia, it is forbidden to call it a “war” and it instead has to be referred to as a “special military operation.”
The “Lowest Possible” Figure
Fighting in Ukraine has been ongoing for five weeks, and thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed along with soldiers on both sides. A growing number of coffins have begun arriving in Russia. Relatives, colleagues and the authorities are publishing obituaries in the local media and on the social network VKontakte.
In Samara, 1,000 kilometers southeast of Moscow on the Volga River, a school teacher writes: “Today, we are saying goodbye to Ivan Frolov. He died in the performance of his military and civic duties during the ‘special mission’ in Ukraine.” And further: “Vanya, the whole high school remembers you.” In the Leningrad region near St. Petersburg in northwestern Russia, an internet portal reports: “Our compatriot Sergey Soloyev fell heroically in the performance of his duties as a solider. He was a Russian patriot and served bravely. His death is a tragedy for relatives and friends, for all the people of Podporozhye.” Hundreds of these notices have already been published throughout the country, and every day there are more.
No one knows exactly how many Russia soldiers have lost their lives. In Russia, it is a punishable offense to report casualty figures other than the official ones. The Defense Ministry has stated that 1,351 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine. Sergei Krivenko, head of the human rights group Citizen.Army.Law, says he and his team have arrived at “roughly the same figure” by relying on public sources. But he adds that this is the “lowest possible total.” He estimates that several thousand have died. He says there is a lot more data on missing soldiers now, but it needs to be closely reviewed. “It isn’t clear who has been captured and who is dead,” says the activist, who has spent the last 20 years studying the situation of soldiers in Russia.
NATO, on the other hand, has said that at least 7,000 Russian soldiers have perished in Ukraine, with Kyiv claiming that far more army personnel have been killed. Valentina Melnikova, the well-known human rights activist and head of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, recently stated in an interview with a Russian journalist that she believes the Ukrainian numbers are correct. She declined an interview with DER SPIEGEL, however, saying “it is too dangerous to talk to foreign media.” She cites to the stricter legal landscape.
Virtually anyone faces criminal investigation and up to five years in prison for “purposefully” gathering information about the Russian military, making it public – and receiving support from abroad. The paragraph in question is formulated so vaguely that it gives the security authorities a lot of leeway. The FSB intelligence service has made it clear that it will interpret the law very strictly. It’s not only information on the condition of troops, but also about the morale of the soldiers that falls under the law, according to the decree issued by the security authority.
Krivenko’s organization has already been declared a “foreign agent.” It’s website has been taken offline, and the organization is now only able to advise soldiers’ relatives anonymously. Normally, hundreds would probably have called the organization during the first weeks of Putin’s military campaign in Ukraine, especially the families of conscripts. “We can only make recommendations – people have to defend themselves on their own now,” Krivenko says.
He says it is pointless to contact military prosecutors or authorities because officials often refuse to cooperate. Other human rights activists speak of the “great silence” in Russia. “Mothers get money and medals for their dead sons and stay quiet! Even the mothers of prisoners of war don’t dare to say anything,” writes an activist who prefers not to have her name published. Everyone is afraid.
“The Hero of Our Town”
In Inza, people had the chance for two days to say goodbye to soldier Dushkin. The town, with a silver-painted Lenin monument and a wood-processing factory, now has around 17,000 residents. Like many other small Russian towns, Inza is losing inhabitants.
The municipal administration is taking care of Dushkin’s burial. Officials want people to have the opportunity to say goodbye and the soldier’s coffin is laid out for a day at the university. Even the governor stops by briefly and speaks of a “great loss” for the parents and the Ulyanovsk region, of which Inza is a part. He lays roses on the coffin.
The head of the municipal administration calls Dushkin a “hero of our town – we are proud of him.” He says that Dushkin protected his fatherland, his homeland, “he defended us so that we could live a peaceful life, learn and work.” A veterans’ representative says the private was “at the forefront of the fight against Ukrainian nationalism, the worst enemy of Russia and all Russians.” He says the munition that cost Dushkin his life was intended for “all of us.”
At the vocational school where the young man completed his training as a car mechanic, they want to commemorate the former student in the “historical-military-patriotic museum.” In other places in Russia, they plan to name streets and schools after the fallen.
He Dreamed of Having His Own Apartment
Oleg Dibrov, a childhood friend, also spent quite some time standing next to Dushkin’s coffin. They met when they were seven and often played together, later going on to work on cars together. Dibrov, a tall, lanky man, stands in front of the university’s white pillared building, with water welling up under his feet as the March sun melts the last piles of snow at the edge of the road. He speaks softly, in short sentences, and seems nervous. Foreign journalists don’t visit the town often.
Dibrov says his friend dreamed of a better life and of his own apartment. That’s why he committed himself to three years as a professional soldier after his military service and wanted to extend his contract soon, Dibrov says. Dushkin was a senior driver in an artillery unit. Dibrov, an automotive mechanic as well, also wanted to join the military, but he was turned down for health reasons. He now works as a clerk at a supermarket.
The last time he saw Yura, he says, was in January. His friend had been home on leave – he points to the home of Yura’s parents across the street, painted in green. He says Yura had always said that everything would be alright, that he had been positive, a conciliatory type. If he should die, Yura had said, it would simply be his fate. He made Dibrov promise that he would look after his parents if that happened.
He stares at the snow. Yes, he has also read about soldiers killed in other places in the region. Dibrov says that counting the dead, whether official or unofficial, doesn’t make any sense. “No one knows what the politicians have in mind,” he says. “These guys are dying, and they’re just sitting there.” He says he supports Putin, that he’s a “smart ruler.” Dibrov pauses for a moment. “It’s all very hard for me right now.” He exhales deeply. Then he says there are differing opinions, that some support this “special operation,” while others are against it. It’s all quite difficult at the moment, he repeats.
How long does he think the Russian troops will keep fighting? “That’s in the hands of God,” Dibrov says. “I think we will soon defeat the Nazis, I mean the nationalists.” After all, if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy supports Nazi groups like the far-right Azov Regiment in southern Ukraine, then he himself is also a Nazi, he says.
Dibrov now sounds like one of those talk show hosts on state television who attack Zelenskyy almost daily and also talk at length about the Azov Regiment. As many as 2,000 men with ultranationalist and right-wing extremist views fight in the volunteer unit, and they are part of the Ukrainian National Guard. On television, the militia is repeatedly cited as evidence that Ukraine must be “de-nazified.”
“Zs” in the City
On his VKontakte profile, the young man shared an emblem with the name of his town spelled slightly different: Instead of Inza, it says “InZa,” with a capitalized “Z.” It’s a show of “support” for the soldiers, says Dibrov.
The “Z” has become a symbol of Putin’s campaign against Ukraine. It is emblazoned on many of the Russian military vehicles and tanks in the neighboring country. At home, it signals loyalty to Putin and approval for his actions in Ukraine. In Inza, residents carrying Russian flags formed a “Z” in front of City Hall, with a video of the event being shared on social media. Even a railroad locomotive rolling through the city is marked with a “Z.”
Inza is an important railroad junction in the region, connecting west and east and trains rush through the town, particularly at night. Yury Dushkin also took the train on this route westward toward the Ukrainian border, says his friend Oleg Dibrov, adding that Dushkin had told him over the phone that he was on his way to a maneuver with troops from Belarus.
But even then, he had doubts about whether it would remain just a maneuver, Dibrov says. He had been watching trains passing through Inza for several weeks, loaded with tanks, howitzers and other weapons. On Feb. 23, his friend wrote to him for the last time. “All vehicles and weapons are loaded. We are heading back to the barracks.” After that, Dushkin could no longer be reached by phone and his VKontakte page was suddenly deleted. “I tried calling him every day, but the phone was off.”
“Nobody Needs This War”
At the bus station in the center of Inza, there’s a large poster in camouflage colors with a large white “Z.” Underneath, it says “за наших,” “for our boys.” It’s mainly the older residents who are in favor of Putin’s military action against Ukraine. “I’m clearly in favor of it,” says Yelena, 56, who prefers to only provide her first name. She says she has had some nasty arguments with her acquaintances in Sumy, Ukraine. “I understand that it’s hard for them now,” she says. “But they have bullied the people in the Donbas and bombed children for the past eight years. That had to end.” Of course, there are also losses on the Russian side, says the retiree, “but they are necessary to destroy the Nazis in Ukraine.”
Many in Inza feel that Putin’s operation was inevitable. It is a phrase that is broadcast over and over again on the state channels. Polls show that a majority of Russians support the Russian ruler’s actions.
Younger people, on the other hand, tend to be more skeptical. In Inza, Stas leans against his car, with bass thundering from the speakers inside. “Nobody needs this war,” he says, “it’s a shame for the people.” Stas is 18 years old and will have to do his military service this summer. Is he afraid? “What am I supposed to do?” he asks in return. “I don’t have a choice.”
Artur, 26, says he is fundamentally opposed to war and bloodshed. “But we have no power here to do anything about it.” He says he tries to ignore the “Z” signs in his city.
Anyone Who Isn’t from the Area Is Treated as Suspect
Later, Artur will participate in Dushkin’s funeral procession together with many other residents of Inza. Around 300 people ultimately gathered in front of the university building to pay their last respects. Among the mourners are many young people, who cry as men lift the coffin and carry it on their shoulders to the waiting van. The parents and his friend Dibrov walk behind them. A military band plays and people line up, with some holding flowers in their hands.
Anyone who isn’t from the area is suspect. The DER SPIEGEL photographer is asked by a female employee of the town’s administration to show his identity papers. The reporter is also filmed by a man with a camera. Men in dark clothing observe what is happening from the side of the road. Later, on the way out of town, the DER SPIEGEL team’s car is followed for a while by another car. In Ulyanovsk, two cameramen and a journalist are waiting in the terminal in the evening and follow the DER SPIEGEL team into the security area of the airport.
Reporting on fallen soldiers in the Ulyanovsk region apparently isn’t welcome. Russian-speaking journalists are also feeling similar pressure. In some regions, media outlets have had to delete reports about deceased military personnel only shortly after publishing them. The authorities even threatened the Russian-language Wikipedia to block an article with data on Putin’s military operation in Ukraine.
The newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which is critical of the Kremlin, suspended its work this week for the duration of the “military operation.” It, too, had been warned by the authorities. The newspaper, one of the few remaining independent media outlets in the country, had been trying to continue operations despite the censorship. Novaya journalists had also continued to report from Ukraine, attended funerals of fallen Russian army members and even provided a voice to desperate relatives of soldiers, who didn’t know where their men had been sent.
When Yury Dushkin was buried in Inza at noon on March 24, the war had been going on for exactly one month. The line of cars following his coffin to the cemetery also included several with “Z” stickers. Below that, some also bore the words “своих не бросаем”: “We won’t leave our comrades behind.”
in Inza, Russa