By Andrew Kaushik (Rostov-on-Don) and Vladimir Dergachov.
All photographs are by Andrew Kaushik.
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
Gazeta.ru correspondent investigates whether the military casualties in Donbas are being buried in cemeteries in Rostov-on-Don
Photographs of fresh graves in Rostov-on-Don cemeteries, where Russian volunteer soldiers killed in Donbas were allegedly buried, have been circulating the Internet and were published in the major Ukrainian media. Gazeta.ru’s correspondent went to the Rostov cemetery and investigated the situation on site.
“…I could have gone to prison for this for a long time”
There were rumors of secret burials even three years ago: some civil activists thought that the authorities underreported the number of casualties from the floods in Krymske by several times. Referring to the anonymous statements by “emergency service workers,” they insisted that over a thousand people died, not 171. They looked for their graves in the adjacent Slovyansk district, but no evidence was submitted.
It seems that it is possible to hide anything in the North Cemetery in Rostov-on-Don, one of the biggest [cemeteries] in Europe, even a battalion or a division. The head of the administrative department for city cemetery services, Valeri Zykov, says that the area of the churchyard is more than 400 hectares. Half a million people have been laid to rest here over 40 years. This is the only active cemetery out of eight city cemeteries; the others are only used for very close relatives.
“The unknown ones are buried over there.” Valeri brings us to the rows of fresh piles of red soil, lot “31a.” Judging by the construction scattered around on the horizon, these are the photographs of “suspicious” graves that have found their way onto the Internet. “All is in accord with the documents that the morgue provides.”
We don’t have this here, to bring them and secretly dump and bury them. I could have gone to prison for this for a long time. I will never agree to bury insurgents or anyone who has not been authorized.
Some white stones have the name and dates, others have a featureless “UM” (unknown male) and “UF” (unknown female), with an approximate date of death and age (“40-45 years,” “60-70 years,” “40-50 years”). There is a large range, from 30 to 80 years.
“Can the insurgents really be unknown?” The head of city burial services argues emotionally. “How can a 70-year-old grandfather or 60-year-old pensioner be useful in a fight? That’s nonsense.”
He admits that he has found some photographers here, but they are “just sick,” and when he goes to talk [to them], they run away for some reason.
In another lot, “20b,” the excavators are still buzzing in the trench as workmen stand to one side smoking. Some “unidentified” graves are fenced off, and are even marked with simple wooden crosses. Relatives are found according to last names, they pay their last respects, even if they are late.
One separate part of the cemetery is a memorial to unknown soldiers killed in the first Chechen campaign. Several hundred separate graves with small headstones, like in American films.
The Avenue of Honor
“Then there was a war where the government participated officially. Today we are saying that the army is not fighting, but we do admit that there are volunteers and ‘tourists/ vacationers.’ In my understanding it is uncivilized,” says the head of the historical memorial of the Rostov section of the Russian Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments, Aleksandr Kozhin.
“Here we called that war an ‘antiterrorist operation,’ a mirror image of the current situation in Ukraine. There is such a fork [in the road] towards Taganrog, and a mass of refrigerators with human remains coming from the Chechen war piled up on the railroads. We didn’t know what to do with them, the DNA lab could not manage. They probably decided at the government level to bury them here. They should be given their due, not in a mass grave but each separately.”
According to Kozhin, if Rostov volunteers are dying in Donbas, their comrades would not commit them to the earth in secret, but with honor.
“Recently, we looked into a story of a young man. He was a member of a search initiative, he was 25-26 years old. He sincerely believed in the ‘Russian World’ idea. I don’t know how long he fought, but he was killed,” the historian says. “His comrades from the search initiative turned to the administration of the Matveev Kurgan settlement with a request to inter his remains in the Avenue of Honor. I don’t know how they settled the issue.”
He explained that the Don [area along the river Don] search staff went to Donbas several times. During one of their trips, the insurgents themselves detained another young man. They took him for a Ukrainian spy and almost put him up against the wall. After some other insurgents from the self-proclaimed republics “apologized profusely,” they let him go.
“It is possible to suppose that an insurgent left from Ukraine through Rostov and died here.”
Even the independent organization, “Women of the Don,” who deal with enlisted soldiers and monitor the situation with Donbas, do not know about the mass secret burials of insurgents who have fought in eastern Ukraine. The head of the organization, Valentina Cherevatenko, told Gazeta.ru that she had no information about the “suspicious” graves.
“I would start from what is called the presumption of innocence. In this situation, we immediately try to establish that someone is culpable for something, and we have to rectify it. But guilt must be proven. There is no evidence of mass burials,” Vladimir Artsibashev, the deputy head of Rostov administration, who is in charge of public utility issues, responds to Gazeta.ru. “The North cemetery has exhausted its resources. We are economizing every meter now, we are starting to cut the roads down; before, [the road] was four or five meters wide, now we leave a lane for one car, and carry out burials on the rest of the land. Woodlands are cleared, slopes and hills get leveled out. Rostov does not have its own land, we cannot choose a lot on the city’s territory for a new cemetery.”
The official confirmed that they regularly bury unclaimed bodies. If relatives are not found and the surname is not known, the headstones just show an approximate age and the letters UM or UF. It has always been like that, ever since the North cemetery was opened in 1972. According to him, the morgues themselves carry out tenders and identify a funeral organization. In one year, 436 people whose identity was not established were interred in a city with one million inhabitants.
To look at the situation theoretically, as described in the Ukrainian media, it would be more logical to bury soldiers somewhere near the border in remote areas where no one would see the graves. “It is incredibly difficult to do this in Rostov, there are no closed cemeteries, everything can be freely reached,” the deputy chief of the city continues. “There is a decision [made] by the local parliament and a resolution by the authorities whereby we only bury residents of Rostov or people who die in the city if their bodies are not collected by their relatives. It is possible to suppose that an insurgent left Ukraine through Rostov and died here. Then we have the right to bury him here. Such statistical analysis has not yet been conducted, but if there are instances like this, then you can count them on the palm of your hand, theoretically it is possible.”
The bodies are periodically removed once they accumulate.
The news about the arrival of 500 new graves was like a case of “Chinese whispers.” According to Artsibashev, in 2014 the authorities planned a road through the new Suvorovskiy city district (you can see it behind lot 31a), which went round the edge of the North cemetery. They needed 500 exhumations to do this. They abandoned the project after consulting the law in detail: it is not permitted to build anything on the cemetery, only plant trees.
The field commander of the self-proclaimed DNR, Oleg Melnikov, told Gazeta.ru that Russians who are killed are buried locally if their relatives could not be found, or under extreme circumstances. For example, [like it happened] last summer when Slovyansk was surrounded by the ATO forces.
“Then it was not possible to move the people out, we buried them in a cemetery under the names of their commanders. On my people’s graves, there was the letter ‘M,’ I knew where my men were to ensure their graves wouldn’t get dug up,” Melnikov says.
They take the bodies out of the morgue and transfer them over the Russian border only if they find relatives to whom they can give the deceased for burial, the commander confirms.
“We had one case, when Pavel, a 22-year-old policeman from Moscow, told his relatives that he was going on a work trip. Instead, he took a leave of absence; joined us and got killed. We moved him and gave [his body] to his relatives, the Interior Ministry helped us in every way they could. I very much doubt that they will carry out anonymous burials in Rostov. If I wanted to hide bodies, which we are not doing of course, why not bury them in Donetsk or Luhansk?”
Other insurgents that Gazeta.ru has talked to said that they themselves move their comrades’ bodies out and give them to relatives. Vladislav Brig, the head of the self-proclaimed DNR Ministry of Defense said that the Donetsk Ombudsman negotiates with relatives and controls the dispatch of the bodies of Russian volunteers to their relatives. According to him, the bodies are periodically removed once they accumulate.