The graves of Wagner mercenaries killed in action near the village of Bakinskaya: "Understand what is really happening in Ukraine."

The graves of Wagner mercenaries killed in action near the village of Bakinskaya: "Understand what is really happening in Ukraine."

Foto: [M] Amelie Rubin / DER SPIEGEL; Foto: REUTERS

Data on Russia's Dead The Deaths Putin Is Seeking to Keep Quiet

Russian volunteers are searching through graveyards, archives and the internet to determine how many of the country’s soldiers have actually died in Ukraine. A database they helped build provides some astonishing insights.

Not even 24 hours of the war had passed when the official account of the Russian district of Alagir reported that Aslan Mukhtarov had died. Acquaintances on social media commented on how Mukhtarov, 29, who died near the city of Kharkiv, was a "likeable, great guy." The story appeared on a Russian news portal, as well. A few hours later, though, the district administration's post had been deleted.

Around the same time, BBC journalist Olga Ivshina and a colleague began archiving news stories of a similar nature. She noted that there are no accurate figures available on Russian deaths in World War II, Afghanistan, Chechnya or Georgia. Ivshina and others didn't want to see the same thing happen in Ukraine.

Journalists with the portal Mediazona, founded by two members of the Kremlin-critical punk band Pussy Riot, have also began collecting reports about Russian casualties in the early days of the war. A few weeks later, they decided to join forces with BBC journalist Ivshina and her colleagues. Since then, they have been operating the database together.

Volunteers from across Russia have contacted the group, offering to help with their endeavor. They review information from public sources and send their findings to Mediazona, which then verifies them. The number of entries grows each day.

"These figures help us to understand what is really happening in Ukraine," says journalist Ivshina. "For example, during the first weeks, Russia fought with its officers and special forces, the very best soldiers." Now, though, she says, casualties are primarily those who have been conscripted, volunteers or are mercenaries with the Wagner Group. She says it is also apparent that many victims come from structurally weak, poorer regions where many minorities live. Ivshina says this relationship can also be observed in the army as a whole. Russia is an unequal country, she says. In some areas, the army is almost the only chance young men have of ever being able to provide for a family.

This is less true for the Krasnodar region, which is one of Russia’s most important economic centers. "The high numbers there are explained by a group of very active volunteer researchers," says Mediazona journalist Maxim Litavrin, "though they work independently of us."

One of these volunteers, former Russian Air Force officer Vitaly Votanovsky, basically walks around cities looking for the dead and counts them. He caused a major international stir several weeks ago when he published footage on his Telegram channel of a previously unknown Wagner Group cemetery near the village of Bakinskaya. The local population had tipped him off about the graveyard.

Images of the Wagner Group graveyard from Vitaly Votanovsky's Telegram account

Images of the Wagner Group graveyard from Vitaly Votanovsky's Telegram account

Foto: @majdankrd/Telegram

Votanovsky doesn't hide his views – he publicly opposes the war. In an interview, he said: "Our goal is to show people that the war is creating casualties, and not somewhere far away or on TV, but here at home."

Video images of a cemetery from Vitaly Votanovsky's Telegram account


"He's a courageous man," says journalist Olga Ivshina. "But he's also a good example of the high cost of his work. He has been beaten up, he has been put under a lot of pressure from local authorities and he has been the subject of public death threats."

When asked how many helpers like Votanovsky there are across Russia, Ivshina prefers to avoid specifics. She says the answers would not only jeopardize hard-won access to information but could also threaten the people offering a lending hand. "They are the true heroes of this project, and we hope that we will one day be able to talk to them publicly and tell their stories."

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