Nine men line up in wheelchairs before Colonel General Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy defense minister. The image, released last Saturday, March 26 – one month and two days after the start of the offensive against Ukraine – showed a group of war mutilated, members of a generation of Russians who will be left behind by the conflict ravaging Ukraine. consequences for life, as happened to their elders in Afghanistan in the eighties and in Chechnya in the nineties. Those conflicts were dramas that the decorated soldiers only knew thanks to old television images. Now, its reality is gradually making its way onto the screens of Russian homes. This weekend, still convalescing from the amputation of their legs and arms, the nine soldiers were distinguished with medals for valor and courage in an act where no one cracked a smile.
The tribute was broadcast on public television in an unusual display of the consequences of the conflict. The amputations and wounds that could be sensed in the empty sleeves of the hospital pajamas attracted powerful attention, since these types of images are a rare exception in the Russian media, and even more so in Pervy Kanal, the main state television of the nation. . Many other media, including Novaya Gazeta —the last totally independent newspaper that had not been blocked and which announced this Monday that it is suspending its activity until the end of the war— also echoed the ceremony.
“Combatant comrades, you, true men, true soldiers, true continuators of the glorious tradition of our fathers and grandfathers, have not disappointed the State at any time, you fulfilled your missions 100%,” Fomin said at the beginning of his speech at the Vishnev Military-Clinical Hospital.
In the broadcast images of the event you can see the stern gesture and the lost look of a man whom the general decorates and shakes hands after losing a leg. His companions applaud at the same time with taciturn gestures. Shortly after, another fighter, the only one left standing, is also honored for his actions in the Ukraine. The man, who is missing an arm, remains absent, frowning and looking elsewhere, while the medal is placed on him and he is hugged.
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The number of Russian soldiers killed and wounded in the war is one of the most sensitive data for the Kremlin. The Russian Defense Ministry updated the casualty figure last week in the second tally made public since the war began. According to official information from Moscow, its Armed Forces have recorded 1,351 deaths and 3,825 injuries as of March 25. The Kremlin blamed Ukraine for up to 30,000 casualties – “14,000 dead and 16,000 unrecoverable”, in the jargon used by the Russian government. However, Ukraine assures that Russian losses are around 17,000 victims, between dead and wounded.
“I did not expect to receive this decoration… for the fight against Nazism,” one of the soldiers, Yégor Vereschagin, said in the report, taking a deep breath before alluding to the pretext that Russia has used to unleash the war. In addition to the decorated ones, the Russian channel also interviewed two other award-winning military men who lay in their beds barely able to move more than their heads. The artillery commander Maksim Okolota, wounded in a fight against Ukrainian tanks, assured that the civilians had received them well. “The population was not aggressive, they gave us cigarettes and food,” he said.
After the first week of the war, when the Ukrainian army stopped the Russian advance, Putin announced a new payment for the families of those killed and wounded in combat. To the single payment of 7.4 million rubles (68,000 euros), provided as life insurance, another 5 million (46,000 euros) have been added to be distributed monthly for the loss of the combatant. In the case of being seriously injured, the extra compensation is 3 million rubles (27,500 euros).
The prolongation of the conflict, which is now in its second month, entails more and more acts of public tribute to the wounded and fallen. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited another hospital on March 11 to hand out other decorations. One of the soldiers received the title of Hero of the Russian Federation for the seizure of the dam that eight years later has reopened its floodgates to send water to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014. Anton Starostin was injured by a Javelin anti-tank missile during the defense of a bridge.
The reactions to the death of the soldiers by their families are part of the story. The Russian version of the German channel Deutsche Welle published this weekend an interview with the mother of a soldier who died in Ukraine. “This is so, in simple words: if we had not bombed, the Ukrainians would have bombed us. A bombardment would have been necessary, there was no alternative here. Of course, no one expected this, ”she said, hurt by the loss of her son in early March.
In addition to official acts, Russian social networks have also turned to pay tribute to fallen soldiers, which, together with the news in local newspapers, means a constant trickle of dramatic news about the invasion of Ukraine. On VKontakte, the national alternative to Facebook owned by the state monopoly Gazprom, some communities, such as Special Operation in Ukraine, Memory Book, publish daily images of young people who have lost their lives on the front lines. The photographs are accompanied by a brief biography and words of encouragement to their relatives. “He died in the course of the operation launched in Ukraine for the defense of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics, the homeland and the sky over Russia”, is the epitaph of many of them. Most, born between 1996 and 2000, were babies during the second Chechen war, the first ordered by Vladimir Putin after being chosen by Boris Yeltsin as his successor as head of the country.
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