VYBUTY Russia (Reuters) - In a public cemetery in an area of north-west Russia dominated by the Pskov military base are two freshly-dug graves that some locals believe hold the bodies of two Russian paratroopers killed last week fighting alongside rebels in Ukraine.
It is difficult to find out who is in the graves, possibly because the identity could raise awkward questions for Russia. The Kremlin has denied helping the pro-Moscow rebels fighting government forces but Ukraine says Russia has sent in troops and the rebels say they have Russian soldiers in their ranks.
The names of two local soldiers and a photo of a man in military uniform that were stuck to the graves at the funeral earlier this month have been removed. A social media page announcing the death of the man in the photograph appears to have disappeared.
When a Reuters reporter on Wednesday first approached the cemetery where the graves are located, two shaven-headed young men in track suits jumped out of a jeep blocking the entrance.
“Get out of here! This is a forbidden zone and you’re not getting in here,” said one of them.
Asked why it was not possible to reach the cemetery, which is open to the public, the man swore and issued a threat.
“What, you’re asking questions as well? I told you to get out of here or I’ll call the boss and you’ll go off with him.”
The connection between the two new graves in the cemetery 700 km (430 miles) from Moscow and 1,500 km from the fighting in Ukraine is hard to prove but there appear to be several links.
On Aug. 21, Roman Bochkala, a Ukrainian journalist published on his Facebook page what he said were photographs of documents recovered after Ukrainian forces clashed with an armoured column near the village of Heorhiivka, eastern Ukraine.
The documents in his photographs included a passport, in the name of a 21-year-old man called Nikolai Krygin and issued in Pskov region, north-west Russia. There was also an insurance certificate, also issued in Pskov, and a copy of the military rule-book for the Russian Airborne Troops.
Pskov is the hometown of the 76th division of the Russian Airborne Troops. Their base is a few kilometres from the cemetery at the village of Vybuty.
The Ukrainian authorities, backed by their Western allies, accuse Russia of sending a surge of troops and weapons into Ukraine to prop up a pro-Moscow rebellion in danger of losing its strongholds. Moscow denies those allegations.
Then on Aug. 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree awarding the Order of Suvorov, one of Russia’s highest military honours, to the 76th division based at Pskov.
The decree cited “the successful completion of military missions” and “courage and heroism” displayed by the servicemen during those missions. The Kremlin gave no details about what the missions were, or when they took place.
A short while later, a post appeared on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, on the page of someone called Leonid Kichatkin. The message was signed by someone named Oksana, who said she was Kichatkin’s wife.
The message read: “Lyonya died, burial is on Monday at 10 in the morning, funeral service in Vybuty. Whoever wants to bid him farewell, come, we’ll be pleased to see everyone.” Lyonya is a pet-name for Leonid.
Lev Shlosberg, who is an opposition member of the Pskov regional assembly, heard about the funeral, and went there with Alexei Semyonov, a journalist with a local newspaper, the “Pskov Governorate.”
When they arrived, they said, they saw about 100 mourners, many of them in Airborne Troops uniform. “The officers were in a very depressed state,” Shlosberg told Reuters.
Semyonov, the local journalist, took a photograph of the two fresh graves, marked with crosses and covered with elaborate wreaths in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag.
The cross on one grave had an inscription, according to Semyonov’s photograph, which read: “Kichatkin, Leonid Yurevich. 30.09.1984-19.08.2014.” It also had a photograph of a man in uniform that matched Kichatkin’s image on social media sites.
The inscription on the neighbouring grave, also covered in wreaths, was to someone called Alexander Sergeyevich Osipov and gave the date of his death as 20 Aug., 2014. The pictures can be seen here
Shlosberg and Semyonov said they had to leave the cemetery after a short while when a cemetery worker approached them and said they must go or “there will be trouble.”
Russia’s defence ministry did not respond to emailed questions about how Kichatkin and Osipov died.
A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the relevant authorities would look into reports about the burials. “But at the same time this needs painstaking checking before any conclusions can be drawn,” he told reporters.
Ukrainian military officials said they had no information about who may have been killed on the opposing side in any clash in Heorhiivka. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the rebel side usually take their comrades’ bodies away with them.
Since the funeral, many of the links in the chain connecting the two graves to fighting in Ukraine have disappeared.
On Wednesday, after being confronted by the young men, and having been questioned by a police officer, a Reuters reporter was able to see the graves. The inscriptions and the photographs had gone.
Pages on social media for Kichatkin, and for people named online as having served alongside him were no longer accessible.
A group of reporters with independent Russian media said when they went to another cemetery in Pskov to follow up reports of other graves, a gang of young men threw stones at their vehicles and slashed the tyres.
Shlosberg, the local legislator, said relatives of missing men were too frightened to talk publicly, cowed by a code of silence around the Airborne troops.
“The division is very strong around here,” he said. “They know that whatever they (the division) do, they won’t be held to account for it.”
But some people have spoken out.
Vitaly Fokumenko said his cousin, Ivan Tkachenko, served with the 76th division of Airborne Troops in Pskov. Fokumenko said he believed his cousin may have served in the same Russian paratroops unit as Kichatkin, one of the dead men.
“The last time he made contact was between Aug. 16 and Aug. 17,” Fokumenko told Reuters by telephone from the Siberian city of Barnaul, where he lives.
“He said he was in an armoured vehicle, you could hear the sound of the engines. His mates from his unit are hinting that they were supposedly meant to go to Ukraine for three days. We don’t know if that’s true.”
“His commanders say that everything is fine with him, but they don’t provide any proof that he’s fine.”
Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Richard Balmforth in Kiev and Darya Korsunskaya in Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Anna Willard