SELIZOVO, Russia -- In a far corner of a small cemetery outside this tiny village by the Oka River, a black flag proclaiming the military might of Russia’s tank forces ripples in the wind above the recently dug grave of Sgt. Vladislav A. Barakov.
A photograph of the baby-faced soldier in full dress uniform sits propped against a wooden cross with a small plaque that says he died on Aug. 24.
He was 21.
What the plaque does not say — and what no one wants to talk about — is how and where the young sergeant died: blown up in a tank while sent to fight in eastern Ukraine, where Russia’s leaders have denied any role other than as facilitators of peace.
Sergeant Barakov, who served in Russia’s Sixth Tank Brigade, was one of dozens — some say hundreds — of Russian soldiers killed in action this summer.
Their bodies have been returned in recent weeks to loved ones who in many cases had no idea where they were sent to fight, have received little information about how they died and, in any event, are being pressured not to talk about it.
Some families have even been threatened with losing any compensation if they do.
“We are just ordinary people,” Sergeant Barakov’s uncle, who declined to give his name, said in a clipped reply when asked for details of his nephew’s death.
“You have more ways of finding out than we do.”
Much of the information about regular Russian troops in Ukraine has come from soldiers themselves — posting about their deployments on social media, as well as about the deaths of comrades fighting there.
Yet even as the Kremlin’s official line has crumbled, with at least three online databases charting Russian soldiers killed or wounded in Ukraine, efforts to sustain the cover-up have persisted.
On Thursday, a BBC television crew was attacked in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan after interviewing the family of a soldier who died in Ukraine.
“Apparently there is an unspoken order to deny losses and hide graves,” said Lev Shlosberg, a regional lawmaker who was beaten and hospitalized last month after he began documenting the deaths of soldiers who were based in Pskov.
The city, in northwest Russia, is home to a celebrated unit, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division.
“Many of those funerals have been held either at dawn or early in the morning so that only few would see them,” adding shame to the grief and heartbreak of military families, Mr. Shlosberg said.
“They are ready to go to war,” he said of the service members.
“But secret funerals humiliate them.”
Mr. Shlosberg has published a list of 12 soldiers from the local base who were killed in Ukraine but said he believed there were hundreds more.
He said revealing the truth would help end the conflict.
“The only goal is to stop this war,” Mr. Shlosberg said.
Already, the deaths have forced the Kremlin to adjust its message, and officials now acknowledge that some Russian “volunteers” went to Ukraine.
The soldiers’ bodies are also providing a much fuller picture of Russia’s military intervention on behalf of pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian government.
The dead served not just in elite special forces, like those who led the incursion in Crimea, but also in paratrooper and air defense units, motorized rifle brigades, armored brigades and infantry units — representing the breadth and depth of the Russian military.
Last month, their stories began to appear online, posted by fellow soldiers, relatives and friends.
In some cases, soldiers stopped calling home, prompting families to reach out to advocacy groups such as Soldiers’ Mothers, founded during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
With little official information, Yelena Vasilyeva, a political and environmental activist, created a Facebook group as a clearinghouse.
“It’s not possible to get official information,” Ms. Vasilyeva said.
“This war is officially undeclared.”
A Ukrainian computer programmer, who would give his name only as Vladimir, said he had created lostivan.com, a searchable database, after seeing that information about Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine was quickly disappearing from social networking sites.
“The purpose of this site is to show the world evidence of how Putin’s regime began open war with Ukraine,” Vladimir said, referring to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.
“I receive most of the information from a mothers’ committee, plus relatives,” he said.
“People in Russia don’t want to talk about it openly.”
Dead bodies began undermining the Kremlin’s official line in early June when a first load of corpses of Russian citizens who had volunteered to fight in Ukraine was carried back in a large white truck, marked with red crosses and a huge “200” scrawled on the sides.
The reference was to “Cargo 200,” a phrase that originally referred to the weight of zinc coffins used to bring dead soldiers home from Afghanistan but now applies generally to military casualties.
The trip was chronicled in detail by Maria Turchenkova, a Russian photographer, who was part of a small group of journalists that followed the truck.
The Russian government’s denials became even harder to sustain in August, as fighting intensified and regular Russian troops were deployed to save the rebels from defeat.
One of those units was Sergeant Barakov’s Sixth Tank Brigade, which is normally based in Mulino, 225 miles east of Moscow.
On Aug. 15, when the brigade was ordered to the Ukrainian border, one soldier, Sergey Rusakov, posted the news on his page on Vkontakte, Russia’s Facebook, with an expletive and a reference to quitting.
The next week, the unit was part of a convoy sent into Ukraine, and on Aug. 24 — the same day Sergeant Barakov was killed — a Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said at least two Russian tanks had been destroyed near the border.
Since then, other soldiers from the Sixth Tank Brigade, Mr. Rusakov and Dmitry Yermakov, were also reported killed.
Here in Selizovo, a tiny village 180 miles southeast of Moscow, residents all seemed to know about Sergeant Barakov’s death, but details were hazy.
His older brother, Aleksandr, said the family had been told that Sergeant Barakov was killed in a training exercise.
Standing outside the family’s home on Oktyabrskaya Street, Aleksandr said his brother had been “a positive guy” who had wanted to serve in the army since childhood and enlisted voluntarily, but who also loved to cook and had trained to become a chef.
Aleksandr Barakov said the family had been given no details, but he insisted that his brother had never been in Ukraine.
Dmitry Gorbachyov, another soldier in the Sixth Tank Brigade, who posted photos of Sergeant Barakov and Mr. Rusakov on Vkontakte, contradicted that.
“This horrible war took you,” Mr. Gorbachyov wrote.
“But you will always be in our hearts.”
Anna Filkina, who was in the same class in school with Sergeant Barakov through childhood, said she had heard that he was killed by Ukrainian mortar fire on the Russian side of the border.
The Russian government, which has complained of errant artillery, never reported such casualties.
Ms. Filkina said most of the boys she had grown up with had gone on to military service, leaving a village that at its center has a single grocery store and a memorial to soldiers killed in World War II.
“No one is forgotten,” it says.
“Nothing is forgotten.”
At the cemetery, a short drive away, a cup of tea, a spoon and a cigarette were left on the ground near Sergeant Barakov’s grave.
It was surrounded by flower arrangements, each with a ribbon: from brothers; from girlfriends; from family; to grandson.
Mr. Shlosberg, the lawmaker from Pskov, said many families of dead soldiers did not see a point to further investigation.
“They don’t care,” he said.
“For them, the war is over.”
Source: The New York Times