“It’s good that there was a window in it – I could at least see the face. I was told that some (dead) guys from their formation looked just like chunks of meat and there are DNA tests being conducted. The parents have not received (the bodies of their) children yet,” says Tumanov’s mother Elena Tumanova.
As she sits in her living room on the same couch that Tumanov used to sleep on, the woman adjusts a black headband on her short graying hair and goes through her purse looking for a death certificate. For some reason, she always carries it with her.
She has not yet received his personal effects – the passport and military ID of Junior Sergeant Anton Tumanov. On Aug. 20 the woman only received the coffin and a copy of a death certificate issued by a morgue in Rostov on Don.
It says the soldier died on Aug. 13, at “the place of temporary deployment of the military unit27777.” The cause of death is “Concomitant injury. Multiple shrapnel wounds of the lower extremities with damage to major blood vessels. Acute massive blood loss.”
“His legs were torn off, obviously. The guys (from his unit) told me. But I sensed it anyway that it wasn’t all of him in that coffin,” Tumanova says.
Tumanov was drafted to the army in 2012, leaving Kozmodemiansk, his hometown of some 21,000 people in southwestern Russia. He was trained in Penza and then served in South Ossetia.
“When he came back home, he tried to find a job, but failed,” his mother says in a calm voice. “He was turned down for a job in a pre-trial prison because of his anemia. He was good enough for the army, but not for that job.”
Several times Tumanov went to big cities like Moscow and Nizhniy Novgorod for temporary jobs at construction sites and a car plant, but that didn’t work out and hehad to come home.
“Where can you work here in Kozmodemiyansk? There are only two factories left. In May he told me ‘Mom, I’m going to the army.’ I tried to persuade him to wait with that idea. ‘God forbid, they’ll send you to Ukraine,’ I told him,” she recalls. “He told me the army wouldn’t be sent to Ukraine. He said ‘I need money. I’m not going to a war, I’m going to a job. There is no other job anyway’.”
On June 21 Tumanov left to join the 18th Motor Rifle Brigade, formation 27777, located in Kalinovskaya village in Chechnya Republic. He picked the place of service himself. He used to say that he grew to love the Caucuses Mountains he saw when serving in South Ossetia.
“I want to wake up and see mountains, then go back to sleep and see mountains,” his mother quotes Tumanov as saying.
Tumanov was in a hurry to join the army before the end of the month to start earning a wage in July. However, he then was told that he will have three months of probation before he actually signs the contract.
When her son called home to say that he won’t be paid for several months, Tumanova asked him if he wanted her to send him money. “If you can,” he responded. She sent him 3,000 rubles (around $80).
“That’s all I could find. I get 5,500 rubles a month working as a nurse assistant. Anton said no one had money in their unit. The boys from his unit didn’t even get any travel money when they were sent to me to deliver the papers. They were fed in our local recruitment office for the first time on their trip.”
Tumanova never received her son’s salary for 1.5 months of service. He told his family he was promised some 40,000-50,000 rubles a month. His former colleagues told his mother that he was most likely lied to, and the actual salary would be no more than 30,000 rubles, or $812.
“We are going to war”
Tumanov phoned home almost every day. In early July he said he was asked if he wanted to volunteer to go to Ukraine.
“I told him I hoped he didn’t want to go. He said ‘What am I, an idiot? Nobody wants to go here,’” Tumanova recalls.
The men were promised 400,000 rubles if they stayed there for a certain number of days. “Of course, nobody agreed. Even if you survive, you can be cheated and not get any money afterwards,” Tumanova says.
Soon after the conversation Tumanov told his mother he was sent to Rostov. On July 11 his unit ended up at the Russia-Ukraine border. His mother stayed calm. She thought her son was still far away from the military action in Ukraine and mostly worried about the fact that he was given instant noodles to eat.
Tumanova is outraged that the boys were poorly fed, kept under rain and burning sun. It almost seems like she wants to picture her son being hungry. She can’t picture him dead.
Tumanov’s fiancee Nastya Chernova, 17, tells a very different story about the month that Tumanov spent in Rostov Oblast.
Wearing the same black mourning headband, Chernova sits in an armchair next to a framed photo of her fiance. She is a skinny girl with long blond hair, dressed in all black. She doesn’t raise her eyes once during the entire conversation.
Chernova called Tumanov every day and he told her more than he did his mother. It was on July 23 or 25 when he said for the first time: “We are going to war.” Frightened, Chernova only said: “But there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, right?”
“We are going as insurgents,” he told the girl. After that, he was out of reach for three or four days.
The next time he went to Ukraine on Aug. 3 for two days. He didn’t reveal where exactly he was going and why. Chernova thinks he didn’t know that himself.
“I guess they were sent to simply oversee the situation,” Chernova says. “They gave them Ukrainian money. Anton used to joke that there were no souvenirs to bring me, so he would just bring the Ukrainian money. He wasn’t talking about war at all. Like it was a normal life.”
“We are sent to help insurgents. Don’t worry, it will all be OK.”
On Aug. 10 Tumanov called his mother and said his formation was sent to Donetsk. When talking to his fiancee, Tumanov added that he will stay in Ukraine for two or three months, probably till November, without a phone.
“Right before leaving he told me ‘I don’t want to go. We wanted to leave with the guys, but we are 1,500 kilometers away from our base.’ Maybe he was sensing something. In the last days he kept mentioning that we never married and he didn’t have children. It was in his plans and his dreams,” Chernova says.
On Aug. 11 Tumanov got two grenades and 150 machine gun cartridges. On 3 p.m. he sent his mother a message in Vkontakte social network saying: “Turned in my phone. Left for Ukraine.” That was all.
“I can’t understand how they could send them there. It was a big formation – 1,200 people. I didn’t even know who to call to. I didn’t have any of his commanders’ contacts. If I did, I would call and say: ‘Don’t you dare send him!’” Tumanova says.
Tumanov’s fellows from the military unit 27777 told the family what happened next, when they came to Kozmodemiyansk after the funeral to deliver the papers. They brought a notarized document detailing Tumanov’s death.
According to the servicemen, the order to cross the Ukrainian border came on Aug. 11. Those who refused were insulted and threatened by the commanders. They were ordered to turn in their phones and documents, change uniform and paint over number plates on their vehicles. Every soldier received thin white bands for their arms and legs.
Later Tumanova found in Vkontakte a photo of her son wearing such a band, with a comment by his fellow serviceman explaining that soldiers were moving the bands to a different arm or leg every day to signal to other squads that they are on the same side.
On the night of Aug. 12 a column of 1,200 soldiers entered Ukraine and arrived in Snizhne, a town 15 kilometers from the border. Later on that day the column was shelled by rockets from Grad launching systems.
“The boys told me that 120 men out of 1,200 died, and 450 were wounded. My Anton was at the front. No trenches or any protection. They panicked and tried to get out,” Tumanova says.
“Did you give the order?”
The death report was brought to Tumanov’s family by a local recruitment office employee named Budayev.
“He was the one who registered Anton for service. He was crying when he brought it. I only asked him where it happened,” Tumanova recalls.
The woman asked for a number of her son’s formation in Chechnya and called it to make sure there was no mistake. She was told his body was identified by other servicemen. That was the last time she heard from the military commandment.
The woman craves to know who gave the order for her son’s unit to go to Ukraine. She thinks it could only have been given from Moscow.
“If I saw (Russian President Vladimir) Putin standing next to me, I would ask him: ‘Did you give that order? Answer honestly.’ I thought there were no Russian soldiers there. And the boys say it’s not going to be over any time soon. Why does anyone have to go there? Let them work it out
on their own.”
After Tumanova wrote about her son’s death on her page in the Odnoklassniki social network she received a dozen angry messages saying that she was lying and compromising her motherland.
The part of Kozmodemiyansk that is close to the Volga River looks like a big village with its old wooden houses. It’s no more depressing than the rest of the town.
It takes 15 minutes to walk there from Tumanov’s home. On our way we bought dahlias and asters from an empty marketplace.
“Why do they fight?” Tumanova asks me simply, after she stumbles on the broken pavement. “Is it because of the land? Who would want it? I don’t understand politics at all.”
She recalls how before her son’s death she heard the count of losses among insurgents in Donbas and was surprised there were so many still left there.
“Some people here hope the war won’t touch them. They don’t understand that the men will be called up,” she says.
It is hard to spot Tumanov’s grave among the abandoned gravestones of elderly women glancing from old photographs. There are plastic wreaths from the family and the commandment, a bottle that serves as a vase for fresh flowers and the a photo of Tumanov in military uniform.
His mother puts some candies on the grave, removes old flowers, crosses herself and stands there, crying.
The funeral was very crowded, she recalls. People from the recruitment office came and brought a military orchestra.
“The guys from theorchestra play at soldiers’ funerals all the time. They told me Antonwasn’t the first one in our Mariy El republic who died in Ukraine,” she says.
The soldiers who delivered the papers told her they are also going to get the papers to the families in Kazan and Mariinskiy Posad.
Tumanov’s colleague posted a photo to Vkontakte that shows Tumanov with another soldier,signed to be Robert Arutyunyan. The caption said both died “while performing the Great Duty.” In the comments, the photo owner was asked about the details and confirmed that the group was fighting in Snizhne, disguised as insurgents.
This article was published in Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper. It is reprinted with permission.
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