Russia’s greatest military loss so far in the Ukrainian war is also becoming something of a liability for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
After Russia’s Black Sea flagship Moskva sank last week, authorities said the entire crew of more than 500 had been rescued. But there has been no official update since, and the families of the missing crew members are increasingly demanding answers about their whereabouts.
“They don’t want to talk to us,” Maksim Savin, 32, said in an interview about the quest to find out the whereabouts of his youngest brother Leonid, 20, a conscript. “We are in mourning; they recruited our little brother and will probably never return him.
At least 10 families have publicly expressed their frustration at receiving conflicting information about whether their sons are alive, missing or dead. Their demands, made on social media or to news outlets, could hurt public support for the war effort ordered by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
The official silence on the fate of the Moskva crew is part of a wider Kremlin campaign to suppress bad news about the invasion and control the narrative Russians receive about its progress. Mr Putin blocked access to Facebook and many foreign news outlets, and enacted a law to jail anyone spreading “false information” about the war.
The cause of the sinking has been disputed, with Russia claiming that an ammunition magazine exploded and then the damaged ship sank while being towed in rough seas. Ukraine said it hit the vessel with two Neptune missiles, a claim US officials have corroborated. Either way, the loss of one of the largest warships since World War II has been a source of embarrassment for Russia.
Independent Russian media based outside the country reported that about 40 men died and 100 others were injured when the battleship was damaged and sank. These reports cite an unidentified official and the mother of a deceased sailor. Additionally, the wife of an older midshipman confirmed his death to Radio Liberty, a US government network based outside of Russia.
Many of the missing crew members were conscripts, a sensitive subject in Russia since the war in Chechnya, when poorly trained young soldiers were often thrown into battles and died en masse, eroding public support for the war. “A few hundred” soldiers from the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s have still not been found, said Alexander Cherkasov, the former president of the Memorial Human Rights Center, a Moscow-based group that disbanded this week. month because of a court. Ordered.
“Nobody cares about the soldiers,” he said, and restrictions on non-governmental organizations mean it is now virtually impossible for them to carry out research work, he said.
Mr Putin has repeatedly said that conscripts due to serve a year in the army will not be deployed to Ukraine, a statement contradicted by battlefield casualties.
The Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, which dates back to the Chechen wars, has confirmed that it receives requests to search for missing soldiers. The organization declined to comment further, citing a law prohibiting the sharing of information about soldiers with foreign organizations.
Parents of crew members of the Moskva, named after the Russian capital, expressed outrage at what they described as an official headlong rush.
“We parents are only interested in the fate of our children: why, being conscripted soldiers, did they end up in this military operation? said Dmitry Shkrebets, whose 19-year-old son Yegor worked as a cook on the Moskva.
In an interview, Mr. Shkrebets was reluctant to speak further, but on Sunday he posted much harsher statements on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook.
Initially, officers told him that Yegor was among the missing, he said.
“Guys, did you go missing on the high seas? !!! ” he wrote. “I asked directly why you officers are alive, and my son, a conscript soldier, is dead?”
Mr. Shkrebets has since started collecting testimonies from other families who are unable to locate their sons. “The more we write, the harder it will be for them to keep silent about what is happening,” he wrote on Wednesday.
Dmitry S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said on Tuesday he was not authorized to release information about the missing sailors and referred questions to the Defense Ministry.
The ministry did not respond to requests for comment. He posted a video on Saturday purporting to show Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, the commander of the Russian Navy, meeting men described as the crew of the Moskva lined up in formation and wearing uniforms. The number of survivors of the attack was unclear and nothing was said about the casualties either in the video or in social media posts.
An indication of the official stance came Sunday night during Vesti Nedeli, the weekly news digest on state television. The three-hour show devoted about 30 seconds to the sinking, without mentioning the victims.
However, not all Kremlin spokespersons were so reluctant. A talk show host, Vladimir Solovyev, on Saturday demanded an explanation of how the ship was lost.
Maksim Savin said the family could not reach any officers in his brother’s unit by phone. His mother texted a number and received a reply that her son Leonid was missing.
Later, the family received a series of calls from a man who seemed to have served with Leonid and who kept changing his story. First, the man said Leonid died rushing to save a friend, Maksim Savin said. On the second call, he said there was no rescue, but Leonid was caught at the site of an explosion. The third time he called to say he had made a mistake and that Leonid had disappeared.
“It looks like the officers are trying to silence everyone,” Maksim Savin said.
Many reports of missing conscripts first appeared on social media. A woman wrote that her brother had worked in the engine room and was missing, but she was sure he was dead.
Anna Syromaysova, the mother of a missing conscript, told the independent Russian news agency Meduza that she could not see any official documents relating to the victims. “There are no lists,” she said. “We are looking for them ourselves. They don’t tell us anything. Reached by telephone, she refused to speak to a foreign press agency.
Tamara Grudinina told the BBC’s Russian-language service that her son, Sergei Grudinin, 21, was assigned to the ship straight after basic training.
When she learned the ship had sunk, Ms Grudinina said, she called a Ministry of Defense hotline for relatives and was told her son was ‘alive and well and would get in touch at the first opportunity”.
Shortly after, a man who identified himself as the commanding officer of the Moskva contacted her and told her that her son had “essentially sunk with the ship”, according to the BBC.
After the war began on February 24, the family contacted naval officers to inquire about the ship and were told that it was not taking part in military actions and was soon to return to port, said Maksim Savin.
Leonid’s calls had stopped, but after speaking with officers they received a letter from him saying he planned to be home soon, his brother said.
He said his younger brother, who had trained as an auto mechanic at a vocational school, had been reluctant to join the army and had not supported the war. A family photo shows a lanky young man in a sailor uniform with a rifle slung across his chest, surrounded by his parents and three brothers.
According to his brother, Leonid Savin was much more comfortable hiking in the Crimean hills with the family dog, reading a book or tending to his plants. He had planted a palm tree and an avocado tree before leaving for his military service.
“In his letter home, he asked how his plants were doing,” Maksim Savin said. “He was worried about them.