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POLITICS

Glorious Basterds: Russian propaganda mass-producing tales of battlefield heroism

Whenever things begin to look sour in Ukraine, pro-Kremlin media and channels bring out “heroes who sacrificed themselves to save their comrades”. Every Russian region is proud to have birthed a handful of such martyrs for the great cause – and governors make sure to brag about them to the president. However, in most cases, no one can verify the accounts of their feats because eyewitnesses are nowhere to be found. With that in mind, the sheer number of “heroic deeds” makes one question the authenticity of these stories. The Insider examined several cases of “falling on a grenade” widely advertised by state propaganda, and indeed, reality turned out to be way grimmer than the media described it.

Content
  • “And then he fell on the grenade”

  • Jacks-of-all-trades

  • A rich tradition of fiction: Donbas meets Chechnya

  • A communist from Venice and a fascist from Tuscany

  • “My best wishes to the dead”

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“And then he fell on the grenade”

On July 12, 2022, President Vladimir Putin awarded the title of Hero of Russia to a fallen hero – First Lieutenant Maxim Serafimov of the Pskov Brigade of Spetsnaz GRU (the special forces of Russia's foreign intelligence). His hometown of Ufa named a school after him and installed a stele in a city park. As pro-government media wrote, “On February 27, 2022, the GRU assault team under Serafimov's command was holding all-round defense in Kharkiv's School 134. Acting courageously and decisively, the fighters eliminated 30 enemy troops and an armored vehicle. During the assault, a hand grenade landed next to the commanding officer, and he covered it with his body without a moment's thought.” (1,223 media search results.)

Meanwhile, even pro-war bloggers and “war correspondents” called this particular battle a “disgrace” and “Spetsnaz GRU’s lowest point”, demanding that the generals who had sent their troops to sure death be court-martialed.

Propagandist embellishments aside, the outline of the battle is drastically different from the official version. Firstly, it wasn't Serafimov who led the assault team but Captain Alexander Zhikharev, who was also decorated with a Hero Star posthumously. Witness accounts suggest that early in the battle, Zhikharev told two of his subordinates to hold down the fort, while he and another two fighters tried to break out from the school – but ended up killed.

The Spetsnaz unit was supposed to enter Kharkiv and unite with groups of local pro-Russian fighters. Their mission was to capture the building of the City Directorate of the Security Service of Ukraine and install a Russian flag on it. However, they failed to locate any pro-Russian militia and began wandering blindly around the city. Soon, Ukrainian troops of the 92nd Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Cord Police Spetznaz, Omega Detachment, and territorial defense detected and encircled the Russian assault team. Abandoning their Tigr infantry mobility vehicles and half of their ammunition, the fighters took cover in School 134. The Ukrainians immediately captured the driver of the second Tigr, who had lagged behind, and made him give up his team's numbers and mission. The assault team waited for reinforcement for almost ten hours, but no one came. Using the captured radio set, the Ukrainian troops offered the Russians to lay down their arms three times, but they refused.

Disabled Tigr vehicles of the Spetsnaz GRU
Disabled Tigr vehicles of the Spetsnaz GRU

At the end of the day, the Ukrainian tank gunned down the GRU fighters, and the school caught fire. Those who tried to get out were a clear shot for the Ukrainians. Apart from Zhikharev and Serafimov, 18 more fighters were killed, and five more were captured by locals. Captive sergeant Maxim Veretekhin said during the interrogation: “They told us it’d be like Crimea.”

Serafimov was considered to be missing in action for a long while; his parents didn't learn of his death until four months later. Even then it remained unclear when his body had been submitted to the Russian side and where the remains of his fellow Spetsnaz fighters were. In July 2022, a Radio Liberty correspondent covered the funeral of radio operator Stepan Zhuravlev, who also died in that school. Colonel Alexander Antonov attended the ceremony as a Pskov Brigade representative but spoke more about the fallen radio officer and Captain Zhikharev, failing to even mention Serafimov.

Maxim Serafimov's funeral
Maxim Serafimov's funeral

The Insider reached out to a member of the GRU's Pskov Brigade (Military Unit 64044), where Serafimov served:

“I don't know who told them about falling on a grenade. It wasn't in the initial report. Almost everyone who was in that school died. Who could have known about it? The first few days after were a complete mess. There was talk of the commanders who had sent the guys to their deaths to be demoted. Bush <The Insider's note: Bushuev, the commanding officer of Military Base 64044> was said to have beaten up the army general who’d coordinated entry into Kharkiv. But then things cooled down. In all truth, we don't even know whose bodies were brought back.”

Contrary to what propagandists said, Ukrainian losses were much lower than 30 dead and amounted to five wounded and one killed: Sergeant Vadym Andriyevskiy. A BMP-4 Bucephalus infantry fighting vehicle was also hit. It is widely known, however, that the grenade story was hyped up by Azat Badranov, a regional official from Bashkiria responsible for ideology and educating the public about the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Badranov's reputation in his home region is somewhat ambiguous. Last summer, he volunteered to join the fighting, but journalists saw him at the city hall more than once after that. A scandal followed; Badranov finally set out for the frontline and now serves as a deputy political officer at the Shaymuratov Battalion headquarters. A rare guest in the trenches, he nevertheless keeps broadcasting fake accounts of day-to-day combat: “Soldiers on the frontline hear their adversaries speak English, Polish, French – and those aren't just mercenaries.” Last November, Bashkiria received tragic news: “Badranov died as a hero.” Obituaries on social media ensued. Ufa started preparing a pompous memorial ceremony for the political officer, but he shortly resurfaced safe and sound. It's still unclear who planted the news about his death.

  • Azat Badranov
  • Deputy Political Officer Badranov, safe and sound (left)

Jacks-of-all-trades

Another “falling on a grenade” story, that of Wagner Storm Z fighter Alexei Volkov (call sign “Volk”), also raises quite a few eyebrows (876 search results). According to propagandists, Volkov was bleeding out when a fellow fighter called Vladimir found him. As medics were dressing his wounds, Volkov said he’d been carrying the wounded off the battlefield after heavy fighting and had sustained fragmentation injuries to the legs. When a Ukrainian drone dropped a grenade, he immediately covered it with his body as the only one wearing an armored vest. And then it gets more interesting. His comrades mistook him for dead and left him in the field. He lay there for 11 hours without medical assistance, and when he was found, he started reading patriotic rap: “Look at our banner, our victory's proof! To see it, you don't need to get to the roof.”

Meanwhile, the rapper’s face doesn't feature typical blast wounds; even his beard is in place. The video quickly went viral, with Komsomolskaya Pravda bending over backward to extol his feat. However, the Ministry of Defense thought it was staged and left the rapper without any medals. Even the second video, in which Volkov, who'd gained considerable weight, did 35 push-ups, didn't help. Meanwhile, Volkov's fellow Storm-Z fighters have made numerous complaints about incompetent commanders and munitions shortages.

Alexei Volkov
Alexei Volkov

The list of questionable feats goes on. In January 2023, Moscow Region governor Andrei Vorobyev decorated Dmitry, a volunteer fighter from the town of Podolsk, with the Order of Courage: “He covered a grenade with his body to save his comrades in arms. He lost his arm as a result but lived and protected his fellow fighters.” Dmitry served in the Konvoy private military company financed by the head of Crimea Sergei Aksenov.

All the decoration holder told the press was “I don't want to talk about it. What's done is done,” letting his wife do the talking. In online comments, he admitted: “I did it automatically.” This sparked a discussion in social media: “Did he cover the grenade with his arm? Why did the governor's press service conceal the hero's identity?” (Such comments were hastily cleaned up.) As it turned out, the mercenary's full name was Dmitry Golubev. Before the war, he worked as a technician and spent his vacations kayaking in Karelia. The Insider sent an inquiry to Golubev, but he has yet to respond.

  • Dmitry Golubev at the awards ceremony
  • Golubev's certificate

A rich tradition of fiction: Donbas meets Chechnya

The tradition of making up would-be heroes goes back to the formation of Ukraine's breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. In July 2014, Igor Girkin (Strelkov), the former “DPR” defense minister who is now under arrest, wrote in his frontline chronicles: “Yesterday, we fought the Battle of Izvarino with the help of our friends from Krasnodon. One was wounded in the leg, and his friend Alexander Skryabin died like a hero, jumping underneath a tank with a bundle of grenades” (329 search results). However, as the press found out, Skryabin had died of cancer as early as in 2011, and the photo of his alleged funeral bears an uncanny resemblance to the funeral procession of a miner who got killed in the accident at the Sukhodolskaya-Vostochnaya Mine near Luhansk in 2011.

Fictitious accounts of battlefield heroism were also advertised by Russia's Ministry of Defense back in the days of the Chechen Wars. At times, the past meets the present. Thus, on June 16, 2023, the village of Kuratovo in Russia's Komi Republic installed a memorial plaque on the facade of the village school, immortalizing 21-year-old tankman Alexander Tutrinov of Military Unit 13766, who had been killed in Ukraine. His plaque is now side by side with that commemorating his father, Semen Tutrinov, who died in Chechnya in 2002. The son was born shortly before his father's death and never got to meet him. The ceremony, which gathered a handful of locals, climaxed in the address of district head Alexander Popov:

“Our boys died fighting for you and me, for our children. They performed a feat for the holiest cause – the protection of their Fatherland. Patriots, heroes, true men, they rose to protect their people, their country, and their home. They fought like our grandfathers did. And in this struggle for our nation's freedom and independence, they gave up the most precious thing – their lives.”
The inauguration of the Tutrinovs’ memorial plaques
The inauguration of the Tutrinovs’ memorial plaques

Tutrinov Jr. was very proud of his father and swore to exact revenge on “Russia’s enemies.” Since his school years, he knew that his father had “covered his fellow soldier with his body when separatists had blown up their IFV” (836 search results).

Meanwhile, there are eyewitnesses of Tutrinov's death in Chechnya. Here is what poet and songwriter Maxim Ulyashev, who rode in the same column, writes in his memoirs:

“The IFV and two more cars were in the vanguard, and we rode in a ZIL truck that was second in the convoy. Suddenly, there was an explosion, then a second one. The convoy stopped and we climbed out of the truck. We saw smoke rising from the IFV ahead. A little later, we heard shots and more explosions (the munitions inside the IFV went off, in the squad compartment and the turret). Why the hell did they turn into the field? The first explosion caused the IFV to swerve – that’s when it ran into a second mine. According to the guys who recovered the bodies, Semen Tutrinov had had his legs torn off in the first blast. He was buried in a sealed zinc coffin. His family begged to let them open it, but they weren't allowed because a lot of time had passed (they didn’t bury him until March, and there wasn't much left of Semen in the first place). Nikolai Kozhemyakin couldn’t get out of the IFV after the first blast; he must have been shell-shocked and suffocated. The second blast cut his body in half and torched him. Vladimir Belov, the mechanic, was thrown out by the second blast and got shell-shocked too.”

However, Ulyashev doesn’t mention anything about Tutrinov saving his comrade. After all, how could he have? Most likely, after he’d lost his both legs, he was either unconscious or screaming for help. As it turned out, the details of Tutrinov’s death did not surface until two years after the event, supplied by Alexander Belyaev, the military enlistment officer of his home district. Twenty years after Tutrinov Sr. got torn in half, Belyaev sent off his son to fight in Ukraine, saying: “You have your father's name to live up to.” There is little known about Alexander Tutrinov’s death: “Died from wounds in the hospital.” A few ultra-patriotic Russian websites used photos of other killed soldiers to illustrate his obituary and wrote he'd been buried in Udmurtia.

  • The wrong photo of Tutrinov online

The Insider submitted an inquiry to Belyaev, but he hasn't responded.

We also reached out to a former military psychologist, who wished to remain anonymous.

“I’ve had experience observing and treating dozens of patients with so-called acute Chechen syndrome. They suffered from nightmares and compulsive urges to commit suicide or kill a native of the Caucasus at a local market. Other fighters who'd seen heavy combat couldn't tolerate the sight of raw meat and would flip every time they saw some. I had a patient who kept going back to the moment when a fellow soldier had had his legs torn off. He felt extreme nausea every time he saw a pair of army boots. Another patient couldn’t stop reeling that a sergeant who'd sneaked out to a nearby village to buy vodka had been accidentally shot by the sentry. To avoid a scandal, the squad commander decorated the deceased with an order and had him buried like a hero. Having heard all that, I came to the brief conclusion that whatever we call ‘patriotism’ instantly disappears at the frontline. Young soldiers in the trenches see a different picture. There’s blood and death everywhere. Everyone is for himself, commanders are often incompetent and swear all the time. The only thing left is the desire to survive at any cost. I don't think the situation is at all different during the ‘special military operation’.”

A communist from Venice and a fascist from Tuscany

Propagandist websites even list a foreigner among “grenade coverers”: Edi Buitre O'ngaro, 46-year-old Italian national nicknamed Bozambo (418 search results). A native of Venice, he developed an ultra-leftist worldview. In 2014, Bozambo was involved in a bar brawl and fled before the court proceedings concluded, so he was put on a wanted list. Early in 2015, Bozambo and ultra-right radical from Tuscany Andrea Palmeri, who was also wanted in Italy for illegal recruitment of mercenaries, traveled to the “Luhansk Peple's Republic” through Rostov-on-Don and joined Alexei Mozgovoi’s Prizrak (“ghost”) Battalion.

State propaganda hyped up Bozambo left and right, and the head of the “DPR” Alexander Borodai invited him as an observer from Italy to the International Conference of Volunteers hosted by Moscow in 2016. After Mozgovoi's assassination and the dissolution of his battalion, Bozambo served in several “LPR” militia divisions and finally joined the regular army of the “DPR”. Italian communist organization Collettivo Stella Rosa (the Red Star Collective) reported that “Edi O'ngaro covered a hand grenade with his body on March 20, 2022, saving the lives of his fellow fighters. Edi's sacrifice shows the proletariat’s strength, which will usher in the triumph of Communism.”

The Insider reached out to the Italian communists on Facebook, asking for more details of Bozambo’s death and the names of eyewitnesses, but all we got were general remarks:

“Bozambo was killed in combat near Avdiivka. The forces of the people's militia of the DPR, which he was a member of, had captured several hills of strategic importance for the defense of the area from artillery strikes.”

Therefore, his Italian colleagues (none of whom had been to Donbas) failed to confirm the information about his heroic death. In his last interview, Bozambo confessed that he’d only spent 11 days on the frontline.

There was no money to send the zinc coffin to Italy, so he was buried in the village of Kalmiuske (currently controlled by the “DPR”).

Bozambo's grave
Bozambo's grave

Bozambo's companion, Andrea Palmeri, abandoned the militia a year later and started a small bakery. “Bread is a commodity people always need,” he said in an interview.

“My best wishes to the dead”

Propagandists are often unscrupulous enough to resort to blatant lies. Thus, January 2023 saw reports about a security guard at an electric substation in Bryansk who allegedly fell on a grenade dropped by a Ukrainian drone: “Two grenades were dropped. One of them didn't go off, and as for the other one, the security guard covered it with his body. His sacrifice prevented power outages.” The majority of propagandist media outlets made him a poster boy. Journalists left no stone unturned, trying to track down the hero while he was in the hospital. However, much as they tried to at least learn his name, no one succeeded.

On July 18, 2023, Irkutsk governor Igor Kobzev met with Putin in the Kremlin and shared the successes of his city natives in Ukraine: “192 Irkutsk residents have been decorated with state awards – orders and medals. The youngest Hero of Russia is Private Eduard Dyakonov, who died in Mariupol last March, falling on a grenade to save his comrades in arms” (477 search results).

However, the details of Dyakonov's death don't add up. Some pro-war websites report that his detachment was clearing out a house in Mariupol, and someone dropped a grenade from a grenade launcher attachment next to him. Others write that he was covering his group's retreat and saw a grenade without the pin. Others still suggest that Dyakonov, already wounded and lying on the ground, covered the grenade with his body, saving the lives of 13 troops.

“This is priceless for us. They are all heroes, forever in our memory and our hearts,” continued Governor Kobzev. To that, Putin said: “Give them my best wishes.”


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