Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo April 6, 2024

Escaping Putin’s War Machine

Four soldiers walk down a dirt road

For Western nations grappling with Russia’s vast and growing diaspora, Russian military defectors...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors

An underground network of Russian anti-war activists is helping soldiers abandon Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

As the war in Ukraine grinds into a third year, more Russian soldiers are attempting to escape frontline deployment, supported by an underground network of fellow Russians. 

Associated Press investigative reporter Erika Kinetz follows the dramatic journey of one Russian military officer who deserted the army and fled Russia, guided by an anti-war group that has helped thousands of people evade military service or desert. The name of the group, Idite Lesom, is a play on words in Russian – a reference to the covert nature of its work but also a popular idiom that means “Get lost.”

With help from the group, the officer made the perilous journey to Kazakhstan, but only after he had a friend and fellow soldier shoot him in the leg.

“You can only leave wounded or dead,” he tells Kinetz. “No one wants to leave dead.”

His act of desperation reflects the horrific conditions troops face in Ukraine. But life in exile is not what this officer and other deserters had hoped for. Some have had criminal cases filed against them in Russia, where they face 10 years or more in prison. And many are also waiting for a welcome from European countries or the United States that has never arrived. Instead, they live in hiding, fearing deportation back to Russia and persecution of themselves and their families.

For Western nations grappling with Russia’s vast and growing diaspora, Russian military defectors present particular concern: Are they spies? War criminals? Or heroes?

Next, Reveal host Al Letson talks with Kinetz and fellow reporter Solomiia Hera about why these military defectors are not finding sanctuary in Western Europe or the U.S. and how demographics and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to accept enormous casualties in Ukraine could give Russia an edge in an emerging war of attrition.

In the final segment, we follow a Ukrainian man who knows all too well what a war of attrition really looks like. Oleksii Yukov is a martial arts instructor and leader of a team of volunteers who collect the remains of fallen soldiers, both Ukrainian and Russian. Yukov is on a spiritual quest to give these souls a final resting place. 

“We are not fighting the dead,” Yukov says. “Our weapon is humanity and a shovel.”


Reporters: Erika Kinetz and Solomiia Hera | Producers: Michael Montgomery, Stephen Smith and Masho Lomashvili | Editor: Brett Myers | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production managers: Steven Rascón and Zulema Cobb | Digital producer: Nikki Frick | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Interim executive producers: Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers | Host: Al Letson 

Produced in collaboration with The Associated Press. Special thanks to editors Jeannie Ohm, Mary Rajkumar, Ron Nixon and Jaime Holguin and reporters Geir Moulson, Lori Hinnant, Vasilisa Stepanenko, Rebecca Santana, Volodymyr Yurchuk and Michael Biesecker. Thanks also to Anna Chukur, Serhii Tereshchenko, Ostep Stefak, Ruslan Gurzhiy, Hannah Levintova and Mediazona.

Read the transcript

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Cellphone calls from Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

The calls reveal soldiers’ anger, fear, and frustration over the war and expose possible war crimes.

They were intercepted by Ukrainian authorities and obtained by Associated Press investigative reporter, Erika Kinetz. We heard some of them on Reveal last year. Since then, Erika got more, including calls showing soldiers desperation as the war grinds on.

Erika Kinetz: What’s interesting about these intercepts is the number of people who spoke openly about wanting out of the war. One of the men said he felt forgotten.

Their lives are worth nothing to Moscow and they don’t know what they’re dying for anymore.

Al Letson: For some Russian soldiers, there’s a way out of the war, an underground network run by fellow Russians to help soldiers escape both the battlefield and also harsh treatment from the Russian military. But even far away from the war zone, it can be hard to find a safe haven. For this episode, we’re partnering once again with the Associated Press. With support from the Pulitzer Center, we go inside a secretive operation to undermine President Vladimir Putin’s war machine and save lives. And a note before we start, this week’s show contains descriptions of graphic violence and may not be appropriate for all listeners. Here’s Erika Kinetz.

Erika Kinetz: This past January, Ivan Chuvilyaev got an encrypted message. Ivan lives in exile in Spain. He’s a Russian anti-war activist and this message was from a man who said he was a soldier in the Russian army. He’d spent nearly six months on the frontlines in Ukraine and was fed up. Ivan messaged back, “Let’s talk.”

Ivan Chuvilyaev: I asked him to be calm and not to be afraid of me. I told him, “Well, all right. Tell me the whole story, how it happened, how it started, how it finished.”

Erika Kinetz: The man told Ivan he was born in a former Soviet Republic in Central Asia. And that before the war, he was living in Russia as a migrant worker.
Ivan Chuvilyaev: He’s older than any soldier in the army could be. He’s more than 50 years old.

Erika Kinetz: He said that after Putin ordered the full-scale attack on Ukraine in 2022, he started seeing signs plastered everywhere around St. Petersburg on buses and billboards.

Ivan Chuvilyaev: The major thing in these billboards is that they are promising fast and big money to anybody who will sign the contract with Russian Minister of Defense.

Erika Kinetz: At this point, the man knew little about the war other than the propaganda in the Russian media. And he was struggling to support his son who was studying in a prestigious university, so he thought this could be an easy way to make a lot more money than he could as a manual laborer.

Ivan Chuvilyaev: Most of people, I would say, who signed the contract for the last year primarily, they signed it because they needed money.

Erika Kinetz: Once he got to Ukraine, he realized he’d been misled. It was not a way to make easy money. It was a slaughterhouse.

Ivan Chuvilyaev: The most common word they use when they’re talking about their experiences, they were [inaudible 00:03:46] up because they were told one thing and they faced simply another thing.

Erika Kinetz: The man on the phone with Ivan was on leave in Russia from frontline duty and he wanted out. He did not want to go back to Ukraine.

Ivan Chuvilyaev: Of course, everyone asks, “Why did you go there? Why did you sign the contract?” But unfortunately, Russian officials are quite talented in tricking and in lying.

Erika Kinetz: Ivan’s job is to help Russian soldiers and other men facing military service escape. Ideally, to get to other countries. The name of his group is Get Lost and its co-founder is Grigory Sverdlin.

Grigory Sverdli: There is a lot of desperation. People do not see how this can end. People decide to desert facing 15 years in jail, by the way.

Erika Kinetz: Grigory was a prominent homeless advocate in St. Petersburg who became a harsh critic of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Facing possible arrest, he fled Russia to the Republic of Georgia where he launched Get Lost in September 2022. Its literal name in Russian is Idite Lesom, or go through the forest. But as Grigory explains, that phrase has different meanings depending on your audience.

Grigory Sverdli: First meaning is, “Get lost. Go [inaudible 00:05:12] yourself.” That’s message to Russian authorities, obviously. And the second meaning is, “Hide in the forest,” and that’s the message we are sending to all of the people who do not want to go to Russian army or want to desert from Russian army.

Erika Kinetz: Get Lost operates a channel on the popular messaging app, Telegram. That’s how most people contact them, including that soldier who is trying to pay for his son’s college. In his calls with the man, Ivan encouraged him to leave Russia as quickly as possible and return to his home country. But in the chaos of war, things can sideways quickly and soldiers can just disappear.

Ivan Chuvilyaev: And he told me, “Well, I will think about it. I will make my decision and go back to you,” and he didn’t.

Erika Kinetz: This was the last time Ivan heard from the man. Get Lost says it supported more than 22,000 Russians who want to avoid going to war. More and more, the group is being asked to help active-duty soldiers who want to get out. I wanted to get a fuller picture of how this underground railroad works. How do groups like Get Lost help Russian soldiers defect from the front lines of the war and what does life look like for them once they’re out? So I traveled to Kazakhstan. That’s where I met an officer we’ll call Yevgeny.

Ivan Chuvilyaev: Yevgeny was one of our… The very first clients who were professional military. He was an officer and he was one of the first guys who we helped to leave the frontline. As I remember, he entered military academy when he was a young boy, a teenager.

Erika Kinetz: Yevgeny is a decorated war hero who has been celebrated on Russian state TV. He agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, fearing deportation and persecution of himself and his family back in Russia. By the time we meet up, it’s been about eight months since he deserted. I arrive at his apartment in the capital, Astana, together with a translator and video journalist. It’s around 10:00 AM and he’s just getting up.

It’s nice to meet you.

Thank you for taking the time.

The place stinks of cats and there are four guys sharing the apartment with only three chairs among them to sit on, three spoons to eat with. Everything feels temporary.

Yevgeny sits in his bedroom next to a pile of coats on the floor that was serving as another guy’s bed and tells us about his time in Ukraine. He led an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon of around 15 men that was part of the invasion force. The deeper they got into Ukraine, the uglier things got.

He says he didn’t want to kill anyone but he also wanted to live. In Ukraine, Yevgeny saw things he can’t forget, things he knows are wrong. He says Ukrainian prisoners of war were executed early on because the Russian military couldn’t get them back to Russia and didn’t want to build detention centers.

Translator: Special people were chosen for this because a lot of others refused.
People with a special, so to speak, psyche were appointed executioners.

Erika Kinetz: By April 2022, Ukrainians were mounting a fierce resistance and the Russian army was pulling back from the outskirts of Kiev. In their hasty retreat, Yevgeny’s unit ran into an ambush. He says around 70 people from his brigade died that day. Yevgeny showed us a video the Ukrainian military released of the encounter. There’s no audio and the footage looks like a video game. Graphics of Russian and Ukrainian flags bobbed above the tanks. You can follow the battle. Then, it cuts to a magnified image of a Russian tank pluming smoke, two dead guys curled on the ground beside it. In the comments someone’s written, “Very cool.” “The best sight in my life is to see how the Russians die,” writes another.

What’s it like for you watching that video? I mean, you were in that column and you know people who were dying in that fight. What’s it like watching that?

Translator: Well, actually, I only watched it once and I did not want to watch it again. I don’t want to look at my friends who were killed For what? It’s painful.
Many of my friends have died and these were really good guys who did not want to fight but there was no way out for them.

Erika Kinetz: We spent more than five hours talking with Yevgeny. At one point, he rummages through a box filled with a few important things he brought with him when he fled. He can’t find his medals of honor but he does find the certificates for military commendations. And then, he suddenly shoves everything back in the box. He seems ashamed. Yevgeny doesn’t like to talk about seeing his friends die and he doesn’t like to talk about the people he and his men killed either. When I press him, he tells a story of an encounter along the road to Kiev when his unit got stuck in a field outside of village. They stopped to repair their vehicles and he says two men approached who appeared to be armed. He ordered his sergeant to fire.

Translator: People often ask me, “Did you kill him?” But who really knows? He shot. One man lay down. But did the man just fall over or did he wound him or kill him? It’s unclear.

Erika Kinetz: In May 2022, Yevgeny and three other soldiers were ordered to retrieve their unit’s last drone which was stuck in a tree in Ukrainian territory. But this, for them, was basically a suicide mission. They’d already lost one soldier here.

Translator: We were sent to get it from the same place where my soldier died. For a month, we could not take his body out. He was just lying there.

Erika Kinetz: There was just no way to get that drone and it was the last straw for Yevgeny. He’d already seen a lot of things he didn’t agree with, lots of incompetence, lives wasted, and he didn’t want to kill people. Yevgeny and the three soldiers came up with what they called Plan B. The sniper would do the shooting. Yevgeny would take the first bullet to his leg, then the comms guy in the thigh, and finally, the sniper himself would take a bullet to his arm. The fourth guy didn’t want to get shot but he said he’d stand by their story. So they go off into the forest ostensibly to get that drone. But instead of that, they get their tourniquets ready. “Just don’t miss,” Yevgeny tells the sniper, “Shoot into the soft part.”

Translator: First, they shot me. Then, they shot the comms guy in the leg. And then, the sniper looked at us and thought, “Screw it. This is scary.” He changed his mind after watching what happened to us. It’s very painful. Imagine taking a metal bar and having a strong man like a powerlifter hammer it into your leg with all his strength. This is what it feels like.

Erika Kinetz: His friends dragged him through the woods and he was evacuated that night. He shows me the scar on his leg. He likes to joke that he gave birth to himself. He says, “No life begins without suffering.” And as with childbirth, he went through intense pain to get a new life. Yevgeny was shipped back to Russia. He knew he’d eventually be ordered back to Ukraine so he went into hiding and contacted the anti-war activists at Get Lost. Here’s Ivan Chuvilyaev again.

Ivan Chuvilyaev: Yevgeny is extremely brave person and he hates war. He doesn’t want it.

Erika Kinetz: With Yevgeny hiding in Russia, Ivan and Grigory’s team set to work trying to get him out.

Ivan Chuvilyaev: The only thing we can do here is providing information, clear, verified information.

Grigory Sverdli: We create a route for them. All of the details discussed which documents you will need and what border you should cross.

Erika Kinetz: We agreed not to disclose Yevgeny’s escape route but it’s one that’s been used by other deserters. Yevgeny made it to Kazakhstan in early 2023. Back in Russia, authorities filed a criminal case, his relatives were questioned, and his apartment searched. Yevgeny took a lot of risks to make his dramatic escape but life in exile isn’t what he was hoping for. This is common for a lot of deserters who remain in a perilous kind of limbo, living in hiding. Yevgeny doesn’t have a regular job. He’s afraid of document checks, doesn’t have a SIM card, a bank account, or a lease in his own name. Yevgeny and the other men I spoke with have watched deserters get deported from Kazakhstan back to Russia or seized by Russian forces in Armenia. Just this past February, a high-profile Russian defector, a former helicopter pilot turned up dead in Spain. His body riddled with bullets.

Translator: There is no mechanism for Russians who do not want to fight, deserters to get to a safe place.

Erika Kinetz: Yevgeny says, “Helping Russian soldiers desert is one way for the international community to undermine Putin’s war in Ukraine.”

Translator: After all, it’s much cheaper economically to allow a person into your country, a healthy young man who can work than to supply Ukraine with weapons.

Erika Kinetz: He’s applied for asylum in Western Europe and doesn’t know what he’ll do when his savings run out. He would like to go to the United States or maybe use his military training to serve in a UN mission somewhere but it’s hard for him to draw a path to that place from his grungy apartment. Grigory says defectors like Yevgeny deserve a lot more support.

Grigory Sverdli: These people made this very hard decision facing, I will repeat, 15 years in jail. So it’s a very big risk and these people have proven that they don’t want to be a part of this war.

Erika Kinetz: Many Russians who oppose Putin’s war have struggled to find new lives in other countries, including the United States and Europe. We went to Istanbul, Turkey last year to visit a network of safe houses. Activists were sheltering men evading the military and others. Educators, business professionals, artists all escaping Putin’s Russia.

Eva Rapoport: So we’re in one of the co-living spaces. Since the beginning of the war, it is the second apartment we rented here in Istanbul.

Erika Kinetz: Eva Rapoport is with the group Kovcheg, or Ark, which regularly partners with Get Lost. She told us this apartment housed up to 12 people who typically stay a few weeks until they find other accommodations. Many were hoping to build an exile community in Istanbul that would stand up in vocal opposition to Putin and the war.

Eva Rapoport: I think it’s almost an obligation that being outside of Russia, we can exercise our freedom of speech, saying what we think about the events. We should be saying it openly and loudly for all the people in Russia who cannot do that.

Erika Kinetz: But a year later, Eva says most of the people who fled to Turkey have had to move on to other countries because they were denied residency permits. She says very few could get visas for countries in the European Union or the United States.

Eva Rapoport: There was hope that Istanbul could be some kind of hub for a Russian oppositionary culture, being this strategically located place. But now, this is all going away. That’s something that was not expected but it became our reality.

Erika Kinetz: Despite lackluster support from the West and more violence and repression in Russia, Grigory and Ivan say they’re not backing down.

Grigory Sverdli: The more successful Get Lost is getting, we get more and more dangers. But dignity is more important than safety and love to my country is definitely more powerful than fear.

Erika Kinetz: This past February, Get Lost organized a special day to honor soldiers who make a bold stand.

They posted videos like this one from a Russian army deserter.

With his face blurred out, he’s pleading to his comrades still fighting in Ukraine. He says, “Don’t be afraid to desert the Russian military because that’s the path to a happy life.”

Ivan says, “Get Lost is trying to redefine what it means to be a deserter.”

Ivan Chuvilyaev: It is quite a simple appeal, “Leave the frontline. Be a deserter. Don’t wait for anything because all these huge machine is working only on killing people. Just go.”

Erika Kinetz: From exile, Ivan thinks a lot about how Western countries could be rallying around military defectors. How working with Russians who oppose Putin is in the strategic self-interest of the West. Like during the Cold War when many people escaping from the Soviet Union were welcomed with open arms.

Ivan Chuvilyaev: Lots of defectors, even KGB spies, didn’t want to serve for criminals and killers and came to European states or to United States and gave up to local authorities. They were heroes. We should remember that.

Al Letson: Erika Kinetz is a reporter with the Associated Press’s Global Investigations Team. Our story was produced by Masho Lomashvili and Reveal’s Michael Montgomery. Both Russia and Ukraine have been less than forthright about how many soldiers have been killed in the war and that’s brewing discontent among Ukrainians.

Solomiia Hera: One may ask, “My son died for Ukraine but Ukraine does not want to recognize his death.”

Al Letson: That’s coming up next. You’re listening to Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This week, we’re collaborating with the Associated Press for another look at the conflict in Ukraine. Some experts say it’s becoming a war of attrition but what does that mean in terms of human lives? We just heard about one officer’s decision to desert the Russian army and flee the country. That story came from AP Investigative reporter, Erika Kinetz, and she’s with me now. So I wanted to ask you, what is the scale in terms of desertions in the Russian Army?

Erika Kinetz: A number of signs indicate that a growing number of Russian soldiers want to get out of the war. Get Lost, the group that helped Yevgeny escape, has been getting record numbers of requests from people seeking to desert. More than 500 in the first two months of 2024. These days, around 30% of all requests for help are coming from active duty soldiers. A year ago, it was just 3%. Still, I think we should put this in the context of Russia’s overall troop strength. Russia has around 470,000 troops on the ground in Ukraine according to one leading think tank in London. And so, morale may be falling but Russia’s still got a lot of troops on the ground.

Al Letson: So it sounds like there aren’t many deserters that are actually making it to the West and that’s where a lot of them want to go. I would think that if you create incentives for soldiers to desert, like offering them support, it could be one way to deplete the Russian military. So why aren’t Western countries stepping up?

Erika Kinetz: It’s true. A lot of people do want to leave and very few people are getting in. So we got some data on this and found that fewer than 300 Russians got refugee status in the US in fiscal 2022. We can’t say how many were soldiers. But we can say that in 2022, the number of asylum requests the US Department of Homeland Security got from Russians, nearly quadrupled to almost 9,000. France and Germany have also seen surges. Asylum requests from Russians were up more than 50% last year in France and more than doubled in Germany.

But the deserters we spoke with, like many people in Russia, particularly in the armed forces, have passports that only allow them to travel within a handful of former Soviet states. So it’s hard for them to even get to places like France and Germany and America to claim asylum. I think also for a lot of people, Russian soldiers who desert just don’t draw a lot of sympathy and Western countries haven’t really made up their minds as to whether they’re potential national security assets or threats. Are these guys spies, are they war criminals, or are they heroes?

Al Letson: So you and your team made an effort to document the scale of the carnage of this war. What have you found?

Erika Kinetz: I think it’ll probably take years before we can really get an accurate picture of how many people have died in this war. For now, we can say that Western intelligence estimates put the number of casualties on both sides at more than half a million. That kind of human toll has not been seen in Europe since World War II and the dead are transforming the landscape. You can see the scale of loss from satellite images and from the sky, the graves look the same on both sides of the front. Fields that were once empty are now just quilted with these patchworks of fresh tombstones. President Zelenskyy recently said that at least 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in this war. That’s less than half of what Washington has estimated but it’s much more forthright than Putin has been about Russian losses. Moscow’s silence hasn’t stopped work being done by Mediazona, the independent Russian media outlet, and BBC’s Russian service. They’ve confirmed the deaths of nearly 50,000 Russian soldiers who’ve been killed since the full-scale invasion. And they say that number probably captures just over half of the true death toll.

Al Letson: The scale is just… I don’t know. It’s hard to wrap your head around that number of people dying.

Erika Kinetz: It is. That’s why we wanted to see what these cemeteries looked like from space and that is still only a fraction of the total numbers out there.

Al Letson: I want to bring someone else into the conversation. Solomiia Hera is a Ukrainian reporter who’s worked alongside Erika and helped count those graves in Ukraine. Hey, Solomiia.

Solomiia Hera: Hi.

Al Letson: So tell me… I know that you’ve seen a lot of graves. What struck you the most?

Solomiia Hera: So when I visited cemeteries, what struck me really is amount of rows of graves filled with Ukrainian flags, flowers, and personal belongings of young soldiers. And many of these soldiers were born after 2000.

Al Letson: Yeah. So you’re looking at all these gravesites for really young people whose lives really hasn’t even gotten started.

Solomiia Hera: Yeah. Exactly, and this is what is shocking.

Al Letson: It sounds like talking publicly about the death toll in Ukraine is something of a taboo. How do ordinary people feel about that?

Solomiia Hera: Indeed. It was a decision of Ukrainian government until lately, not to disclose number of casualties. For Ukrainian families, it’s very important to talk about their dead family members who died for the sake of Ukraine. But for regular Ukrainians, when what they read the news or what they see in cemeteries does not match with numbers provided by government, then the question arises, “What for did soldiers die?” And one may ask, “My son died for Ukraine but Ukraine does not want to recognize his death.” And therefore, some Ukrainian families feel it’s disrespectful towards the dead soldiers not to say the actual count.

Al Letson: Erika, when people describe the conflict in Ukraine as a war of attrition, what does that really mean?

Erika Kinetz: Yeah. Attrition is a nice word for something that’s actually really very ugly. A war of attrition means that who prevails is increasingly shaped by who can tolerate higher losses. And by that measure, Moscow has a clear advantage. So I took a quick look at the demographics and Russia had 3.7 times more men of fighting age than Ukraine did in 2022. That’s according to data from the World Bank. The analysts I’ve spoken with say that it will be very hard for Ukraine to outmatch Russia’s forces which have continued to grow in overall size despite hundreds of thousands of casualties without significant help from Ukraine’s international partners. Top needs that they flag are artillery ammunition and air defense capability. The failure of the US Congress to approve $60 billion in aid for Ukraine is not helping. Lack of long range artillery means that Ukrainian commanders have to push more people into the range of Russian fire to physically hold the front.

Al Letson: Yeah. I mean, this sounds horrible but Vladimir Putin can just throw more bodies at the problem and it doesn’t seem that he really cares about that.

Erika Kinetz: Yeah. It seems like Putin knows that he can sustain higher losses than Ukraine can.

Al Letson: That ties into, I guess, Ukraine’s belief that they should not tell what the number of dead are. Because if they say the actual number, it’s really clear that, for a lack of better term, it’s a dwindling resource, right?

Erika Kinetz: Well, I think this has to be put into context. Saying how many people have died can be a real hit to morale so neither Ukraine nor Russia really wants the true number of war dead to be known. That’s the same for pretty much every war. I don’t think there’s transparency in wartime. And if you think of past wars, sometimes it takes decades for people to get the accurate data.

Al Letson: Erika Kinetz is an investigative reporter for the Associated Press and Solomiia Hera is a reporter who’s been working with the AP in Ukraine. Thank you both for coming in.

Erika Kinetz: Thanks, Al.

Solomiia Hera: Thank you.

Al Letson: Coming up, Solomiia introduces us to a Ukrainian man who recovers war dead from the battlefield. He has a message for the parents of Russian soldiers.

Oleksii Yukov: Why did you raise your children? For a bright future or for death?

Al Letson: That’s ahead on Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We just heard about how both Russia and Ukraine are trying to keep a lid on the true death toll. Our next story is about a Ukrainian man who’s all too familiar with the human cost of war. He leads a group of volunteer body collectors on an obsessive quest to put the souls of the military dead to rest.

Before we start, a word of caution that this story contains descriptions of death that are graphic. Reveal’s Michael Montgomery takes it from here.

It’s nighttime and reporters for the Associated Press, including Solomiia Hera, are tearing across the Ukrainian countryside. They’re chasing a mud-covered SUV with Red Cross emblems on its doors.

Solomiia Hera: On the top of the car, there were black bags which we immediately recognized it was Yukov and his buddies.

Al Letson: Yukov is Oleksii Yukov.

Solomiia Hera: So we started driving after him but he was driving very rigidly and speeding up. It was in the middle of the night. He was certainly in a rush to unload these bodies and probably go back home to rest.

Al Letson: From behind, Solomiia can see body bags bouncing on the roof of Yukov’s SUV. Inside, there are more bodies. Eventually, Yukov steers off the road and into a clearing. He parks next to a white refrigerated truck marked with a red cross and the number 200. That’s military code for vehicles carrying the dead.

Under the glare of headlights, men in flak jackets and helmets carefully lower the heavy bags down from the roof. There are a dozen bodies in all. The bodies are then loaded onto the refrigerated truck which will ferry them to a morgue.

Yukov and his team will be back in the field tomorrow. They’re civilians who comb through battlefields and bombed out buildings to gather the remains of Ukrainian and Russian fighters. They call their volunteer group, [foreign language 00:33:03] or Bridgehead. Their mission is to help the souls of the dead find rest. It’s grisly dangerous work. Work that Yukov has become reluctant to talk about with the press because he feels that most reporters only seem interested in the gruesome side of his work. Solomiia assured him that’s not the plan.

Solomiia Hera: So it took us around six, seven months to set up interviews and we were still not sure if he would arrive to that interview.

Al Letson: This is video footage from a camera that Yukov has strapped to his helmet. He and his colleagues are treading cautiously through the blasted ruins of a farmstead.

Oleksii Yukov: Well, friends, this is the second day of the search for our dead soldiers here in this area. This is the village of Dovhen’ke, Kharkiv region, and this is the exact location of the soldier who died.

Solomiia Hera: Yukov is very determined to find a missing body if one asks him so. At one time, he was contacted by a family of a missing person and that family knew the place of where the Ukrainian soldier died and they asked Yukov and his team to go on site and try to bring the body back home.

Oleksii Yukov: And now, our group is going to the location. We have confirmed that the soldier’s body could be in the cellar.

Al Letson: Yukov has been texting with the mother of the missing Ukrainian soldier. His name is Oleksandr Hrysuk, Sasha to friends and family. The team works its way past shredded trees, a mangled tractor, empty artillery crates, and heaps of rubble. Any wrong step could trigger an anti-personnel mine or a buried mortar round. In fact, just a few weeks earlier, Yukov tripped a mine here. He lost an eye in the blast. Now, he’s back again searching for Sasha.

Oleksii Yukov: He was brought by his fellow soldiers to the cellar. The cellar has collapsed and the body’s lying there under the rubble. So we will now excavate and look for the guy.

Al Letson: A slab of concrete is blocking the way in so a team member stabs at it with a big iron rod.

Oleksii Yukov: We are breaking the slab now. We will haul it out and dig further because there is already some smell. There may be a body in there.

Al Letson: Yukov climbs down into the darkness. His headlamp flashes left and right but he can’t locate the body. All he can see is rubble and dirt. Just then, a gray tabby kitten comes from nowhere. It jumps on Yukov’s shoulder and rubs against his cheek.

Oleksii Yukov: A kitten came up to us and he’s been hanging around this cellar. What a handsome cat. You came to us, yes, just like the souls who come by and wander next to us.

Solomiia Hera: The kitten kept jumping on his shoulder and jumping to the one specific place. And Oleksii thought, “Okay. Let’s try to dig where the cat jumps.” And they take their tools, they dig in, and they find the Ukrainian soldier he’s been looking for. So in that way, he felt that the kitten was a soul of that soldier’s, a soul who came to point his location.

Al Letson: The team has been searching for Sasha for weeks with his mother anxiously awaiting the news. And now, they found what they think are his remains. Yukov sends the family a photo of a silver cross and chain they recovered in the basement. Sasha’s mother recognizes it instantly. She texts Yukov and thanks him and says his work is priceless. It’s an island of gratitude in a sea of sorrow.
Oleksii Yukov: I understand that we took away the last hope from her. A mother’s hope to have her child come home, home alive.

Al Letson: Yukov’s phone buzzes all the time. Desperate relatives of fallen Ukrainian soldiers implore him to look for their sons, husbands, and brothers. Military units typically carry away their dead. But in the chaos of combat, it’s not always possible so there’s a seemingly endless supply of work for Yukov’s team.

Oleksii Yukov: The body’s partially burned. The helmet is on the hat. The left lower leg is partially missing.

Al Letson: They document each location and set of remains carefully. The bodies of Ukrainian soldiers are often returned to their families for burial. The bodies of Russian fighters are sometimes traded with the enemy for those of fallen Ukrainians. Yukov reckons his team has collected the remains of 1000 people since 2022.

They post videos of their work on social media. Yukov wants to show fellow Ukrainians that their heroes are being cared for. And he also uses the videos to speak directly to Russian audiences in Russian to show them what this war is costing.

Oleksii Yukov: What is it all for? Is it because one person has gone mad and decided that he could rule the whole world and destroy everyone who opposes him? Well, this is madness.

Al Letson: Oleksii Yukov’s dedication to the dead didn’t start here. It goes back to his childhood and back to tragedies that devastated this part of Eastern Europe. In the early 1930s, the brutal policies of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin triggered widespread famine. Around 4 million Ukrainians starved to death. Then came World War II. Ukraine was a vast combat zone, the Red Army against the forces of Nazi Germany. In the desperate fighting, both sides often buried their dead in mass graves if they had time for burials at all. More than half a century later, Yukov rode his bicycle to a nearby forest, the site of a big battle. He was just a kid. The ground around him was strewn with the wreckage of war.

Oleksii Yukov: I began to figure out these were Soviet-style boots, not German. And Soviet belts and Soviet bullets. I realized that these were Soviet soldiers. There were hundreds of them. The whole forest was covered with bones. I started to collect them and put them in one place and I wondered, “How could they be forgotten?” It’s someone’s grandfather, someone’s grandmother. So I started collecting the bones and this was my first encounter with war.

Al Letson: From this time on, Yukov says he felt an intense connection with the dead. He says, as a boy, he used to dream about them at night. He sensed their spirits and felt a duty to help their souls find peace.

Solomiia Hera: He said, “These are humans and probably families of these dead bodies don’t even know where their relatives are.”

Al Letson: Solomiia says that according to Ukrainian Orthodox tradition, a dead person’s soul lingers among the living for 40 days.

Solomiia Hera: But for a soul to be free and to be able to be calm, one needs to be buried properly with all the rituals and maybe prayers. So funerals is a very important part of Christian tradition and there is no way a person is not buried. Because then, the soul cannot find peace.

Al Letson: Yukov found his life calling, bringing peace to forgotten bones in the forest. Before Russia’s invasion, he led a group of volunteers exploring the Ukrainian countryside for the unclaimed dead of World War II. Yukov figures he’s helped gather the bones of more than 8,000 souls. Yukov is compact and muscular, a martial arts instructor by trade. He’s 38 and lives with his wife and child in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk. He has a bushy beard but no mustache which makes him look a bit like an Amish farmer, except for his camouflaged combat helmet and orange-tinted sunglasses.

Solomiia Hera: He looks like just a normal guy wearing a military uniform. He’s very calm. He’s very solid. He’s actually very pleasant to talk to. And also, he knows a lot about history. Nothing points me to the fact that for 30 years, he’s been gathering the remains of the dead bodies.

Al Letson: Another day, another battlefield. This time, Yukov and his team are recovering the remains of a Russian soldier. The body is at the bottom of a staircase in a bombed-out building. Russian forces sometimes booby-trap the bodies of fallen fighters so one of the team members ties a long sturdy strap around the ankle of the corpse. From a safe distance, Yukov counts to three.

Then they haul in the strap moving the body just a few feet. That’s all it takes. Once they’ve done this, they know it’s safe to move by hand.

Since the beginning of the war, Yukov has only lost one man. A volunteer named Dennis who drove a car over an anti-tank mine. Before the war, Dennis was one of Yukov’s kickboxing students. Another of Yukov’s students is 27-year-old Artur Simeyko. Artur was 14 when he first met Yukov.

Artur Simeyko: Getting to know him changed everything. He’s become a father, a friend, a brother to me. He’s taught me so many things. And now during the war, I’m still learning from him. He became my spiritual teacher.

Al Letson: Before Russia’s invasion, Artur helped Yukov search for the dead in the old World War II battlefields. When this new war came, Artur was ready again.

Artur Simeyko: Everything I know comes from Oleksii about how to treat the dead. I learned about what happens if you treat the dead badly. You will get it back fast. When the war with Russia started, I was very calm towards the bodies of Russian soldiers. One should respect death.

Al Letson: Being calm and respectful toward the remains of Russian soldiers is something that Solomiia says can challenge widespread perceptions in Ukraine.

Solomiia Hera: War breeds collective hatred. So for many Ukrainians, it can be hard to see a dead Russian soldier as a human being.

Al Letson: But Yukov teaches that once Russian soldiers have fallen, they belong to the world of the dead and they deserve a measure of dignity and honor.

Solomiia Hera: There is a lot to learn from Yukov’s philosophy of respecting the dead. He says, “Please respect also the bodies of Russian soldiers.”

Al Letson: Late one night, Yukov and his team unload the bodies they’ve collected from a combat zone near Bakhmut. He searches the pockets for identifying information. The bodies are in bad shape. But on one soldier, Yukov finds a neck chain with a dog tag.

Oleksii Yukov: Here’s an identifying sign. It’s an ID badge and an Orthodox cross.

The badge is made of aluminum. It’s in poor condition so it’s hard to see. I’ll try to clean it up a little.

This is a Russian serviceman. How long have you been lying there? Three months maybe?

Al Letson: Yukov takes detailed notes, making sure any possessions he finds on the Russian body stay with it.

Solomiia Hera: It is also important for him to bring not only the body but the personal belongings of the body to their family. Because for families, it’s also something where very sacred and important. For example, if one is religious and they have a cross, it’s important for the family to have this cross of their son with them after. So he’s taking care of every small detail or personal thing.

Al Letson: With the AP’s camera rolling, Yukov grows angry about the scene before him. A line of 11 dead Russian soldiers and the leg of another, probably a Ukrainian soldier. In World War II, many Russians and Ukrainians came together to fight the Nazis.

Oleksii Yukov: And now, since 2014, we’re collecting bodies again and we see the horrors of war again. War has one face which you see here. It’s stupidity and death. And no matter what they call it, a special military operation or whatever, it doesn’t change the essence. War has one face: death and stupidity and horror. And we don’t need this war. Why did they come to us with this war?

Al Letson: Yukov looks down at the men laid out on the night grass. Suddenly, he switches from speaking in Ukrainian to Russian. He has a message for the parents of dead Russian soldiers.

Oleksii Yukov: I will tell them in Russian. Why did you raise your children? For a bright future or for death? You’re crazy. You carried this child in your womb. Do you remember how happy you were with every first step of his? How happy you were with every new word that your child said? And now, your Russian boys are lying here in Ukrainian soil. Why did you let them come here? You knew what this was all about, that they were going to kill.

Al Letson: It’s late. Yukov and his exhausted team prepare the bodies for transport to a morgue. The Russian soldiers will likely be bartered for the remains of Ukrainian soldiers. And as always, Yukov and his colleagues treat the enemy with respect. “We are not fighting the dead,” he says, “Our weapon is humanity and a shovel.”

Thanks to reporter Solomiia Hera. That story was produced by Steven Smith. We have links to the Associated Press’s amazing coverage of the war in Ukraine. Find them at our website at Our lead producer for this week’s show is Michael Montgomery. Brett Myers edited the show. We had help from Hannah Levintova and Anna Chukur. Special thanks to AP editors Jeannie Ohm, Mary Rajkumar and Ron Nixon and reporter Volodymyr Yurchuk. Our show was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Nikki Frick is our fact checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production managers are Steven Rascon and Zulema Cobb. Score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues