A Russian Village Buries a Soldier, and Tries to Make Sense of the War

A cold wind was blowing across the steppe, but Sapura Kadyrova didn’t see the point in bundling up. She was waiting to greet her son, who was arriving home from the war in a crimson government-issued casket.

“So maybe I won’t be warm,” Ms. Kadyrova, 85, moaned. “Then just let me die.”

All day long, she and her daughters had been greeting relatives, friends and neighbors who had come to pay their respects to her son, Garipul S. Kadyrov, who was killed near the front line in Klishchiivka in eastern Ukraine.

“In February he would have turned 50, and he promised me he would be allowed to come home then,” Ms. Kadyrova told her guests. “Now I will only meet him in his grave.”

In Russia’s big cities, the war can feel like distant background noise, with the latest iPhones on sale and things looking pretty much the same as before — save for ubiquitous army recruitment posters. While as many as 80 percent of Ukrainians have a close friend or relative who was injured or killed in the war, many Russians in urban centers still feel insulated from it.

It is in villages like Ovsyanka, a former collective farm in southwestern Russia, where the pain and loss of the war are felt most profoundly. And as friends and neighbors gathered in Ms. Kadyrova’s small house, preparing food in the kitchen and sharing memories about the deceased, the grief mixed with a yearning to make sense of the loss of another soldier.

“He was sure he was doing the right thing,” said Mr. Kadyrov’s sister Lena Kabaeva, who said he “never complained” about conditions on the front and used his salary to buy presents for his nieces and nephews.

Another one of Mr. Kadyrov’s sisters, Natasha, was so beside herself with grief that her siblings gave her a sedative. Ms. Kabaeva said the family had felt it necessary to tell their mother that her son had died fighting Americans.

“She still doesn’t understand what this war is about,” Ms. Kabaeva said, explaining that her mother was raised when Ukraine and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union. “It would be impossible for her to understand that we are fighting against Ukrainians today.”

Mr. Kadyrov, a soft-spoken farmer known at home by his nickname, Vitya, thought he was too old to be called up to fight. But in October 2022, shortly after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia ordered a mobilization of soldiers, Mr. Kadyrov was drafted at the age of 49. He was killed, along with two other soldiers, a few months later.

“Before, they didn’t take the older ones, now they take everyone anyway,” said the older Ms. Kadyrova, an ethnic Kazakh whose ancestors immigrated to Russia from Kazakhstan, whose border is about 100 miles away.

Throughout the day, female relatives crowded in the kitchen, serving milky tea and preparing beshbarmak, a Kazakh specialty of boiled meat with onions over a layer of thick noodles.

Other relatives and friends gathered in the biggest room of the house, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Almost all of them spoke of other loved ones who had been killed in Ukraine, either because they had been mobilized, or because they had joined the Wagner mercenary group, like one of Mr. Kadyrov’s cousins, Aleksei.

“The West turned Ukraine against us,” said Mindiyar S. Abuyev, 77, after mentioning having attended the funeral for Aleksei. “We are simple people, and we support our Putin — and we will win.”

As the mid-November darkness set in, the mourners moved outside to greet Mr. Kadyrov’s casket. Ms. Kadyrova and Natasha wailed as the men in the family placed the closed casket on a stand in front of three funeral wreaths brought by members of the local government. (One of the wreaths bore the wrong name, presumably that of another dead soldier.)

Two officials presided over a ceremony with military honors.

“This is a tragic, devastating event,” said the head of the local government, Sergei V. Yermolov, with the smooth voice of a professional announcer. “But it is thanks to guys like him that there is a peaceful sky over our country. By taking part in the special military operation, they defend our freedom, our lives, and the health of our children and loved ones. Eternal memory and eternal glory to him.”

The regional military commissar presented the family with a Russian flag and a military band played a truncated version of the Russian national anthem as an honor guard fired into the air.

The casket was then brought into the family compound, where, according to local Kazakh custom, it would spend the night before burial the next day.

It is a scene playing out in villages like Ovsyanka in the Volga region, and across Russia.

“I have another friend who was mobilized,” said Alyona, 22, the wife of one of Mr. Kadyrov’s nephews. “He left for the war weighing 120 kilograms. All that came back was 20 kilos,” or 44 pounds, of bones, she said. She was devastated that the Kadyrov family could not wash the body according to Muslim custom, or open the casket for a final farewell.

Ovsyanka lies three hours south of Samara, Russia’s eighth-largest city. No longer a collective farm, the village is now impoverished and provides few jobs other than subsistence agriculture, said one local resident named Pasha. Escaping poverty has been a main incentive for soldiers to join the army and earn a signing bonus of up to 550,000 rubles — almost $6,150 — in addition to a monthly salary far beyond a typical salary in the villages of the region.

Additionally, the Russian state provides financial compensation to the families of the deceased soldiers, usually five million rubles (about $56,000) from the federal government, plus another payment from the regional government, usually between three and five million rubles. The Kadyrov family was in the process of submitting its paperwork to access the funds, one relative said.

Pasha invoked the monetary compensation as he talked about two men in the village who had hanged themselves last year. “They could have at least taken part in the special military operation, died with honor, and made sure their families had been provided for,” he said.

Mr. Kadyrov’s older brother Murat hanged himself in 2016, making the family’s pain of losing a second son all the more acute.

After the ceremony, a group of Mr. Kadyrov’s closest male relatives sat next to the closed casket in the main room. The debate over the war’s value became emotional.

Zhaslan, 34, who is married to Mr. Kadyrov’s niece, questioned the government rationale for why Russians have to fight and die. “People say it is for the motherland,” he said. “But where is the motherland? The homeland is the one that protects you, not the one that destroys you.”

He said that Russian television was full of lies. “On the zombie box, they show us that everything is good, and our side is winning,” he said. But then why was it, he asked, that the front lines had barely moved since Wagner mercenaries took Bakhmut last spring?

“This is a worthless war,” he said.

He was debating Sagindyk Kabaev, Ms. Kabaeva’s husband, who continuously raised the argument, promulgated by Mr. Putin and the Russian media, that the West had provoked the war.

This war was inevitable,” Mr. Kabaev said. He pointed to America’s record of initiating foreign wars. “Let’s do the math: How many wars has America started?”

He also cited a common argument, pushed by Mr. Putin, that “Ukraine has always historically been Russian territory,” an assertion disputed by many Ukrainians.

Still, Mr. Kabaev conceded, “Ordinary people suffer: collective farmers, machinists and drivers. Ministers’ sons are not there. If they had been, the war would have been long over by now.”

The next day, Mr. Kadyrov was interned next to his deceased brother in the hard, rocky soil of a small cemetery near the ruins of another destroyed farm.

Gennady A. Bergengaliyev, a retired school director from a nearby town, watched as the men took turns shoveling earth onto the funeral mound. Earlier, he had given a brief speech about the importance of defending Russia, and the role local men have played in the war.

At the cemetery, he motioned to the tombstone of Murat, Mr. Kadyrov’s brother, and back to the men tending to the fresh grave.

“This is a big feat or his parents,” he said. “He was a simple, ordinary guy. And this has brought honor to them.”