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The Russian activist who documents the war dead by counting graves and was forced to flee the country

A Russian activist who revealed details about the burials of the Wagner Group mercenaries killed in Ukraine had to leave Russia.

Vitaly Votanovskywho began documenting the deaths of Russian soldiers in the Ukraine war by guarding cemeteries in his home region, fled the country on April 4 after receiving numerous death threats.

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He spoke to the BBC from the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

Last year, Vitaly spent his 50th birthday in a cell.

The activist, from Russia’s southern Krasnodar region, was arrested and imprisoned on February 24, 2022, the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The former Russian army officer had come out to protest that day with a T-shirt inscribed with the message: “No to Putin!” and “No to war!”.

Photos in her outfit are included in official court documents she showed to the BBC.

“For that coat I got 20 days in jail”says.

Vitaly has painstakingly counted the graves of Russian fighters since his release. (VITALY VOTANOVSKY).

In Krasnodar, Vitaly is not known for his street protests, but for documenting graves.

He was the first person to discover a cemetery in the small town of Bakinskaya, in the Krasnodar region, which many now identify as Wagner’s Cemetery.

This is where the mercenary group, notoriously brutal, buries many of its dead from the Ukraine, men who have no relatives or whose bodies have not been claimed.

It has grown from a small town cemetery to a huge burial ground, with several new areas to house the growing number of dead. There are now security guards patrolling the facility.

Last Thursday, Wagner’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin visited the Bakinskaya village cemetery and stated that he planned to turn it into a memorial “for future generations”.

The head of the mercenary group admitted that the cemetery has been expanded and added that “such is life.”

War affects everyone and everything

Vitaly began touring the Krasnodar region in May 2022 and visited each of the cemeteries to record the number of fallen.

“I needed to show people that a catastrophe was happening,” Vitaly tells me, “that people were dying here, near them.”

“I needed to show people that war affects everyone and everything”.

The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin (second from the right), has visited the site.  (YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN).

The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin (second from the right), has visited the site. (YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN).

He meticulously recorded the names and details of all the graves he found.

When he fled Russia earlier this month, its database contained more than 1,300 nameswhich included only the dead from the Krasnodar region.

Vitaly identified the graves of men who had died in the war – as opposed to normal civilian deaths – by asking local people and studying wreaths and photos of the graves.

In December 2022, the activist went to Bakinskaya to photograph graves of regular soldiers.

But while they were there, Vitaly and his colleague were told by cemetery workers that they were burying Wagner mercenaries killed in action.

When we were there, there were already 48 Wagner graves. The next time we went, a few days later, there were 95 graves. Then 164. Then about 270,” he says.

Vitaly went back again and again to document the numbers and names of the dead. I ask him if he knows who they were. “It was obvious that they were convicts and mercenaries”tells me.

“They were recruited from the jails. The journalists investigated the names and found out why they had gone to jail.”

Fallen of the Russian army

But Vitaly was not only documenting the Wagner fighters who died in the Bakinskaya cemetery.

He continued to monitor the military dead in all cemeteries in the Krasnodar region. And what he found shocked him.

“The fact is that, since December 2022, Russian losses on the battlefield multiplied several times“, says Vitaly, citing the statistics that he has collected in Krasnodar.

“The deaths have just skyrocketed. And recently, in the cemeteries, the graves have all been mobilized soldiers and Wagner boys. There have been very few [soldados profesionales]”.

Several Western intelligence agencies have claimed that the russian army is running out of men.

Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” in Russia: Hundreds of thousands of men were conscripted into the armed forces and sent to the front lines in Ukraine..

The last official death toll provided by the Russian military was in September 2022, when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that 5,937 soldiers had died in Ukraine.

Estimates of total losses vary, but most American and European officials put the Russian death toll at well over 60,000.

Vitaly Votanovsky kept count as new graves appeared.  (VITALY VOTANOVSKY).

Vitaly Votanovsky kept count as new graves appeared. (VITALY VOTANOVSKY).

Threats of death

Vitaly started receiving threats many months ago.

“As soon as I published my first post about graves, the threats started. In abundance. I started saving them all, but there were so many that I stopped doing it. ‘We will kill you, we will strangle you’.

“In January, someone phoned and offered me ‘a place in the cemetery'”Vitaly explains. “There were three such calls: I received two and my driver, Viktor, one.”

The BBC has received copies of the death threats and a recording of the phone call.

In it, an identified man disguises his threat as a cold call from a company that sells cemetery plots and caskets. He insists chillingly that: “Now is the time for you to think about the end of your life”.

The activist affirms that the straw that broke the camel’s back came last week.

“I was passing a police station in Krasnodar and an officer [me reconoció]. He told me: ‘Get ready. It is coming’. He was referring to the state’s reaction [a]…the interviews he was giving. They already had enough to open a serious criminal case against me.”

Vitaly escaped to Armenia and now plans to seek political asylum in Germany.

I ask him why the authorities don’t want people like him to publish information about Wagner and about Russian casualties in the war.

“For our state these are terrifying statistics,” Vitaly says, “and the Russian people don’t know the real numbers. I wanted to show people the real magnitude of the disaster.

“If people found out the true numbers of losses on the battlefield, they would go crazy.”

Source: Elcomercio

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