Kazan: A Soldier's Family, Ten Years Later

In 1995, the war in Chechnya was a scorching hot topic here. Chechen rebel leaders had declared their intent to secede from Russia, and in December of 1994, President Yeltsin's government had responded with force, sending Russian troops into the small republic to wipe out the separatists. The fighting had intensified, and during a savage, bloody battle on New Year's Eve, thousands of Russians and Chechens were killed.

One of the dead was a handsome 19-year-old soldier from Kazan named Zhenya Mamykin. Gary and I met with Zhenya's mother and stepfather, Natalya and Vladimir, and even 10 months after his death, their pain was palpable. We also met Zhenya's fiancee, Natasha, and his 12-year-old half-brother Denis. It was an unbearably sad story, one of the hardest we covered on our trip in 1995.

Photo Gallery: For Natalya and Vladimir, time has helped ease the pain of their son Zhenya's death in Chechnya.(David Hillegas)

Earlier this week, I tried to track down the family. They didn't have a phone back then, but I had their address, which I'd written on a piece of paper ten years before and fortunately held on to all these years. I took a cab to their building and rode the elevator up, wondering whether I'd really find them in the same apartment.

I rang the bell and Vladimir opened the door, looking exactly the same except that his hair had turned white. He looked at me for a moment, and I said, "Hello. I'm Lisa, an American journalist who was here 10 years ago. Do you remember me?" He smiled, a casually confident little grin that I suddenly recalled from 1995. "Yeah, I remember you," he said. "Come on in."

Natalya didn't immediately recognize me, but once she had, she took me right into the living room to see the photo of Zhenya that used to be the room's centerpiece. Now, it's kept in the bookcase, along with a medal that Zhenya was awarded posthumously: the Medal of Courage. The only other change in the living room is that a new portrait of Zhenya, painted by Natalya's brother, hangs over the two easy chairs.

We sat at the kitchen table, which Natalya proceeded to pile high with food and drink: a potato and beef casserole, salted tomatoes, brown bread, a basket of chocolates and cookies, and shot glasses with vodka. We toasted our meeting, and Natalya began to tell me about what's changed over the last 10 years.

"Natasha still comes to visit sometimes," she said, "but she got married and has a daughter now. And she still goes down to the cemetery, because I sometimes see flowers she's left. Her husband has even taken her down there," she added approvingly. Natalya thought for a moment, then said, "She had to move on; I'm not sorry she did. We're glad she's happy."

I'd often wondered about Zhenya's half-brother Denis in the last few years -- wondering whether he was eligible to be drafted. "They can't draft him because of Zhenya," Natalya told me, "but twice a year, every fall and every spring, they try to anyway. We call and tell them, 'His brother died in Chechnya! He's exempt!' but they always want us to send more paperwork."

Photo Gallery: Zhenya's portrait is now decorated with the Medal of Courage he received posthumously.(David Hillegas)

Now 22, Denis is a young businessman, splitting his time between Kazan and the Moscow suburbs. He was out of town this week, and so we didn't get a chance to see him -- and I got the impression that even when he's in town, his parents don't see much of him. "He's different than Zhenya was," Natalya told me. "He's got his own friends and his own life."

Time has eased Natalya's pain. In 1995, she was always on the brink of tears. Now, she's able to talk about Zhenya with a kind of warm melancholy, rather than the piercing sorrow of those early days.

"On New Year's Eve," she said, "exactly a year after he died, we had more than 100 people here for a celebration. Everyone came, all his friends, to remember him." She smiled. "It's gotten easier -- life goes on. But of course, we miss my Zhenka."

"It doesn't go away," she said, her eyes welling up for the first time. "He was my son."

By Lisa Dickey |  October 28, 2005; 10:34 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I have read all your stories,they are wonderfully written and touching.
I will always follow your stories and hope you continue to do your wonderful journals and photography.
Thanks so much.

Posted by: Claudia Wilson | October 28, 2005 02:39 PM

Thank you for your chronicles. I made a similar trip 8 years ago this month and this is bringing back wonderful memories (even the ones of my vodka hangovers). And I promise to find some of my photographs and mail them to the families I visited then.

Posted by: Patrick | October 29, 2005 10:45 AM

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