Shortly after his deployment to Ukraine last fall, Private Ivan A. Ovlashenko recorded a short video of himself, clad in a camouflage uniform and olive-green woolen cap, sitting in a forest dotted with yellowing leaves as his his comrades readied an artillery barrage to fire on the Ukrainian lines.
“I’m recording everything fine,” he said, smiling before shouting out a warning:
The video was wanted reassure to her relatives in Russia on her sudden move to front-line gunboat.
Until it wasn’t.
In September the president Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 men to bolster the weakened Russian defenses in Ukraine.
At the time, the hordes of men who fled Russia to avoid conscription attracted the most attention.
Howeverhundreds of thousands of Russians like Ovlashenko – factory workers and electricians, medical assistants and basketball players, tractor drivers and school employees – went to war.
promise to pay $3,000 or $4,000 a month It proved to be a great incentive, along with calls for machismo and the defense of the fatherland.
“What am I, I’m not a man?” Ovlashenko said to two women, his sister and his ex-wife.
“I must protect my country, my daughter.”
In lengthy interviews, women expressed surprise at how Ovlashenko, until then largely apolitical, suddenly started parroting crazy topic from the government that the West intended to use Ukraine as a base to attack Russia.
If he hadn’t been fighting in Ukraine, he said, he would have had to fight the enemy in the streets of Bataysk, his hometown, a railway junction outside the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don.
Mobilization changed the calculus of warfare.
It was no longer a “military operation“far”, as the Kremlin continues to call it, in which contract soldiers, mercenaries and Ukrainian separatists on forced service fought.
Suddenly ordinary Russians saw each other pushed into the trenches.
Now, more than five months later, the rate of killed and wounded returning to Russia is rising, with the arrival of zinc coffins in places like Bataysk.
It’s a pattern repeated across Russia, even as the dead remain largely undisclosed.
“The figures are secret,” says Max Trudolyubov, a Russian political analyst and newspaper columnist based in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“The mobilized come from small villages, from distant places.
The strategy is spread the victims as possible throughout the country.
Western intelligence services estimate it 200,000 soldiers on the Russian side were killed or wounded during the war.
Of these, more than 16,000 have been confirmed dead in public sources, according to a project carried out jointly by Mediazona, an independent Russian news agency, the BBC Russian News Service and volunteer researchers.
While the real number is undoubtedly much higher, even that number already exceeds the official death toll during the Soviet Union’s nine years of warfare in Afghanistan.
Among the dead are more than 1,366 new recruits, according to the project. Ovlashenko, 30, was one of them.
Growing up in Bataysk, the scion of a long line of railway workers, he was only 16 months younger than his sister Valentina, to whom he was very close.
Valentina Strelkova, this is her married name, remembers her brother as a thin, agile and intrepid child, a circus acrobat in the making.
According to her, throughout his life he was devoted to his sister and would stop whatever he was doing whenever she needed him.
After completing his mandatory military service, he went to work Pepsi in the merchandising department.
Valeria Ovlashenka also worked for Pepsi, in sales.
When she rejected his advances, he threw a party for the entire staff and greeted her with a bouquet of flowers.
He soon proposed to her and found out the next day that she was pregnant.
They got married in March 2017 and their daughter, Polina, was born that same summer.
They often argued, especially about how to raise their daughter.
Ovlashenka tried to reproduce her strict upbringing, while her husband made Polina the center of his life.
I ironed her diapers and put her to bed.
He bought her toys and sweets, took her to see the sea, and taught her to pick mushrooms in the deep northern woods.
“It was always a holiday for the girl,” she said.
They divorced after two years, but neither dated anyone else, and Ovlashenka always hoped that they would meet again.
The September 26 call for mobilization came as a shock to his ex-wife and her sister, especially since Ovlashenko signed it immediately.
“He’s never been interested in current events,” says his sister.
He told his ex-wife about his decision to enlist while he was bringing his daughter home from a weekend, telling her he was leaving the next day.
“He said it with such a grin, as if he was going to a sanatorium,” she said, “I tried to talk him out of it.”
He called the whole situation nonsense, arguing that he should have stayed at home to raise Polina.
“I didn’t see my husband as a patriot,” she said.
“I think he just wanted a change of scenery.”
Ovlashenko’s father and sister drove every day to the training ground, which was more than an hour away.
They were given a list of needs they had to cover:
pretty much everything except the bulletproof vest and helmet.
They bought him warm clothes, knee pads, a sleeping bag, a backpack and two balaclavas, by the way, spending more $1,200.
I was embarrassed, but grateful, and the local regional government eventually refunded them.
Ovlashenko was unexpectedly sent to Donetsk after just a week of training, according to his family.
During his previous military service, he had been a chauffeur.
This time he was assigned to an artillery unit.
the newly mobilized soldiers did not receive training at the training center, he told them:
“Everything I learned, I learned at the front.”
He never shared exactly where he was, but with each call the sound of the big guns boomed louder and louder.
Most of the time she said things were going “okay,” though the mask slipped once.
“You have no idea what I’m doing here,” he told his sister, terrified.
Then he fell silent.
Outwardly, his face became more masculine, stern, according to his ex-wife, while his eyes often took on a frantic look she recognized from their marital quarrels.
He didn’t talk much about the dead.
Once, when his ex-wife asked him about the commotion he heard in the background, he said the soldiers were drinking to commemorate their fallen comrades.
On another occasion he admitted that he had seen many “cold” corpses, but few who died recently.
In December, after suffering a minor shrapnel wound to his shoulder, his calls became more frequent and emotional.
“It was like I exploded,” Ovlashenka said.
He constantly sent Polina money – for clothes, a holiday tree, a circus and a ski trip.
However, when his ex-wife brought up the possibility of meeting him, he backed down and the conversation was postponed until he returned.
New Years was the last time his sister spoke to him.
“I was very happy, upbeat, positive,” she says.
On January 6, he called his ex-wife to ask if Polina liked his gifts.
The last sign of life came on January 9th.
When he could not speak, he sent a emojis with a smiling face.
There has been a worrying silence since 10 January.
His sister dialed all the numbers she had called from, but no one knew anything.
Ovlashenko hugged her in a dream so vivid that she felt like she came to say goodbye.
On January 14, the family learned from the Bataysk military recruiting office that he had died when a tank shell exploded in his trench near Makiivka, Ukraine.
They were told his body had been sent to nearby Rostov, to the main military morgue, but the military told them not to visit.
The blast had destroyed his body and they were having difficulty identifying him.
The family had hoped they had taken the wrong man, but a fingerprint soon confirmed it was him.
At the funeral on January 20, there were no open caskets.
An honor guard saluted in the muddy cemetery, and his father let out a strangled cry: “Vanyuk!” -his son’s nickname-, as he was being buried, according to 161.ru, a regional online newspaper.
5-year-old Polina did not attend the funeral, but she knew about the war.
Her mother at first told her that her father was on a business trip, but Polina deduced from the phone calls that he was at the front.
At school they made a small collection and always mentioned their father when they spoke of war heroes.
Polina misses her terribly and often encourages her mother to find him a new dad.
“I tell her, ‘Daughter, we don’t have a store to buy a new dad,'” she says.
“There will always be a dad. He’s in heaven.”
At the end of February, the family held the traditional ceremony to commemorate the 40 days since his death.
They skipped the normal ritual of leaving food at his grave, as the local priest said it would be better to donate it to families in need.
“He had chosen a peaceful life, a peaceful profession, a non-military specialty,” his sister said.
“But his life completely disintegrated in another way.”
c.2023 The New York Times Society
Mary Ortiz is a seasoned journalist with a passion for world events. As a writer for News Rebeat, she brings a fresh perspective to the latest global happenings and provides in-depth coverage that offers a deeper understanding of the world around us.