Four days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the order to mobilize hundreds of thousands of men to fight in Ukraine, Aleksandr Koltun, a 35-year-old father of six, showed up at the council office of local recruitment in the Siberian city of Bratsk and presented himself for service.
He and a group of other conscripts were sent later that day to Novosibirsk for further deployment preparations.
Nine days later, according to his relatives, he was dead.
“My daughter-in-law…told me she called me in tears in the middle of the night and told me Sasha was dead,” Koltun’s mother Yelena Gudo said, using the familiar and affectionate name of Aleksandr.
Russia continues to step up mobilization efforts, a massive campaign aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s faltering seven-month war and, by extension, the Kremlin’s credibility. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Russians are called in as part of this process.
By all accounts, the process has been chaotic and haphazard.
Newly mobilized soldiers – known colloquially in Russian as mobiki – said they were left without food or water awaiting orders; videos showed logistics officers telling new draftees to buy their own gear or take first aid supplies from their own home medicine cabinets — or even their wives’ personal sanitary supplies. The soldiers took to posting videos on Russian social media complaining about the conditions and the disorganization.
The process has also seen a small, but growing, number of deaths. At least 16 people have died, according to media and activists, since Putin made the September 21 announcement.
Many deaths have been reported as suicides. Others, like Koltun’s, are unexplained and his relatives fear they will never know how he died.
“What really happened there, we still don’t know”, she told RFE/RL’s Siberia Realities.
“All mothers should think before sending their sons there”
Koltun and his wife Galina, relatives told RFE/RL, were raising six children together in a one-room apartment that Galina received free from the government because she is an orphan.
Four of their children were from Galina’s first marriage; the youngest was a 16 month old girl.
Koltun first worked as a security guard and later he and his mother pooled their resources to invest in a shoe store in Bratsk, an industrial city of 224,000 people located on the banks of the Angara River.
He had also previously served in the army – in the airborne forces – which made him a prime candidate to be called up under Putin’s order, an order that prioritized men in the reserves or simply those who had previously served in the army. He reported to the local recruiting office on September 25 to present his papers.
“I didn’t want to let him go,” Gudo, Koltun’s mother, told RFE/RL. “I said, ‘Son, you have such a big family, who will they be with? And he said the sooner he left, the sooner he would come back.
“All mothers need to think before sending their sons there,” she said.
Anastasia Pestova, who said she was a family friend, told RFE/RL that all of Koltun’s relatives and friends were against Aleksandr’s decision to volunteer.
“You can’t say he joined the army because of the money,” she told RFE/RL. “They didn’t need it, they had a good big car. The mother and wife, of course, tried to talk him out of it. They were afraid for him.
Koltun called his relatives from Novosibirsk, where he and the other Bratsk men had been sent for further preparation and training.
Gudo said his son had brought 7,000 rubles (about $112) with him to Novosibirsk, but when he called on Oct. 2 he had run out of money. He said that at the assembly point, unknown people were selling “bad” vodka, which the conscripts drank a lot. She said Koltun told her no.
“But what’s going on there?” she asked.
When he called “he said it was a complete mess,” Gudo said. “He said ‘we are walking and we are walking around, everyone is drunk, they haven’t given us uniforms, there is no food'”.
“He said he only ate what he brought home. How is that possible in the army?” Gudo said.
She said on October 3 that she received a photo of Koltun from Novosibirsk, via WhatsApp, from a friend who had been mobilized with him. In the photo, Koltun was seen sitting on concrete, cowering in pain, waiting for an ambulance.
“He had recently been diagnosed with a hernia, but he thought that wouldn’t stop him from serving. He didn’t care about such things. But I can’t believe that there was no medical commission during the mobilization! They didn’t even have basic medical exams,” she said.
Gudo said neither she nor her daughter-in-law — Koltun’s wife — had heard any official notice, condolences or explanations from the editorial board or military recruiters about the death.
Gudo said officials told them his son’s body would be brought from Novosibirsk to Bratsk on October 10, and they were billed 180,000 rubles ($2,900) for the cost of transporting it.
City officials have offered to compensate them for transportation, she said.
“We still don’t have a death certificate. Looks like he had a heart attack, but he didn’t have any heart problems,” she said.
“How is it possible?” she says. “It’s mobilization.”
“He couldn’t walk alone”
Reports of death – accidental or not – represent only a tiny proportion of all the men who were called up. Yet the cases have trickled down to families and helped erode trust in the system and added to doubts about the war’s aims in Ukraine.
Denis Kozlov, 44, was among the first group of men mobilized from Argayshsky district in the central Chelyabinsk region on September 27.
“We couldn’t resist this project, because Denis had dreamed of being a soldier since childhood. He graduated from Chelyabinsk Tank School, served in Ulan-Ude for a while,” his mother, Zoya, told RFE/RL.
Kozlov had torn cartilage in one of his knees, but he didn’t want to be seen as dodging the new project, so, his mother said, he went to the editorial board and presented his medical records.
“But there was no medical board here, so he was put on a bus with his medical documents,” she said. “We thought that the medical panel of the draft commission, if necessary, would conclude his case” and send him home.
Three days later, Kozlov was sent home, she said: in an ambulance, on a stretcher.
“I ran to the neighbours, asking for help to get Denis out of the ambulance,” she said. “He couldn’t walk on his own. He was conscious, but even my father and I didn’t immediately recognize him.
Kozlov died soon after, and his mother suspects it was not of natural cause.
“His nose was broken when he was brought” home, she said. “All the neighbors saw him, and his belly was all blue. I’m sure he was beaten there, and very badly. But now I can’t prove anything! I’ve lived my life here and I know how they will “investigate”.
“I don’t have any documents proving that my son was beaten and that he didn’t die of an illness,” she said.
Kozlov was buried on October 3, three days after returning home.
“Mistakes must be corrected”
On September 26, just five days after the mobilization was announced, amid growing reports of disorganized proceedings as well as public protests, Putin publicly acknowledged the problems with the process.
“During this mobilization, many questions arise, and all errors must be corrected and prevented from happening again in the future,” putin said at a meeting of its Security Council.
“For example, I’m thinking of the fathers of many children, or people with chronic illnesses, or those who are already past the age of conscription,” he said.