‘My sister and I went through all the morgues’

Thousands of Russian soldiers have been reported MIA in Ukraine. Russia’s Defence Ministry is not in a hurry to help relatives find the bodies: Novaya-Europe’s research

‘My sister and I went through all the morgues’

A Russian soldier’s helmet dropped at the front line, 12 January 2023, the village of Kurylivka, Ukraine. Photo: Pierre Crom / Getty Images

Over the past year of war, thousands of Russian soldiers have gone missing in action. Most likely, they were killed on the frontline. But the loved ones of these soldiers still cannot bury them or receive compensation from the government. While the Defence Ministry stays quiet, the relatives are searching for the soldiers on their own, calling up military units, hospitals, and morgues — which could take months or even years. Novaya-Europe has examined 10,000 social media posts about people who had gone missing during the war in Ukraine and found mentions of 1,365 Russian soldiers. We explain under what circumstances soldiers go missing and what ends their relatives are forced to go to in order to locate the bodies.

Russian servicemen started going missing even before the invasion. Conscript Andrey Stepanov called his mother for the last time on 22 February 2022. He said that he was being sent to take part in military drills on the border, and then she lost contact with him. Contract soldier Konstantin Isaenko, from Horlivka, Donetsk region, went on leave on 16 February. On the same day, he called his wife for the last time.

On 24 February, at least ten more soldiers contacted their relatives for the last time. Sister of 22-year-old Anvar Sultanov has been looking for her brother for a year now — he stopped answering calls on his way to Donetsk. Son of Alexander Degtyaryov has not heard from his father since the spring — the soldier went MIA during the fighting for Ukraine’s Komyshuvakha, but he is still listed as an active member of his unit.

In the last year, relatives of soldiers of the Russian army, as well as the armies of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (“DPR” and “LPR”, or “LDPR”), made at least 1,365 posts about missing soldiers on Russia’s social network VK. While trying to locate them, their relatives have called the Defence Ministry, military units, hospitals, morgues; they have asked for help on social media after failing to receive any response from the state.

Furthermore, this is clearly a low estimate of the number of soldiers who went MIA — not all relatives have posted on social media. The real number of missing soldiers, according to military experts’ estimates, is way higher — in the thousands. Head of the Citizen. Army. Law movement Sergey Krivenko has shared a more definite assessment — about 25,000 soldiers. “Missing in action generally means killed [soldiers] whose bodies have not been found yet. As of now, we know of 12,000 confirmed deaths. The number of soldiers missing could be twice as many.”

“My sister and I went through all the morgues and called all the hospitals. We sent inquiries anywhere we could. Everyone tells us, keep waiting, there is no information,” son of Vitaly Chekal, missing in action, writes. The last time he contacted his children was on 19 March, from Mariupol. At least 50 other Russian soldiers went missing last spring during the assault on Mariupol.

Last summer, 40 soldiers stopped contacting their relatives during the fighting for the cities of Popasna and Rubizhne, Luhansk region; contact was lost with another 20 during the offensive on the village of Pisky.

In September, the number of losses grew significantly — during that month, 170 soldiers went MIA. Most of them were at the time located in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, where Ukraine was conducting a successful counteroffensive.

‘We can break your legs — then you stay here’

By December, the number of new posts on soldiers reported MIA halved. But on New Year’s night, when Ukraine’s Armed Forces attacked a camp of mobilised soldiers in Makiivka, 18 servicemen went missing.

Vitaly Rusinov, 23, received a draft notice on the first day of mobilisation, while he was at work, at Samara’s concrete products plant. “That day, he was in high spirits, while mum was crying. She said, we can break your legs — then you stay here,” his sister tells Novaya-Europe. “But he couldn’t not go. He said that his help was needed over there, he had to defend his homeland.”

Two days later, Vitaly went to war. On 31 December, he called his family for the last time, from Makiivka.

“By the morning, I knew there had been an explosion. We called the Defence Ministry every day and kept getting the same answer — he is not on any lists. We had to ask for information from acquaintances. At first, we were told that he had been killed. Then, that he was alive.”

A month later, Vitaly’s mother was contacted by the Rostov-on-Don morgue, asking her to send a photo of her son for body identification, and later by the draft board — with the official confirmation of his death.

There were hundreds of draftees inside the college building during the Makiivka shelling. According to one of the survivors, they were gathered in the assembly hall to watch the president’s New Year’s address. Kyiv reported 700 killed and injured, the British intelligence spoke of 300, while Russia’s Defence Ministry confirmed the death of 89 soldiers.

Half of those reported MIA — 640 servicemen — called their relatives for the last time from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Another 125 soldiers went missing in the Kharkiv region — during the spring offensive of the Russian army and the autumn counteroffensive of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. About 35% of the social media posts made by relatives do not indicate where the last contact took place.

The biggest losses are suffered by the population of the occupied territories where mobilisation started even before the invasion. The relatives indicated what type of soldiers their loved ones were only in 350 cases; out of those, 90 soldiers turned out to be from the “LDPR”. This is the same number as that of Russian contract servicemen and military volunteers reported MIA — and twice as high as the number of Russian mobilised soldiers to have gone missing.

It is difficult to estimate the real losses among the “DPR” and “LPR” soldiers, military expert Kirill Mikhailov says: “Before the war, there were different assessments of the numbers of the Donetsk and Luhansk units — around 20,000-30,000 people. The current standing is that, on the one hand, they have suffered big losses, and on the other, their numbers have increased significantly due to mobilisation which had been occurring from the beginning of the full-scale invasion, and even before it.”

It takes months to locate bodies

Since June 2022, Dmitry Vitovtov’s wife has been making the same post every month: “He was taken prisoner from 10 to 15 March in Mariupol. To this day, there is no information about his health and location.”

Due to new losses and ineffective searches for those MIA, families of soldiers have started to ask for help online more frequently: conscripts from the Moskva cruiser have still not been found, nor have been the mobilised servicemen stationed in Makiivka.

In January, relatives of soldiers posted 850 messages about having lost contact with their loved ones in VK groups — that is six times more than during the first month of war. Every seventh post is about searching for soldiers that went missing last spring or summer.

On 17 May, contact with Alexey Guliy was lost. Ten months later, his wife made this post: “The military unit told me that he went missing in the area near Popasna. One and a half months later, for some reason I was told that he had been near Novomykhailivka instead. To this day, I have not been given any information on what had happened to my husband.”

Sixty days is the average time the soldiers fought in the war before going missing. Searches for them take months; when it comes to at least 85 soldiers, their relatives still have no idea about their fate even after half a year of searching. Many still hope to find their loved ones that went missing back last spring during the assault on Mariupol.

On 3 February, Russia’s Council for Human Rights proposed to provide compensation to the families of missing “participants of the special military operation”. Currently, the government pays out 12.5 million rubles (€162,500) to families of each killed soldier; families of missing soldiers are not entitled to any pay-outs at all. According to the head of the Council for Human Rights, this issue is especially acute due to “the lack of the standard DNA sampling procedure”, thus, it is harder to identify bodies.

“There are many cases when a person just burns alive in a tank. There are no remains, so it is impossible to identify the body. There are corpses which were transported by the Ukrainian side; they keep them in mortuary refrigerators until they’re handed over to Russia, seeing as Ukrainians don’t have the means to identify them themselves,” Sergey Krivenko says on the topic.

The last body swap that was confirmed by Kyiv occurred on 27 December — Ukrainian authorities agreed to swap 42 bodies each with Russia. Russia’s Defence Ministry has not commented on the exchange. Over the past year of war, Ukraine has been able to return bodies of 869 Ukrainian soldiers; how many bodies Russia has brought home is unknown.

“Body swap is a humanitarian process that should be conducted. But we’re seeing that this process is set up well. It’s possible that Russia just doesn’t have enough bodies of Ukrainian soldiers for swapping,” Krivenko says.

Even if a body is never found, a soldier will still be recognised as dead. The MIA status is not for life and expires two years after the end of war. Only then will a family be entitled to compensation.

Not on any lists

Boris Felitsyn, according to a fellow soldier, was taken to a hospital in October — he was seriously injured during a battle near the city of Svatove. His dog tags and documents were lost during evacuation, while the soldier himself was unconscious. “I called the Defence Ministry hotline and was told that he is not on the lists of injured, killed, or missing. Where he was evacuated to, they don’t say. I can’t contact him, it’s impossible to contact the unit, the draft board refused to help me. We called all the hospitals ourselves — he’s not in any of them,” the soldier’s wife writes.

Boris ended up being one of the many soldiers who went missing but is not recognised as MIA officially. For Russia’s Defence Ministry, these people do not exist: they are not on the lists of injured, killed, or missing soldiers. In such cases, relatives are not entitled to compensation or the government’s help in searching for them.

One of the reasons is the lack of people in the system and the “disarray” when it comes to documenting losses and notifying relatives, military expert Kirill Mikhailov explains. “Despite the fact that the Russian army grew significantly after mobilisation, its bureaucratic apparatus didn’t.”

For example, the status of soldier Andrey Shulik was changed four times by the ministry’s employees: On 13 March, contact with Andrey was lost. On 14 March, his family was notified of his death. On 16 March, they were told that he had gone MIA, on 17 March — that he had been taken prisoner, and in the evening of the same day — that he had been injured.

During peacetime, military units’ commanders were responsible for documentation of losses and interaction with relatives of soldiers, Sergey Krivenko explains. But now, with the army fighting a war, commanders are in combat zones and cannot notify wives and mothers about the fate of every soldier, however, new communication channels were not established.

“There’s an inquiry form on the website [of the Defence Ministry], but according to relatives, it’s impossible to obtain any information that way. An interdepartmental coordination HQ for humanitarian issues was created within the ministry, and some phone numbers were provided. But no information is given there either. So we can say that the issue of notifying relatives has been handled disastrously.”


On 23 November 2022, during a POW swap, Russia and Ukraine also swapped lists of soldiers missing in action and asked each other for help locating them. On 11 January, Russian human rights commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova reported the results of the initiative — 22 Russian soldiers were found on the territory of Ukraine.

But that is just 1.5% of all missing soldiers, even based on our incomplete estimates. The fate of most missing soldiers will be discovered by their relatives, best case scenario, only after the end of the war.

“During the Chechen wars, soldiers’ mothers just went to Chechnya, met up with the fighters, and searched for their sons themselves. Now, there’s, of course, no opportunity to do so,” Sergey Krivenko says. “You can count the number of cases when Ukraine was able to identify a body and hand it over to relatives on one hand, but we’re not seeing any attempts by the [Russian] Defence Ministry to organise full-scale searches of those missing or engage in communication with their loved ones. There’s a lot of questions when it comes to the slogan ‘We do not abandon our own.’”

Additional reporting by Anastasia Kashirskaya, Dmitry Sazhin, and Asya Koshkina

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