Evgeny Korolenko was born in the Soviet Union in 1967 and died in Ukraine in 2014. His story sheds light on the lives of those who have crossed the border from Russia to fight – and the efforts to cover their traces
Accounts of the conflict in eastern Ukraine differ so wildly that it is often difficult to see through the propaganda and get to the truth. Authorities in Kiev suggest that there are no angry or unhappy locals in eastern Ukraine, merely “Russian terrorists”. In Moscow, the Kremlin and foreign ministry insist that brave residents are merely standing up for their rights against Ukrainian “fascism”.
The reality, as so often, lies between these two extremes. While there are many locals fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, there are also many “volunteers” who have come from Russia. How these people arrived, what motivates them, and whether they have any official Russian backing has largely remained a mystery.
But in tracking down the widow of one Russian man who died during the fighting at Donetsk airport, Elena Kostyuchenko, a correspondent for the independent news site Novaya Gazeta, sheds some light onto the murky structures organising the transfer of fighters to Ukraine. She also paints a moving portrait of loss and of the frustration of dealing with Russian officialdom apparently so keen to cover up all traces of those fighting across the border:
The driver of the freezer lorry crossed into Russia at the Uspenka border post in the early hours of 30 May. A black Land Cruiser met the lorry; the driver followed. He unloaded his cargo around 4.30am. He was unsure exactly where. A morgue, perhaps on a military base on the edge of Rostov-on-Don.
The border guards on duty at Uspenka that night say three people dressed in camouflage turned up, turned off the CCTV, demanded the border guards switch off their mobile phones and confiscated the handsets while the lorry was crossing the border. The guards did not see any documents for the cargo; they did not check inside the vehicle nor register its crossing.
The freezer section contained the bodies of 31 Russian fighters killed in the battle near Donetsk airport on 26 May. Alerted by the authorities of the Donetsk People’s Republic, journalists followed the lorry to the border. The journalists learned two names: Sergey Zhdanovich and Yuri Abrosimov. Later, two more names turned up in social networks – Alexey Yurin and Alexander Efremov, who did their compulsory military service in the 45th regiment of the special forces unit of Russian air force troops. That’s it.
The unnamed morgue where the bodies were offloaded seems likely to be the 1602nd district military hospital in a remote area of Rostov called Voenved. It is a sprawling officers’ town, with military units, loading stations and an airport. The hospital has a centre for receiving and dispatching the dead reconnaissance and a huge body storage facility for 400 people, a reminder of the Chechen war.
Yet when I go to investigate I’m told there are no dead bodies in Voenved. At the military forensics office Elena Volkova, the head of the administration department, says: “We do not have the bodies. We receive bodies following court decisions. I would know if we had someone here.”
The press service of the North Caucasus military district tells me military morgues only have military dead. As I am looking for civilians I should look for them somewhere else.
Two women and three men stand near the entrance to the military hospital at Voenved. They are in the narrow shade of a chapel built out of a construction trailer, scrolling through photos on an iPhone, trying to choose something suitable for a headstone. One of the men – he looks distinctly out of place in their company – with grey hair, tall, with the bearing of a soldier, steps aside to make a phone call on a giant telephone receiver.
I ask if they are here to pick up a body. They nod: yes. And yes, he died near Donetsk airport.
“Who are you?” they ask me. When I say I’m a journalist, they immediately ask me to step away, or leave altogether.
“If you have any conscience at all, you will not take any photos,” says a weary-looking young woman in a long turquoise dress. Her face looks strange. Only later I realise it was not grief but acute fear I saw in her face.
About 40 minutes later a group of tanned men in stretched out and stained vests appears. One of the men approaches me and asks, “How do you know that the bodies are here?” Then he says to some soldiers smoking nearby, “She is a journalist. Don’t talk to her.”
An hour later, one of the vested men cries out to the family members as he passes by in a jeep: “Go get some lunch. The matter is still being decided.” The family members leave.
I find out later that they managed to get the body back. Everything was solved via telephone conversations between Donbas and Rostov. The body was returned unofficially.
The following day the body of Sergey Zhdanovich from Elektrogorsk was also picked up, also in secret. For this to happen, Roman Tikunov, the head of the executive body of United Russia, the country’s main pro-Kremlin political party, who also serves as the chairman of the local “Combat brotherhood” chapter, personally travelled to Rostov.
On my request, war veteran organisations meet the leadership of the North Caucasus Military District. The leadership responds in all sincerity: there are no bodies in Rostov; there is nothing to look for.
There is a young woman standing near the shopping centre. She gives me a half hug, leads me up the escalator and then inside the storeroom of the Tsentrobuv shoe store. A young man is about to have his sandwich there but he quickly leaves.
The woman’s name is Lyana Elchaninova. On her colleagues’ advice, she placed a notice on the Vkontakte social network, Russia’s version of Facebook, with the name of her missing husband – Evgeny (Zhenya) Korolenko, born in 1967.
I had been given his name as one of the people who died in the fighting.
Donetsk authorities confirmed that Korolenko was dead and that his body was shipped to Rostov in that same truck.
Lyana has no more tears.
“I am just glad that he is not lying in some pile. There were many bodies left there. I was told the bodies were decomposing. And that Ukrainian soldiers wanted to burn them.”
Lyana has been looking for her husband for eight days. Briefly, she relays this hellish experience: “Zhenya left without saying anything to me. I came home from work late one evening, I work until 10pm, and there was this note. He wrote, ‘The car is at Andrik’s.’
“I found out on 30 May that this Andrik served with him in Afghanistan. He’s a friend of sorts. This Andrik saw Zhenya’s surname on the list of the dead, so I rang him. He said: ‘Yes, it’s over. He’s dead though I didn’t see the body, I’ll ring you later and tell you where and when you can collect it.’
“I waited until 11pm and rang him again. ‘I don’t know where they are, stop asking me these stupid questions.’ Later, he rang me: ‘He’s not in Rostov. He is on one list and not on the other.’ Then he told me it’s impossible to identify anyone, it was just like things were in Chechnya, he begins telling me all these horrifying things.
“But then my head started working again. I could identify him by his hands or his feet. By his teeth, too – you can’t do anything to the teeth, he had some dentures. I can even bring his dentist along and have him look.
“I went to work but the girls could see the state I am in. They also started asking around the people they know – someone in the police force, someone at the FSB security services, but nobody had heard about so many bodies being transported to Rostov. The director knew a girl who worked at Rostov city hospital No. 2. She confirmed that the truck had arrived but they did not have any space in the morgue and the bodies were rerouted to Voenved.
“I rang them up. Stupidly, I said it was about a body from Donetsk. The moment they heard about Donetsk, Ukraine, they were all, like, ‘No, no, no…’
“If I can’t collect him, then I would like to see his body, at least. Or the photographs of the body.”
I ring the United Russia party member Tikunov. I know that at that moment he is accompanying the delivery of Zhdanovich’s body to Elektrogorsk, and explain to him that right next to me is the wife of a man who died together with Zhdanovich. Tikunov tells me I am mistaken and that our newspaper publishes lies and unverified facts.
“Would you like to speak to the widow who has been making rounds of the morgues for eight days?” He says, “Don’t you dare call me again” and turns off his phone.
We ring around the Combat Brotherhood, Afghan veterans, members of the armed forces. They promise help but tell us not to get our hopes up.
‘I’ll be gone for a bit’
This is a note from inside Zhenya’s notepad:
Sweetheart, I couldn’t say this to you yesterday – I didn’t want to upset you because I care about you.
You can see how messed up everything has got.
It’s very hard for me to be here, without a job. I am not really living, it feels like a dead end. So, I have gone to Donbas. They are waiting for me there. There is a future there. I will tell you all about it if I manage to come back alive.
I love you.
I’ll be gone for a bit, my dear.
They were together two-and-a-half years, but were not officially registered as married. During the May holidays they discussed finding out how and when they should apply to get married.
“It was absolute happiness. We never argued even once.”
Between May 1985 and May 1987, before they met, Evgeny served in Afghanistan in a motorised rifle unit as a shooter. He didn’t talk to Lyana much about Afghanistan.
“He tried to forget as much as he could,” she says. He was once inside an armoured vehicle on fire and spent time in hospital. “While he was in service, his mother received two death notifications and had a heart attack after each one.” His parents are no longer alive. His remaining relatives are Lyana and a six-year-old daughter from his first marriage.
By trade, he was a locksmith, and his military papers show he had a previous conviction for something. He used to read a lot, mostly fantasy.
He played World of Tanks, War Thunder, Stalker and World of Warplanes on the computer. Tanks, airplanes, shootouts. Most recently, he worked for his friends’ computer and office equipment repair firm – he picked up and delivered orders. Then his friends stopped paying his salary. He needed the money to spend on his daughter, he needed the money to live on.
Lyana wonders whether the financial situation spurred him on.
“People were saying on internet forums that they were being paid. Were they being paid? Why did he go there?”
“Had he said, ‘I am definitely going,’ I would get worried but then my brain would have switched on. We would have sat down and discussed what I should do if this actually happened. But he did everything without saying a word.”
Don’t worry, I am here, at the border with Rostov. We are playing sport, going on runs. Everything will be fine
Lyana said he was corresponding with people and discussing his departure on the Vkontakte network.
The correspondence lasts only a few hours on 19 May. For his login Evgeny chose Shiva Shiva. His counterpart is Fat Epiphan, one of the volunteers of “Russian volunteers/Donbass” group. Epiphan asks him to fill in a questionnaire: his call signal, date of birth, past experience of combat, specialisation, size, city, equipment, telephone.
He also enquires as to when Zhenya can make it to the deployment point in Rostov. The address is not mentioned. “If you have your uniform, bring it,” Epiphan instructs. “We prefer mountain uniforms. Boots are olive cobra. If you have the boots, don’t buy any more. You shouldn’t bring the Russian numeral camouflage uniform either.”
Lyana recalls what happened when she read the conversation: “I wrote back to Epiphan and then Zhenya personally rang me on 23 May. I started yelling at him: ‘Where are you? Why did you leave me like that?’
‘Don’t worry, I am here, at the border with Rostov. We are playing sport, going on runs. Everything will be fine.’
“I said to him: ‘Don’t get yourself into any trouble. Come home. Why did you go there in the first place?’
‘Don’t worry. I will call you. And if I don’t call you, that means we are not allowed.’ That was it.”
The phone was then switched off. Then, on 26 May, they came under fire.
VKontakte’s Russian volunteers/Donbas group has 10,000 subscribers and excellent security settings. Group managers are anonymous.
Requirements for volunteers are strict: only those with combat experience can apply. They must be over 26 years old, only certain specialisations, no criminal record. 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.
In addition to online mobilisation, the search for volunteers in Rostov-on-Don was conducted directly via the army recruitment centres. Veterans say that a few days before the May holidays they got phone calls from these centres with an invitation to come in for a chat – but only officers and warrant officers with combat experience were invited in.
At the meeting they were told that people were needed to prevent subversive actions, like those in Odessa. The events in Odessa had just happened. Everything strictly on a voluteer basis. The military recruitment office issued those interested with the phone number of a contact person. In other words, the military recruitment offices were recruiting the personnel.
The Rostov region is an excellent place for recruiting volunteer; 68,000 veterans of various conflicts are living here – from Afghanistan to Georgia. Practically every local Cossack was involved in the Transnistria conflict.
Pretty much everyone here is immune to the inevitable evil of any war.
Rostov residents know there are unofficial wars and they can be given different terms, too, such as a counter-terrorism operation, the deployment of limited contingents, peacekeeping missions or they can simply be called nothing at all.
Images of the dead
Many people saw this collection of photographs. It was called “Images of dead pro-Russia activists, for those aged 18+”. Dead faces on tiles.
The images were published on 31 May by a Ukrainian blogger with an introduction about a “sickening spectacle”. I quickly scroll through the text but Lyana does not care. She finds Zhenya at number 16. She finishes looking at the rest of the photos and demands to count them. There are 56 faces.
“There are pictures of those here whose bodies have not been removed. Someone still does not know that someone close to them had died.”
She returns to Zhenya’s photo.
“It does not look like him. A chain, yes, I think he had this chain. The ears are not sticking out. The head or the face does not look like him. But the tattoos are similar. Look, these ones are very well defined but his are old and smudged. No, Zhenya’s eyebrows don’t look quite like that… His hair has grown very long. This is probably him. This could be him. The chain.
He had a similar chain. Nostrils, nose. That’s him. That’s it. That’s him.”
Heat. We’re standing by a concrete slab not far from where the other family once stood. In the morning one of the veterans got through to the surgeon of the hospital number 1602 who promised to issue us with a pass.
It is impossible to get in through the reception – access to the morgue is only on the permission of the head of the hospital. The head of the hospital is not letting anyone into the morgue.
Your husband voluntarily went to the street where shots were being fired.
A security guard eventually says: “You will be given a phone number for the FSB. Give them a ring and resolve the issue. Because we were told not to let you in. Give them a call… I would like to help you from my heart but I can’t. I was told not to let you in.”
Four digits of an internal phone number on a piece of paper. The name on it is Stanislav Alexandrovich Kuznetsov. We are trying to calm Lyana down.
She stops crying. In a calm voice she speaks into the receiver. She says that her husband has gone missing that she has information that the bodies are here and that she needs to bury her husband. Or just to see him, but the head of the hospital gave orders not to let her in.
“And so what do you want from me?” I can hear the voice in the telephone receiver say, “I am not even in the military, so what do you want from me? Goodbye.”
Three hours after we arrived at Voenved and 10 minutes after the call to Kuznetsov, Lyana gets a call on her mobile.
The man introduces himself as Sergey.
“Your husband is dead. His body is hidden at a certain place…”
“Is it at Voenved?” Lyana says quickly. “I am here now.”
“Yes, he is here. But they won’t let you in, Lyana. They have made it into a military secret, do you understand? But we are removing a body tomorrow. We’ll remove yours, too. Someone will ring you regarding the funeral. We’ll help you with everything. But the casket will be closed.
“I want to identify him.”
“It will be a closed casket. But this is definitely him. We verified by the images of the tattoos you’ve sent.”
After two hours “Sergey” rings back and says that he can bring out the body today. Lyana wants to take the body immediately and store it in a morgue in Rostov for safe-keeping while she makes funeral arrangements. Lyana also wants to open the casket and identify her husband.
Soon afterwards, Lyana gets a phone call from someone who introduces himself as a “kommissar”.
“We have bodies which have been lying near the airport since 26 May, and we are unable to collect them. But we managed to pull him out and delivered him to Russia. And after all this you want to open the casket?
“Will this be ethical towards your husband? I think not,” he says. “They used heavy ammunition over there. Do you understand what I am saying? But you can get a red velvet casket; everything will be packaged up nicely. We have a death certificate. He was identified by his fellow soldiers. Of course, all this during military action. But he had been identified.
“You are an adult. Russia is not conducting an organised military action.
“Your husband voluntarily went to the street where shots were being fired.
“We will help you with what we can with the location of the burial and the body. We have sponsors in Russia who are helping. You have to understand that we get no state support. But we will take care of the funeral.”
(Here the kommissar takes a pause, apparently expecting to hear the words of gratitude in response. Lyana would not say anything.)
“Goodbye,” says the kommissar. “I am sorry it all happened this way.”
“Of course I want it all,” Lyana screams at her friend. “I want the medical examination. I want to identify him. I want to make sure this is him. But how?”
They do not manage to find a morgue in Rostov for the body. They have nowhere to take it. There is no place to open up the casket. The temperature in Rostov is +35C. They will receive the body only just before the funeral.
The funeral was due to take place on Monday. Lyana and Dasha go to pick up a funeral wreath. Lyana is looking at a video of volunteers. Branches scarred with shrapnel, someone is pulling a wounded man by his coat, a woman with her legs torn off is trying to get up. “He saw all of this in real life, not on a TV screen, do you understand this? He knew what it looked like. He could not but go there.”
I go to another town for a meeting and return late at night. There are two funeral wreathes decorated with roses and black ribbons standing on the balcony. Lyana is sitting on the sofa, her face raw.
“They will not give Zhenya to me. I got a phone call in the evening. They said that would not give him to me because I have spoken to a journalist. I have spoken to you.”
I break off all contact with Lyana. I spend two days walking around the city. I do not ring my sources, do not interview anyone, make no plans, and do not go to the border. I am afraid to frighten off the people hiding the bodies. But I cannot leave. I eat berries at the market, dodge kids on their roller-skates. There is thunder.
Two days later the news reaches us: Zhenya’s body had been released.
They buried him.