Lyudmila Malinina’s voice trembled as she described the secret funeral she witnessed on a recent night in her small town of Sudislavsky in the Kostroma region of central Russia. At about 8pm, a truck parked at the cemetery a few yards away from her wooden house. The truck’s headlights stayed on to illuminate the ground for several men to hurriedly dig the grave, “as if they were thieves hiding something”, Luydmila says.
More neighbours popped out of their windows and doors to watch and discuss the strange scene, wondering why anybody would bury a relative at this hour. Besides, that part of the graveyard was reserved for the deceased in war, as somebody pointed out.
While Nato sat down for a summit to decide what to do about the war in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin negotiated a ceasefire deal with Kiev, Russian society recoiled from reports about secret funerals of soldiers killed in Ukraine: missing sons, calls from husbands begging their wives to save them from battle, bodies with missing limbs arriving in coffins to Nizhny Novgorod, Orenburg, Pskov, Murmansk, Dagestan and other regions of Russia. The death toll for Russian soldiers jumped to more than 200 soldiers in a few days, between August 12th and September 2nd, in a war that was, officially, not happening.
Russian army wives have a special term for dead soldiers returning home from the front lines in zinc coffins: they are called “cargo 200” – a phrase that has echoed like a curse to a Russian ear since the days that a tide of zinc packages came in from Afghanistan during the Soviet war of 1980s. The secrecy around their husbands’ deployments “was like a trap created by aschizophrenic”, one of the Kostroma paratroopers’ wives says.