'Never saw such hell': Russian soldiers in Ukraine call home
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — One Russian soldier tells his mother that the young Ukrainians dead from his first firefight looked just like him. Another explains to his wife that he's drunk because alcohol makes it easier to kill civilians. A third wants his girlfriend to know that in all the horror, he dreams about just being with her.
About 2,000 secret recordings of intercepted conversations between Russian soldiers in Ukraine and their loved ones back home offer a harrowing new perspective on Vladimir Putin’s year-old war. There is a human mystery at the heart of these conversations heard in intercepted phone calls: How do people raised with a sense of right and wrong end up accepting and perpetrating terrible acts of violence?
The AP identified calls made in March 2022 by soldiers in a military division that Ukrainian prosecutors say committed war crimes in Bucha, a town outside Kyiv that became an early symbol of Russian atrocities.
They show how deeply unprepared young soldiers — and their country — were for the war to come. Many joined the military because they needed money and were informed of their deployment at the last minute. They were told they’d be welcomed as heroes for liberating Ukraine from its Nazi oppressors and their Western backers, and that Kyiv would fall without bloodshed within a week.
The intercepts also show that as soldiers realized how much they’d been misled, they grew more and more afraid. Violence that once would have been unthinkable became normal. Looting and drinking offered moments of rare reprieve. Some said they were following orders to kill civilians or prisoners of war.
They tell their mothers what this war actually looks like: About the teenage Ukrainian boy who got his ears cut off. How the scariest sound is not the whistle of a rocket flying past, but the silence that means it’s coming directly for you. How modern weapons can obliterate the human body so there’s nothing left to bring home.
We listen as their mothers struggle to reconcile their pride and their horror, and as their wives and fathers beg them not to drink too much and to please, please call home.
These are the stories of three of those men — Ivan, Leonid and Maxim. The AP isn't using their full names to protect their families in Russia. The AP established that they were in areas when atrocities were committed, but has no evidence of their individual actions beyond what they confess.
The AP spoke with the mothers of Ivan and Leonid, but couldn't reach Maxim or his family. The AP verified these calls with the help of the Dossier Center, an investigative group in London funded by Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
In a joint production on Saturday, Feb. 25, The Associated Press and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting will broadcast never-before-heard audio of Russian soldiers as they confront — and perpetrate — the brutality of Russia's war in Ukraine.
Leonid became a soldier because he needed money. He was in debt and didn’t want to depend on his parents.
“I just wasn’t prepared emotionally for my child to go to war at the age of 19,” his mother told the AP in January. “None of us had experienced anything like this, that your child would live in a time when he has to go and fight.”
Leonid’s mother said Russia needs to protect itself from its enemies. But, like many others, she expected Russia to take parts of eastern Ukraine quickly. Instead, Leonid’s unit got stuck around Bucha.
“No one thought it would be so terrible,” his mother said. “My son just said one thing: ‘My conscience is clear. They opened fire first.’ That’s all.”
In the calls, there is an obvious moral dissonance between the way Leonid’s mother raised him and what he is seeing and doing in Ukraine. Still, she defended her son, insisting he never even came into contact with civilians in Ukraine.
She said everything was calm, civil. There was no trouble at the checkpoints. Nothing bad happened. The war didn't change her son.
She declined to listen to any of the intercepts: “This is absurd,” she said. “Just don’t try to make it look like my child killed innocent people.”
ONE: Kill if you don’t want to be killed.
Leonid’s introduction to war came on Feb. 24, as his unit crossed into Ukraine from Belarus and decimated a detachment of Ukrainians at the border. After his first fight, Leonid seems to have compassion for the young Ukrainian soldiers they’d just killed.
Mother: “When did you get scared?”
Leonid: “When our commander warned us we would be shot, 100%. He warned us that although we’d be bombed and shot at, our aim was to get through.”
Mother: “Did they shoot you?”
Leonid: “Of course. We defeated them.”
Mother: “Mhm. Did you shoot from your tanks?”
Leonid: “Yeah, we did. We shot from the tanks, machine guns and rifles. We had no losses. We destroyed their four tanks. There were dead bodies lying around and burning. So, we won.”
Mother: “Oh what a nightmare! Lyonka, you wanted to live at that moment, right honey?”
Leonid: “More than ever!”
Mother: “More than ever, right honey?”
Leonid: “Of course.”
Mother: “It’s totally horrible.”
Leonid: “They were lying there, just 18 or 19 years old. Am I different from them? No, I’m not.”
TWO: The rules of normal life no longer apply.
Leonid tells his mother their plan was to seize Kyiv within a week, without firing a single bullet. Instead, his unit started taking fire near Chernobyl. They had no maps and the Ukrainians had taken down all the road signs.
“It was so confusing,” he says. “They were well prepared.”
Not expecting a prolonged attack, Russian soldiers ran short on basic supplies. One way for them to get what they needed — or wanted — was to steal.
Many soldiers, including Leonid, talk about money with the wary precision that comes from not having enough. Some take orders from friends and family for certain-sized shoes and parts for specific cars, proud to go home with something to give.
When Leonid tells his mother casually about looting, at first she can’t believe he’s stealing. But it’s become normal for him.
As he speaks, he watches a town burn on the horizon.
“Such a beauty,” he says.
Leonid: “Look, mom, I’m looking at tons of houses — I don’t know, dozens, hundreds — and they’re all empty. Everyone ran away.”
Mother: “So all the people left, right? You guys aren’t looting them, are you? You’re not going into other people’s houses?”
Leonid: “Of course we are, mom. Are you crazy?”
Mother: “Oh, you are. What do you take from there?”
Leonid: “We take food, bed linen, pillows. Blankets, forks, spoons, pans.”
Mother: (laughing) “You gotta be kidding me.”
Leonid: “Whoever doesn’t have any — socks, clean underwear, T-shirts, sweaters.”
THREE: The enemy is everybody.
Leonid tells his mother about the terror of going on patrol and not knowing what or who they will encounter. He describes using lethal force at the slightest provocation against just about anyone.
At first, she seems not to believe that Russian soldiers could be killing civilians.
Leonid tells her that civilians were told to flee or shelter in basements, so anyone who was outside must not be a real civilian. Russian soldiers had been told, by Putin and others, that they’d be greeted as liberators and anyone who resisted was a fascist, an insurgent — not a real civilian.
This was a whole-of-society war. Mercy was for suckers.
Mother: “Oh Lyonka, you’ve seen so much stuff there!”
Leonid: “Well ... civilians are lying around right on the street with their brains coming out.”
Mother: “Oh God, you mean the locals?”
Leonid: “Yep. Well, like, yeah.”
Mother: “Are they the ones you guys shot or the ones ... ”
Leonid: “The ones killed by our army.”
Mother: “Lyonya, they might just be peaceful people.”
Leonid: “Mom, there was a battle. And a guy would just pop up, you know? Maybe he would pull out a grenade launcher ... Or we had a case, a young guy was stopped, they took his cellphone. He had all this information about us in his Telegram messages — where to bomb, how many we were, how many tanks we have. And that’s it."
Mother: “So they knew everything?”
Leonid: “He was shot right there on the spot.”
Leonid: “He was 17 years old. And that’s it, right there.”
Leonid: “There was a prisoner. It was an 18-year-old guy. First, he was shot in his leg. Then his ears were cut off. After that, he admitted everything, and they killed him.”
Mother: “Did he admit it?”
Leonid: “We don’t imprison them. I mean, we kill them all.”
FOUR: What it takes to get home alive.
Leonid tells his mother he was nearly killed five times. Things are so disorganized, he says, that it’s not uncommon for Russians to fire on their own troops — it even happened to him. Some soldiers shoot themselves just to get medical leave, he says.
In another call, he tells his girlfriend he's envious of his buddies who got shot in the feet and could go home. “A bullet in your foot is like four months at home with crutches,” he says. “It would be awesome.”
Then he hangs up because of incoming fire.
Mother: “Hello, Lyonechka.”
Leonid: "I just wanted to call you again. I am able to speak.”
Mother: “Oh, that’s good.”
Leonid: “There are people out here who shoot themselves.”
Leonid: “They do it for the insurance money. You know where they shoot themselves?”
Mother: “That’s silly, Lyonya.”
Leonid: “The bottom part of the left thigh.”
Mother: “It’s bull——, Lyonya. They’re crazy, you know that, right?”
Leonid: “Some people are so scared that they are ready to harm themselves just to leave.”
Mother: “Yeah, it is fear, what can you say here, it’s human fear. Everybody wants to live. I don’t argue with that, but please don’t do that. We all pray for you. You should cross yourself any chance you get, just turn away from everyone and do it. We all pray for you. We’re all worried.”
Leonid: “I’m standing here, and you know what the situation is? I am now 30 meters (100 feet) away from a huge cemetery.” (giggling)
Mother: “Oh, that’s horrible ... may it be over soon.”
Leonid says he had to learn to empty his mind.
“Imagine, it’s nighttime. You’re sitting in the dark and it’s quiet out there. Alone with your thoughts. And day after day, you sit there alone with those thoughts,” he tells his girlfriend. “I already learned to think of nothing while sitting outside.
He promises to bring home a collection of bullets for the kids. “Trophies from Ukraine,” he calls them.
His mother says she’s waiting for him.
“Of course I’ll come, why wouldn’t I?” Leonid says.
“Of course, you’ll come,” his mother says. “No doubts. You’re my beloved. Of course, you’ll come. You are my happiness.”
Leonid returned to Russia in May, badly wounded, but alive. He told his mother Russia would win this war.
Ivan dreamed of being a paratrooper from the time he was a boy, growing up in a village at the edge of Siberia. He used to dress up in fatigues and play paintball with friends in the woods. A photo shows him at 12 years old, smiling with a big Airsoft rifle and a slimy splotch of green near his heart — a sign of certain death in paintball.
Ivan’s dream came true. He entered an elite unit of Russian paratroopers, which crossed into Ukraine the very first day of Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion, one year ago.
ONE: Ivan’s road to war.
Ivan was in Belarus on training when they got a Telegram message: “Tomorrow you are leaving for Ukraine. There is a genocide of the Russian population. And we have to stop it.”
When his mother found out he was in Ukraine, she said she stopped speaking for days and took sedatives. Her hair went gray. Still, she was proud of him.
Ivan ended up in Bucha.
Ivan: “Mom, hi.”
Mother: “Hi, son! How …”
Ivan: “How are you?”
Mother: “Vanya, I understand they might be listening so I’m afraid …”
Ivan: “Doesn’t matter.”
Mother: “… to ask where you are, what’s happening. Where are you?”
Ivan: “In Bucha.”
Mother: “In Bucha?”
Ivan: “In Bucha.”
Mother: “Son, be as careful as you can, OK? Don’t go charging around! Always keep a cool head.”
Ivan: “Oh, come on, I‘m not charging around.”
Mother: “Yeah, right! And yesterday you told me how you’re gonna f——— kill everyone out there.” (laughs)
Ivan: “We will kill if we have to.”
Ivan: “If we have to — we have to.”
Mother: “I understand you. I’m so proud of you, my son! I don’t even know how to put it. I love you so much. And I bless you for everything, everything! I wish you success in everything. And I’ll wait for you no matter what.”
TWO: Love and fear.
Russian soldiers had been told by Putin and others that they’d be welcomed by their brothers and sisters in Ukraine as liberators. Instead, Ivan finds that most Ukrainians want him dead or gone. His mood darkens.
He calls his girlfriend, Olya, and tells her he had a dream about her.
Ivan: “F—-, you know, it’s driving me crazy here. It’s just that ... You were just … I felt you, touched you with my hand. I don’t understand how it’s possible, why, where … But I really felt you. I don’t know, I felt something warm, something dear. It’s like something was on fire in my hands, so warm … And that’s it. I don’t know. I was sleeping and then I woke up with all these thoughts. War … You know, when you’re sleeping — and then you’re like … War … Where, where is it? It was just dark in the house, so dark. And I went outside, walked around the streets, and thought: damn, f—- it. And that's it. I really want to come see you.”
Olya: “I am waiting for you.”
Ivan: “Waiting? OK. I’m waiting, too. Waiting for the time I can come see you ... Let’s make a deal. When we see each other, let’s spend the entire day together. Laying around, sitting together, eating, looking at each other — just us, together.”
Olya: (Laughs) “Agreed.”
Ivan: “Together all the time. Hugging, cuddling, kissing … Together all the time, not letting each other go.”
Olya: “Well, yeah!”
Ivan: “You can go f——— crazy here. It’s so f—- up, the s—- that’s happening. I really thought it would be easy here, to tell you the truth. That it’s just gonna be easy to talk, think about it. But it turned out to be hard, you need to think with your head all the time. So that’s that.”
Ivan: “We are really at the front line. As far out as you could be. Kyiv is 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) from us. It is scary, Olya. It really is scary.”
Ivan: “Do you hear me?”
The line drops.
THREE: The end.
As things get worse for Ivan in Ukraine, his mother’s patriotism deepens and her rage grows. The family has relatives in Kyiv, but seems to believe this is a righteous war against Nazi oppression in Ukraine — and the dark hand of the United States they see behind Kyiv’s tough resistance. She says she’ll go to Ukraine herself to fight.
Mother: “Do you have any predictions about the end ...?"
Ivan: “We are here for the time being. We’ll probably stay until they clean up the whole of Ukraine. Maybe they’ll pull us out. Maybe not. We’re going for Kyiv.”
Mother: “What are they going to do?”
Ivan: “We’re not going anywhere until they clean up all of these pests.”
Mother: “Are those bastards getting cleaned up?”
Ivan: “Yes, they are. But they’ve been waiting for us and preparing, you understand? Preparing properly. American motherf——— have been helping them out.”
Mother: “F——— f———. F——— kill them all. You have my blessing.”
Death came for Ivan a decade after that boyhood paintball game.
In July, a local paper published a notice of his funeral with a photo of him, again in fatigues holding a large rifle. Ivan died heroically in Russia’s “special military operation,” the announcement said. We will never forget you. All of Russia shares this grief.
Reached by the AP in January, Ivan’s mother at first denied she’d ever talked with her son from the front. But she agreed to listen to some of the intercepted audio and confirmed it was her speaking with Ivan.
“He wasn’t involved in murders, let alone in looting,” she told the AP before hanging up the phone.
Ivan was her only son.
Maxim is drunk in some of the calls, slurring his words, because life at the front line is more than he can take sober.
It’s not clear what military unit Maxim is in, but he makes calls from the same phone as Ivan, on the same days.
He says they’re alone out there and exposed. Communications are so bad they’re taking more fire from their own troops than from the Ukrainians.
He has a bad toothache and his feet are freezing. The hunt for locals — men, women and children —who might be informing on them to the Ukrainian military is constant.
Maxim’s mood flips between boredom and horror — not just at what he has seen, but also what he has done.
The only reason Maxim is able to speak with his family back in Russia is because they’ve been stealing phones from locals. He says they’re even shaking down kids.
“We take everything from them,” he explains to his wife. “Because they can also be f——— spotters.”
Stuck just outside Kyiv, bored and unsure why they’re in Ukraine in the first place, Maxim and a half-dozen other guys shot up a shopping mall and made off with all the gold they could carry.
Back home Maxim has money troubles, but here his hands are heavy with treasure. He gleefully calculates and recalculates what his pile of gold might be worth. He says he offered a wad of money the size of his fist to Ukrainian women and children.
“I wanted to give it to normal families with kids, but the people out there were drunks,” he tells his wife.
In the end, he handed the cash off to a random, cleanshaven man he thought looked decent. “I told him: ‘Look here, take it, give it to families with kids and take something for yourself. You’ll figure it out, make it fair.’”
On calls home, the high sweet voice of Maxim’s own young child bubbles in the background as he talks with his wife.
Maxim: “Do you know how much a gram of gold costs here?"
Maxim: “Roughly? About two or three thousand rubles, right?”
Wife: “Well, yeah …”
Maxim: “Well, I have 1 1/2 kilograms (more than three pounds). With labels even.”
Wife: “Holy f—-, are we looters?!”
Maxim: “With labels, yeah. It’s just that we f——- up this … We were shooting at this shopping mall from a tank. Then we go in, and there’s a f——— jewelry store. Everything was taken. But there was a safe there. We cracked it open, and inside … f—- me! So the seven of us loaded up.”
Wife: “I see.”
Maxim: “They had these f——— necklaces, you know. In our money, they’re like 30-40,000 a piece, 60,000 a piece.”
Wife: “Holy crap.”
Maxim: “I scored about a kilo and a half of necklaces, charms, bracelets ... these … earrings ... earrings with rings …”
Wife: “That’s enough, don’t tell me.”
Maxim: “Anyway, I counted and if it’s 3,000 rubles a gram, then I have about 3.5 million. If you offload it.”
Wife: “Got it. How’s the situation there?”
Maxim: “It’s f——— OK.”
Wife: “OK? Got it.”
Maxim: “We don’t have a f——— thing to do, so we go around and loot the f——— shopping mall.”
Wife: “Just be careful, in the name of Christ.”
Maxim and his mother discuss the opposing stories about the war being told on Ukrainian and Russian television. They blame the United States and recite conspiracy theories pushed by Russian state media.
But Maxim and his mother believe it’s the Ukrainians who are deluded by fake news and propaganda, not them. The best way to end the war, his mother says, is to kill the presidents of Ukraine and the United States.
Later, Maxim tells his mother that thousands of Russian troops died in the first weeks of war — so many that there’s no time to do anything except haul away the bodies. That’s not what they’re saying on Russian TV, his mother says.
Maxim: “Here, it’s all American. All the weapons.”
Mother: “It’s the Americans driving this, of course! Look at their laboratories. They are developing biological weapons. Coronavirus literally started there.”
Maxim: “Yeah, I also saw somewhere that they used bats.”
Mother: “All of it. Bats, migrating birds, and even coronavirus might be their biological weapon.”
Mother: “They even found all these papers with signatures from the U.S. all over Ukraine. Biden’s son is the mastermind behind all of this.”
Mother: “When will it end? When they stop supplying weapons.”
Mother: “Until they catch (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy and execute him, nothing will end. He’s a fool, a fool! He’s a puppet for the U.S. and they really don’t need him, the fool. You watch TV and you feel bad for the people, the civilians, some travelling with young kids.”
Mother: “If I was given a gun, I’d go and shoot Biden.” (Laughs)
THREE: War and peace.
The Ukrainian government has been intercepting Russian calls when their phones ping Ukrainian cell towers, providing important real-time intelligence for the military. Now, the calls are also potential evidence for war crimes.
But phones have been dangerous for the soldiers in another, more personal sense. The phone acts as a real-time bridge between two incompatible realities — the war in Ukraine and home.
In Maxim’s calls with his wife, war and peace collide. Even as she teaches their daughter the rules of society — scolding the child for throwing things, for example — Maxim talks about what he’s been stealing. His wife’s world is filled with school crafts and the sounds of children playing outside. In his, volleys of gunfire crack the air.
One night last March, Maxim was having trouble keeping it together on a call with his wife. He’d been drinking, as he did every night.
He told her he’d killed civilians — so many he thinks he’s going crazy. He said he might not make it home alive. He was just sitting there, drunk in the dark, waiting for the Ukrainian artillery strikes to start.
Wife: “Why? Why are you drinking?”
Maxim: “Everyone is like that here. It’s impossible without it here.”
Wife: “How the f—- will you protect yourself if you are tipsy?”
Maxim: “Totally normal. On the contrary, it’s easier to shoot ... civilians. Let’s not talk about this. I’ll come back and tell you how it is here and why we drink!”
Wife: “Please, just be careful!”
Maxim: “Everything will be fine. Honestly, I’m scared s—-less myself. I never saw such hell as here. I am f——— shocked.”
Wife: “Why the f—- did you go there?”
Minutes later, he’s on the phone with his child.
“You’re coming back," the child says.
“Of course,” Maxim says.
FOUR: The end?
In their last intercepted call, Maxim’s wife seems to have a premonition.
Wife: “Is everything all right?”
Maxim: “Yeah. Why?”
Wife: “Be honest with me, is everything all right?”
Maxim: “Huh? Why do you ask?"
Wife: “It’s nothing, I just can’t sleep at night.”
Maxim is a little breathless. He and his unit are getting ready to go. His wife asks him where they’re going.
“Forward,” he tells her. “I won’t be able to call for a while.”
The AP has been unable to determine what happened to Maxim.
Solomiia Hera and Anna Pavlova contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Erika Kinetz, The Associated Press