In Putin’s heartland, Russian mothers mourn their sons killed in Ukraine
'There is a fresh grave in the cemetery in Komary,' ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reflects on the human cost of the war as he meets one Russian family who lost a relative amid the fighting
The road to the village of Komary is dotted with memorials to soldiers who fell in combat fighting the Nazis during the Second World War. Statues stand in remembrance to them near the bogs in which some of their bodies still lie, almost 80 years after they fell. The region is littered with unexploded ordnance from great battles where the Soviets fought and sustained heavy losses at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis in Russia. When the snows melt and the ground thaws, every year the earth reveals more bodies, some of the 12 million Soviet soldiers who died during the World War Two. It is from this land steeped in blood, closer to the border with Belarus than Moscow, where Sergey Muraviev made his final journey to Ukraine. Adopted aged 10 into the Archakov family, he was raised in a village named Komary, meaning Mosquito in Russian, which is almost entirely off the grid. Down a bumping mud road, sometimes impassable, villagers have no gas, limited phone signal and internet. They heat their wooden homes with giant ovens, smoke curling from chimneys above chickens which peck in the dirt to the sound of cockerels crowing.
Sergey Muraviev left this village aged 18 to become a mechanic, fixing armoured personnel carriers before he joined the army aged 20. “He always dreamed of being a soldier", Muraviev’s mother Natalia Archakova told ITV News beside her son’s grave. “We even have photos at home when they photographed them at school, and he said ‘Mum I want to wear a military uniform.’”
In Russia, all men must take part in military service and many try to avoid the draft. “The thought never even entered into his head,” his mother said. “He said ‘Mum, I am definitely going to become a contract solider.’“
Muraviev served in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, in the 336th Independent Guards Naval Infantry Brigade before being sent to Ukraine. “We knew, I won’t say any more. I knew", his mother said. “The last time he called me, he said ‘Mum, they’ve promoted me to Able Seaman'".
In between his last phone call and his death, aged 22, little is publicly known about what Sergey Muraviev did in Ukraine. His mother Natalia and father Viktor discovered he had died when the head of the military registration and enlistment office from a nearby town made the journey down the muddy road to tell them. “It is impossible to describe this in words", Muraviev’s mother told ITV News. The family were told their son had been killed on 23rd March, almost a month exactly after Vladimir Putin announced a ‘special military operation’ aimed at ‘denazifying and demilitarising Ukraine.’
The military official told the family that their son had died in Zlatopol, in the Zaporizhzhia region of south-eastern Ukraine on the banks of the Dniepr river, west of Mariupol and north of Crimea.
“He had wounds to his spine and his side because he covered ordinary people, his comrades", his father Viktor told ITV News. “I don’t doubt this because he never was one to hide", his mother said referring to her son by the Russian diminutive name of ‘Seryozhka'. “Seryozhka would never hide, not for peaceful citizens, for no one. He was always a hero, he stood for justice, he was always honest". Officially, Russia’s Ministry of Defence says only 1351 Russian servicemen have died in the war. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence puts the number at around 20,000. Some of their bodies still remain in Ukraine, left lying by the wreckage of the tank battles which killed them. Unlike the Archakov family, many Russian parents may never be able to bury their children. Sergey Muraviev’s body lay in its coffin in the local cultural centre after it was brought back to his family before he was buried on 3rd April. “People came to say goodbye to him who didn’t even know him", his aunt Svetlana Chernetsova told ITV News. “It was really nice to see that our Seryozhka had won such respect. So many people came to say goodbye to him, crying, with flowers.” Muraviev’s funeral service was held in the blue domed Russian Orthodox Church in the tiny cemetery of Komary. His grave nearby is covered in floral tributes from regional officials and local agriculture collectives. He is buried in the family plot, alongside his grandfather who was also asked, during his time, to sacrifice himself to the fight against fascism.
“When there was the Great Patriotic War, our grandfathers defended our country and the world from fascism, from the Nazis", Sergey Muraviev’s aunt told ITV News. “We love our motherland, we were born here. Our grandfathers and great grandfathers are here. They defended our motherland and now it is the turn of our children, our sons, and if needed it will be the turn of us old people.” When Muraviev’s mother was a little girl, her mother told her that when the Germans occupied this village during the Second World War they burned all the houses apart from one. The spectre of Nazism holds great power in this region where the bodies of Soviet soldiers lie in bogs and graveyards and where the only source of information is Russian state television. Vladimir Putin says his war in Ukraine is a ‘special military operation'. It is sold to the Russian public largely as an operation in the eastern Donbas region and many Russians are unaware it extends further into the west of Ukraine. State television praises Russian soldiers who are shown freeing Ukrainians from their fascist government. It is a government which, many Russians believe, has been killing Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens for the last eight years since the war in Ukraine first began.
With limited communication to the world, the villagers here are receptive to the message. “I am not a politician but I approve of the special operation", Sergey Muraviev’s aunt Svetlana told ITV News. “If he [Putin] didn’t behave like this then maybe here too in Russia it would be a lot worse than it is now."
This is Vladimir Putin’s heartland. In the villages and towns of this region, people are poor. Some of them can see the giant pipeline which takes gas to Europe but not to them. They say that Putin has ordered the state energy company Gazprom to connect them to the pipeline. Just as Putin cares for them, they believe he cares for the people of Ukraine. “I think our president behaves correctly", Svetlana Chernetsova told ITV News. “There may be some qualities he has that some Russian citizens do not agree with, but his actions are always aimed at not capturing territory but at helping. He gave humanitarian aid to everyone. Whenever anyone asked for aid, he always helped.” These beliefs are already being passed down to the next generation. Russian schoolchildren have been asked to write letters to soldiers, encouraging them in their ‘heroic’ activities in Ukraine.
After his death, local schoolchildren wrote Sergey Muraviev letters and drew him pictures - of a tank with a Russian flag under a smiling sky and of a ship painted in the Russian colours with missiles and aircraft flying overhead. Muraviev’s aunt Svetlana works in the local cultural centre. She said she asks the children who have not yet gone to serve in the army whether they are “afraid” to go to Ukraine. She said they told her: “We are going to defend our motherland. Our grandfathers died and we will too for a peaceful sky above our heads.” So far from the Russian capital, the ‘motherland’ of the Archakov family is a few villages, the lives of the inhabitants connected by a muddy road, filled with potholes. The family have never taken their son Sergey and daughter Nadezhda far from the village, even to regional cities such as Smolensk, a four hour drive away. They have never been to Moscow, the capital from which their president sent their son to his death. Their Russia and Vladimir Putin’s Russia are very different. In April, snow still lies on the ground by the grave where Sergey Muraviev is buried next to his grandfather. Both men were ordered into battle by their country in the name of fighting fascism and there is no question here that both of them died for a just cause. “We have to believe that Sergey didn't die in vain", his aunt Svetlana Chernetsova said. The alternative, in this village which was razed to the ground by Nazis who destroyed it along with the lives of the people who lived here, does not bear thinking about.
For expert analysis, listen to the Ukraine episodes of the What You Need To Know podcast