When Yulia Seleznyova walks through her hometown in Russia, she scans everyone she passes in hopes of catching eyes with her son Aleksei.

The last time she heard from him was on New Year’s Eve 2022, when he sent her Christmas greetings from the school in eastern Ukraine that his unit of recently mobilized soldiers was using as their headquarters.

The Ukrainian military attacked the school with US-supplied HIMARS rockets on New Year’s Day. Russian authorities acknowledged dozens of deaths, although pro-Russian military bloggers and Ukrainian authorities estimated the real number to be in the hundreds.

Aleksei was not included in the official death toll because not a single fragment of his body was identified in the rubble after the attack. Seleznyova was left with nothing to bury and, she says, no closure. But she has also left a small shred of hope for a miracle.

“Sometimes I still walk around the city with my eyes wide open, thinking that maybe he is sitting somewhere, but he doesn’t remember us, but maybe we are there in his subconscious mind,” Seleznyova said in an interview late last year. . in her one-bedroom apartment in Tolyatti, an industrial city on the banks of the Volga River that is home to Russia’s largest automaker.

“Sometimes I think that maybe he lost his memory and even got married somewhere in Ukraine, but he doesn’t remember us,” she said. “That she’s just in shock.”

Seleznyova, 45, spent most of 2023 searching for answers. She traveled for days by train to the western city of Rostov, searching the morgue there for any fragments of what was once her son’s body and waiting for the DNA she provided to authorities in January 2023 to find. her coincidence.

“January, February, March… I was in a fog for three months,” he said. “I was so depressed. You don’t need anything, you don’t want anything. “Life just stopped.”

Nearly 14 months after his death, she is still mourning her son, whom she calls by his nickname, Lyosha. He works four days a week in a factory doing a job that requires a lot of physical strength. He distracts her.

But during the three days he was free, he said: “Sometimes I just cry. Sadness invades me. And I still think that maybe it’s not true.”

Aleksei was 28 years old when he was murdered, leaving behind a wife and young son. He was mobilized in the first days after President Vladimir V. Putin announced a “partial mobilization” in September 2022, his mother and his sister Olesya said.

He was taken from the factory where he worked directly to the recruiting office, he said, and then to a training camp, where his family brought him the clothing and supplies he would need for his deployment.

He had been a star soccer player on a local team and planted trees for community service. He had completed his mandatory military service, but he “had never held an automatic rifle in his hand,” his mother said. Although he had no medical training, he was placed in a unit responsible for removing wounded soldiers from the battlefield and providing them with urgent care, he said.

When he was mobilized, Aleksei’s wife was pregnant with their first child. When his son Artyom was born in December, Aleksei was given three days’ leave to join him before being sent to Makiivka, in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region of Ukraine.

A war that until then had not particularly worried Ms. Seleznyova and her family had suddenly entered their lives.

“I couldn’t even imagine that something like this would happen and, what’s more, that it would affect our family,” said 21-year-old Olesya. “In fact, it didn’t even occur to me.”

His mother, who said she had not paid much attention to politics before the war, agreed.

“Never in my life did I think I would bury my children,” he said. “We didn’t believe it could happen to us until it did.”

Mother and daughter said they now see that same willful ignorance in others, “as if nothing was happening.”

“This has already become normal for people,” Seleznyova said of war and loss. “I go around the city and watch people: they have fun, they go out, they relax, they live a normal life, no one thinks about what happens there.”

Both mother and daughter shared reports of soldiers returning to Tolyatti with serious injuries and then being sent back to the front without enough time to recover.

She prays for the war to end. Her willingness to speak openly about the fighting is unusual in contemporary Russia, where a climate of stifling repression has criminalized protesting the war or criticizing it in public. Hundreds of political prisoners are serving sentences for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” or spreading “false information” about the military.

In the cemetery on the outskirts of Tolyatti there are rows and rows of graves of fallen soldiers. There are at least a handful whose death dates are that same New Year’s Day.

“I recently met a friend,” Seleznyova said. “She works in the cemetery making tombstones, building fences. And I met him the other day, she expressed her condolences to me. And she told us that there are two or three people every day.”

Russian authorities have not released official statistics on war deaths since September 2022. But the Pentagon estimates that about 60,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and about 240,000 wounded.

Aleksei still has no grave. Seleznyova spent almost 11 months trying to have her son’s death acknowledged. After months of joining forces with two other mothers in search of fragments of their children’s bodies, without success, she had to go to court to force the State to declare her son dead, calling witnesses who located him at the school. Makiivka at the time of death. The strike.

Almost 14 months after his death, he still has not had a funeral. In a text message on Friday, Seleznyova said she had not yet received the official document certifying her military service, meaning she and Aleksei’s widow are not yet eligible for the one-time payments the state gives to families of the fallen soldiers.

Payments can reach the equivalent of $84,000 in some regions, more than nine times the average Russian annual salary.

“Of course, there are those who worry about money,” she said, noting that one of the reasons there is not more public criticism of the war is because “they have silenced women with these payments.”

“Everyone’s values ​​are different,” he continued. “And our authorities understand that people will leave because all we have are loans, mortgages and debts, which are not insignificant.”

Seleznyova said the prospect of money did nothing to ease her pain. And her attempts to convince her that her son’s death was not in vain do not comfort her.

“Some people tell me, Yulia, stay calm. Life goes on. You have children, grandchildren. And your son is a hero,” she said. “I’m not interested in him being a hero. “I need him sitting here on my couch, eating my borscht and pelmeni (dumplings) and kissing and hugging me like he used to.”

Sometimes she still allows herself to daydream about it.

“Someone knocks on the door, I open it and he will be standing in front of me,” she said. “Who cares under what conditions. That he is armless, legless, it doesn’t matter. “I need him sitting here.”

By Sam