When I speak to Russian activist Ruslan Leviev, he has just hopped off a plane after traveling across the country. It’s a Monday. He says he can’t disclose many details about his recent trip, but it’s clear that he can hardly contain his excitement. “We have unearthed very serious information,” he says.
Leviev, a collaborator of the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, is a degree candidate in aviation engineering and the live-broadcast director at media company Newscaster. He has taken up an additional role over the past few days: amateur grave hunter. Through the use of social media and help from a network of web-savvy volunteers, he has been tracking down the burial sites of three Russian soldiers he believes died in the Donbass region, Ukraine. The investigation, documented on Leviev’s blog, is part of a larger project, aimed at verifying the identity of Russian military men in operating Ukrainian territory following the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of civil unrest in Eastern Ukraine—a fact that the Russian government vehemently denies.
After putting together a research team of volunteers, working under condition of anonymity in 2014, Leviev has been creating lists of Russian soldiers who appear to have died during a period coinciding with Eastern Ukrainian unrest. In their studies, the team stumbled across a telling post published on Russian social media platform VK.
Published by user Anna Vigilyantova, and no longer available online (a copy is available on Leviev’s blog), it was dedicated to the memory of her friend Anton, who died “fighting for the fatherland.” The discovery of the post prompted an investigation that linked the death of Anton Savely’ov, to those of Timur Mamayusupov and Ivan Kardapolov. According to Leviev’s findings, the three met while serving in the 16th brigade of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate special forces. The team believes that the three died during military operations in the Donbass on May 5, 2015.
Images, posts, crowdsourcing through social media and trawling online forums composed the bulk of the investigation. Leviev’s Twitter account is filled with requests to his followers: “We are trying to establish where this picture was taken,” reads one of his tweets. “Has anyone come across a similar background in the photos of other separatists or recognizes that very same background?” inquires another.
Verification is also carried out on the ground. For instance, after gathering evidence that Savely’ov and Mamayusupov might be buried in Tambov, Russia, Leviev and Vadim Korovin, another activist part of the investigation, headed there to find answers. They attempted to speak with the soldiers’ families and friends. The information they uncovered was subject to stringent fact-checking—something Leviev refers to as the “devil’s advocate” method. They also follow strict rules to prove that the soldiers were not fighting as volunteers, generally by looking into their military contracts.
Borrowing from the world of undercover reporting, these self-styled grave hunters have at times attempted to obtain information posing as friends of the deceased hoping to pay their respects. They are certainly not bound by any particular code of ethics. During the investigation, the team started suspecting that Mamayusupov’s grave might be located in the village of Kuk Tyaka, in Tatarstan. They reached out to a young local under false pretensions and offered to pay him to visit the village’s graveyard to photograph Mamayusupov’s grave. “Our team does not consider our operations as a journalistic investigation, but as a way to participate in the war,” Leviev says. “We are part of an information war against our enemy, which happens to be [the Russian] government.”
As Russia becomes more aggressive towards Ukraine, the international community should work towards arming the latter with weapons powerful enough to counter their threat, he argues. “We are carrying out this investigation to show officials and foreign politicians that the Russian government is not counting on a truce, but is rather preparing for a new attack,” he says. “There will be an escalation of the conflict.”
Even though the media have tried to reach out to authorities, the Russian government has so far not commented on the investigation. And chances are that they will continue not to. On May 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin amended a decree on state secrets, which will make military deaths in times of peace “classified information”—coincidentally, on the same day, the team revealed the latest findings of the investigation, disclosing the identity of a fourth soldier, still alive, that allegedly served with Savely’ov, Mamayusupov and Kardapolov. Leviev’s blog also reported the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) reply to his request for information. According to the KGB successor agency, the three soldiers died during counter-terrorism operations in North Caucasus.
Leviev still believes otherwise, and won’t give up on uncovering what he believes to be the truth. “For us, the decree means a severe increase in risks, first of all for me personally. It means that they can arrest me at any given moment,” he says. “We recognize the risks, but we stay firm and continue the fight. Our methods and values won’t change.”