Editor’s note: Some of the images in this story have graphic content.
MOSHCHUN, Ukraine — When retired electrical engineers Yuriy Tostopalov and Natalya Tostopalova recently returned to their war-razed village near Kyiv, they assumed all the dead bodies would be gone.
Russian forces had retreated, Ukrainian war crimes prosecutors had come and gone, funerals had been held.
“The local mayor told us the village had been inspected, and all the dead had been buried,” Yuriy says. “But they didn’t even notice him” — a dead Russian soldier lying near the wild plum trees.
“He was right where we last saw him,” Yuriy says, “many weeks before. They didn’t even notice him.”
That the authorities forgot a corpse, and that this corpse was an enemy soldier, set off a range of emotions in Moshchun, from anger to amusement to a sliver of sympathy. And it brought into focus the problem of what to do with those bodies, of which Ukrainian officials say thousands have been collected from liberated areas around the country, most recently in the Kharkiv region.
Ukrainian officials wouldn’t specify how many Russian corpses sit unclaimed in overcrowded morgues and refrigerated railway cars. Ukraine and Russia have exchanged the remains of only about 200 troops from each side in recent weeks, according to Ukraine’s government.
Ukraine accuses Russia of refusing to acknowledge the true scale of its war dead. Russia’s military has claimed just over 1,300 of its soldiers were killed in the conflict as of late March, but it hasn’t updated the death toll — and Western officials believe that’s a serious undercount.
Volodymyr Liamzin, head of Ukraine’s civil-military cooperation, told reporters last month the Russians promote “this fairy tale that they don’t leave their men behind. If that was true, why are all these bodies here?”
The first time they found the body
Moshchun is tucked into a forest just northwest of Ukraine’s capital. Before the Russian invasion in February, it was a slice of pastoral suburbia, where urbanites had their country cottages and retirees built their dream homes for their golden years.
“My husband spent 40 years building our house here,” says Natalya, Yuriy’s 75-year-old wife. “Forty years! And he did it on his own.”
She recalls how they tended the vegetable garden and the apple and apricot trees in their backyard, sharing the produce with neighbors.
When Russian troops invaded in an attempt to take over the Kyiv region, the couple refused to leave the home they had worked so hard to build. They huddled in the basement for weeks until a fire broke out at a nearby field in mid March.
The wind was so strong, the couple worried the flames would blow to their house. So they rushed outside, garden rakes in hand, to try to put out the fire.
They ran toward a copse of wild plum trees and almost tripped over him.
“We were scared so we didn’t touch him or come too close,” Yuriy recalls. “He was just lying there.”
The soldier had a boy’s face. He was clenching a napkin with crushed cookies.
“He was missing his firearm,” Yuriy says. “But he had his helmet and a bulletproof vest, and, I think, also a knife. And a flask, maybe with water.”
They didn’t have time to look for more details. Shelling began and they ran home.
Ukrainian troops arrived a few days later and told them the road to Kyiv was clear. The couple grabbed some clothes and their two dogs, and drove to the capital in their 1976 forest-green, Soviet-era Lada Zhiguli.
A prosecutor is surprised to hear of Russian corpse
NPR arrived in Moshchun in late April, a day before Yuriy and Natalya returned, and found out about the body at the checkpoint into the village.
Stepan, a cheery Ukrainian soldier with a nose ring, checks the reporting team’s documents and says: “So, are you here for the dead Russian? The one with the cookies?”
The soldier declines to give his last name for security reasons but says he went to see the body after Yuriy and Natalya called about it. Stepan says he noticed a label on his helmet that suggests the soldier may be part of a paratrooper unit from Ivanovo, a city northeast of Moscow.
As Stepan talks, a large van pulls up with a forensic team led by lawyer Pavlo Rebenko. He’s wearing a dark blue vest with “war crimes prosecutor” written on the back, in English. Rebenko says he’s already been to this area at least a dozen times, examining Ukrainians killed by Russian troops. He says he’s been called in to see a couple of bodies. He’s surprised that one belongs to a Russian soldier.
“We have only found a few dead Russian soldiers here,” says Rebenko, who fled his home in Ukraine’s east when Russian proxies invaded in 2015. “We have information that the Russians took their dead with them or even had mobile crematoriums where they could burn the bodies.”
The team makes its way through Moshchun. Every home here is damaged. Many are just heaps of rubble. The bus stop is plastered with posters for missing neighbors and pets.
“The Russians thought they would take over the Kyiv area in like three days,” Rebenko says. “When they realized they were losing, they unleashed this carnage.”
His team heads down a grassy slope between a couple of houses. And there, under a copse of wild plum trees, lies a body. The dead Russian.
Forensic experts begin to assess
White, lilac-scented blossoms from the plum tree cover the soldier’s body, muting the smell of decomposition.
The soldier’s skin has hardened to a leathery brown, and there are traces of a napkin on his left glove. The forensic team finds a cross and a metal tag engraved with a code — a possible clue to his identity.
A Moshchun resident and local forest ranger, Mykola Kostenko, watches the forensic team examine the body. His eyes flash with rage. He says the soldier’s remains don’t deserve to be collected.
“I don’t feel anything but disgust for him,” Kostenko says. “I don’t care what happens to his body. The best thing it can do is enrich our soil.”
Russian troops killed many here, he says, and mined the forest where he and other villages collected mushrooms and berries. He believes Russian soldiers buried villagers who are still missing in the mined forest.
The forensic team lifts the soldier into a body bag, zips it up, places it on a stretcher. They load the body into a refrigerated van.
Kostenko waves the team to a bombed-out home nearby. Scattered amid the rubble and broken glass are more human remains — a hip bone, skull and femur, all burnt.
Viktor Kubiuk, a doctor helping the forensic team, says the remains could belong to a Ukrainian — or another Russian soldier. “The medical examiner will have to answer that,” he says, “and it won’t be easy.”
Ukrainian authorities have invited the International Commission of Missing Persons, headquartered at The Hague, to help them identify remains through DNA analysis.
Rebenko, the war crime prosecutor, says the burnt remains and the body of the Russian soldier will go to regional morgues.
There’s no official list of Russia’s war dead
Ukrainian authorities insist that the bodies of Russian soldiers are piling up because the Kremlin refuses to acknowledge them.
Liamzin, head of Ukraine’s civil-military cooperation, repeatedly declined to answer NPR’s questions about how exchanges of soldiers’ remains are conducted but he told reporters last month that the Ukrainian side is “ready to return [the bodies] even today or tomorrow.”
In Russia, meanwhile, trying to retrieve the body of a soldier killed in Ukraine is challenging because “everything is kept secret” by Russian authorities, says Valentina Melnikova, executive secretary of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a Russian nonprofit group that advocates for military families.
Melnikova says there is no official list of the Russian soldiers who have died or gone missing in Ukraine, “and so the entire story falls on the relatives to write and call everywhere” in search of information.
She adds that even when photos of deceased soldiers with metal ID tags appear online or in social media forums, Russian officials push back that they could be fakes.
The truth is, she says, “everyone [in charge] knows where everyone is fighting. Every unit, every military vehicle is fixed by GPS. There shouldn’t be a problem to find out when there was a battle, when there was a firefight, when there was shelling.”
The young man was left dead and alone
Back in Ukraine, in the village of Moshchun, Yuriy Tostopalov and Natalya Tostopalova now live in their barn, after spending a chunk of their savings on emergency lodging in Kyiv. The Russian siege pummeled the dream house that took Yuriy four decades to build into burnt rubble.
Their two daughters moved to Russia for work many years ago, and the couple has sent them photos of the devastation in Moshchun. Yuriy says they always sound surprised on the phone when their parents bring up the war.
“It’s difficult there,” Yuriy says, referring to the Kremlin’s crackdown on information about its war on Ukraine. “Maybe they are speaking this way so they don’t have problems.”
He wonders if the Russian soldier was brainwashed by his government into fighting an unjust war, and says he even feels sympathy for a young man left dead alone, so far from home.
“He has a mother out there,” he says, sighing. “Yes, we feel sorry about that. But after all that’s happened, what’s the point?”
Natalya says too much has happened — to their life, to Moshchun, to Ukraine.
“We can never forgive that soldier,” she says, “whoever he is.”
NPR’s Charles Maynes reported from Moscow. Hanna Palamarenko contributed from Dnipro, Ukraine.