Collecting the Dead Russia Left Behind

Oleksii Yukov spends many of his nights dodging drones, navigating minefields and hoping not to be targeted by Russian artillery as he races to collect the remains of fallen soldiers from the battlefield.

In just three shattered tree lines around the ruined village of Klishchiivka outside Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have fought seesaw battles for well over a year, he collected 300 bodies. They were almost all Russian, he said, left behind in maelstrom of violence where the struggle to stay alive often outweighs concern for the dead.

Mr. Yusov has been collecting bodies from the bloody fields and battered villages of eastern Ukraine for a decade. He is now the head of a group of civilian volunteers called Platsdarm, and has witnessed more death than he would care to remember.

But as Russia presses a slow-moving offensive at great human cost, Mr. Yusov says the toll is still shocking.

He said he had recovered bodies stacked four or five deep in trenches. Men who died wearing summer uniforms are buried under men in winter gear.

Sometimes Russian soldiers take the bodies, lay them in large pits and “wrap them up because you can’t breathe around them,” he said, alluding to the stench. “They don’t know what to do with them.”

The willingness of the Russian military to sacrifice thousands of soldiers in a blunt-force effort to gain territory has been a defining feature of the last year of the war — exhibited in the steep losses that marked the capture of two Ukrainian cities: Bakhmut last May and Avdiivka in February.

In order to get a sense of the scale of death, The New York Times traveled with Mr. Yukov’s team of body collectors, interviewed Ukrainian soldiers about living amid death and embedded with military drone units that allowed an unedited view of some of the deadliest killing grounds.

The best time to collect the bodies is in bad weather, with fog and rain, Mr. Yukov said, because Russian drones don’t fly in it. He likes to move close to where he needs to be at night, but the final move has to be very carefully timed. Often, it’s called off.

Viewed from drones over the battlefields across eastern Ukraine, Russian soldiers can be seen frozen in the moment of their deaths, motionless on frost-covered fields pockmarked with craters. They are sprawled atop the blasted out armored vehicles or alongside destroyed tanks.

Many Ukrainian soldiers have also died in the bloody battles that play out every day, but Mr. Yukov said most of the bodies he collects are Russians left behind.

“We deal with the realities of war, not a war on paper,” he said. “I’m saying specifically what I see: for every five or six bodies of Ukrainian soldiers, we find almost 80 Russian bodies.”

Russia’s ministry of defense did not respond to a request for comment.

With American military support halted and Ukrainian forces running low on ammunition, there are more Ukrainian soldiers dying under relentless assaults by a better-equipped army with more men.

“For the past two to three months, we have been noticing serious changes,” he said, alluding to Ukraine’s growing casualty toll.

The recovery of the dead is not always possible as fighting rages along the front, sometimes for weeks or months. But repeated visits to areas near the most violent pockets of fighting — along with the testimonies of Ukrainian soldiers, medics and volunteers who tend to the dead, the accounts by Russian military bloggers and visual imagery released by soldiers on both sides — offer a searing window into how death looks on the battlefield.

After Mr. Yukov collects the bodies, he brings them to the local morgue if they are civilians. If they are soldiers of either army, he turns them over to the Ukrainian military, with whom he works hand in hand.

The remains of the Russians can be exchanged for the remains of Ukrainian soldiers who have been killed — one of the rare issues the warring armies still collaborate on.

There are no reliably precise estimates on how many Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have died over the past two years. President Volodymyr Zelensky said last month that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion.

He also claimed that Russia had suffered 500,000 casualties, including 180,000 troops killed in action. His figures cannot be independently verified.

Mr. Zelensky’s accounting of Ukrainian casualties differs sharply from estimates by U.S. officials, who, this past summer said that close to 70,000 Ukrainians had been killed and 100,000 to 120,000 wounded.

In Russia, following a Soviet-era playbook that has been well documented, the staggering amount of losses has been carefully hidden from public view by an authoritarian government that controls major media outlets.

Estimates from various Western intelligence agencies have put the toll of dead and wounded for Russia at somewhere between 300,000 to 350,000, with most estimating that well over 100,000 have been killed.

With the ranks of the Russian military having been bolstered by conscripts from poor villages, ethnic minorities forced into service and convicts released from prison in exchange for fighting in Ukraine, the Kremlin has so far managed to keep the cost of its war from touching the most privileged parts of its society.

“I think people understand, but are afraid of the truth,” Mr. Yukov said of the Russian public. “It’s easier for them to believe in propaganda,” he said. “But what we see are huge losses on the Russian side, catastrophically huge.”

With tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers killed over the past two years, the toll can feel overwhelming and abstract. But for the soldiers on the front, death is a part of daily life.

Ukrainian soldiers sometimes struggle to put into words what it is like to kill wave after wave of attackers only to see more coming behind them.

Junior Sergeant Pavlo Zinenko, 36, was servicing fiber optic cables when the Russians invaded. He raced to join the 128th Territorial Defense Brigade after seeing the atrocities Russian forces committed in Bucha.

“I was ready to give my life to ensure that no more civilians on our side would die,” he said. “But over time, when you see so many deaths, especially when your close friends die before your eyes, it really breaks a person.”

“Now, death is not frightening,” he said. “It’s just sickening.”

When he comes across dead Russian soldiers, he said, he has “no feelings, no emotions.”

“The only thought that crosses my mind is that if they’re dead, it means they won’t be able to kill anyone else here,” he said. “Death, in general, is not a pleasant phenomenon, and when it surrounds you, the impact is even more profound.”

Vitalii Sholudko, a 20-year-old machine-gunner with the 128th, said he didn’t think about death until a Russian rocket crashed into a building near his home in Dnipro two years ago.

“I saw my mom crying, and my sister,” he said. “What can a kid do? I could do nothing else but take up arms and defend my family.”

Now, he has slept in trenches filled with dead Russian soldiers, he said.

“We slept, ate and stood guard next to the bodies,” he said. The battle was too intense to worry about moving them.

“There was no time to contemplate, and you couldn’t afford to think about someone dying or feeling sorry,” he said. “It’s either you or them.”

Mr. Yukov has collected the dead from the battlefields of the Donbas for over a decade, working both sides of the front line until the full-scale invasion in 2022 made it impossible to go to the Russian side. As a civilian, he does not need to adhere to military restrictions regarding discussing Ukrainian casualties.

His dedication to his mission — regardless of what uniform the dead wore in life — has earned him the broad respect and trust of the Ukrainian military. His work is financed by private donations.

Mr. Yukov, who lost an eye after a mine exploded during a mission last year, said he is often asked why he risks his life to recover bodies.

“It’s important for me to bring them all home because we are humans, and we must remember to remain human,” he said.

Knowing that his work allows grieving families a small measure of solace, and some closure, helps him sleep at night. But something deeper drives him.

“When we talk about humanity and human rights,” he said, “we must remember that even the dead have rights.”

Liubov Sholudko contributed reporting from eastern Ukraine. Nataliia Novosolova and Anastasia Kuznietsova contributed reporting.

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