A cold wind was blowing across the steppe, but Sapura Kadyrova didn’t see the point in bundling up. She was waiting in the cold to welcome her son who was returning home from war, carrying a crimson casket provided by the government.
“So maybe I won’t be warm,” Ms. Kadyrova, 85, moaned. “Then just let me die.”
The day was spent greeting friends, family and neighbors of Garipul Kadyrov’s, her son who died near the frontline in Klishchiivka (east Ukraine).
“In February he would have turned 50, and he promised me he would be allowed to come home then,” Ms. Kadyrova spoke to her guests. “Now I will only meet him in his grave.”
In Russia’s big cities, the war can feel like distant background noise, with the latest iPhones on sale and things looking pretty much the same as before — save for ubiquitous army recruitment posters. As many as Ukrainians make up 80 percent Even if they have a relative or close friend who has been injured or killed during the war, many Russians still feel isolated from it.
In villages like Ovsyanka in southwest Russia, the loss and pain of war is felt the most. And as friends and neighbors gathered in Ms. Kadyrova’s small house, preparing food in the kitchen and sharing memories about the deceased, the grief mixed with a yearning to make sense of the loss of another soldier.
“He was sure he was doing the right thing,” said Mr. Kadyrov’s sister Lena Kabaeva, who said he “never complained” He bought presents for his nieces, nephews, and his family with his salary.
Another one of Mr. Kadyrov’s sisters, Natasha, was so beside herself with grief that her siblings gave her a sedative. Ms. Kabaeva explained that the family decided to tell her mother about their son’s death in battle with Americans.
“She still doesn’t understand what this war is about,” Ms. Kabaeva explained that her mother was brought up when both Ukraine and Russia were part of the Soviet Union. “It would be impossible for her to understand that we are fighting against Ukrainians today.”
Mr. Kadyrov thought that he was far too old to serve in the military. In October 2022, just a few months after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the mobilization of troops, Mr. Kadyrov, a soft-spoken farmer, was drafted. Few months later, Kadyrov was killed along with two soldiers.
“Before, they didn’t take the older ones, now they take everyone anyway,” Kadyrova said, an older ethnic Kazakh woman whose ancestors had come to the region, from the present-day Kazakhstan border, about 100 miles distant.
The day was spent in the kitchen by female relatives, who served milky tea, and prepared beshbarmak (a Kazakh specialty consisting of boiled onions with meat over thick noodles).
In the biggest room, relatives and friends sat cross-legged across the floor. Almost all of them spoke of other loved ones who had been killed in Ukraine, either because they had been mobilized, or because they had joined the Wagner mercenary group, like one of Mr. Kadyrov’s cousins, Aleksei.
“The West turned Ukraine against us,” Mindiyar S. Abyev, aged 77, said after having mentioned that he attended the funeral of Aleksei. “We are simple people, and we support our Putin — and we will win.”
As the mid-November darkness set in, the mourners moved outside to greet Mr. Kadyrov’s casket. Ms. Kadyrova, and Natasha wept as the men of the family placed the casket closed on a stand before three funeral wreaths that were brought by local officials. One of the funeral wreaths was incorrectly named, and it is likely that the name of another soldier who died.
Two officials presided over an event with military honours.
“This is a tragic, devastating event,” Sergei V. Yermolov said with the smooth voice and professionalism of a professional announcement. “But it is thanks to guys like him that there is a peaceful sky over our country. By taking part in the special military operation, they defend our freedom, our lives, and the health of our children and loved ones. Eternal memory and eternal glory to him.”
A military band played an abridged version of the Russian National Anthem while honor guards fired into the sky.
The casket is then taken into the family compound where, in accordance with local Kazakh customs, it will spend the evening before burial on the next morning.
This is the scene in Russian villages such as Ovsyanka, in the Volga Region.
“I have another friend who was mobilized,” said Alyona, 22, the wife of one of Mr. Kadyrov’s nephews. “He left for the war weighing 120 kilograms. All that came back was 20 kilos,” She said that the bones weighed 44 pounds. She was upset that the Kadyrovs could not wash her body in accordance with Muslim tradition or open the casket to say goodbye.
Ovsyanka lies three hours south of Samara, Russia’s eighth-largest city. Pasha, a local resident, stated that the village, which was once a collective farm is now poor and offers few jobs, other than subsistence farming. Escaping poverty has been a main incentive for soldiers to join the army and earn a signing bonus of up to 550,000 rubles — almost $6,150 — in addition to a monthly salary far beyond a typical salary in the villages of the region.
The Russian state offers a number of additional benefits financial compensation The federal government pays five million roubles (about $56,000), plus another amount from the regional government of between three to five million roubles, to the families. A relative told me that the Kadyrov family is in the middle of submitting the paperwork for the funds.
Pasha invoked monetary compensation when he spoke about two men who had hanged their selves last year in the village. “They could have at least taken part in the special military operation, died with honor, and made sure their families had been provided for,” He said.
Mr. Kadyrov’s older brother Murat hanged himself in 2016, making the family’s pain of losing a second son all the more acute.
After the ceremony, a group of Mr. Kadyrov’s closest male relatives sat next to the closed casket in the main room. The debate over the war’s value became emotional.
Zhaslan, 34, who is married to Mr. Kadyrov’s niece, questioned the government rationale for why Russians have to fight and die. “People say it is for the motherland,” He said. “But where is the motherland? The homeland is the one that protects you, not the one that destroys you.”
He claimed that Russian television is full of lies. “On the zombie box, they show us that everything is good, and our side is winning,” He said. Why then, he asked himself, had the frontlines barely moved since Wagner’s mercenaries captured Bakhmut in spring last year?
“This is a worthless war,” He said.
He was debating Sagindyk Kabaev, Ms. Kabaeva’s husband, who continuously raised the argument, promulgated by Mr. Putin and the Russian media, that the West had provoked the war.
“This war was inevitable,” Kabaev stated. He pointed to America’s record of initiating foreign wars. “Let’s do the math: How many wars has America started?”
He also cited an argument commonly used by Mr. Putin that “Ukraine has always historically been Russian territory,” Many Ukrainians dispute this assertion.
Still, Mr. Kabaev conceded, “Ordinary people suffer: collective farmers, machinists and drivers. Ministers’ sons are not there. If they had been, the war would have been long over by now.”
The next morning, Mr. Kadyrov, along with his brother who had died, was interred in the hard rocky soil at a small, nearby cemetery.
Gennady Bergengaliyev (a retired school administrator from a nearby village) watched the men shovel earth on the burial mound. He had earlier given a short speech on the importance of defending Russia and the role that local men played in the war.
At the cemetery, he motioned to the tombstone of Murat, Mr. Kadyrov’s brother, and back to the men tending to the fresh grave.
“This is a big feat for his parents,” He said. “He was a simple, ordinary guy. And this has brought honor to them.”