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  • Jaroslav Koshiw

The Unwanted Corpses of Russian Warriors

July 4, 2014

On May 26, 2014, from 102 to 150 pro-Russia fighters were reportedly killed by Ukraine’s troops at a gun battle at Donetsk’s Sergey Prokofiev airport. Fifty-six of the bodies were brought to the morgue of Donetsk’s Kalinin District hospital. There the Donetsk police took their photos, which appeared on the web site: http://blog.t30p.ru/post/Fotografii-ubitih-koloradov.aspx. Of the fifty-six bodies, thirty-two were identified as Russian citizens. The leaders of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) shipped the fallen warriors back to Russia without any publicity, and when they arrived in Russia they became a state secret.

The photographer Mariya Turchenkova was one of many journalists who saw the fifty-six bodies of fighters at the Kalinin hospital (Gruz 200, June 2, 2014, http://www.novayagazeta.ru/politics/63873.html). On May 26, she saw the bodies, some without heads and other parts, piled up in a pool of their own blood in the basement of the morgue.

Next day, she saw only that a few Donetsk residents came to the morgue to discover if their relations were among the dead. This suggested that many of those killed were not from Donetsk. The relatives found it difficult to recognize their relations and the hospital at this point didn’t have a list of the dead. Instead relatives were given the police mug shots to look at, and two Donetsk residents: Mark Zverev and Edward Tyuryutikov were identified. Later the morgue received a list of the corpses from the separatist government but refused to make it public. The hospital staff separated thirty-two bodies and placed them in caskets for them to be taken to Russia.

On the evening of May 28, a representative of DPR Prime-Minister Borodai asked journalists to accompany the bodies of the Russian citizens to the Russian border. This was the first time that journalists heard a separatist official admitting that Russian citizens were involved in the fighting in Ukraine. He told the journalists they were needed to ensure that the truck carrying the caskets was not attacked by Ukraine’s military.

Next, morning, May 29, a hundred journalists, including from Russia’s main TV channel one and Russia TV 24, appeared at the morgue. [Russian TV broadcast nothing on the story.] Journalists watched as the mortuary staff placed identity certificate on the bodies laid out in coffins.

As the caskets were ready for loading into a truck, DPR prime minister Borodai and DPR supreme council head Pushilin appeared. They repeated the request to the journalists to accompany the corpses to the Russian border.

Suddenly the news came that the Vostok Battalion, DPR leading fighting force in Donetsk, had surrounded their headquarters, the former office of the Donetsk regional council. Borodai and Pushilin quickly left the morgue. Most of the journalists also left for the DPN headquarters to witness the humiliation of the separatist government by its own Vostok Battalion led by its commander Aleksander Khodakovsky.

Vostok Battalion surrounded the DPN headquarters, disarmed and threw out the government’s militia from the building, and removed the barricades in front of the buidling. Khodakovsky’s men told journalists that the action was a punishment for the militia’s robbing the Metro superstore as the Vostok Battalion was fighting and dying at the near-by airport.

Another major incident took place on the night of May 26-27, the robbing and setting on fire of the Donetsk Druzhba ice hockey arena. The Donetsk hockey club and the Shakhtar FC blamed it on the government militia, who they called “the bandits of the so-called DPR” (http://shakhtar.com/en/news/31842).

For all of Khodavsky’s posturing over the banditry of the government’s militia, the fact remains that he and his battalion failed to be present at the morgue to send off their dead Russian comrades. The journalist Noah Sneider from Al Jazeera described the undignified way in which the dead Russian comrades departed from Donetsk:

“There was no fanfare, no procession, no heroes' send-off. Instead, a shell-shocked work crew looked on while a man hand-painted the side of the truck with red crosses and "Cargo 200" — the Russian label for wartime casualties.”

(Source: Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine collect their dead and ask, Where is Putin? Al Jazeera, May 30, 2014).

Led by a police car, the truck, used to transport ice-cream, left Donetsk for the Russian border, followed by a car load of journalists, that included the photographer Turchenkova and the journalists Harriet Salem from Vice News and Noah Sneider from Al Jazeera. Harriet Salem wrote: the ice-cream truck was “hastily whitewashed and painted over with a red cross and ‘200’— Soviet-era military code for their dead”.

But who were the returning Russians in the coffins? The separatist authorities refused to reveal their identities. At the border, the enterprising photographer Turchenkova discovered the name of two Russians by looking over the shoulder of the Ukrainian border guard, and taking a picture of two of the certificates accompanying the coffins. The certificate giving permission for the bodies to be taken out of Ukraine read:

“Document: Donetsk Oblast coroner office. June 29, 2014. There is nothing on the corpse of Mr. Zhdanovich, Sergei Borisovich, born 1966, or in the coffin prohibiting it to cross the state border of Ukraine.”

The photographer discovered on the Internet site "Afghanistan. Nothing is forgotten; no one is forgotten " that Zhdanovich “had been an instructor for the Special Forces of the FSB (Russia’s state security), and a veteran of Afghanistan and Chechnya”. It said he was born in the town of Elektrogorsk, near Moscow, where he also was a deputy on the town council for Putin’s United Russia party. It also reported that he left on May 14 for a Russian military base near Rostov-on-Don, and was killed on May 26 in Donetsk.

Zhdanovich’s role as a FSB military instructor contradicts what Putin told French journalist on June 3. When asked about Russian fighters in Eastern Ukraine, he unashamedly replied: “There are no armed forces, no Russian ‘instructors’ and there never were any.”

Turchenkova also managed to take a picture of another certificate with the name Yuri Fedorovich Abrosimov, born 1982. However, she didn’t find anything about him on the Internet. Another Russian warrior erased from history by the Russian government.

Later two more names appeared on the Internet: twenty-year-old Alexei Yurin and twenty-two-year-old Alexander Efremov. Both had last served in Russia’s 45th Special Forces Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment and volunteered to fight in Donbas.

As the separatists and Russia’s officials hide the identity of the returning corpses, it is strange that Ukraine’s authorities have not revealed the identity of the fallen Russians, but have left it to Russian journalists. After all their border guards had taken down the names of the thirty-two corpses that crossed the border, and their civil servants manage the Donetsk morgue.

The journalists accompanying the ice-cream lorry returned to Donetsk after reaching the Russian border post at Uspensk.

At the border, the bodies were not welcomed but treated as a state secret. Three men in military uniforms met “Cargo 200” in a Toyota Land Cruiser. They entered the Russian border post, ordered the surveillance camera to be turned off and demanded the guards’ mobiles while the lorry drove through. They didn’t allow the guards to examine the cargo, and even register its entrance into Russia.

The ice-cream lorry followed the Land cruiser to a morgue at military hospital 1602 in Rostov’s Voenved district. Rostov based journalist Elena Kostuchenko latched on to the story of the bodies returning secretly to Russia and wrote an amazing account (The Guardian newspaper translated a large part of her article, see Battle for Donetsk airport: the story of one Russian fighter by Elena Kostyuchenko in Rostov-on-Don for Novaya Gazeta, www.theguardian.com, Friday, June 27, 2014.)

At the morgue the correspondent met Lena, the partner of Yevhen Korolenko, whose body she heard was among those from Donetsk.

She told the story of how her partner, Yevhen Korolenko, a former soldier, appeared as a pro-Russian fighter in Ukraine. Three months earlier, he had left a note for her saying that because he was unemployed, he had volunteered to fight in the Donbas. He was recruited through the website “Russian volunteers for the Donbass”. Just before the New Year, a Russian military recruitment center called him to report on February 23rd for training. On May 26th, a friend of his telephoned with the news that he was killed at Donetsk airport.

The Rostov journalist Kostuchenko wrote the site was now attempting to recruit only highly skilled soldiers:

“Right now they are looking for armoured infantry vehicle crew members, portable antitank guided missile launcher operators, anti-aircraft missile system operators, automatic grenade launcher AGS-17 operators, grenade launch operators, flamethrower operators. Also required are notionally civilian specialists: mechanics, drivers, command centre staff, logistics specialists, doctors and paramedics.”

Lena found her Yevhen number sixteen on the list of the fifty-six police mug shots of those killed at Donetsk airport. At the military morgue, the authorities had denied her modest request to see his body so she could identify him before he was buried. She had already spent eight days badgering the authorities, who attempted to get her to leave the military morgue in Rostov by giving her false stories:

“I rang them up (the staff at the morgue). Stupidly, I said it was about a body from Donetsk. The moment they heard about Donetsk, Ukraine, they were all, like, ‘No, no, no…’;

“Your husband is dead. His body is hidden at a certain place...”;

“A 100% we don’t’ have him”;

“Yes, he is here (in the morgue). But they won’t let you in, Lena. They have made it into a military secret, do you understand?;

"Russia is not conducting a military action. Your husband voluntarily went to the street where shots were being fired”;

and “They said that would not give him to me because I have spoken to a journalist.”

The Rostov journalist Elena Kostuchenko rang the politician from the United Party leader in the Elektrogorsk, Roman Tikunov, who picked up the body of his friend Zhdanovich, to help Lena do the same. He refused saying: “Don’t you dare call me again” and turns off his phone.”

Finally, after more than eight days of harassing the authorities, they relented and gave Lena the body of her partner, Yevhen Korolenko, for a funeral.

How many more Russians and Ukrainians have to die for President Putin’s covert action in Ukraine?

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