In Russia, the death of soldiers is now a state secret

(Credit: Keystone)

The last official Russian numbers on soldiers killed in Ukraine dates back to 25 March. To fill the gap, journalists collected and published the names of dead servicemen. But Russian authorities have now decided those lists are banned. Irinia Gordienko explains how journalist Elena Trifonova navigates the censorship.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Ministry of Defence has reported its troops’ death toll only twice. The last time was on March 25. The rest of the information was patchy. Journalists from regional media started collecting and publishing "walls of memory", lists of their fellow countrymen killed in Ukraine.

These lists were based on open sources: posts on social networks by the relatives of those killed, reports by local authorities and news from other regional media. They were an important source of information for residents of the regions, since it was difficult to get  proper information from officials. Now the authorities want to deprive the population of this ressource.

The Svetlogorsk City Court in the Kaliningrad Region pointed out recently that lists of fallen soldiers are state secrets and their disclosure can lead to criminal sentence. This follows the law on fakes, signed by Vladimir Putin on April 1, which is used by authorities to judge any information that isn’t consistent with official statements as  a "fake".

Journalist Elena Trifonova is co-founder of a regional independent project called "People of Baikal," which reports on life in the Siberian outback. After the start of the war in Ukraine, Elena and her colleagues began writing on the deaths of servicemen - especially in the Republic of Buryatia. According to unofficial data, it is one of the regions with most deaths due to the high number of soldiers it has provided the army. In mid-April, the authorities blocked the "People of Baikal" website in Russia, but the media  still updates its content.

How did you start your "wall of memory"?

In Buryatia, since the beginning of March, coffins with the dead started coming in; we started writing about it, talking to relatives. When the dead went over the dozens, we realized that we couldn’t keep track of the number of killed. We couldn't find general information anywhere. At first, the official public media, including heads of regions and city districts, were publishing information about this or that deceased.  The funerals of soldiers were pompous, with cameras and television reporters. But that ended quickly. Information about the deaths of servicemen began to appear mostly on online communities. The heads of the villages would write, “So-and-so, a native of our village, died”. That was all. From that piece of information, we could not understand the whole picture.

So we began to collect information, to systematize it and to write small obituaries. Relatives and close friends of the dead servicemen began reaching out to us asking to be included in the list. It is important to emphasize that we document every case, we do not publish cases that we cannot double-check. After the court decision, all this information may simply disappear.

Why is this work important?

For some people, it's important to see at least a rough picture of what's happening to us now. For relatives, it’s also important to preserve the  memory of their loved ones, so that they aren’t erased from life. Most of the menwho died were very young and didn't even have children. They went to serve as conscripts in the army, signed a contract after three months and were immediately dispatched to Ukraine. There is nothing left of them. After reading these little obituaries about each of the victims, we can analyse the situation of particular regions.

For example, Buryatia is a difficult region, it ranks 78th out of 85 among Russian regions for living standards. At the same time, there are many soldiers here. Most of the dead are from neighbourhoods  where there are no jobs, no social mobility and no choice. An army contract offers stability, money and an opportunity to feed their family. Many are now paying for this with their lives.

In spite of the death toll, the majority of the population in Buryatia supports the military actions in Ukraine. Why?

I have the impression that if people in the provinces didn’t support the "special operation", they would be betraying those who serve there. The deaths of a relative, a friend, an acquaintance would be considered meaningless. This is why the majority of the population is reluctant to do so. In Buryatia, unlike in its neighbouring regions, there is also powerful state propaganda about this “special operation”. The lower the standard of life, the greater the loyalty to the war. This is a learned helplessness. And people are also  afraid of saying something against everyone. We get fined for anti-war rhetoric. Recently, we wrote an article about a pensioner who took off the Z logo on a city bus. The driver dropped off the other passengers and took her to the police. She received a huge fine for discrediting the Russian army.

Are you going to remove your “memory wall”?

We will try to avoid doing it. We consulted with a lawyer who told us that the information we published is based on documents collected from open sources. It doesn’t contain any state secrets.

We are far away from Ukraine, but everything that happens there affects us directly. We have many deaths and social processes that we have to document, because there is no official information. Independent news is very much in demand now. Even though our site is blocked by the authorities and that my colleagues and I can’t find interviewees as everyone is affraid to speak out, our audience is constantly growing. People write from neighbouring regions, asking for help. For example, today a reader wrote to us from Chita saying that their local list of dead was removed and asked us to reprint it.

For now, the most important thing is to record the reality of how war is transforming society. And that has nothing to do with "discrediting the army".