Three Graves: Russian Investigation Team Uncovers Spetsnaz Brigade in Ukraine
The following post originally appeared on the LiveJournal of Ruslan Leviev, found in the original Russian here. The translation has been provided by Kirill Mikhailov, as found on his website here. Ruslan Leviev’s investigation team is not a part of Bellingcat, but its findings are in line with many of Bellingcat’s published and ongoing investigative reports of direct Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine.
This investigation was prompted by a post found on Russian social network Vkontakte on the death of a certain Anton who died “fighting for the Motherland” (original post | saved copy):
While looking for information about this Anton, we found his profile among the friends of Anna (the author of the post above). The name was fake, but the photos were real: profile (saved copy). Last wall photo dated October 25, 2014: Anton is standing in front of an Il-76 of the 224 flight unit (Ministry of Defence’s subsidiary), the photo is geotagged as “Airfield Rostov-on-Don central (original photo | saved copy):
His profile also has various photos from his military service and Karate hobby. According to the photos, Anton had a Karate black belt, often winning various contests. Opening the full-size image of a victory certificate, we can see his full name (link to the full size picture): Anton Savelyev.
The profile also features a photo (link) of Anton in front of a memorial with his military unit’s name on it: military unit 54607 (16-th separate special forces brigade of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the General Staff of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, city of Tambov)
The “military duty” part catches out attention. We keep looking and find another mourning post, but Anton’s not the only one featured there (original | saved copy):
The details become more interesting, it’s obvious now that they died together. We start looking for the names of the other two soldiers who died together with Anton. As we look through Anton’s friends’ profiles, we see a message that gives us their call signs (original message | saved copy): Sava, Kardan and Mamai.
This person’s profile also has lots of Spetsnaz references (photos, statuses), which clearly shows us he’s “one of them”. As we start looking for the other two’s call signs, we find Mamai and it’s a bit of luck: he is standing in front of two Donbas rebel armored vehicles (original post | original photo | saved copy).
The “toothed” APC to the right has been filmed many times in Luhansk, including a February 15, 2015 video(saved copy) that shows it driving in front of a Russian humanitarian convoy bearing an Luhansk People’s Republic flag. Here’s the same APC photographed in Luhansk, the letters “ЛНР” (“Luhansk People’s Republic”) clearly visible.
The beige building and metal fence indicate Timur’s photo was shot here as well.
Among those who reposted that message we find another account that hints that Mamai (full name — Timur Mamayusupov) was a Spetsnaz serviceman (original message | saved copy):
This person’s profile also features a post from May 9, 2015, with a video from the 16th Spetsnaz brigade (original message | saved copy):
Let’s sum up what we’ve got so far: Anton Savelyev, a 16th separate Spetsnaz brigade serviceman, died in early May (first message posted by relatives on May 6) “protecting the Motherland”, “on military duty”. Several profiles belonging to servicemen of the same Spetsnaz brigade feature messages that two other people, one named Timur Mamayusupov (call sign “Mamai”) and another (call sign “Kardan”) died together with Anton.
By the way, the 16th brigade’s parade video gives us another important hint: A Spetsnaz serviceman does not necessarily look like a bodybuilder and all the three people killed are built just like the guys in the video.
Moving on. Another project, also featuring war investigations, gives us info on Timur “Mamai” Mamayusupov. Turns out, they found the info on him before we did and published it long ago. The cargo200.org project has managed to find out several key details on Timur from his relatives’ messages: Timur was a soldier, was in the Spetsnaz and died at a war:
(link to cargo200.org profile)
— Nail’s original post, saved copy; — Albina’s original post, saved copy.
Right after that Albina’s wall features a series of memorial posts dedicated to Timur mentioning both the Spetsnaz and the war:
In another Russian social network, Odnoklassniki, we see a member of the same 16th Spetsnaz brigade who posts photos showing “Sava”, “Kardan” and “Mamai” together. This means the three were good friends and served in the same unit as this serviceman.
By checking all the profiles of each of the deceased’s friends and their friends we find “Kardan”’s name — Ivan (saved profile copy | original of Kardan’s photo on a girl’s avatar).
As we browse through the accounts of the dead Spetsnaz soldiers’ friends, we find several profiles featuring joint photos with Kardan and stating one and the same person as a “best friend”: Alexey Butyugin’s profile (no photos with this person’s appearance in the post). We also find another confirmation that Kardan’s name is Ivan (original post | saved copy):
Kardan’s friend’s profile also features a joint photo of Timur “Mamai” and Ivan “Kardan”, geotagged in “Matveevo-Kurganskiy district” (directly on the border with Ukraine), original post | saved copy | original photo):
We are finally catching a scent, but it’s still faint, we need more proof. Since Anton’s and Timur’s profiles both feature the city of Tambov, and their military unit is also in Tambov, we decided they were both buried there. We pack our things, hop on a bus and spend a day to get to Tambov. As we arrive, we face a complicated task: We don’t know at which of the three graveyards in Tambov Anton and Timur were buried, and there are even more graveyards in the suburbs. We talk with local taxi drivers, explain the task (not getting into much detail), they suggest going to the city graveyard and asking the groundskeeer where this or that person is buried — groundkeepers have that information.
Meanwhile, people from our team continue looking for info on social networks and local forums as to where exactly Anton and Timur were buried. They find an ask.me profile of a girl who went to the same school as Anton, and, as we are driving to one of the Tambov graveyards, our team manages to find out where exactly he is buried (saved copy of questions and answers):
Talinka is a village in Tambov district. I recall Anton’s Odnoklassniki profile indicating that he finished secondary school in Novaya Lyada (a village next to Talinka). We ask the taxi driver for another advice, he says he knows where the Novaya Lyada graveyard is and we drive there. When we come, we start looking for Anton’s grave and find it almost right away:
Click to open an album with original photos in a better resolution. The album also has photos of wreaths with relatives’ last names — we found some of their social network profile with mourning posts (see screenshots below in the post).
There is also a wreath “To a defender of the Motherland from the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation”:
It was about 7 AM, it’s then that were recorded a video we published later, saying “we haven’t contacted the relatives yet” (which we really hadn’t at that point).
After that we came up to the groundkeepers and asked them about Anton. They told us that he indeed was a soldier, he was buried recently, they didn’t know how he died, and there wasn’t another military burial at that time (we were asking about Timur). When we asked how to contact Artyom’s relatives, they told us the way to Anton’s mother’s house.
Meanwhile, volunteers from our team found info in the relatives’ comments that the soldiers died because they “came under shelling”;
When asked “Where?”, they reply “I don’t know exactly, I heard it happened at the border”:
However, if you try to find any reports of shelling the border on those days or three people dying due to the shelling, you will find nothing. That is weird, since if people did die in a border shelling, especially if they were soldiers, that would be a trump card for the Ministry of Defense and great proof of Minsk agreement violations. If these people were no servicemen but rebel volunteers, why would this be a “military secret”? Russia does not deny the presence of Russian volunteers among the rebels. Why would they be buried with such honors by the local military unit, with a wreath from the Ministry of Defense?
Other relatives, when asked how Anton died, reply “this is a military secret”:
It’s getting closer to 8 AM, we are planning the search for Timur’s grave and talking with Anton’s relatives. The taxi driver says that Anton’s mother probably works in Tambov and should be leaving her house right now to go to the city. We decide to go there and try talking to her. A still from our video:
As we approach Anton’s mother’s house, we realize it’s the same house we saw in Anton’s and his sister’s photos and tried to locate by asking the locals:
Anton’s mother wasn’t home. We talked to her neighbors and got her mobile phone number. Vadim Korovin called her, introduced himself as a State Duma member’s aide, said he wanted to help her in communicating with the Ministry of Defense since she’d have to demand a compensation. Natalya (Anton’s mother) replied that she was now at the military base and couldn’t talk. She asked to call her back.
We drove to the military base where all the three deceased served. We stopped next to a car. A Spetsnaz sergeant, wearing a uniform, was standing next to it. The taxi driver said it was his acquaintance (the city is small and the taxi driver has been working for years, so he knows lots of people) and he would come up to him and ask about the other deceased. When asked about two recently deceased Spetsnaz soldiers, the sergeant replied that they’d buried only one of theirs recently, at Novaya Lyada (the sergeant named the correct village, we did not prompt him). After that a Spetsnaz first lieutenant got out of car nearby and started approaching us with quite a disapproving look. We got in the car and left so that we wouldn’t get into trouble.
We decide to try to find out where Timur was from, looking for hints in his photos. We notice a photo with cars on Timur’s profile; both cars have region code 36 o their number plates (link to photo in Timur’s account):
Region 36 is Voronezh. Voronezh is quite close to Tambov, we decide to go there since we’ve more or less finished our job in Tambov (got a preliminary talk with Anton’s mother who told us to call her back; local Spetsnaz soldiers confirmed it was their comrade; other Anton’s relatives didn’t pick up their phoes). As we go to the bus station, ready to buy tickets to Voronezh, info comes from our team: the volunteers find info on Timur’s death on Vkontakte, with a specific indication that he died in the Donbass, which gives us the town of Almetyevsk (VK group post | saved copy, another VK group post | saved copy):
We realize why no one knows anything about his burial in Tambov (obviously the relatives immediately got the body out of Rostov hospital and buried him in his native town). I set another task to our team: find contacts of Timur’s friends and relatives to write or call and determine an exact place of the burial.
We find several phone numbers, dial them and say that we are close friends of the Savelyevs, we know that Anton and Timur died together, want to visit Timur’s grave but don’t know where he’s buried and the military unit won’t tell us. Some reply they don’t know where he’s buried, but after a few calls luck shines on us once again: a guy who knew Timur replies that he does know where he was buried, it’s a village, but he can’t recall the right name and will look it up in the evening when we can call him back. Meanwhile, we look up Timur’s friends’ home towns, trying to determine Timur’s own home town: we get Izhevsk, Kazan, Aznakaevo, Mamadysh. Some time later we call Timur’s friend again and he tells us the right name of the village Tumur’s buried at: Kuk-Tyaka, Aznakayevsku district, republic of Tatarstan.
That’s quite far, so we decide to make it easier. We give our team another task: find a young (16–20 y/o) guy on social networks, contact him, win his trust under the “dead comrade’s relatives” legend, ask him for help, tell him it’s urgent and even offer money for help. Why a 16–20 y/o guy? Because they are the easiest to convince to do such a small job. After a few minutes of searching and talking we get the photos of Timur’s grave, which is 950 km from Tambov (a lot of travel time and money saved):
It is this photo that tells us that Timur’s actual last name is not Yusupov, as stated on social networks, but Mamayusupov. The origin of call sign Mamai also becomes clear. Timur’s death date on the board is the same as Anton’s: May 5, 2015 (I remind that there’s a lot of messages about Timur dying in the Donbass; nothing specific about the war on Anton, but lots of messages say he “died in a shelling on the border” and “it’s a military secret”. Two more points can be noted: a wreath signed “To a defender of the Motherland from the Ministry of Defense”, identical to the one on Anton’s grave, and a wreath with a ribbon “From military unit command”:
Album with original resolution photos.
The information keeps piling up, so let’s give another recap: everyone explicitly writes about Timur that he got killed in the Donbass war; Timur obviously served in the 16th Spetsnaz brigade — the mourners mention Spetsnaz all the time, other brigade members know him, call him by call sign, publish his photos together with “Sava” and “Kardan”; there are pictures of Timur in Luhansk near rebel APCs, assault rifle in hands, there’s a picture of Timur in a room of what looks like a government building with an LPR flag (original photo); Anton “Sava” died on the same day as Timur (May 5, 2015); his relatives, when asked how he was killed, reply either “got shelled on the border” or “it’s a military secret”, active 16th Spetsnaz brigade servicemen confirmed in a conversation that Sava was their fighter, recently byried; Timur’s and Anton’s graves have the same wreaths from the Ministry of Defense, Timur’s grave also has a “From the military unit command” wreath; Timur and Anton have a close friend Ivan “Kardan” who served together with them and got killed on the same days as them, mentioned and called by call sign by other servicemen of their Spetsnaz brigade.
It’s past noon. We call Anton Savelyev’s mother again, but this time she interrupts us in mid-word and says she won’t see us, answer any questions (although we didn’t even hind we had them) and asks not to call her anymore. It’s now obvious that she was already briefed by the military unit she was at when we first called.
Meanwhile, out team’s volunteers search for Ivan “Kardan”’s friends’ phone numbers so that we may call them and somehow find out where he’s buried and what his last name is (which we didn’t know yet at that point). After an hour of searching we find the phone number of Ivan’s best friend’s best friend. We call him, once again introduce ourselves as the Savelyevs’ close friends, know that Ivan “Kardan” died together with Anton, want to pay our respects to Ivan but don’t know where he’s buried.
It should be noted that the talks, attempts to win people’s trust, convince Ivan’s friends of our legend were the longest stage of this investigation. I remind that Ivan created a VK profile under a fake name and never uploaded photos where he could be seen (now that’s a maskirovka expert). His friends turned out to be quite like him: very distrustful, unwilling to communicate (we spent quite a long time convincing them), kept asking who we were and how come we knew Ivan.
It turned out the guy we reached was Ivan’s best friend’s brother (not just a friend’s friend). He knows many of his colleagues, but can’t recall anyone’s names, so he asked for a picture of Ivan. We sent him the picture and he replied that he did know Ivan and he should have been buried in Shumikha, Kurgan region. However, it’s better to contact his brother (Ivan’s best friend).
While we were calling Ivan’s friends and trying to win their trust, the other part of our team was looking for more proof that all the three were killed at war (original message | saved copy), from Ivan’s friend’s profile:
as well as proof of Ivan being from Kurgan region (original post | saved copy| original photo in a higher resolution); it should be noted Irina Shumilova [the author of this mourning post] is from Kurgan:
Meanwhile the team tried to find a courier in Shumikha to repeat the Kuk-Tyaka village scheme, but this is how most of the talks ended (i.e. we could find no convincing confirmation of Ivan’s burial in Shumikha:
It was getting close to evening and we had found all info we could in Tambov as well as Timur’s grave and its photos from another part of Russia. We got back to the railway station, bought tickets to Moscow and set to waiting for the train. All the while we were talking to Ivan’s friend, trying to win his trust, and while it took ridiculous amounts of time and effort, it was worth it: several hours later, when we were already on the train, Ivan “Kardan”’s friend finally told us his last name:
“Kardan” certainly matches Kardapolov.
While Vadim and me were riding the train to Moscow, our volunteers searched Tuzaliya Mamayusupova (Vagizova) mother’s profile and found a recent picture of Ivan “Kardan” Karadpolov and Timur “Mamai” Mamayusupov, probably taken in the Donbass (screenshot from Odnoklassniki social network):
Why do we believe the photo was taken in the Donbas? Firstly, it was posted approximately at the same time as Timur’s Luhansk photo, secondly, Timur and Ivan have white armbands and legbands, often seen on Russian soldiers fighting in the Donbass, and finally, it was taken in a semi-destroyed building, the soldiers being armed (certainly not military exercises or somewhere in the military unit).
We also found a photo where all three (Sava, Mamai and Kardan) can be seen together. The photo was also taken from Timur’s mother’s profile:
Album with higher resolution photos.
We also found Timur’s photo with an assault rifle apparently standard for 16th Spetsnaz brigade:
Compare with other dead Spetsnaz soldiers’ assault rifles.
In Timur’s relative’s profile we found a message that Timur died on military duty:
The message could be found here, the profile was deleted yesterday when info on the relatives appeared in other sources.
Until yesterday (May 20) noon we searched for people from Shumikha, asking them about Ivan Kardapolov’s burial in their town, but all of them answered they’d never heard of him. This is why, right before a TVRain interview, I talked to Ivan’s friend and asked whether he was buried in Shumikha. After getting through another barrage of suspicion and questions, I finally got the answer as to where Kardapolov was buried:
I didn’t want to disclose this new information on TVRain since we decided to first try to find a person who lived nearby and could take a picture of the grave. By that time our team had found an old Kardaplov’s account in Moi Mir social network, which he hadn’t updated since 2013 but which had lots of his army photos. This account proves that Ivan Kardapolov is his real name. The stated town is Plast, Chelyabinsk region.
Mikhailovka is 15 km from Plast. As we started checking the information, locals told us people from there were usually buried in Demarino. The information on Ivan Kardapolov’s actual burial site was immediately confirmed by the locals we asked:
We are sure that Ivan Kardapolov was buried in a graveyard to the west of Demarino (coordinates). The only person who agreed to help us, go and take a picture of the grave, will be able to do it only in a few days. So we decided not to wait but just publish the exact coordinates of the graveyard so that anyone could go there, check it and take pictures:
The three dead Spetsnaz soldiers:
1. Anton Alexandrovich Savelyev, 12.05.1994–05.05.2015, call sign “Sava”;
2. Timur Bkhtiyar-Uly Mamayusupov, 21.11.1993–05.05.2015, call sign “Mamai”;
3. Ivan Kardapolov, 12.07.1992–05.05.2015, call sign “Kardan”.
I thank all of out volunteer team, as well as special thanks to Vadim Korovinwho was the first to respond to my message on help needed in Tambov and joined the team. He was really persistent from the start, we went to Tambov right away, he also helped with media connections.
Our Echo Moskvy radio interview.
Our TVRain TV interview.
UPDATE: Timur “Mamai”’s Crimea operation medal, photo taken from his mother’s Odnoklassniki account (profile deleted yesterday):
UPDATE 2: a reader of our investigation decided to check Kardapolov’s supposed burial site. He went there, found the grave and talked to his relatives (the following is a quote from his story):
Here are the photos from my today’s trip. The graveyard was in Demarino, right where you pointed to. I got to Mikhailovka and found the house of the Kardapolovs. It’s inhabited by Ivan’s father Vasiliy, his wife (didn’t ask for her name) and their second son Viktor. The Kardapolovs had three sons:
The oldest was called Andrey, here’s his grave in the photo. He died in in accident from electric shock.
The second one is called Viktor, I talked to him. He was drafted to the army and wanted to stay as contract soldier. They said that he could sign a contract after a year in Chechnya. He refused.
The youngest one was Ivan, the one you wrote about.
Here’s what Viktor told me about him:
Ivan studied for 5 years in Shumikha to be a furniture maker. Then he got drafted into the army. He loved the service, especially since he managed to join the Spetsnaz. According to Viktor, he had no choice, else he’d lose the unit (need to find out more on that). Viktor tried to dissuade him but Ivan didn’t listen to him much. He signed the contract for three years. Last year he was in Crimea. He came back on vacation several times after that. His next vacation was supposed to be in a month, in June. Ivan was going to get married. I didn’t ask about his fiancée.
The family wasn’t told anything about the place of death, everything was kept secret. They were told he was killed in the Caucasus. When I talked about duty, the Motherland and honor, Viktor cussed and said that there’s no one to fight for, thieves are everywhere and everything gets stolen. There weren’t too many honors, just several people from the draft office.
Ivan got killed on the May 5, they were told of his death in the evening of May 6. They brought him back on the 11th I believe, he was buried on May 12. A lot of FSB men came, pressured everyone so that no one would contact any journalists. When Ivan’s comrades-in-arms arrived, all in uniform, the FSB men, Viktor said, tried to bully them so that they wouldn’t tell anything, but were kinda put in their place. Viktor said something to the effect that he’s not one to be silenced and he has nothing to fear.
When I was leaving, I talked to a woman from the village. She told me three guys died but there were four of them. The one who stayed at his post survived (according to her). Ivan came packed in a zinc coffin. His parents got him moved into a regular coffin. She saw his body personally. The face was not ruined, it had small bruises, his mouth half-open and tilted. She said he died because they were out of ammo. I asked he where that happened. She answered “I don’t know, they say on TV we are not at war but guys keep coming home dead”.
See full album in high resolution (19 photos).
Notice the death date: May 5, 2015, just like Timur’s and Anton’s. Identical Ministry of Defence and military unit command wreaths, as well as one from his comrades-in-arms.
If you believe the investigative and translation work of this article should be rewarded, donations are welcome to both the investigation team and translator (both of whom work separately from Bellingcat). Donations can be sent via Yandex to Ruslan Leviev and his investigation team at the bottom of the original post (right before the first UPDATE), and can be sent via Yandex or PayPal to the translator with the information at the bottom of his post. Neither the investigation team nor the translator receive any financial support or advertising revenue for their work.