ORSK, Russia — When Alexander Zhitinev left in November to fight with the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, winter had just begun unleashing its fury on the wind-lashed steppe of this impoverished 18th century frontier town.
Zhitinev's work as a mechanic had dried up because laid-off metalworkers could no longer afford their cars. His family was surviving on about $250 a month from his wife's job as a hospital cook.
Zhitinev, 39, and a friend,
Ilya Borisov, left their families behind, lured more by the promise of $2,600 a month than by the vision of their recruiters for a return of Russia's czarist imperial glory.
"He didn't tell me a thing until the day he was leaving," his wife, Natalya Zhitineva, recalled of her husband's departure. "I told him, 'Sasha, don't go if it's not too late.' But he left anyway."
Ten weeks later, Zhitineva was watching a documentary on the local channel that showed the gory aftermath of a Jan. 25 clash won by the Ukrainian government forces.
Suddenly, a Ukrainian army officer displayed a battered Russian passport. It was her husband's.
That was how she learned he was dead.
Borisov, wounded in the same battle, phoned his friend's widow from a war-zone hospital to confirm that Zhitinev had last been seen with the tank unit in Sanzharovka, where the Ukrainian officer found the body and passport.
Zhitineva's appeals to local and military authorities brought no further word on his fate — or of his promised salary from the Russia-backed separatists.
"I haven't received a kopeck," Zhitineva said in an interview.
Neither were her efforts to obtain a death certificate successful in a lawless war zone where coroner's inquiries are nonexistent and funeral homes have been destroyed, along with houses, factories, transportation and more than 6,000 lives.
She had no proof that he is dead and no hope of claiming widow's benefits from a Russian military that denies responsibility for the mercenaries fighting in Ukraine.
"A small bit of hope remains in me that he might still be alive," Zhitineva said weeks after seeing the documentary with his passport, shaking her head a moment later to dismiss the thought.
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Zhitinev's fate has befallen hundreds of Russians who joined the battles of their own volition or were dispatched by the Russian Defense Ministry, according to reports from regional lawmakers and relatives of the dead.
Their bodies have been returned to their military units for clandestine burial or to their bereaved families without explanation of how or where they were killed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied sending arms and fighters to Ukraine. He has responded to reports of captured Russian troops in the war-ravaged eastern regions of the neighboring country with the observation that they must have gotten lost and accidentally crossed the border.
But he has acknowledged that, despite a ceasefire, "patriotic Russian citizens" are flocking to the side of their embattled Ukrainian brothers.
The extent of active-duty Russian military involvement in the Ukraine conflict was to have been the subject of a report by Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition politician and former top government official. But he was gunned down recently in Moscow.
"The presence of Russian troops in Ukraine is well-documented," Nemtsov told Echo of Moscow radio in an interview a few hours before his killing, which investigators suspect was carried out by Muslim radicals from Chechnya.
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Zhitinev and Borisov, friends from their days as tractor drivers at a state farm, were directed to the Donetsk separatists by activists with Zarubezh, part of the Popular-Patriotic Forces of Orsk that sends assistance and fighters to the war zone.
"We've helped eight people who wanted to go — not with money, just with phone numbers of who to contact," said Pavel Korovin, founder of the local alliance, a Russian nationalist and self-styled historian.
As Korovin vacillated between professing the commitment of local men to a noble cause and toeing the official line that Russia has no hand in the Ukraine fighting, Sergei Matukhnov walked in and was introduced as a war veteran just returned from the fight.
Asked how he came to be involved in the faraway battle, the 54-year-old turned to Korovin and asked, "The truth?"
He went with a humanitarian convoy, he said, and stayed to command a unit poised to attack Mariupol, a port city of 500,000 on Ukraine's Sea of Azov, where an initial push in August left several Russian mercenaries dead and 10 paratroopers captured by Ukrainian forces.
Matukhnov, an unemployed railroad guard, acknowledged that he was inspired to join the separatists by the monthly pay of $360, far less than promised Zhitinev, but with the advantage of having actually been paid.
His experience, he said, was "disappointing."
"Discipline is at a very low level. The fighters steal the humanitarian aid, and no one knows what happens to it," he said of the separatists.
Despite his disappointment with the quality of the separatist forces, Matukhnov said he expected to return to eastern Ukraine soon.
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At the Zhitinev household, the mortgage on the unfinished apartment the couple had bought two years earlier remains in arrears, debts mounting from paint, cabinets and appliances bought on credit.
But the fallen mercenary's widow puts on a brave front. Her parents are in the area, and her job, though low-paying, is secure.
She hasn't missed a day of work since learning of her husband's death. Nor has she told their son that his father won't be coming home.
"I tell him he is away on a business trip," Zhitineva said. "When he is old enough, I will tell him what happened, that his father died protecting others, that he was a hero."
A few days later, "Freight 200" — Russian military code for the zinc-lined coffins containing those killed in action — arrived in Orsk from an undisclosed location in Ukraine. Soon after, a hearse brought Zhitinev's remains, and proof of his death, to his family.
He was buried hours later, accompanied by his widow, a handful of friends and half a dozen floral wreaths jarring the mournful, monochromatic winter landscape with discordant color.
"On his last path, Alexander was followed only by his near and dear," the local Orsk.ru website noted of the token funeral. "No representative of the military, the power structures or the government was there."