In Russia, Knowing That Her Son Is Dead, and Waiting for Him Anyway

When Yulia Seleznyova walks around her home city in Russia, she scrutinizes everyone passing by in the hope that she will lock eyes with her son Aleksei.

She last heard from him on New Year’s Eve 2022, when he sent holiday greetings from the school in eastern Ukraine that his unit of recently mobilized soldiers was using as a headquarters

The Ukrainian military hit the school with U.S.-supplied HIMARS rockets on New Year’s Day. Russian authorities acknowledged dozens of deaths, though pro-Russian military bloggers and Ukrainian authorities estimated that the real number was in the hundreds.

Aleksei was not recognized in the official death toll because not a single fragment of his body was identified in the rubble after the strike. Ms. Seleznyova was left with nothing to bury, and, she says, no closure. But it has also left a small shred of hope for a miracle.

“I still go around town sometimes, with my eyes wide open, thinking maybe he’s sitting somewhere, but he doesn’t remember us, but maybe we’re there in his subconscious mind,” Ms. Seleznyova said in an interview late last year in her one-room apartment in Tolyatti, an industrial city on the Volga River that is home to Russia’s largest car manufacturer.

“Sometimes I think maybe he lost his memory and even got married somewhere in Ukraine, but he doesn’t remember us,” she said. “That he’s just shellshocked.”

Ms. Seleznyova, 45, spent the better part of 2023 searching for answers. She traveled for days by train to the western city of Rostov, searching the morgue there for any fragment of what was once her son’s body, and waiting for the DNA she provided the authorities in January 2023 to find its match.

“January, February, March — I was in a fog for three months,” she said. “I was so depressed. You don’t need anything, you don’t want anything. Life just stopped.”

Nearly 14 months after his death, she is still mourning for her son, whom she calls by his nickname, Lyosha. She works four days a week in a factory doing a job that requires a lot of physical force. It distracts her.

But during the three days she is off, she said: “Sometimes I just cry. Sadness rolls over me. And I still think to myself that maybe it is not true.”

Aleksei was 28 when he was killed, leaving behind a wife and infant son. He was mobilized in the first days after President Vladimir V. Putin announced a “partial mobilization” in September 2022, his mother and his sister Olesya said.

He was taken from the factory where he worked straight to the draft office, she said, and then to a training ground, where his family brought him the clothing and supplies he would need for his deployment.

He had been a star soccer player on a local team and planted trees for community service. He had completed his mandatory military service, but had “never held an automatic rifle in his hand,” his mother said. Though he had no medical training, he was placed in a unit responsible for extracting injured soldiers from the battlefield and providing them with urgent care, she said.

When he was mobilized, Aleksei’s wife was pregnant with their first child. When their son Artyom was born in December, Aleksei got three days of leave to meet him before he was deployed to Makiivka, in Russian-occupied Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

A war that until that point had not particularly concerned Ms. Seleznyova and her family had suddenly entered their lives.

“I could not even imagine that something like this would happen and what’s more, that it would affect our family,” said Olesya, 21. “In fact, it never even occurred to me.”

Her mother, who said she had not paid much attention to politics before the war, agreed.

“I never thought in my life that I would bury my children,” she said. “We didn’t believe it could happen to us until it did.”

Mother and daughter said that they see that same willful ignorance in others now, “as if nothing is happening.”

“This has already become normal for people,” Ms. Seleznyova said of the war and loss. “I go around the city and observe people: they are having fun, going out, relaxing, living a normal life, no one thinks about what’s going on there.”

Both mother and daughter shared reports of soldiers who returned to Tolyatti with serious injuries only to be sent back to the front without enough time to recover.

She prays for the war to end. Her willingness to speak openly about the fighting is unusual in contemporary Russia, where a climate of stifling repression has criminalized protesting the war or criticizing it in public. Hundreds of political prisoners are serving sentences for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” or spreading “false information” about the military.

The cemetery on the outskirts of Tolyatti has rows and rows of graves of fallen soldiers. There are at least a handful whose dates of death are that same New Year’s Day.

“I met a friend recently,” Ms. Seleznyova said. “He works at the cemetery making tombstones, building fences. And I met him the other day, he expressed his condolences. And he told us, there are two to three people every day.”

The Russian authorities have not released official statistics about the war dead since September 2022. But the Pentagon estimates that about 60,000 Russian soldiers have died and that about 240,000 have been wounded.

Aleksei does not have a grave yet. Ms. Seleznyova spent almost 11 months trying to get her son’s death recognized. After months joining forces with two other mothers searching for fragments of their sons’ bodies, without success, she had to go to court to force the state to pronounce her son dead, calling witnesses who put him in the school in Makiivka at the time of the strike.

Nearly 14 months since his death, he has still not had a funeral. In a text message on Friday, Ms. Seleznyova said she had not yet received the official document certifying his military service, meaning she and Aleksei’s widow are not yet eligible for the one-time payments the state gives to the families of fallen soldiers.

The payments can be as high as the equivalent of $84,000 in some regions, more than nine times the average annual Russian salary.

“There are, of course those who care about the money,” she said, noting that one reason there is not more public criticism of the war is because “they have shut the women up with these payments.”

“Everyone’s values are different,” she continued. “And our authorities understand that people will go because everything we have is in loans, mortgages, and debts, which are not insignificant.”

Ms. Seleznyova said that the prospect of money did nothing to ease her pain. And attempts to convince her that her son’s death was not in vain do not console her.

“Some people tell me, Yulia, keep it together. Life goes on. You have children, grandchildren. And your son is a hero,” she said. “I’m not interested in him being a hero. I need him sitting here on my couch, eating my borscht and pelmeni (dumplings) and kissing and hugging me like he used to.”

She still sometimes allows herself to daydream about it.

“There’s a knock on the door, and I’ll open it, he’ll be standing in front me,” she said. “Who cares in what condition. Let it be without arms, without legs, it doesn’t matter. I need him sitting here.”

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