KHARKIV, Ukraine — They lie in white and black bags at 20 degrees below zero Celsius, but the stench is still overpowering. Filled with the bodies of 62 Russian soldiers, the bags are stacked in a refrigerated train car in a secret location on the outskirts of Ukraine’s second-largest city. A spry, elderly train worker spun open the vault-like door to reveal the bloodied bags as the scent hung in the damp air.
“We are collecting these bodies for sanitary reasons, because dogs have been eating them,” said a Ukrainian soldier who would only give his call sign, Summer. “Eventually we will return them to their loved ones.”
Summer said many of the bodies had been lying in the open for a month or longer before his unit found them. His two-man team works to identify the soldiers by their faces, tattoos and belongings. They also take a DNA swab from each corpse to determine whether any potential war-crimes suspects are among them.
In the gloom of the darkened car, a few traces of humanity, of the soldiers who once brought Russia’s war to Ukraine, can be made out. A pair of boots caked in mud peek out of one bag. Off in the corner, the collar of a camouflage jacket is visible through an opening, but not a face.
Summer’s colleague, who refused to use even his first initial because of the sensitivity of the topic, said they were the only two men in their unit tasked with finding and preserving the bodies of the enemy. He said identifications were possible about fifty percent of the time, while in other cases the corpses were too deteriorated. Most of the bodies had been found in villages around Kharkiv.
“This is the best work in the world,” he said of the grim satisfaction to be found in collecting the corpses of the invader.
In recent weeks, the Ukrainian army successfully counterattacked Russian forces, pushing them further from Kharkiv and giving the city a sense of calm, at least until shelling resumed again on Wednesday.
When the Russians retreated, they left some of their fallen behind, and as Kharkiv inhabitants have begun returning tentatively to villages that had been in the line of fire, some have found the bodies in their homes or have stumbled across them elsewhere.
The train attendant sleeps in the wagon next door to the refrigerated car, keeping guard over the corpses. Colleagues have taken on similar duties in other cities, among them Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro, where other refrigerated wagons hold hundreds of bodies.
The Ukrainian authorities have complained that the Kremlin has been reluctant to engage on the subject of repatriating its dead.
Ukraine says 30,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the invasion began on Feb. 24; those numbers are impossible to independently verify, and Russia rarely gives casualty tolls. Last week a British intelligence assessment put the estimated Russian losses at half that number. Thousands more Russians are missing or are being held by the Ukrainians, Western intelligence agencies estimate.
Russia has not released casualty figures since late March, when it said 1,351 soldiers had died and 3,825 had been wounded. Estimates based on publicly available evidence suggest that well over 400 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in one incident alone earlier this month in northeastern Ukraine.
Last week, for the first time since Russia invaded, President Vladimir V. Putin visited a military hospital in Moscow to visit wounded soldiers. Donning a white lab coat, he called everyone serving in Ukraine “heroes.” Mr. Putin also announced further compensation increases for people serving there, a sign he may be trying to tamp down bubbling public discontent over casualties. Russia also abolished upper age limits for signing a military service contract.
Ukraine has not shared its own military casualty information, but President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week at Davos that as many as 100 servicemen might be dying every day in the brutal fighting in the eastern Donbas region.
Allies of Ukraine have also been reluctant to comment on the casualties the country’s troops have sustained, but U.S. intelligence agencies estimated in mid-April that between 5,500 to 11,000 soldiers had been killed and more than 18,000 wounded.
One of the soldiers handling the Russian corpses in Kharkiv said he hoped Ukraine’s decision to safeguard Russia’s war dead may improve its chances of getting its own back from behind enemy lines.
“For me,” he said, “it is most important that we bring the bodies of our boys back to their families. So we treat these bodies respectfully.”