Friday, July 19, 2024

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.
In February he would have turned 50, and he promised me he would be allowed to come home then.” 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.

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