Counting Russia’s War Dead in Ukraine

The Russian soldier was named Dmitri Tsvigun. A table tennis coach from a small city in Siberia, he had volunteered to fight in Ukraine. But at age 30, he died from shrapnel wounds when a tank shell exploded near him in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk Province on Nov. 20.

“He responded to a call from his heart to join the special military operation,” said a short memorial article in a local newspaper on Dec. 8.

That brief account got Mr. Tsvigun added to a list of confirmed Russian war deaths maintained by a small, dedicated team of data journalists and volunteers, as the Kremlin has largely avoided updating the number publicly. Run by Mediazona, the independent Russian news outlet, with the BBC’s Russian service and about a dozen anonymous volunteers in Russia, the list pulls information from sources like newspaper articles, photographs on tombstones, fellow soldiers mourning their comrades and even tips from relatives who want their loved ones included in the tally.

The list has surpassed 10,000 names, including more than 400 Russians drafted recently.

Credit…via Mediazona

“If the Russian government does not count Russian casualties, then someone has to do it,” said David Frenkel, one of four data reporters from Mediazona running the project. “It is important for us to explain to Russians the cost of the war,” he added. “If they do not understand the cost from the pictures of devastated Ukrainian cities, then maybe the number of dead Russians will make them think about it.”

The Russian government has tried to avoid just that by barely mentioning the death toll from the war it launched with the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. It has updated the number exactly twice: once at the end of March and again in September, when the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said that 5,937 Russian troops had been killed since the war started.

That official number is notably smaller than estimates from Western military and intelligence officials. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, said in November that Moscow’s casualties were “well over 100,000 Russian soldiers killed and wounded.”

There have been similar estimates for Ukrainian losses, with Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, telling a Ukrainian news station this month that up to 13,000 Ukrainian troops had died in the conflict.

With so much fog of war shrouding the subject, Mediazona decided that online sleuthing was needed to establish a baseline of Russian deaths. A scattered group of volunteers in Russia was already trying to document the deaths on their own, and the BBC News Russian service had done several articles on the subject, so they combined forces.

They did not set out to document every death, and estimated that their Russian count was about one-third to one-half the true total. But by harvesting as much information as was available from social media posts and putting a name to every death listed, they figured their number was better than an estimate.

“It is not just about the number; it is about who died or how they died,” said Maxim Litavrin, another data journalist at Mediazona.

Credit…via Mediazona

Ukrainians upload a higgledy-piggledy stream of information about Russians killed in the war on several channels on the Telegram messaging application, including the names of the deceased. The team of volunteer investigators in Russia then search social media posts for the names.

All of the information from open sources ends up on a huge spreadsheet. The journalists work quickly to check the links and to back up everything because personal posts often disappear. They crosscheck names against a government website that lists people deceased throughout Russia, but that does not specify military deaths.

Seven out of 10 confirmations come from local news reports, the data journalists said, while the others are a mix. They include announcements from local officials or employers; individual posts on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook; and sources like pictures of memorial plaques put up in dead soldiers’ former schools.

Every two weeks, Mediazona crunches all of the numbers to break down the toll on their website, including deaths by region, military unit and age.

The results can vary drastically by region. In Dagestan, Russia, for example, where serving and dying in the Russian Army is considered an honor, officials tend to make statements about those killed.

In some regions like Krasnodar, volunteers have counted hundreds of war dead by visiting cemeteries. Even temporary tombstones in Russian cemeteries usually include a picture of the deceased, along with the name, military unit, date of birth and date of death.

“Cemeteries give us a lot,” Mr. Frenkel said.

Military analysts have mixed views on the project. Some prefer to work with estimates of the overall number killed rather than a slice of the total. Others stressed that the work had been especially helpful in identifying patterns.

“The project is a useful snapshot of the breakdowns and wider patterns in Russian losses,” said Karolina Hird, a Russia analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “We know that Russian authorities are simply not presenting truthful reporting on losses.”

One early pattern, for example, showed that about 20 percent of Russia’s war deaths were officers. “That told us a lot about how the Russian Army operates,” said Olga Ivshina, a reporter with the BBC Russian service who alternates with Mediazona each week to tally the numbers. It turned out that senior Russian officers were initially deployed near the front lines because junior officers could not issue orders.

The information available online varies widely.

A local community page posted pictures showing Alexander A. Dementov, 28, and Alexander Trokhov, 38, after they were drafted at the end of September. They were both workers at the Nadezhdinski Metallurgical Plant in Serov, a Russian city in the Urals. Then, a local newspaper reported on Dec. 7 that both men, who had served in the 55th motorized rifle brigade, died in a missile strike on Nov. 23.

Sometimes, the details are sparse.

Vsevolod Matveev was No. 10,000 on the spreadsheet. The data journalists discovered that he was from the Sverdlovsk region in the Urals and that he was buried on Dec. 9 in the town of Zarechny. From his picture, they could tell that he had served with a motorized infantry unit. But that was it.

Credit…via Mediazona

When deaths cannot be confirmed by open sources, the names are put on a side list awaiting further details.

The Mediazona reporters noted that resistance to the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya developed in tandem with the death toll, but there has been little sign of that in Russia.

Spending every day scrolling through information about dead people is mentally taxing, they said, but certain posts stick with them. Mr. Litavrin remembers reading about a 40-year-old man who had a quiet, regular life and a daughter, and volunteered in August. He was killed after two weeks on the battlefield.

“I wondered what he was thinking,” Mr. Litavrin said. “It’s terrible.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *