The grave of Sgt. Vladislav A. Barakov, a soldier sent to fight inUkraine, states the day he died, Aug. 24, but not where or how.Credit James Hill for The New York Times
A photograph of the baby-faced soldier in fulldress uniform sits propped against a wooden cross with a smallplaque that says he died on Aug. 24. He was 21.
What the plaque does not say - and what no onewants to talk about - is how and where the young sergeant died:blown up in a tank while sent to fight in eastern Ukraine, whereRussia's leaders have denied any role other than as facilitators ofpeace. Sergeant Barakov, who served in Russia's Sixth Tank Brigade,was one of dozens - some say hundreds - of Russian soldiers killedin action this summer. Their bodies have been returned in recentweeks to loved ones who in many cases had no idea where they weresent to fight, have received little information about how they diedand, in any event, are being pressured not to talk about it. Somefamilies have even been threatened with losing any compensation ifthey do.
"We are just ordinary people," Sergeant Barakov's uncle, whodeclined to give his name, said in a clipped reply when asked fordetails of his nephew's death. "You have more ways of finding outthan we do."
Much of the information about regular Russian troops in Ukraine hascome from soldiers themselves - posting about their deployments onsocial media, as well as about the deaths of comrades fightingthere.
Yet even as the Kremlin's official line has crumbled, with at leastthree online databases charting Russian soldiers killed or woundedin Ukraine, efforts to sustain the cover-up havepersisted.
On Thursday, a BBC television crew was attacked in the southernRussian city of Astrakhan after interviewing the family of asoldier who died in Ukraine.
"Apparently there is an unspoken order to deny losses and hidegraves," said Lev Shlosberg, a regional lawmaker who was beaten andhospitalized last month after he began documenting the deaths ofsoldiers who were based in Pskov. The city, in northwest Russia, ishome to a celebrated unit, the 76th Guards Air AssaultDivision.
"Many of those funerals have been held either at dawn or early inthe morning so that only few would see them," adding shame to thegrief and heartbreak of military families, Mr. Shlosberg said."They are ready to go to war," he said of the service members. "Butsecret funerals humiliate them."
Mr. Shlosberg has published a list of 12 soldiers from the localbase who were killed in Ukraine but said he believed there werehundreds more. He said revealing the truth would help end theconflict. "The only goal is to stop this war," Mr. Shlosbergsaid.
Already, the deaths have forced the Kremlin to adjust its message,and officials now acknowledge that some Russian "volunteers" wentto Ukraine.
The soldiers' bodies are also providing a much fuller picture ofRussia's military intervention on behalf of pro-Russian separatistsfighting the Ukrainian government. The dead served not just inelite special forces, like those who led the incursion in Crimea,but also in paratrooper and air defense units, motorized riflebrigades, armored brigades and infantry units - representing thebreadth and depth of the Russian military.
Last month, their stories began to appear online, posted by fellowsoldiers, relatives and friends. In some cases, soldiers stoppedcalling home, prompting families to reach out to advocacy groupssuch as Soldiers' Mothers, founded during the Soviet war inAfghanistan.
With little official information, Yelena Vasilyeva, a political andenvironmental activist, created a Facebook group as aclearinghouse.
"It's not possible to get official information," Ms. Vasilyevasaid. "This war is officially undeclared."
A Ukrainian computer programmer, who would give his name only asVladimir, said he had created lostivan.com, a searchable database,after seeing that information about Russian fighters in easternUkraine was quickly disappearing from social networkingsites.
"The purpose of this site is to show the world evidence of howPutin's regime began open war with Ukraine," Vladimir said,referring to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. "I receivemost of the information from a mothers' committee, plus relatives,"he said. "People in Russia don't want to talk about itopenly."
Dead bodies began undermining the Kremlin's official line in earlyJune when a first load of corpses of Russian citizens who hadvolunteered to fight in Ukraine was carried back in a large whitetruck, marked with red crosses and a huge "200" scrawled on thesides. The reference was to "Cargo 200," a phrase that originallyreferred to the weight of zinc coffins used to bring dead soldiershome from Afghanistan but now applies generally to militarycasualties.
The trip was chronicled in detail by Maria Turchenkova, a Russianphotographer, who was part of a small group of journalists thatfollowed the truck.
The Russian government's denials became even harder to sustain inAugust, as fighting intensified and regular Russian troops weredeployed to save the rebels from defeat.
One of those units was Sergeant Barakov's Sixth Tank Brigade, whichis normally based in Mulino, 225 miles east of Moscow.
On Aug. 15, when the brigade was ordered to the Ukrainian border,one soldier, Sergey Rusakov, posted the news on his page onVkontakte, Russia's Facebook, with an expletive and a reference toquitting.
The next week, the unit was part of a convoy sent into Ukraine, andon Aug. 24 - the same day Sergeant Barakov was killed - a Ukrainianmilitary spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said at least two Russian tankshad been destroyed near the border.
Since then, other soldiers from the Sixth Tank Brigade, Mr. Rusakovand Dmitry Yermakov, were also reported killed.
Here in Selizovo, a tiny village 180 miles southeast of Moscow,residents all seemed to know about Sergeant Barakov's death, butdetails were hazy. His older brother, Aleksandr, said the familyhad been told that Sergeant Barakov was killed in a trainingexercise.
Standing outside the family's home on Oktyabrskaya Street,Aleksandr said his brother had been "a positive guy" who had wantedto serve in the army since childhood and enlisted voluntarily, butwho also loved to cook and had trained to become a chef. AleksandrBarakov said the family had been given no details, but he insistedthat his brother had never been in Ukraine.
Dmitry Gorbachyov, another soldier in the Sixth Tank Brigade, whoposted photos of Sergeant Barakov and Mr. Rusakov on Vkontakte,contradicted that. "This horrible war took you," Mr. Gorbachyovwrote. "But you will always be in our hearts."
Anna Filkina, who was in the same class in school with SergeantBarakov through childhood, said she had heard that he was killed byUkrainian mortar fire on the Russian side of the border. TheRussian government, which has complained of errant artillery, neverreported such casualties.
Ms. Filkina said most of the boys she had grown up with had gone onto military service, leaving a village that at its center has asingle grocery store and a memorial to soldiers killed in World WarII. "No one is forgotten," it says. "Nothing isforgotten."
At the cemetery, a short drive away, a cup of tea, a spoon and acigarette were left on the ground near Sergeant Barakov's grave. Itwas surrounded by flower arrangements, each with a ribbon: frombrothers; from girlfriends; from family; to grandson.
Mr. Shlosberg, the lawmaker from Pskov, said many families of deadsoldiers did not see a point to further investigation. "They don'tcare," he said. "For them, the war is over."
David M. Herszenhorn, Alexandra Odynova, The New York Times