It is three months now since Sergei and Marina Balobanov, who live in the village of Panovo in the Omsk Region, had any news about their son Andrei. He was called up for military service about a year ago, at the age of 22; and was serving as a radio telephonist in a motorised rifle company.
Until his disappearance, he texted or emailed his parents almost every day and phoned them regularly; and then it all suddenly stopped. ‘The last call we had from him,’ his father told me, ‘was on 12 June. All his SIM cards – he changed them quite often – were blocked. When we phoned his unit, they said not to worry – he was off on a training exercise. But a month passed, and still no news of him. We started to worry; we thought they were holding something back from us. On 10 July, we went to our local recruitment office. At first they didn’t want to have anything to do with us, but eventually they phoned his unit. “What’s the panic?” we were told. “Everything’s fine, your son’s doing his job.” But why hasn’t he been in contact? He would have sent us a message at the first opportunity, to say everything was OK.’
Andrei texted or emailed his parents almost every day; and then it all suddenly stopped.
On 17 July, some people calling themselves ‘representatives of Ukraine,’ phoned Andrei’s older brother Aleksei, who lives in St Petersburg, and told him his brother ‘had been taken prisoner on the Rostov frontier with Ukraine.’ News about his capture appeared in the Ukrainian, and then the Omsk, media. Meanwhile, his unit command continued to claim that he was ‘somewhere in the Samara Region, in central Russia,’ but were now implying that he had deserted.
Andrei Balobanov's parents have not heard anything about their son's whereabouts for three months.
On 19 July, Aleksei Balobanov wrote to the Russian president’s website, asking for clarification about his brother’s whereabouts. He received a reply two days later, stating that his letter had been ‘sent to the Russian Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID) for full and objective investigation.’
A voice from captivity
On 25 July, Andrei Balobanov suddenly turned up on YouTube: the Ukrainian security services posted a video in which he asked for political asylum. The soldier recited, in a flat, expressionless voice, how he had ended up in Ukraine and why he wanted to stay there. His tone suggested that the words were being put in his mouth by someone else, and they were also unusually politically sophisticated for a squaddie: ‘I, a citizen of the Russian Federation and former member of the Russian armed forces, served in an army unit in the city of Samara. In May 2014, I, along with the rest of my unit and our combat equipment, was redeployed to the border between the Rostov Region and Ukraine... I discovered that Russian regular troops, most of them from Military Intelligence detachments, were being illegally sent into the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions.’
According to Andrei Balobanov, his unit was frequently placed on alert, and he also said he had witnessed movements of equipment and Special Forces from Russia to eastern Ukraine, ‘supplemented by people from the North Caucasus who spoke very derogatively about Ukrainians.’
Recognising, as he said, the deceitfulness of Russian propaganda, Balobanov decided he would not be part of the ‘brother-killing war’ planned by the Russian government: ‘I condemn the policies of Russia’s leaders, including their occupation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and support for terrorists in its south-eastern part. My departure for Ukraine is a protest against Russian policy towards a friendly people.’
A mother’s plea
Since then, nothing more has been heard of Andrei; his parents have no idea how or where he is. The YouTube clip was the last evidence that he was still alive. His father has confirmed that it was his voice on the video, but where was it shot, and by whom? Was he speaking willingly or under duress? There has been no official confirmation from either the Ukrainian or the Russian authorities that he was taken prisoner or surrendered – a silence from both sides.
I contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs press office, and received the reply that the video was certainly genuine, but that Ministry staff were wondering why Andrei’s brother’s letter had been redirected to them, and not the Ministry of Defence. That was the only place, they said, that would have any information about Private Balobanov.
Sergei and Marina had of course written to the Ministry of Defence as well, and had been told that there were no prisoners of war on Ukrainian territory.
Balobanov’s parents were told by the Ministry of Defence that there were no prisoners of war on Ukrainian territory.
A few days ago, the ‘Omskinform’ website posted an open letter from Marina Balobanov to people in the Omsk Region. ‘Three months have gone by since my son disappeared,’ she wrote. ‘We have written to all the investigative bodies, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, the Ombudsman’s Office, and several times to Vladimir Putin...’
The only answer the Balobanovs received was from the Military Prosecutor’s Office. ‘They have only one response: that Andrei is a deserter,’ says Marina. ‘They have produced false documents, with all the dates changed, to back up their version of events.’ According to the Prosecutor’s Office letter, ‘Private Balobanov’s absence was noted on parade on 17 July, and after all attempts to find him failed, he was officially charged the following day with going AWOL.’
But why did Balobanov’s commanding officer not respond to the fax sent by his local recruitment office on 10 July? And why did a soldier who contacted his parents almost daily for the seven months before he ‘went AWOL’ then remain silent for more than a month?
The investigation into his disappearance also showed that on 17 June, Balobanov was appointed deputy leader of his platoon. So why didn’t he send his family and friends news of his promotion? ‘Why’, wrote his mother, ‘did they take away this “platoon leader’s” means of communication, so he couldn’t tell anyone?’
‘The autumn draft is coming up soon,’ Marina recently wrote to the mothers of her region. ‘Think about how you might be sending your child off to certain death. The despair of it makes my blood run cold; God forbid, I wouldn’t want anyone to have to face the horror we’re going through. How many more lives are going to be ruined? Who will have to answer for it? Nobody, I expect.’
‘The autumn draft is coming up soon. Think about how you might be sending your child off to certain death.’
Marina has since told me that investigators from the central Investigative Committee in Moscow have begun to search for her son and look into the circumstances of his disappearance. They have promised to ‘get to the bottom of it,’ but at the same time they are asking the Balobanovs to ‘limit their contacts with journalists.’ The family are happy to do this, but are warning the officials: We’re no idiots; you can’t hide the truth from us.’
Whatever the results of the investigation (and let us hope that Andrei is found safe and well), this ordinary rural family can no longer be numbered with the 84% of their fellow Russians who, according to the polls, support the Kremlin. Another one such is the wife of regular army officer Zakhar Timin, who was killed in action in Donbas. She told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper that ‘he wasn’t a volunteer, but was just carrying out orders – he had no alternative.’
Among the disillusioned, to judge by online forums, you will also find many inhabitants of the Omsk Region’s Poltavsky district, where on 14 September the funeral was held of Artyom Yakovlev, who was doing his military service in the 106th Guards Division of Russia’s airborne forces. The first news of his death came from blogger Andrei Malgin, who wrote, ‘there’s even a photo of him beside an ‘Uazik’ truck with a trident on it,’ (the symbol of an ultra-right Ukrainian group, it could only have been taken in Ukraine). Yakovlev’s division crossed the border around 10-11 August, the time that the 106th Tula Airborne Division is known to have been in the Luhansk Region... Yakovlev disappeared on 18 August; there have been no posts on his VKontakte page since that date.
Officially, Yakovlev died on the Ukrainian border during a training exercise.
Yakovlev’s local recruitment office said it could only respond to an official request for information (and that this would take a month, minimum). Officially, he died on the Ukrainian border during a training exercise, but judging by the blogosphere, many social networkers are inclined to believe Malgin’s version.
The funeral of Artyom Yakovlev was held on 14 September.
Civil activist Yelena Vasilyeva, founder of the Cargo-200 Facebook group (its name refers to the Russian military term for Killed in Action), has written about Yevgeny Myasin, a Marine First Lieutenant from Omsk serving, and recently also living, in the Archangelsk Region: ‘In the summer, he and his men were sent to the Rostov region on ‘training exercises’ where for some time they just sat around in the fields. Then their commanding officers started sending them into Ukraine, to Luhansk, where they were involved in fighting. And of course some of them lost their lives. Myasin, watching this, realised that he didn’t want to be one of them, that he wanted to go home to his family. At the beginning of September he told his commanding officer ‘on the ground’ that he wanted to resign his commission, and headed back to his home base to tender his resignation. On 2 September, he phoned his family to tell them about his plans. Then on the night of 3-4 September he was found dead on a highway near his home base, knocked down and killed by a truck.
‘A family member who lived nearby came to the morgue and was able to identify his body, but only with difficulty as it was in a terrible state – the lorry had crushed his head and torso. The local military command is investigating two possible scenarios: either it was a simple accident or he was already dead when the lorry went over his body.’
According to Yelena Vasilyeva, his base commander has refused to help his family transport the body from the morgue, since at the time of his death the officer ‘was a serving officer, but was on leave.’
News of the deaths of soldiers from Omsk, as well as Marina Balobanov’s open letter, have considerably dampened the enthusiasm of local online ‘patriots;’ and nowadays in debates about Russia’s future geopolitical status the anti-war faction tends to be winning the argument.
If the war continues, the popular ‘patriotic upswing’ will swing ever lower with each Cargo 200 that comes back home (fortunately the number of Omsk lads killed in action is still low), and will eventually come to a halt; and it will happen quicker in Siberia than anywhere else. Perhaps there are people somewhere in central Russia who are willing to sacrifice their sons, but you won’t find many here.
All photos via VKontakte