Last weekend, he followed a car of soldiers down a dirt road in Tsyrkuny, a village outside Kharkiv. At the edge of a field was a decomposed body still in its military uniform. Anton bent over it, putting on gloves and slipping his hands into all of the dead soldier’s pockets, looking for the man’s documents. He carefully ran his fingers up and down the body before stopping abruptly at the boot.
“Everyone backs off,” Anton warned.
Four of the corpses he recovered were booby-trapped with explosives. It was a false alarm. He took off his gloves and put on a new pair.
A member of a small volunteer search unit codenamed J9, Anton’s grisly wartime job is to find dead Russians scattered across Ukraine after seven months of war. Anton said he often spoke to the corpses he collected. Sometimes, he says, he can sense where they are, as if calling to him.
The remains are placed in a white bag and are then delivered to a morgue, where DNA samples are collected. The plan is to eventually send the bodies back to Russia and recover the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in action during an exchange.
But sending the bodies back to Russia also sends the soldiers’ families, and by extension the Russian public, a clear and certain message about the cost of President Vladimir Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine. Their relatives are dead. It is also an unequivocal warning to the men who are now called up for military service under the partial mobilization recently announced by Putin.
Propaganda newspapers show how Russia promoted annexation in Kharkiv
Although Putin has said that only men who have served in the armed forces before will be activated, numerous reports in Russia indicate that the rules are not being followed. Military analysts say many of these reinforcements could be sent to the front lines with little training, and end up ill-equipped and poorly led, given the losses in the ranks of Russian officers.
Anton said he expects to be busy for the next few months helping these newly mobilized soldiers return home.
“Welcome to Ukraine, Russian meat,” he said sarcastically. “My work will be there for a long time.”
The work gives Anton, who only offered his first name and rank as ordered by his commanding officer, a unique perspective on Russian military losses during its war against Ukraine.
He said he alone collected 100 corpses in September – since Ukraine’s massive counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region forced Moscow’s army into a hasty retreat. But he also continues to collect bodies that have been lying around since March, including the corpse he was called to retrieve from Tsyrkuny last weekend.
Kyiv claimed that more than 50,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in Ukraine – a number that cannot be independently verified. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently claimed that around 6,000 Russian soldiers have died so far in Ukraine.
Children from Kharkiv went to summer camp in Russia. They never came back.
US officials cited heavy Russian casualties, but estimated about half the death toll of the Ukrainian figure, with tens of thousands more injured.
As he examined the corpse in Tsyrkuny, Anton did not put on a face mask, apparently indifferent to the smell. In fact, he said he liked it, calling the stench “gross” and “real” and likening it to a rush of adrenaline on the battlefield. The remains were so decomposed after lying around for months that the skull broke when Anton tried to move the body into a bag.
He picked up the skull and held it up to his own face. “Oh, what a fool you are,” he said before putting it down. “At least someone came to get him after all this time,” said a soldier watching Anton work.
Another soldier cynically commented that this corpse probably didn’t deserve any kind of return.
The bodies of higher-ranking dead soldiers tend to be more valuable, especially if they are immediately identifiable. He had no documents on him, but his uniform belonged to the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” – the Russian proxy force in eastern Ukraine. The bones of the arm from the elbow were ripped out, probably by a dog. Anton found them in a field and wrapped them up with the rest of the body.
Anton usually works alone, driving his matte green Mitsubishi SUV wherever he is called. He still has white body bags on his back. To keep the trunk of his car from getting too dirty, he tries to double-cross the corpses. On occasion, when there were too many to fit inside the vehicle, he tied the bagged bodies to the roof before driving them to the morgue.
Anton got a custom lettering for the bumper of one of his cars: “Collector of corpses of Ruzzian soldiers”.
Anton’s backpack, where he keeps his gloves – he can go through more than six pairs during a body collection – is a trophy he said he took from a dead Russian national guard. “There wasn’t even any blood on it – and I washed it off,” he explained.
According to the Geneva Conventions, countries at war must make every effort to search, register and identify the dead left on the battlefield.
The personal dignity of the deceased enemy must also be respected. It’s a violation of the Geneva Conventions to defile corpses, but Ukrainian soldiers often keep little souvenirs of the Russians. At one point, Ukraine had accumulated so many enemy corpses that it kept them in a refrigerated wagon.
More than 500 Ukrainian bodies were repatriated in August, with exchanges sometimes taking place in person in the Zaporizhzhia region, partially occupied by Russian troops. These are the moments that give meaning to Anton’s work, he said.
Torture, murders, kidnappings: the Russian retreat from Izyum reveals horrors
Otherwise, Anton said he had no interest in helping dead Russians get home where they could receive a proper burial, especially since the bodies he tends to have would have killed his own comrades.
“I think of our Ukrainian mothers every time I go to collect one of these Russian corpses,” he said. “I want our mothers to bury our boys here at home. I don’t care about Russian mothers. I don’t care what happens to those bodies later.
Sasha Maslov and Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: what you need to know
The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed decrees to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following referendums held that have been widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The answer: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions against Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and their family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said on Friday that Ukraine was seeking an “accelerated ascent” into NATO, in apparent response to annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on September 21 to call up up to 300,000 reservists in a dramatic attempt to reverse the setbacks of his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of over 180,000 people, mostly men subject to service, and further protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine launched a successful counter-offensive that forced a large Russian retreat into the northeast Kharkiv region in early September as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large quantities of military equipment.
Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the war began – here are some of their most powerful works.
How you can help: Here’s how those in the United States can support the people of Ukraine as well as what people around the world have donated.
Read our full coverage of the Russia–Ukraine War. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.