Anton Tumanov was brought back in a closed casket.
"There was a small window - that was good, I could recognize his face. The boys told me their unit had some that were just pieces of meat, their DNA is being done now. The parents still haven't received their children back."
Sitting on a sofa in her living room, where Anton used to sleep, Elena Petrovna Tumanova, his mother, adjusts the black headband she's wearing on her graying hair and searches for the death certificate in her purse - for some reason she carries it with her.
Junior sergeant Anton Tumanov's personal belongings, passport, and military ID haven't yet been released to his mother. On August 20th, Elena Petrovna received only the casket and a copy of the death certificate from a mortuary in Rostov. It specifies the date of death, August 13th 2014, the location, "The temporary disposition of military unit 27777," the time, "While performing military duties," and the cause, "Combined trauma. Multiple shrapnel wound of lower extremities with damage to major blood vessels. Acute massive blood loss."
"His legs were torn off, of course. The boys told me that. But I could feel it anyway that there wasn't all of him there in the casket…"
Anton went to the army from his native Kozmodemyansk (population 21,000, 100 kilometers from Yoshkar-Ola) in 2012. He went through his basic training in Penza, and afterwards served in South Ossetia.
"When he came back from the army, he tried to get a job, but failed," Elena Petrovna says calmly. "They didn't hire him at the prosecutor's jail, since he had anemia. He was good for the army, but not for a job. Anton went to Nizhny [Novgorod], where he worked at the car plant for three months or so. Nowhere to live, too expensive to rent… He came back. He went to Moscow a couple of times, worked at a construction site with the boys. They received no salaries, I had to send him money for the return ticket. And where can you work here in Kozmodemyansk? Just two factories left, one produces something out of plastic, can't remember what the second one does. In May, he said, 'Mom, I'll take the army contract'. I tried to talk him out of it, 'Wait, look at the situation… God forbid they'll send you to Ukraine, we already had Chechnya, we had Afghanistan.' 'Mom, they won't send our troops there. That's it, I've made the decision, I'll go. I need the money. I'm not going to war, I'm going to work. There are no other jobs anyway.'"
Anton went to the 18th motorized infantry brigade, military unit 27777, in the town of Kalinovskaya in Chechnya, on June 21st. He picked the place himself. He said that he had fallen in love with mountains while in South Ossetia: "I want to wake up and see mountains, fall asleep and see mountains." He was in a hurry to make it before the end of the month, in time to be paid his July salary. However, when he arrived, he learned that he would have a three-month trial period and only then would be able to sign the contract. "He called me and said, 'There won't be any salary for at least two months.' I said, 'Tell me the truth, do you want me to send you any money?'" Elena Petrovna says. "'Well, whatever you can…' So I sent three thousand ($80), all I could find: I'm a nurse's aide myself, my salary is 5500 ($150). Anton told me everyone was stuck there without money, the salaries were being delayed. When the boys from his unit came here after the funeral with the documents, they didn't even get any travel money. Get your tickets and go. They had their first meal of the trip at our recruitment office."
Anton never received his salary for the one and a half months of service. He told the family he was promised 40-50 thousand roubles ($1050-$1300). His unit comrades explained that he was likely lied to: they are paid no more than 30,000 ($800).
The only documents Anton Tumanov's mother received after his death
Going to War
Anton called home almost every day. In early July, he suddenly revealed that in his unit there were requests for volunteers to go to Ukraine.
"I told him, 'I hope you don't want to go?' 'What am I, an idiot? No one here wants to go.' Another one of our boys went to serve with him; he also served in Chechnya, in Shali. That boy told me afterwards that in their unit they were told, if you can hang on in Ukraine for a certain number of days, you can earn 400 thousand ($10500). Naturally, no one agreed to go: even if you survive, they'll screw you with the money."
Afterwards, Anton wrote to his mother that he was being transferred somewhere near Rostov. From his words, the soldiers of unit 27777 found themselves on the Russian-Ukrainian border on July 11th. Elena Petrovna wasn't worried:
"It's hot in Rostov, Ukraine is far away, Anton was doing well. What do I mean by well? I would ask him, 'What did you eat?' 'Doshirak' [brand of instant noodles] 'What about the field kitchen?' 'We don't have it, only field rations.'"
Elena Petrovna keeps complaining that the boys were underfed, kept in the rain and in the heat… It seems she wants to think of her son as hungry. She can't think of her son as dead.
The 18 year old Nastya Chernova, Anton's fiance, talks about the month in Rostov region in a very different way.
With the same mourning headband on her head as Elena Petrovna's, Nastya is sitting in a chair opposite Anton's photo: small, very fragile, with long blond hair, dressed in all black ("I can't wear anything bright, I just can't bear it"), and not even once during the conversation raises her eyes.
Nastya would get in touch with Anton every day. He told her much more about the service than his mother. On July 23rd or 25th he said for the first time, "We are going to war." Nastya, frightened, could only ask, "But there are no Russians in Ukraine?" "We are going as militia." He didn't call for three or four days.
The second time, as Anton told Nastya, they were sent to Ukraine on August 3rd, for two days. He didn't say anything about the cities, dates, and goals of the trip; Nastya thinks he didn't know it himself.
"I guess they were sent just to observe the situation, go around and watch," she reasons. "They were given Ukrainian money. Anton told me that he went to the stores, then laughed, 'There are no souvenirs, at least I'll bring you Ukrainian money.' Like he wasn't talking about war, just normal life."
"They Sent Us to Help the Rebels. Don't Wworry, Everything's Gonna Be Cool"
The last photo of Anton Tumanov (first on the right) in a temporary camp near the city of Snizhne, Donetsk region (according to the geotag made by Anton's army comrade, who posted the photo to the social network "VKontakte"). The second person on the right is possibly Robert Arutunyan, who died together with Anton. Anton's relatives don't know the fate of the other soldiers.
On August 10th, Anton called home: "Mom, we're being sent to Donetsk."
"I say, 'Where? There's a war there! They can't send you there!' He said, 'That's what you think, mom'. All he said was, 'They're sending us to help the rebels. Don't worry, everything's gonna be cool.'"
Anton added to Nastya that he would stay in Ukraine for two or three months, possibly until November, without any means of communication.
"Right before his departure, he said, 'I don't want to go. The guys and myself, we were considering bailing out, but the base is 1,500 kilometers away,'" Nastya recalls. "Perhaps he felt something… In the last days he kept saying. 'So, we didn't get married, I have no kids, nothing...'. Those were his plans, his dreams…"
On August 11th Anton was issued two grenades and 150 rifle rounds. At 3pm he sent his mother a message via Vkontakte: "I've given away my phone, leaving for Ukraine." That was it.
"If I had only known that it could be like this…" Elena Petrovna sits on her son's sofa: calm, quiet, sad. The mirrors in the apartment are covered with many-colored sheets. Anton's photos, his military hat, and a neatly folded flag are laid out on a napkin-covered stool, they were brought along with the casket. There's a very young, handsome man in uniform on the photo with a mourning ribbon. He's wearing a uniform in all his photos in the house.
"I don't understand: how could they send them?" says his mother. "There were a lot of people, twelve hundred of them… I didn't even know who to call. I didn't know those majors or their phone numbers… If I had known, I would've said, 'Don't you dare send him!' I would… If I had known."
What happened next, we know from the story of two of Anton's comrades from m/u 27777 who came to Kozmodemyansk after the funeral with his documents. One of them left Elena Petrovna a notarized "Explanation" with the details of Anton's death. Later, he agreed to meet with Sergey Krivenko, a member of the Human Rights Council and a board member of the Human Rights Center "Memorial", who wrote down his story for a letter to the Military Investigations Department of the Investigative Committee of RF. (The editorial office has the name of the serviceman and the copies of the documents.)
According to the comrades, the order to cross the border with Ukraine came down on August 11th. The commanders swore at those who refused, shamed them, and threatened them with criminal prosecution . They were ordered to give away all documents and phones, to take off their uniforms (everyone changed into plain fatigues), and to paint over the markings and numbers on their vehicles. They tied white bands on their arms and legs; later Tumanova found a photo of her son with similar bands in "Vkontakte", with his comrade's note, "These are the friend or foe symbols. Today you wear it on your leg, tomorrow - on your right arm, etc. Everything that moves without these bands is destroyed."
On the night of August 12th the convoy of 1200 men entered Ukraine and made a stop during the day of the 13th in the city of Snezhnoe in Donetsk region, 15 km from the border. The trucks with weapons and ammunition were parked very densely. On August 13th, the convoy was shelled by "Grads."
"The boys (the army comrades - E.R.) said that out of the 1200, there were 120 dead and 450 wounded," Tumanova says. "They were somewhere in the back, and my Anton was right in the front. They had no trenches, no defense… They panicked, some went to their trucks, others somewhere else. They got out whichever way they could…"
In short, from Anton's comrades' descriptions, the operation of the victorious Russian Army on the foreign soil looked like this: with two grenades per person and the equipment that wasn't ready for battle, the military convoy entered Ukraine, was shelled by "Grads", and the next day was back with 120 dead bodies.
"Did you give the order?"
An employee of the Kozmodemyansk recruitment office named Budaev brought the death notice. "He sent Anton to his mandatory service, and he did the contract paperwork. He brought it, and he was crying. I only asked, 'Where did this happen?' 'Near Luhansk.' 'But they were going to Donetsk.' 'They didn't reach it.' He gave me the unit's phone number, I called and asked, 'Maybe this is a mistake, not my son?' 'No, everything is correct, the guys have just recognized him.' Condolences and all that…"
Since then, no one from the military command spoke with Elena Petrovna. And she didn't call either. She just doesn't know who to call.
"Why did this happen? Where? They should just tell me and be honest. Most of all, of course, I want to know, who gave this order and why?! Because this order could only come from Moscow. If Putin were standing in front of me, I would ask just like that, 'Did you give the order? Tell me the truth.' Until the last moment, I thought there were no Russians there. And the boys are saying it's not going to be over any time soon. Why does anyone have to go there? Let them figure it out among themselves any way they want."
"This has been happening since New Year's or even before that, right? When Crimea was returned, I watched the TV and thought, 'Why the hell do we need it? We're like castoffs here, and still we're adding something else.' Anton, I guess, wasn't thinking about this at all. He didn't go to fight, he went to work.
Per Elena Petrovna's request I help her write an appeal to human rights activists, and take it with me to Moscow.
"I'm in a panic now. I need the people to know that the boys are at war. But maybe in Moscow they don't need us, they already know everything?" she asks very seriously. I hide my eyes and don't say anything. "I called 'Soldiers' Mothers' [The Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia], they said right away, 'Oh, the 18th brigade? Yes, we know, 120 dead…' So I was not the first one to call them. They asked, 'Are you not afraid that later you will be… you know?" I'm not afraid, I say…"
Tumanova wrote about the death of her son on her page on the social network, "Odnoklassniki." In response she received a dozen of vicious messages saying that she was lying, denigrating the country, and doing self-promotion. "One of them wrote me, 'Aren't you afraid that you'll see the boys covered in blood in your eyes?' I think she's weird, though she looks fine in her photo."
"Do you want anyone to bear responsibility for Anton's death?" I ask.
"To be honest, I don't care, they might dismiss someone from his position or they might not. I really don't care now. I just want to understand: why did they send him there, who did that? Just for myself. But it's very difficult to get someone say it."
Elena Petrovna Tumanova at her son's grave
At the Cemetery
We are walking through the lower district of Kozmodemyansk, which is by the Volga river. There are old blackened log cabins, all are sunk into the ground. Motley window framings, palisades, and boats in people's yards catch our eye. This all looks like a large village. It's none too depressing, just like everywhere else.
It's a fifteen minute walk from the house to the cemetery. Along the way, we happen to find a mushroom right in the street, also we buy somewhat faded dahlias and asters at a farmers' market where barely any trade goes on.
"What are they fighting for?" Elena Petrovna genuinely wonders, and then stumbles over the torn pavement. "Is it for the territory, really? Who would really need it? I know nothing of all these politics… Before this, I would wonder sometimes, 'Who is fighting there?' If they keep on telling that a certain number of militia were killed, how many of them still remain? Even when Anton was near Rostov, I kept thinking that way. Some people here, they put it this way, 'WWII didn't reach our neighbourhood, so neither will this war.' And they don't even realize that their men will be taken away."
...Among the old long abandoned tombstones with photos of grim kerchief-wearing old women, Anton's grave really stands out. There are plastic wreaths brought by relatives and sent from the recruitment office, a bottle holding freshly cut wild flowers, and a photo, the same one, with Anton wearing his uniform. Elena Petrovna drops some candies over the grave, "These are the tasty ones, with raisins, I bought them today," she puts away the bunches of flowers, which have barely withered since the funeral. She makes the sign of the cross and weeps.
"An awful lot of people" attended the funeral. Officials from the recruitment office brought a military band from Yoshkar-Ola with them. "These boys in the band always get to do the soldiers' funerals. And they told me that Anton was not the first one of ours, from Mari El Republic, to die there."
The servicemen from m/u 27777 who visited the Tumanovs have told Elena Petrovna that on this trip they brought documents to three families of the killed soldiers, in Kozmodemyansk, Kazan, and Mariinsky Posad.
Anton's fellow serviceman has posted to Vkontakte a photo with Anton and another guy, both of them laughing. The note reads, "Robert Martunovitch Arutyunyan and Anton Tumanov. The heroes who died while performing their military duty." One of the comments asks about their unit and the place where they died. The answer goes, "Combat engineer reconnaissance group of a motorized infantry battalion. Snizhne, one of the Eastern European states." The next question asks, "And what were they doing in Eastern Europe?" The answer, "Just following our orders. In the role of militia. By the way, I was relieved on our hill by the airborne from Pskov, who also seem to have nothing to do in the South-east of Europe."
Possibly deceased Robert Arutyunyan and Anton. Rostov region.
"We've got to let go of him. By tradition, within 40 days we ought to let go. They say when we cry it makes him sad, there in heaven. Crying is a no way," Elena Petrovna says.
We are in a kitchen and Tumanova makes herself busy, doing her best to serve a dinner to Nastya and us. She cuts generous thick slices of bologna. Nastya absentmindedly stirs her tea.
"When I gave him a call the very last time, his mobile was out of money," Elena Petrovna recalls. "I said to him that I was going to top up his mobile account." But he refused, 'No mom, wait till I get back. When I call you, then you'll do it.' Can you imagine?" she cries.
The journalist from "Krasny Gorod," a local Yoshkar-Ola newspaper, comes to see the Tumanovs at the time of my visit. He inquires to find out whether Anton was doing any sports and how good his grades were so insistently that I can guess that the deceased is to be portrayed in the most favourable light.
"No, not really," Elena Petrovna waves this aside. "He wasn't all that good at studying. When he graduated from high school, he still couldn't make up his mind. He entered a technical college, but did not graduate. He would say that if an person wants to work at a factory, a diploma isn't all that necessary. And there are no universities in our town. His dreams were simple. A job, a car, an apartment, a family. He just didn't have any other way of getting a job… But on the other hand… I always wanted to see him wearing a uniform. And he enjoyed being in the army himself."
Everyone in the town knows about Anton's death already. Elena Petrovna laughs while recalling the many young girls who came to tell her how much they liked Anton.
"I feared to see him dead. Couldn't believe this till I saw him," Nastya keeps staring downward. She picks her words carefully. To her, any words seem to be unfit, but she keeps talking as if it were her duty, "I have never ever felt scared with him by my side. I had nothing to fear at all. He promised to come for the New Year's vacation, and we would get married… I kept saying that it was too early for me to become a wife, but if he had come with a wedding ring, no chance that I would have refused him. I asked him, why so soon, what's the rush?" And his reply was, "What if there is a war? We don't have children, but at least we would be married to each other."
Elena Racheva, Novaya Gazeta
20-year-old Anton Tumanov, from Kozmodemyansk in Mari El Republic, went to war and died. This is his mother’s story.
Anton Tumanov was brought back in a closed casket.