BAKINSKAYA, Russia — It was a lonely funeral. Four narrow coffins, recently pulled from the back of a covered truck, rested on stands under an insistent snowfall as an Orthodox priest performed last rites. Three gravediggers in tattered jackets looked on with their hands folded solemnly. An excavator was parked close by, ready to dig more graves.
“Lord have mercy,” the priest chanted as he blessed the bodies of fallen Russian soldiers with incense, his cassock buffeted by a freezing wind.
Once those corpses were lowered, four more dead soldiers in crimson-covered coffins were sung their last rites.
This is the final resting place for many of the men who lost their lives fighting for the private mercenary force known as Wagner, which has been leading the Russian military effort in the monthslong battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a tycoon who has a close relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin, has lauded his force as “probably the most experienced army in the world today.”
But the rapidly growing cemetery in Bakinskaya, a town near the Black Sea, is evidence that his mercenary army — which includes many poorly trained ex-convicts — is sustaining tremendous battlefield losses. On a recent weekday, nine men had their remains interred at this relatively new cemetery, established for Wagner recruits who had indicated that they preferred to be buried there.
Late last year, activists were tipped off about the heightened activity at this gravesite, which lies adjacent to a cemetery used by the local community. Then, it contained about 50 graves. Now, it has about 300, and those observing the cemetery say between four and eight soldiers are being buried per day, on average; local media estimates are even higher, reporting as many as 16 graves per day.
Almost all the graves, sheathed in fresh snow, were identical, though occasionally a slim Muslim headstone stood at the head of the grave, rather than an Orthodox cross. Each has a wreath of plastic flowers in the style of the Wagner logo — red, yellow and black with a golden star in the middle. Only one, the grave of Andrey V. Orlov, who died on Dec. 15 at the age of 28, had a photograph, and an extra wreath of flowers.
Burials here were gaining little notice until late December, when an antiwar activist, Vitaly V. Wotanovsky, started publishing images of the cemetery, including the names and dates of birth of the dead, on his Telegram channel. Ten days later, on New Year’s Day, photographs of Mr. Prigozhin laying flowers on the graves emerged.
The State of the War
- Vuhledar: A disastrous Russian assault on the Ukrainian city, viewed as an opening move in an expected spring offensive, has renewed doubts about Moscow’s ability to sustain a large-scale ground assault.
- Bakhmut: With Russian forces closing in, Ukraine is barring aid workers and civilians from entering the besieged city, in what could be a prelude to a Ukrainian withdrawal.
- Arms Supply: Ukraine and its Western allies are trying to solve a fundamental weakness in its war effort: Kyiv’s forces are firing artillery shells much faster than they are being produced.
- Prisoners of War: Poorly trained Russian soldiers captured by Ukraine describe being used as cannon fodder by commanders throwing waves of bodies into an assault.
Casualties began to increase, Mr. Wotanovsky said, as the battle for Bakhmut and the nearby village of Soledar intensified.
“Since November, the number of deaths has increased dramatically,” Mr. Wotanovsky, 51, said in an interview at his home in the nearby city of Krasnodar. In the past he had counted around four burials a day, he said, but noted that on one recent day there were 11.
Mr. Wotanovsky, who has spent 20 days in detention since the invasion began because of his antiwar activities, has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of his region’s cemeteries. He collects tips from local residents and keeps a running tally of the war dead buried in the area and posts pictures of the grave markers on his Telegram channel. He said that informing the public about the names and identities of the fallen was his only way to protest and to try to change public opinion.
“This is the only normal, legal way to tell people that war is death, that it is bad, so that they somehow reflect on it in their heads,” said Mr. Wotanovsky, a Russian army veteran who spent years working for the military as a radio engineer.
Many of the Wagner fighters buried in Bakinskaya had been convicted of crimes, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Western intelligence agencies, the Ukrainian government and a prisoners’ rights association, Russia Behind Bars, estimate that around 40,000 inmates have joined the Russian forces since July — about 10 percent of the country’s prison population. Ukrainian officials have claimed that nearly 30,000 of them have deserted or been killed or wounded, but that number could not be independently verified.
One of the gravediggers took pride in pointing out to visiting journalists that the coffins were placed not on the ground but on individual stands “in a dignified manner.”
Some observers have speculated that the graveyard is a public relations ploy by Mr. Prigozhin, who is increasingly seeking credit for capturing Ukrainian territory and is believed to harbor political ambitions.
“Unlike the general tendency in Russia, which is to try to minimize casualties and downplay the loss of life, Mr. Prigozhin is trying to promote the military heroism and sacrifice” of his soldiers, said Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at RUSI, a defense think tank in Britain, who studies the group.
Not far from the cemetery, a 20-minute ride along the region’s highway, stands a compound containing a chapel erected to commemorate the dead Wagner fighters. On a recent visit, the gates around the compound were completely shut. Videos of Mr. Prigozhin visiting the site have shown walls containing the cremated remains of an unknown number of fighters.
Another 10 minutes down the highway is the Molkino base, which observers say has been a training camp for Wagner soldiers since 2015. According to Russian media reports, the Ministry of Defense has spent at least 1 billion rubles, or $13.6 million, developing the training facility.
The base is off limits to civilians, but soldiers in various uniforms were the main customers at several cafes, fast food joints and a convenience store in the vicinity.
One soldier, who gave his name as Abkhat, said he was from the Samara region, near the border with Kazakhstan, and that he was being dispatched to Ukraine that evening.
He said he was 30 and that he “volunteered not for the money, but out of love for my country.”
In the regional capital of Krasnodar, a city of 900,000 people, the war is never far away. Civil aviation has been suspended since Feb. 24 of last year, the day Russia invaded, and fighter jets fly training missions overhead, complementing the ongoing tactical exercises at Molkino.
The Krasnodar area, with the third-biggest population of Russia’s 85 regions, has the second highest number of cases for “discrediting the Russian army,” a common charge made against anyone who expresses opposition to the war. A repeat offense can result in up to 10 years in jail.
In one case making headlines and alarming local antiwar activists, a married couple discussed their opposition to the invasion between themselves as they dined at a restaurant. The establishment’s owner called the police, who charged the husband and wife with petty hooliganism. The wife was additionally accused of “discrediting” Russia’s army.
Despite the intimidating climate, Mr. Wotanovsky’s close friend, Viktor V. Chirikov, also an army veteran, believes that the simple act of posting about the dead will eventually bring about not only an end to the war, but the collapse of the system Mr. Putin built.
“Do you know why the Russian Empire fell?” he said in Mr. Wotanovsky’s kitchen. “Because of the number of coffins coming back from the First World War fronts to the villages where the fallen lived.”
“It’s one thing to watch on TV or the computer ‘oh, they are fighting there, they are killing there,’ like in computer shooting games,’’ he added. “But people start to ask ‘why are we doing this?’ when they see the coffin or grave of their school friends.”
The two men said they would continue to count the dead as casualties mount. At the cemetery in Bakinskaya, the plot appears to have room for many more bodies.
“They are still going to need more space,” Mr. Wotanovsky said.
Dmitriy Khavin and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.