In Rostov, Ms. Chistyakova managed to identify one soldier because he had an unusual bear claw tattoo on his right hand. His body had arrived at the morgue on June 3, more than two months before she found him. Nobody was actively looking because his parents were dead, she said, so she called his stepmother to tell her.
After her first day, she sat under the stars on a darkened residential sidewalk in the city, weeping and praying.
Her son is still missing. She is weighing whether to go back to the morgue.
“We don’t give a damn about the politics, whatever you are doing there, just give them back,” Ms. Chistyakova said. “If they were killed, give back their bodies.”
The family of Vladimir Veselov, 36, had last heard from the contract soldier around May 16, and endured a month of silence before they began to look for him.
His sister Elena said that she called the hotline and was told repeatedly that Vladimir did not appear on any “negative lists,” the euphemism for those confirmed killed, wounded or missing. Sleuthing among her brother’s fellow soldiers led her to his unit’s field medic, code-named Scalpel.
An exploding tank shell had seriously wounded Vladimir in the head near Kharkiv, Scalpel told her. The medic had evacuated Vladimir to a hospital in Belgorod and had not seen him since.
Elena began calling military hospitals in Belgorod and beyond. Toward the end of August, someone at Burdenko Hospital in Moscow, considered Russia’s best military hospital, told her that the intensive care patients included an unidentified soldier in a vegetative state. He sported a distinctive tattoo on his upper left arm, a large, winged dragon, and the hospital sent her a photograph of it. She had found her brother.