Okategoriserade Elena Vasilyeva. Gathers information about soldiers killed

An interview with Russian human rights activist Elena Vasilyeva, founder of the group “Load 200 from Ukraine to Russia.” that gathers information about soldiers killed in military operation zones abroad and then transported home. The article contains statements that reflect the views of the author and the interviewed, not necessary the view of Baltic Worlds'.

Published on balticworlds.com on November 12, 2014

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* The article contains statements that reflect the views of the author and the interviewed, not necessary the view of Baltic Worlds’.

Russian human rights activist Elena Vasilyeva is well known in Ukraine as a founder of the group “Load 200 from Ukraine to Russia.”  Date by date and name by name she gathers information about the “load 200,” a code word for soldiers killed in military operation zones abroad and then transported home. Being involved in this activity, Elena finds herself threatened and pressured in many ways.  Her life has been endangered by physical threats during her trips to the military conflict area in east Ukraine, but she has also encountered the moral challenge of being called a traitor by pro-Russian separatists and supporters of Putin’s politics. What helps her to survive and remain confident that she has taken the right side in the current struggle? We spoke about these questions during a meeting with Elena at a café  in the western city of L’viv, in a group of people including other oppositional activists from Russia; citizens of Ukraine’s eastern regions who became victims of torture in the DPR; local journalists and businessmen; and volunteers who work in the east.

Many people in Ukraine appreciate your mission because it helps to clarify the disputed question about Putin’s military involvement in the current Ukrainian crisis. But what does your work mean to Russians? Who are your target audience and your supporters in your home country?

People who understand and support me are both from Russian and Ukraine. For example, volunteers in Moscow spread stickers reading “Take your children away from the war” in metro stations. Concerning the intended outcome of my work and the meaning of my findings for my compatriots, I have simply been waiting for the time when Russians will feel shame. Many people in Russia do not know about the war. It’s a big problem because at some point in future, after a period of self-deception, when people recover from this blindness and are able to see the situation clearly, it will be a total tragedy for all Russians in fact. Russia should realise as soon as possible what is really happening, and know this in detail and concrete numbers.

How have you reconstructed the picture of Russian military participation and losses in Ukraine? What sources have you used to retrieve the information?

First of all I travel to the zone of military conflict and receive much of my information from communication with people there. Also, some data regarding the dead and disappeared soldiers is already recognised by the Russian Ministry of Defence. I look at the numbers they provide concerning different units and then I find articles in the Ukrainian information networks which prove from the Ukrainian side that certain battles, for example, took place, and indicate the related losses. Those Russian servicemen who are responsible for the transportation of the Russian “load 200” confirm that there are considerable gaps in the search for unidentified bodies.  There are reports that a lot of corpses were thrown into local artificial lakes and are called ‘buoys’. Some are shallowly buried along roads and in forests. If we could make reliable connections with Donets’k regarding such notifications, then we could have found those places, and things would be much easier. But the problem is that a minimum of 23 mini-principalities have emerged there, and they dispute and divide everything between themselves. Each militant commander controls his territory, and these men are irritated when we arrive, interfere, and ask to investigate something.

Who helps you to do your work on the Ukrainian side?

I have travelled with people from the Ukrainian military and volunteer forces, in particular those who liberated settlements in the ATO zone like Slovyans’k and Semenivka. Together we went many kilometres into the east of Ukraine. Their assistance is much needed because there have already been some (assassination) attempts against me. I don’t even mean threats that I receive through phone calls and to addresses in social networks – that’s a usual thing. Of course, the rebels, militants of the so-called people’s republics, – this is what I call the terrorists in a mild way – cannot be positive about my work. Last time I was in the zone they started a real hunt which we barely survived. We escaped in to the fields and were very hungry. By the way, small snacks from friends in Zaporizhzhya, two kinds of non-perishable food made of pig’s lard, came in very handy in that field situation. The snacks were from a café called “Ukrop” [a scornful name for Ukrainians that their enemies started to use during this conflict; when Ukrainians jokingly use it as a self-name, they refute disparaging implications], which prepares this kind of food for the army.

What is the situation with the local population in the separatist controlled zone?

During my trips in the eastern region, I saw a lot of well-maintained fields, orchards, and vineyards, and I thought: “Dear local residents, why do you need “Novorossia” with this good state of agriculture here? You have nothing to learn from Russia in this respect. Are you sure you will have all of this in the artificial ‘republics’?” I am really sorry for the population that remain in the controlled zone. They do not even realise all the dangers they encounter. When I speak about the “load 200,” I speak also about killed servicemen who were left there not carefully buried, very close to the surface. In spring, with the flood waters, these corpses could cause massive pollution and poisoning of the soil. This might include such serious threats as outbreaks of Bubonic plague. When the separatists come up with their accusations against me, they do not understand what I am talking about. I am a professional ecologist and I realise that this so-called Novorossia can die simply because of an ecological catastrophe. Though the ‘people’s republics’ militants do not listen to me, I care about average people who remain in the zone. Right now Russian military personnel who are involved in the transportation of killed soldiers ask me – since the local population trusts me more than them –  to draw maps of places where there are dangerous “wild” burials.

What serves as grounds for your media statements that more than four thousand Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine?

Now I believe that the number could be much greater, although it is not really easy to find out precise information. I have to clarify that I do not count those Russians who really went to Ukraine as volunteers, but only those who were on the list of registered military staff. We know that in the beginning of the inter-state conflict in the spring, 27,000 soldiers were sent to the boundary and posted along the border, and participated in ‘training’, but only 17,000 came back from the ‘drills’. It’s official data. It is what Putin announced. Where are the remaining 10,000? When they started saying that this or that brigade was destroyed and only 15 persons survived then, friends, let us think how many people are there in a brigade. From two to eight thousand. If nine brigades are eliminated then how many soldiers are lost? It is not really easy to determine how many died and what really happened, that is why I count only at the lowest probable estimate. The Russian Ministry of Defence is even more conservative in its assessments – you might have read data such as “the Ministry of Defence confirms 900 perished soldiers.”  But it is important that it makes the facts public, at least partially. In the military units and brigades in many settlements, the ministry places the lists of Russian servicemen lost during the conflict.

What is the reaction of Russian society to this information that slowly becomes more and more available?

There in much dissatisfaction in certain military units. Soldiers are shown lists of their peers who died and their reaction is to ask why do we need to go to Ukraine? There have been many talks about the possibility of the Russian army marching on Kyiv… Yes, maybe . . . if the whole Russian army enters, it probably could attack Kyiv. But in reality what they do is send soldiers by small groups – one brigade, two brigades, a combination of some subdivisions. And the Ukrainian army has already learned how to counterattack. They smash the visitors, units coming from Russia with much strength, and often not only the Ukrainian army does this but also people from Donetsk People’s Republic. The Russian military say themselves that the rebels, “high on drugs, are running around with their missile launchers” and are often firing indiscriminately at Russians. Russian newcomers do not know the territory and the separatists do. A lot of Russian soldiers are killed during their relocations at night. Most losses, in fact, occurred not during fights. The battles were in Debaltsevo, Snezhnoye, near Saur Mohyla… Even at Mariupol Russia managed to lose hundreds of soldiers, many of them during the ceasefire.

Did you have a chance to communicate with Russian troops in Ukraine?

Yes, in Debaltsevo and Ilovaisk, and with those who participated in recent attacks on Mariupol and also with those who were forced to dress as separatists and fight in their ranks. Many of them came back and now the second shift is being prepared.

How does the military feel about probable participation in battles in Ukraine? Ready to go?

They do not want to go! I can turn on a record of questions to the military and talks with them and you can listen for an hour and a half – how the soldiers express their dissatisfaction and concern. Some of the soldiers’ mothers and widows became involved in the anti-mobilisation protests. They say, “We do not want to send our sons to their deaths. Let those “Ukrops” solve their problems themselves.” Yet there are many barriers to the spread of information, as well as to voicing disagreement. Many of the funerals of Russian soldiers in their homeland were held at night, by car headlamps only.

Does greater openness promise a change in public attitudes toward the war?

The repression of many facts explains why society reacts so quietly to the conflict. Besides, there is much more to the problem of why Russia is what it is and not something different. If we feel that something is wrong with our society, we need to formulate a diagnosis to find the reason for an abnormal condition. If we consider a set of attributes that explain contemporary Russia’s mind and social order, it appears that our Russia remains stuck at a feudal slavery stage of development… And the current mentality corresponds to this stage. An important part of the answer to the question about the indifferent attitude of many Russians to this situation is that they are overly reliant on their Czar. Some are dependent to a dangerous degree, which becomes apparent when they talk about the messianic role of the president. There exist also many critical analyses concerning this dependence of the masses on the ruler including books about Putin as czar, but in reality only particular individuals are able to oppose this dependence and its correlated ideology that maintains totalitarian inclinations. It is simply dangerous to live in Russia and not to share official views.

As a person who knows Ukraine from inside and from your own experience, what do you think about the belief that the Ukrainian revolution and subsequent events were inspired from the outside and promoted by the West?

I have already answered this questions many times. And I can say for sure that this is not a coup and campaign initiated and inspired by the West. This is a desire of Ukrainian people to live freely and have choice.  Yanukovych in fact was Putin’s appointed executive, Putin’s man, and Ukraine was considered as Putin’s domain, patrimonial estate, vassal territory. Ukrainian people broke those plans, and that is why Putin, who is not at all allergic to blood and is ready for any losses, decided to move troops to Ukraine.

What are your impressions from communication with Ukrainians?

Many people in Ukraine are simply my friends – in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovs’k, Zaporizhzhia. During this last trip I discovered L’viv, and feel the closeness of the West here and perceive it as a European city. Still a lot needs to be done for its development, but it is already a very attractive and comfortable place. It was encouraging to feel the great attention of the press here, and the interest of many average people. When I met with soldiers in Ukraine, I was surprised by what they watch and listen to. While it is more common for many Russian soldiers to consume shallow, rogue, “tough guy”-style pieces of popular culture, in the case of Ukrainian military, I was amazed to hear lyrics, for example poems by Simonov – ‘Wait for me and I will come back’. I saw kids’ drawings on the walls in the rooms where Ukrainian soldiers live, and this represents hope, the purpose for which those young men are fighting for. The emblem sign on Elena’s jacket reads, “For your and our freedom.” That is, for Ukraine’s and Russia’s freedom. The people in the L’viv café view the significance of Elena Vasilyeva’s campaign precisely in this “two-way” manner: “Someone should save the reputation of Russian democracy, thank you for doing this”; “We much appreciate your efforts to stop the blood of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, through voicing concern and opposing the propaganda of zombie-TV”; “In contrast to our perception of Russia as a bright, light-toned country, the recent choices of Russian leaders seemed to be dark, anti-human. What you do leaves a chance that the bright features in the image of your home country may be restored.” NOTE: This interview was conducted with the assist of Naomi Foyle

  • by Lyudmyla Pavlyuk

    Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, Ukraine. Her research field is the analysis of discursive constructions of national identity and representation of conflict in mass media.

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