Lev Schlossberg. Photo: Pskovskaya Guberniya
You are a very noteworthy and public person. A councilman and journalist. On one hand, you actively participate in political life and, currently, the election campaign in the Pskov region. On the other hand, you were one of the first to find out about the death of Pskov paratroopers in Ukraine, the first to report that and then get evidence – recordings of the Pskov paratrooper division talks about the fighting in Luhansk region and their losses. Do you believe the assault on you on August 29 is connected to that?
You should always talk about different versions. It’s important that even when there is a version that seems the most plausible you should always bear in mind that there may be another one.
An atmosphere of hate and adversity of the highest level has been created in Russia. I can’t completely exclude the variant that some thugs just sensed it was the right moment, took the decision and put it into action single-handedly. But, I believe it’s unlikely. Because everything looked quite prepared and not spontaneous. These people didn’t just meet me by chance, they were well-prepared to carry out their task. They definitely knew who they were waiting for. They knew how to beat people. I lost my senses right away, couldn’t offer any resistance and didn’t see anyone. I don’t think I will ever be able to recall the event. Even if these people are found and shown to me and they exactly point out the place it happened, my memory isn’t likely to produce anything.
The main version of the assault stays the same – it’s the reaction of people directly connected with organizers of the clandestine sending of Russian soldiers to Ukraine. These are the people that not only organized the operation but also were responsible for its secrecy. Undoubtedly what we published was a great blow to these people. But I can’t suggest the possible level at which the decision was made. Were they from the circles connected with our 76th division? The paratroopers’ command? The person who took the political decision in this case wasn’t the one who carried it out. I even think the perpetrators were found by middlemen of the person who decided to do that; he might not even know the perpetrators. That’s my hypothesis.
If I may object… I see that even now, in a hospital ward, you are actively involved in the election campaign, political work, and there is an effort all over the country to cut off Yabloko, your party, from election. You could be removed from the campaign that way. Physically.
No, this isn’t about elections. The governor elections have already ended before they started. And no one would have an interest to influence former candidates that way. There is no point in that. I believe the version everyone adheres to is closer to reality. It is probably a political move and it was sanctioned by people, who, by definition, due to their positions and statuses, are politicians. And that’s more dangerous. No one is fool-proof. But a planned political action is even sadder.
I’m not considering any plot among the soldiers themselves. The rank-and-file soldiers know the truth: know that there’s a war, that their comrades-in-arms are in Ukraine, completely unprepared for the war, and dying not only because it’s a military conflict there, but also because they have great problems with battle-readiness. They are shelled right in their quarters. They are taking huge losses. They understand they were deceived with the talks of exercises. These soldiers need truth. They need protection. They need that if – God forbid – something threatens their lives and they die, they’d be sure they died in a war, died as soldiers and the state will pay all the required compensations to their relatives. Honest soldiers can’t be masterminds of an assault. They need political openness of the military actions.
I will explain one thing to non-military people: the army is ready to fight honestly anywhere. Let’s imagine a crazy yet honest variant: Russia declares war on Ukraine. Officially. The President, the Federation Council take the decision. And the 76th division gets a combat objective: take Kyiv, take Donetsk. They are taking losses but they feel official support – that’s right for the army. Now, they’ve been not only deceived, but humiliated. Many officers I talk to are outraged by exactly that. They are soldiers. They have the Commander-in-chief, the Minister of Defense, the paratrooper force commander, the division’s commander. And when they’re fighting and the whole chain of command is publicly lying – that’s humiliating. Everyone already understands what’s happened. But Shamanov, the paratrooper’s commander, claims: “We have no combat losses in our 76th division.” What kind of losses are the guys buried at Vybuty? Accidental? Or is all that attributed to “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”? What are they, eggs?
But we do know that the paratroopers themselves called their wives and said: “don’t tell anyone anything” or “tell everyone it’s ok, I’m alive and well,” asked for pages to be deleted on social networks. How would you explain that?
That’s the effect of fear. When the soldiers are in a war-zone, they are in danger. I believe special agents are working with them, They explain to the soldiers the illegality of them being there, no matter if they sing the sham contracts or have already stopped thinking about it. I readily believe that someone can sit there and put fake signatures for 25 people that they’ve already left the Russian armed forces and become volunteers, hired by, say, Strelkov to protect the quasi-states. The soldiers know that they are outlaws and that any proof of them being there may do them harm. They know the basics of the criminal code and know that taking part in military actions abroad without a lawful order is a criminal offense punished by up to 7 years of jail. I think that’s how they are “motivated” to escape the public view.
It seems that some kind of military HQ gets information from some kind of Putin-TV. They watch the state TV channels and they form their view of the world. Not just political but military. They think that all that the Ukrainians have are 15 banderite fascists with aged rifles and all you have to do to complete a mission is ride 20 km on a fighting vehicle. This false assessment of the situation leads to losses. It’s as if the commanders don’t understand that the Ukrainian army, in whatever state it is, is still an army, protecting its country and lawfully operating in its territory. Looks like they don’t know any of that.
Apart from that, the value of a Russian soldier’s life remains naught. It’s completely obvious to me that Russia’s total losses in Ukraine are high. But the politicians and commanders believe they can quell the flames of war with the blood of our soldiers and cover it up.
During the Soviet era they tried to cover up Afghanistan, Vietnam and other conflicts and they didn’t quite manage it. How can you imagine it today, in the global information era when people will always find some means of communication? Well, they take away their mobile phones, make them delete their social network pages, but this doesn’t prove anything. However, the commanders believe the Internet is under full control. They don’t understand that the information now, with so many sources, is absolutely all-penetrating. It can’t be stopped.
When did you find out about the first killed soldiers from Pskov?
The first unit from Pskov to end up in Ukraine was the special forces. The first combat losses came in July. I heard about them in the first half of July: then the first bodies arrived to Pskov. This showed that the war had started. The maneuvers were over. War starts when people get killed. While no one is killed it’s just maneuvers. As I knew the specifics of special forces, I realized that they were sent there to perform special operations. But then there was no question of sending the division. The division is other forces.
The first combined brigade of the 76th Pskov division, numbering 1,000 men, was sent to Rostov region on August 15-16. Right from an exercise. They weren’t even given time to visit home. Several units of the division were on exercises in other regions and were sent directly from there.
The rumors of the division being sent off started spreading through Pskov on that very weekend – on August 16-17. To send 1,000 men from a town of 200,000 and hope everyone will believe they went to the country on vacation is for a complete idiot. Planes fly over Pskov all the time. If something happens outside the ordinary cycle – for instance, they fly not to the training grounds at Kislov but in another direction – all the city knows that right away. How could you even masquerade Il-76 transport planes? You can’t cover that up. There was no official confirmation. But people sensed the war. No orders from the Ministry of Defense can quell the people’s sense.
And several days later rumors of losses started circulating. Officers say the division got a list of unrecoverable losses on August 20. That was another secret message: the division has sustained losses. Wery heavy. We can’t tell the exact number, but we are talking dozens dead. These people came from all over Russia.
The first thing that came to mind is the tragedy of the 6th company of the 104th regiment in Chechnya in March 2000. Then 84 people died out of 90, 30 of them were from the Pskov region. You can’t hide the scale of such heavy losses. But even then the military was silent for a week, but later they admitted everything and fully confirmed the lists of those killed.
It’s completely different now – the battles are denied, the losses are denied, the very fact of Russian soldiers being outside Russia is denied. The scale of lies has grown by several orders of magnitude in 14 years. Back then it was bureaucratic lies fed by the officials’ fear for their posts, but now it’s global political lies. The people who organized this mess realize: everything the Russian troops do in Ukraine is legally a crime.
The information on the losses would have come out sooner or later. You could have covered up the death of one or two, but not dozens. Before a certain point the commanders really thought they’d covered up everything. And then the information mishaps came. When Leonid Kichatkin’s wife published the information on the burial on the Internet, she was quickly found, her husband’s page was destroyed, she was made to rewrite her page, they took away her phone and gave it to some other people who started spreading the lies.
How did you find out about Leonid Kichatkin’s death and burial?
Firstly, we saw the information on Leonid’s wife’s page before it was deleted. Secondly, on August 24 my friend, Kichatkin’s comrade-in-arms, sent me a letter asking to attend his burial. I was thinking about going but the letter convinced me. I decided to go there – to the graveyard at Vybuty – with a Pskovskaya Guberniya journalist Alexey Semenov. We were completely sure that after the leak the place or time of the funeral would be changed. We were ready to see an empty graveyard, but we got right to the ceremony at the church of Elijah the Prophet.
I could have come to Vybuty allegedly to visit the graves of my friends. I have close friends buried there. But I decided I had to go without hiding. I’m a councilman, I shouldn’t act secretly. I realized I would be recognized. But no one ever declared Vybuty off-limits. Vybuty is a historical place. There’s the church, the old graveyard. It’s a place where people say their farewells. How could it become off-limits? It’s unacceptable even during burials.
A captain approached me in the church. He said: “A senior officer wants to talk to you.” The senior officer was wearing a martial cloak, I didn’t see the shoulder straps, but his subordinates, lieutenant colonels, were standing next to them. It seemed like the officer was a colonel. He told me: “I know you.” I answered: “You sure do.” I showed the ID of a Pskov Regional Council member. He said the family didn’t call anyone to the funeral. I replied that I decided to be there as a councilman. The officer did not like the answer. He ordered his guards: “Arrest him.” I said: “You can’t arrest me, I’m a councilman.” He addressed a policeman. He checked my ID and told the soldiers: “He really is a councilman. You have no right to detain or search him without the Regional Prosecutor’s warrant.” The soldiers seemed to believe him. I refused to talk to the policeman in the presence of the soldiers. We stepped 3 or 4 steps away. He asked: “How did you end up here?” I explained it was my right to be there and it was important for the community. Then he replied: “You see they don’t want you to be here.” This was not an official phrase but a safety warning. He didn’t say it directly, but he did make it clear his powers had limits. I got in the car and while I was waiting for Alexey another officer approached and told me again: “You shouldn’t be here.”
I noticed some quite peculiar guys near the church. They were young, under 30, wearing sweatsuits, they had no flowers. They didn’t look like former paratroopers. They all looked of Caucasus origin. They behaved very aggressively. They obviously were waiting for some order. But it didn’t come.
The aggressive reaction of the soldiers was due to the understanding that an outsider got there, saw what he saw and realized what he saw – it was a screwup for them. Their reaction was completely understandable: there was a witness and that was unacceptable. Even what I saw during these 7-10 minutes was unacceptable for them.
How did you get the shocking recordings of the talks of direct participants of combat in Ukraine from the 76th paratrooper division? How much do you trust them?
Completely. They are completely genuine. I was sure of that. I got the recordings from acting soldiers of the 76th division who hoped this would help stop the war or at least prevent new losses among our soldiers in Ukraine. These are people who don’t want to fight THAT way. They can’t disobey an order, but they don’t want to fight THAT way.
The participants of the talks told me just that: if we publish that, we could save somebody’s life. I hope publishing and spreading that information did save somebody’s life. On August 29, another 1,000 soldiers from the 76th division weren’t sent to the ATO zone. That’s despite people were packed and ready to go – and they still are.
Can you determine the losses of the 76th division in Ukraine?
We don’t know the exact number, and they (participants of the talks. — N. P.) seem to not know it either, but undoubtedly we are talking dozens of soldiers. One of the participants of the talks helped collect and load the bodies after the battle. I tried to grasp the scale of the tragedy from these records. The records signify that the commanders of the regiment weren’t there, the combat wasn’t directed, the paratroopers had no communications.
The transcripts published on the Internet and in the latest issue of Pskovskaya Guberniya on September 2 were abridged. The originals are more detailed and surely all the names are given. Based on these recordings, which are essentially documentary evidence, I’m going to address the military Prosecutor General and the Minister of Defense on September 8.
P. S. The photos are provided by Pskovskaya Guberniya’s editor’s office.
Translated by Kirill Mikhailov