On the morning of April 29, Galena Pankina answered the phone at her home in Baklashi, a village in central Russia, and was told her son had died in Ukraine.
Danil Pankin was a reconnaissance officer in a Russian army motorized-rifle battalion who was sent on President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion.
He didn’t even make it to his 20th birthday before a Ukrainian tank ended his life. He was posthumously awarded the Russian Order of Courage.
“He proposed to his girlfriend before he left for Ukraine,” Galena said. “Our family was going to get even bigger.”
“But he never made it home.”
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Nor have thousands of other Russian soldiers, although Moscow has tightly suppressed reporting of its wartime losses since the invasion of Ukraine that began on Feb. 24.
The numbers range from Russia’s acknowledged loss of just over 1,000 to Ukraine’s equally unverifiable tally of 35,000. In April, the U.K. estimated 15,000 dead.
The bodies left behind are collected by J9, a group of Ukrainian military and civilian volunteers. They are identified for return to Russia.
Documents found by J9 members, and obtained by Global News, identify some of them, including Pyotr Yegorchev, 25, born in Orenburg region.
A Russian social media profile that matches the details in the documents found on his body indicates he attended Baltic State Technical University.
He studied weapons and weapons systems. Photos show him posing with friends and embracing a young woman.
His remains were uncovered in Kharkiv region.
A Global News analysis of the almost 3,600 fallen soldiers who have been publicly identified shows that most are from Russia’s poorest, most ethnically diverse regions.
That includes central Siberia and the northern Caucasus. By comparison, only a small number are from more affluent cities.
Almost 200 were from Dagestan, the corrupt, Muslim-majority republic that is among the poorest parts of Russia.
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Other poor republics suffered almost as many losses: 159 from Buryatia and 129 were from Chechnya. Only 29 came from Moscow and 15 from Saint Petersburg.
In Russia’s economically stagnant regions, a temporary military contract offers stable employment, housing and salaries well above the national average.
Russian disinformation also makes the army seem attractive. The Pankins said they got most of their news from state-controlled television and called the army a prestigious job.
“He didn’t die in vain,” Galena said, blaming NATO and the United States for provoking Russia. “He died fighting for peace.”
Left at orphanage
Danil was five-years-old when his birth parents abandoned him at an orphanage in 2008 and he joined the Pankin family.
Galena was a midwife, Alexey a metallurgist at a factory. Altogether they had 13 kids, nine of them foster children they took in.
Danil “was very thin and frail,” she recalled. He couldn’t sit still and was always on the move — biking, playing tennis or breakdancing. He wrote poetry and was a bit of a comedian.
“Even when he would do something bad and you wanted to punish him, he’d just joke and puff. You forgot why you were mad at him,” Alexey said.
All the men in the Pankin family served in the army like Alexey, who suggested Danil think about it, that it would be interesting, and he’d be able to get an apartment.
“He wasn’t sure in the beginning. But then he called us and said that he signed up,” he said.
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They supported his decision but were against his choice to become a sniper, arguing he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. He went into a reconnaissance unit instead.
He was stationed in the eastern city of Khabarovsk until Putin sent his army to seize Ukraine, triggering Europe’s worst conflict and refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Positioned near Kyiv, Danil called home and his mother would ask how he was coping with the war.
“He would always say ‘Mom, I am trying to add humour to everything,’” Galena said. “In general, he was a very humorous person.”
Russian forces committed scores of atrocities around Ukraine’s capital, executing civilians in cities like Bucha. Eventually, however, Ukranian troops forced them to withdraw and limit their objectives.
On March 31, Danil left Ukraine and went back to Belarus. He told his mother he was thinking about quitting the army.
But less than two weeks later, as Russian forces were repositioning in Ukraine’s east, he announced he was rejoining the invasion.
“I asked him why is he going back and he replied that half of his boys are there. That’s it,” Alexey said.
“He could have left but he said I cannot, my comrades are there,” his mother said.
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On April 11, he made a video call to his parents while crossing the border riding atop a BTR armoured vehicle.
Tens days later, he was dead.
His unit was in Kharkiv region. They were retreating to a village called Zavodi. Danil stayed to cover them but a tank fired at his position and he was hit in the head.
“They managed to leave, and he didn’t,” his father said.
A Street in his Name
When she got the phone call from the army announcing his death, Galena said thank you and hung up.
“And only when I started retelling everything to my husband, I understood what happened. I didn’t realize it at first.”
Later, military officers came in person and she asked whether it could be a mistake. “I mean, anything could happen,” she said. But it wasn’t.
The memorial ceremony was held at a park in Baklashi. Danil was buried alongside other war veterans.
“A lot of people came. His whole class from college, all his teachers,” his father said.
His girlfriend came from Rostov. She wanted to see him but the morgue would not let her. His wounds were too severe.
Three army buddies showed up. They cried at his grave and came to the house and stayed so long they almost missed their flight back to Khabarovsk.
“They said that he hated his machine gun, because it was so huge and sometimes, he would just throw it away, start cursing, but then cool off, return and pick it up,” his mother said.
Later, the village administration called and said a street would be named after Danil. The announcement was published on a local online forum.
“And one man commented, ‘Why would we call a street with someone so young – he didn’t do anything yet.’ It was the first time when I got so angry and felt so hurt for our boys,” Alexey said.
“And I wrote to him – ‘you live under a peaceful sky because of our boys. Are you ok with that?’ And after that people started commenting and later, he apologized.”
“Many people, sadly, don’t understand the reasons for this special operation,” he claimed. “Why is it going on and how did it begin? And because they don’t understand, many are angry.”
The death of their son hasn’t changed their view of the war — a view that matches the disinformation and falsehoods that Russia uses to justify its invasion.
“Who would stop those people if not our boys? And I wouldn’t call them people – those freaks – who would stop them? Only us. The things they are doing, the atrocities they commit in the modern world in modern war. They are animals, and animals like that should be destroyed or they would spread everywhere.”
Visitors stop at Danil’s gravesite and leave offerings. A child’s drawing of a tank, candies, alcohol. Since his death, Galina has noticed more birds around.
“You know when he was buried, there were photos, and on them, there were always cranes somewhere in the sky,” Galina said.
“And later at home, I started seeing cranes a lot. Me and my husband, we started seeing a lot of birds in general. More so than usual. Birds that would fly but never leave.”
“Just a few days ago we saw two seagulls. And the day when we saw off Irina to the airport, we saw a lot of cranes in the sky.”
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