Pvt. Ivan Ovlashenko was one of at least 16,000 Russians who have died in Ukraine, more than in the Soviets’ Afghan war. It’s getting hard for the Kremlin to cover that up.
Soon after he deployed to Ukraine last fall, Pvt. Ivan A. Ovlashenko filmed a short video of himself wearing camouflage fatigues and an olive green fleece hat, sitting in a woods flecked with yellowing leaves while fellow soldiers nearby readied an artillery round to fire toward the Ukrainian lines.
“I am recording everything right,” he said, grinning before shouting a warning, “Mortar!” The clip was meant to reassure relatives back in Russia that his sudden transition to frontline artilleryman was coming along just fine.
Until it wasn’t.
Last September, President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 men to bolster sagging Russian defenses in Ukraine. At the time, the hordes of men who fled Russia to avoid conscription attracted the most attention. Yet hundreds of thousands of Russians like Private Ovlashenko — factory laborers and electricians, medical orderlies and basketball players, tractor drivers and school workers — went off to war.
The promise of payouts of $3,000 or $4,000 a month proved a huge incentive, along with appeals to machismo and the defense of the motherland. “What am I, not a man?” Mr. Ovlashenko told two women, his sister and his former wife. “I need to protect my country, my daughter.”
In lengthy interviews, the women said they were surprised how Mr. Ovlashenko, largely apolitical to this point, suddenly began parroting the government’s far-fetched talking point about the West planning to use Ukraine as a staging ground to attack Russia. If he did not fight in Ukraine, he said, he would have to battle the enemy on the streets of Bataysk, his hometown, a railroad hub just outside the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don.
The mobilization shifted the calculus of the war. It was no longer some distant “military operation,” as the Kremlin still calls it, fought by contract soldiers, mercenaries and Ukrainian separatists press-ganged into service. Suddenly, ordinary Russians were thrust into the trenches.
Now, more than five months later, the tempo of dead and wounded returning to Russia is picking up, with zinc coffins arriving in places like Bataysk. It is a pattern repeating itself across Russia, even if the dead remain largely hidden.
“The numbers are secret,” said Max Trudolyubov, a Russian political analyst and newspaper columnist based in Vilnius, Lithuania. “The mobilized are from small towns, faraway places. The strategy is to spread the losses as thinly as possible across the country.”Western intelligence officials estimate that 200,000 soldiers on the Russian side have been killed or wounded in the war. Of those, more than 16,000 have been confirmed dead in public sources, according to a project conducted jointly by Mediazona, an independent Russian news outlet, the BBC News Russian Service and volunteer researchers. While the true number is undoubtedly far higher, even that figure already exceeds the official death toll during the Soviet Union’s nine-year war in Afghanistan.
The dead include more than 1,366 new recruits, according to the project. Private Ovlashenko, 30, was one of them.
He grew up in Bataysk, a descendant of a long line of railroad workers, and was just 16 months younger than his sister, Valentina, with whom he was very close.
Valentina Strelkova, her married name, remembers her brother as a skinny, agile, fearless child — a potential circus acrobat. He remained devoted to his sister throughout his life, she said, dropping whatever he was doing whenever she needed him.
After he completed his compulsory military service, he went to work for Pepsi in merchandising.
Valeria Ovlashenka worked for Pepsi, too, in sales. When she spurned his advances, he gave a party for the entire staff, greeting her with a bouquet. He soon proposed, and the next day she discovered that she was pregnant. They married in March 2017, and their daughter, Polina, was born later that summer.
They quarreled frequently, not least over how to raise their daughter. Ms. Ovlashenka sought to replicate her own strict upbringing, while her husband made Polina the center of his life. He ironed her diapers and put her to sleep. He bought her toys and candy, took her to see the sea, and taught her to pick mushrooms in the deep northern forests. “It was always a holiday for the child,” she said.
They divorced after two years but neither dated anybody else, and Ms. Ovlashenka always hoped that they would reunite.