A Russian Journalist Follows Up on ‘Cargo 200’ From Donetsk

June 19, 2014
Evgeny Korolenko with a dummy machine gun on Fatherland Defenders Day. He chose this photo for his VKontakte page. Via Novaya Gazeta.

Elena Kostyuchenko, special correspondent for the independent news site Novaya Gazeta, has followed up on the “Cargo 200” story of bodies of Russian fighters returned to Russia from Ukraine that was begun by Ekho Moskvy and continued by Novaya Gazeta, which we covered and excerpted in translation here and here.

Kostyuchenko follows the story of how Lyana, the wife of Evgeny Ivanovich Korolenko, age 47, from Rostov, killed in the battle at the Donetsk Airport on 26 May, attempts to recover his body from authorities for burial.

She recounts how the driver of the refrigerated truck first described by Ekho Moskvy reporter Mariya Turchenkova crossed the border from Ukraine at the town of Uspenka into Russia, and was met by a Land Cruiser which took the coffin of the fallen pro-separatist fighter to a morgue, reportedly on the grounds of an army base outside of Rostov. Kostyuchenko does not provide details for how Korolenko’s name was first discovered either by his wife or herself, but this may have been to protect sources.

Kostyuchenko reports (summary and excerpts translated by The Interpreter):

“Border guards on duty at Uspenka that night say: three people arrived in camouflage, they turned off the surveillance cameras, and demanded that the mobile phones be turned off, and while the truck passed through, they simply confiscated those turned-off phones. The border guards saw no documents for the cargo, they did not look inside the vehicle, and the passage was not recorded.

Inside the refrigerated compartment there were 31 bodies — Russian militiamen who had died in battle at the Donetsk Airport on 26 May.”

Kostyuchenko describes how the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” leaders asked journalists to accompany the truck to the border, and they were able to learn two names: Sergei Zhdanovich and Yury Abrosimov. Then two more turned up on social networks: Aleksey Yurin and Aleksandr Yefremov, “who in the past had served in the reconnaissance regiment of the 45th Special Purpose Separate Guards Airborne Troops.” That was all the information the reporters could get out of the list of 31.

When she got Korolenko’s name, Kostyuchenko first telephoned all the morgues in Rostov-on-Don, but believed that one tip she was given was the most obvious to try — the morgue at Regional Hospital No. 1602 in a remote district of Rostov called Voyenved, which was an officers’ village with army units, loading docks and an airfield. The hospital has a reception and forwarding area for corpses and a huge morgue with a capacity for 400 bodies, left over from the time of the Chechen wars. It is under the command of the North Caucasus Military District, says Kostyuchenko.

[Note: in fact, that is its old name, as the North Caucasus Military District was disbanded and now reconstituted as the Southern District. However, people still continue to refer to it by its old name–The Interpreter.]

Military autopsies are performed here at the 11th State Forensics Center, 2nd Branch, Kostyuchenko was told. But the bodies of the Russian fighters killed in Donbass were not here, she was informed by an official who said they only had soldiers from Chechnya there. So persistent were the inquiries that on occasion, officials had even let families in to assure them that their relatives were not there. But ultimately the head of the department told the reporter that they were only responsible for military corpses, and that Kostyuchenko was looking for civilians, and should look elsewhere.

Kostyuchenko then went to the army base hospital and found a group of two women and three men. The woman looking at their iPhones, selecting pictures to use in a memorial. They nodded to her when she asked if they were there to collect the body of a man who had been killed at the Donetsk Airport. The men were making calls on their cell phones. Then one of the men told her not to take photographs and to step back, or even to leave completely; one of the women then urged her to “not to take pictures if you have a conscience,” and seemed to have a stricken, scared look on her face.

They continued to wait, and then five tanned men in stained t-shirts approached, and one of them asked Kostyuchenko how she had found out the bodies were brought there, and cautioned the others: “She’s a journalist, don’t talk to her.” An hour later, the men told the family to go to lunch because they still didn’t have information on the body.

Later, Kostyuchenko learned they managed to pick up Korolenko’s remains — they had to make a number of phone calls to people in Donbass and get them to talk to people in Rostov and finally got the body “unofficially.”

The next day — also in secret — the body of another fighter, Serge Zhdanovich from Elektrogorsk was picked up. For this, Roman Tikunov, the head of the executive committee of the United Russia party, who also doubled as the head of the local Combat Brotherhood, personally traveled to Rostov. Kostyuchenko reports:

“At my request, the veterans’ organizations meet with the North Caucasus Military District leadership. The leader replies to the veterans in all sincerity: there are no bodies in Rostov; that is a hoax, there is nothing to look for. Aleksandr Titov, an official of the regional administration press service, going through many offices, is distressed. ‘I’m also not being given any information. For now I can say definitely that we are not involved in dispatching bodies and we do not communicate with relatives.'”

Kostyuchenko went to interview Lyana Yelchaninova, the common-law wife of Korolenko, who had put an ad in VKontakte asking for help on how to find her husband. She said she had been looking for her husband’s body for 8 days; her husband had left to fight with the separatists without telling her. He left her a note with a contact of an Afghan war buddy who later told Lyana at first that her husband was in a list of those killed, then said he wasn’t sure.

Her co-workers began to ask around through acquaintances, some of whom worked in the police or the FSB, if they had any leads; finally they came up with a woman who worked at the City Hospital Emergency Ward No. 2 who said that a truck had come, but that they had no room at the morgue, and the bodies had been sent to Voyenved. Lyana called there, but later discovered that she had made the mistake of mentioning “Donetsk” — and they all clammed up.

Kostyuchenko then phoned the United Russian party leader Tikunov and found out he was accompanying the other fighter’s body; she said she had with her the wife of Zhdanovich, the man who had fought along side him, asking for information, and Tikunov said that her newspaper “printed lies and unchecked facts,” refused to talk to the widow, and hung up on her.

Yevgeny Korolenko served in Afghanistan in 1985-1987 in the motorized rifle troops, and was a rifleman who had been wounded but didn’t like to talk about the war. Instead, he read lots of war fiction and played war games like World of Tanks and War Thunder. He was a mechanic by training who had a job in some friends’ computer repair shop as a delivery man until they were unable to pay him. His wife speculated that perhaps his shortage of funds could have pushed him into volunteering for Donetsk, although he didn’t speak of it.

Evgeny Kirolenko, an Afghan war veteran who was killed fighting at the Donetsk Airport. Photo from Odnoklassnikov via Novaya Gazeta.

Evgeny Kirolenko, an Afghan war veteran who was killed fighting at the Donetsk Airport. Photo from Odnoklassnikov via Novaya Gazeta.

She then discovered the men had used their online war-game nicknames and chat systems to make plans for a real-life war. As Lyana told Kostyuchenko:

“The messages lasted only a few hours, on 19 May. Evgeny used the log-in ‘Shiva Shiva’ (his name in computer games, Lyana explains; Shiva is the god of war). His buddy is ‘Epifan Zhirny’ [Fat Epiphanes], one of the volunteers from the group ‘Russian Volunteers/Donbass.’ Zhenya [Evgeny] writes: ‘I’ve made phone calls about the competitions.’ ‘Elifan’ asks to fill out a form: call name, year of birth, service, skills, size, city, equipment, telephone and asks if he can come ‘to the personnel reception point in Rostov.’ The address isn’t mentioned. ‘If you have a uniform — bring it,’ instructs ‘Elifan.’ ‘Our preference is for gorka or surpat. For boots — cobra olive. If you don’t have boots — you don’t have to load up on stuff unnecessarily. Also you shouldn’t take things with Russian [Federation] labels.”

Lyana wrote to the game buddy and then Evgeny himself messaged her on 23 May and said he was at the border near Rostov. He was working out, jogging, and everything was fine. “Don’t worry, I’ll call you, and if I don’t, it means it’s not allowed there.” Then came the battle on 26 May, where her husband was killed. She sent pictures of his tattoos and birthmarks to “Elifan” in the hopes he would help with identification of the body.

Kostyuchenko describes the VKontakte group used to recruit fighters for the separatist movement in southeast of Ukraine:

“The Vkontakte group ‘Russian Volunteers/Donbass’ has 10,000 subscribers and a good system of security. The leadership of the group is anonymous. The requirements for the volunteers are strict: only those with combat experience; 26 years or older, only with certain skills, without a criminal record. They now need crews for combat vehicles, and operators of MANPADS [PTRK], anti-aircraft weaponry, the AGS-17, grenade launchers and flame-throwers. Volunteers apparently join the command of the First InterBrigade of the South East. Also in demand are conventional civilian specialists — mechanics, drivers, civilian personnel for the staff commander’s headquarters, rear service, doctors and medics.”

In addition to the Internet mobilization, the search for volunteers in Rostov-on-Don is conducted directly through draft boards. Veterans describe how several days before the May holidays, they were called from draft boards and invited in for a talk — only those who had combat experience, officers and warrant officers. ‘At the meeting they told us that they needed people for stopping subversion — such as in Odessa. Odessa happened just at that time. [Clashes leading to deaths of at least 48 in street battles and Trade Union Building fire–TI]. Everything was strictly voluntary. They gave us the telephone and who to call at the draft board. That is, the draft board selected the active duty list.’ And many went. ‘The guys were optimistic regarding the outcome. Half of Rostov Region has relatives there. They have people to defend.'”

Rostov Region is perfect for recruiting, as there are 68,000 veterans of conflicts from Afghan to Georgia and Cossacks who took part in the Transdniestria conflict as well, Kostyuchenko was told. And the people there are accustomed to undeclared wars:

“Everyone here has an immunity to the inevitable sordidness of any war, it seems. The people of Rostov know: there are unofficial wars, they can be called in different ways — counter-terrorist operation, introduction of a limited contingent, peace-keeping — or have no name at all. Searches for bodies of veterans are frowned on. ‘Until the authorities think up a story of how they got there, everyone will keep quite. If it turns out that our guys are there — and precisely those who have fought, who have experience, combat, with a skill — the pindoses [Yankees] will bring in an army. They already say there are Russian soldiers there, but there’s no proof yet. If that all comes out — foreign countries will seize on it.’ Such awareness is widespread among civilians as well — nurses, morgue workers, and bureaucrats. Relatives are asked to understand ‘the political aspect.'”

Fighter at the Donetsk airport May 2014. Photo by Evgeny Feldman/Novaya Gazeta

Fighter at the Donetsk airport May 2014. Photo by Evgeny Feldman/Novaya Gazeta

Lyana said that her husband had received a notice from the draft board right before New Year’s at a previous address with a request to call because they were updating information. He called and they took down his new phone number, and then said they would call back on 23 February [Army Day] because they were going to hand out medals. But he never heard from them again after that. She doesn’t know if it was related to his later recruitment for Donetsk.

She also found a terrible Internet page called [warning: graphic] “Photographs of Killed Colorados 18+“. [“Colorado Beetle” is a pejorative term used about pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine because they wear the orange-and-black striped St. George ribbons that look like a beetle–The Interpreter]. She looked through the photos and seemed to identify Evgeny in the 16th photo from the top — from his nose, his tattoo and a chain he was wearing.

They went back to the hospital to wait for permission from the chief of the hospital to enter the grounds of the morgue. Then a surgeon came to talk to them, but denied that they had her husband’s body, and also refused to show lists of the dead bodies they did have. They claimed they only had people who died in the hospital, not in combat.

By this time, Lyana was desperate enough to climb over the fence, and tried talking the guards into letting her through, and swore at them when they wouldn’t. Finally, one of the guards talked quietly with the duty officer and then asked her and Kostyuchenko:

“‘Are you girls yourselves from Donetsk?
‘No, we’re locals.’
‘You’ll be given now a telephone number of the FSB, call there and you’ll resolve the problem. Because we were told not to let in anyone. Make the phone call.’
‘Why do you treat people like this?’ shouts Lyana. ‘If he is already dead, why do they need him?!’
‘Here, explain now quietly what the story is, to this FSB guy, he will give an order to the head of the hospital, and you…I would from my heart, but it’s not my call. I was told: don’t let anyone in.'”

Finally, Korolenko’s wife called the number of the FSB man — a certain Stanislav Aleksandrovich Kuznetsov — on his internal line and calmly explained that she would like to bury her husband but the hospital chief wouldn’t let her in the morgue. Kuznetsov replied, “I’m not even military, what do you want from me? Good-bye.”

They were kept in a bureaucratic snarl; when they got back to the officer on duty, he explained, “Your main mistake was that you said ‘hospital head.’ Not head, but duty officer.'” They called again and invoked this title, and still got nowhere.

But 10 minutes later, a call came in from someone giving his name only as ‘Sergei’.

“‘Your husband has been killed. His body is hidden in a certain place…
‘At Voyenved?’ says Lyana rapidly. ‘I’m here now.’
‘Yes, here. But you won’t be let in, Lyana. They’ve made a military secret out of this, do you understand? But tomorrow we will be delivering a body. We will deliver yours, too. A man will call you regarding the funeral, we will help with everything. But the coffin will be closed.’
‘I want to identify him.’
‘The coffin will be closed. but it is definitely him. We matched the tattoos that you sent us.'”

Then two hours after that, “Sergei” called again and said that the delivery would happen even that day. Lyana began looking for another morgue to receive the body and prepare for the funeral, still hoping to open the coffin and identify her husband. But no city morgue or private funeral parlor would agree to receive the body — as soon as they hear it was from ‘that truck.’

One funeral director gave her some advice:

“‘You have to understand, this is a citizen of Russia who has been killed in combat action. But our country isn’t waging any combat actions. Listen to my advice, I’ve been working for 25 years. You must obtain an official identification with a record, and not open the coffin yourself. You don’t know who is in the coffin. What are they saying? ‘No bodies have come in.’ Or bury what you have. We will not hold it here, it’s a very risky business. The FSB guys appear out of nowhere in these stories. This could even be some sort of provocation…'”

She received a few more strange phone calls, including from a man who offered to help her for a fee, and finally someone who only introduced himself as the “commissar” had this news for her:

“There are bodies that have been laying since 26 May at the airport, and we cannot collect them. But we brought his out and delivered it to Russia. And you want to open the coffin. But is that ethical regarding the memory of your husband? I don’t think so. Heavy artillery was used there, do you see? But this way — there’s red velvet, everything is packed carefully. A death certificate has been prepared, identification has been conducted by those who served with him. Of course, under combat conditions. But there is an identification.

You’re an adult. Russia is not waging organized combat actions. Your husband voluntarily went under fire on that street.

We will help you with what we can with the burial place and the body. We have sponsors in Russia who facilitate burials. You must understand that we don’t receive any state support. But we’ll provide you with a funeral.'”

But there were still delays. Through friends, Lyana found a general who agreed to help and to go with her to Voyenved. “But only one body, do you understand? don’t ask for any other relatives. I can get take out one body for myself!”

That didn’t work, and Lyana then told Kostyuchenko that she’s had been informed that because she talked to a journalist, they wouldn’t cooperate with her. So Kostyuchenko broke off all contact. Two days later, Korolenko’s body was released and buried.

[Note: Kostyuchenko was involved in a controversial report in 2011 about a story from a morgue in Kazakhstan, when she interviewed an eye-witness to the victims of the police shootings of striking workers in Zhanaozen. Her source reported more people were killed than officials would admit, and some Western journalists and regional scholars also contested the source’s story. She and the source continued to maintain that the numbers were higher than reported and an independent investigation has never been permitted.–The Interpreter]