Russia’s biggest military loss to date in the war in Ukraine is also becoming some sort of liability for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
After Russia’s flagship Moskva sank in the Black Sea last week, authorities said the entire crew of more than 500 people had been rescued. But there has been no official update since then, and families of missing crew members are increasingly demanding answers about their fate.
“They don’t want to talk to us,” said Maksim Savin, 32, in an interview about the search for the whereabouts of his youngest brother Leonid, 20, a conscript. “We mourn; they summoned our little brother and most likely will never give him back.
At least 10 families have publicly expressed frustration at receiving conflicting reports about whether their sons are alive, missing or dead. Their demands, made on social media or on news organizations, could hurt public support for the war effort ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The official silence about the fate of the Moskva’s crew is part of a larger Kremlin campaign to suppress bad news about the invasion and control the narrative the Russians receive about its progress. Mr Putin has blocked access to Facebook and many foreign news channels and passed a law to imprison anyone who spreads “false information” about the war.
The cause of the sinking was disputed, with Russia claiming that an ammunition magazine exploded and then the damaged ship sank while being towed on rough seas. Ukraine said it hit the ship with two Neptune missiles, a claim US officials confirmed. Be that as it may, the loss of one of the greatest warships since World War II is a disgrace to Russia.
Independent Russian news outlets outside the country have reported that about 40 people were killed and another 100 injured when the warship was damaged and sank. Those reports quoted an unidentified officer and the mother of a deceased sailor. In addition, the wife of an elderly midshipman confirmed his death to Radio Liberty, a US government network outside of Russia.
Many of the missing crew members were conscripts, a sensitive topic in Russia since the Chechnya war, when young soldiers with little training were often thrown into combat and died en masse, souring public support for the war. “A few hundred” soldiers have still not been counted from the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s, said Alexander Cherkasov, the former chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, a group in Moscow that was disbanded this month by a court. . order.
“Nobody cares about the soldiers,” he said, and because of the restrictions placed on non-governmental organizations, it is now virtually impossible for them to do the investigative work, he said.
Mr Putin repeatedly said that conscripts who had to serve for a year in the army would not be deployed in Ukraine, a statement that has been contradicted by victims on the battlefield.
Dating back to the Chechen wars, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia has confirmed it is receiving requests to search for missing soldiers. The organization declined to comment further, citing a law against sharing information about soldiers with foreign organizations.
Parents of crew members on the Moskva, named after the Russian capital, have expressed outrage over what they describe as an official runaround.
“We, the parents, are only interested in the fate of our children: why did they – as enlisted soldiers – end up in this military operation?” said Dmitry Shkrebets, whose son Yegor, 19, worked as a cook in the Moskva.
In an interview, Mr Shkrebets was hesitant to talk further, but on Sunday he posted much harsher statements on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook.
Initially, officers told him that Yegor was one of the missing, he said.
“Guys, went missing on the high seas?!!!” He wrote. “I immediately asked why you, the officers, are still alive, and why my son, an enlisted soldier, died?”
Mr. Shkrebets has since started collecting testimonials from other families who are unable to locate their sons. “The more we write, the harder it will be for them to remain silent about what is happening,” he wrote on Wednesday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said Tuesday he was not authorized to release information about missing sailors, and referred questions to the Defense Ministry.
The ministry did not respond to requests for comment. It released a video on Saturday purporting to show Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, the commander of the Russian Navy, meeting with men described as the crew of the Moskva in formation and wearing uniforms. It was not clear how many survivors there were from the attack and nothing was mentioned about any casualties, neither in the video nor in accompanying social media posts.
An indication of the official position came on Sunday evening, during Vesti Nedeli, the weekly news overview on state television. The three-hour show devoted about 30 seconds to the sinking, with no casualties.
Not all Kremlin mouthpieces have been so restrained, however. A talk show host, Vladimir Solovyev, demanded an explanation on Saturday about how the ship was lost.
Maksim Savin said the family was unable to reach officers from his brother’s unit by phone. His mother texted a number and got a reply that her son Leonid was missing.
Later, the family received a series of calls from a man who appeared to have served with Leonid and who kept changing his story. First, the man said that Leonid had died trying to save a friend, Maksim Savin said. On the second call, he said that there had been no rescue, but that Leonid had been caught at the site of an explosion. The third time he called to say that he had made a mistake and that Leonid was missing.
“Looks like the officers are trying to shut everyone up,” Maksim Savin said.
Numerous reports of missing conscripts appeared on social media for the first time. One woman wrote that her brother was working in the engine room and was reported 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 had not been able to access official documents related to victims. “There are no lists,” she said. “We look for them ourselves. They don’t tell us anything.” Reached by phone, she declined to speak to a foreign news organization.
Tamara Grudinina told the BBC’s Russian language service that her son, Sergei Grudinin, 21, was assigned to the ship right after basic training.
Upon learning that the ship had sunk, Ms Grudinina said, she called a Department of Defense hotline for relatives and was told her son was “alive and healthy and would get in touch at the earliest opportunity”.
Shortly afterwards, a man who identified himself as the commander of the Moskva contacted her and told her that her son “essentially sunk along with the ship,” according to the BBC.
After the war began on Feb. 24, the family contacted naval officers to inquire about the ship and were told it was not taking part in any military action and would be back in port soon, Maksim Savin said.
Leonid’s calls had stopped, but after speaking with the officers, they received a letter from him saying he expected to be home soon, his brother said.
He said his younger brother, who had been trained as a car 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 felt much more comfortable walking in the Crimean hills with the family dog, reading a book or caring for his plants. He had planted a palm tree and an avocado tree before enlisting in the military.
“In his letter home he asked how his plants were doing,” says Maksim Savin. “He was worried about them.”