Mysterious Death of Young Soldier in Syria Causes Storm in Russia

The late Russian serviceman Vadim Kostenko was laid to rest following an open casket ceremony on plot of land close to the house where he grew up in the small town of Grechanaya Balka near the Black Sea, as a three gun salute echoed in the distance, regional news site Kavkazskiy Uzel reported from the scene.

While certainly not the most extravagant of send offs, the 19-year-old's funeral was attended by over a dozen Russian army officers and around 300 people in total. His body had arrived from his last deployment at the Himym airfield in Syria which is currently occupied by Russian air force units carrying out airstrikes in support of government forces in the country. On Tuesday, the defence ministry confirmed that Kostenko was the first official Russian casualty in Syria since the start of the civil war almost five years ago.

In the space of a day, details around this dark milestone for the Russian military have whipped up a storm of controversy in Russia, with the story dominating the country's independent media. The official cause of death—suicide by hanging—that the Ministry of Defence announced before a medical inspection of the body was complete, has been refuted by the Kostenko's parents.

"At present, an investigation into all the circumstances of the tragedy is ongoing," the Ministry of Defence told state news agency Itar-Tass on Tuesday, before singling out suicide as the likely scenario based on "preliminary information." Quick to back up this version of events, the ministry also claimed that an inspection of phone messages between Kostenko and a woman alluded to a lover's spat.

According to the the New York Times, the U.S. government estimates that over 600 servicemen, including the teenage Kostenko, have been sent as "advisors," while one of Russia's senior military officials has already said that volunteer soldiers are likely fighting in Syria. Moscow has maintained that none of its ground troops are involved in combat, stationed only as instructors.

By Wednesday morning, the official version of events had been given to Kostenko's family as a matter of fact, though they have serious doubts. Speaking to Reuters, they dismissed suicide. "I will never believe this version," said schoolteacher Svetlana Kostenko, the soldier's mother, while wearing a black mourning head scarf.

"We spoke every day by phone for half an hour. [On Saturday] he was cheerful, happy, and he laughed," she said. The boy's father Alexander told the news agency in a low voice: "We were told he had hanged himself because of a girl," referring to investigator's explanation. "He would never have done it. I know my son really well." An unnamed soldier who said he was friends with Kostenko also told Govorit Moskva radio that he did not believe that he would have taken his own life.

Even more suspiciously, speaking to Russia's independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper on Wednesday, relatives of Kostenko described the injuries visible on the soldier's body when they received it. "His jaw is broken, the back of his skull is cracked," Kostenko's uncle said. "And his neck is broken. And he has cuts on his belly."

The injuries are not usually associated with asphyxiation from hanging—the cause of death which Kostenko's family were given when informed by military personnel. Indeed at Kostenko's funeral one of his classmates said he could see "multiple injuries" to his late friend's face.

The official version of events led to the Russian Orthodox Church refusing to send a representative to Kostenko's funeral, according to his father, as suicide is considered a cardinal sin by the Russian Orthodox Church. "One [priest] came to us but he said that the Ministry of Defence said that this is a suicide and they will refuse to officiate at the event," Kostenko's father told Govorit Moskva on Wednesday morning.

The defence ministry's official spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, announced on Wednesday, after Kostenko's family had received his body, that the military's investigation was complete and that their preliminary suspicions had been confirmed. Konashenkov told RIA Novosti that suggestions Kostenko may not have taken his own life are "insinuations" that are "completely unrelated to actuality."

Human rights activists have spoken in measured support of any efforts the family may undertake to dispute the cause of death of Kostenko, but no official case case has yet been filed.

Sergey Krivenko, head of soldier's rights charity "Citizen, Army, Justice" told Govorit Moskva that he would "consider" an investigation but left it to the family of the soldier to appeal first. Renowned human rights activist Ella Pamfilova, who ran against Vladimir Putin for President in 2000, gave a similar cautious backing to investigating the Krivenko case deeper, telling independent news agency Interfax that she "would not shy away" from being involved in the case. However she also but encouraged the family or others closer to the situation to push for a criminal case to be opened.

By Wednesday afternoon the Ministry of Defence and Krasnodar regional police told Gazeta.ru neither has been approached with a request for a deeper investigation into the serviceman's death. For now at least, Kostenko joins a long and unwritten list of Russian soldiers whose deaths on military operations abroad, from Afghanistan to Ukraine, remain shrouded in mystery.