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."
Aftermath of battle
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 a recent interview, casting a glance about the sparsely furnished apartment where her 5-year-old son, Denis, made playthings from foil-wrapped candies, marching them like toy soldiers along the sole piece of carpet.
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 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 a month after seeing the documentary with his passport.
Deaths not explained
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 patriotic Russian citizens are flocking to the side of their embattled Ukrainian brothers.
Lev Shlosberg, a regional lawmaker from Pskov, 1,550 miles from Orsk, began compiling a dossier of the unexplained deaths of active-duty troops from the region's elite 76th Guards Air Assault Division when the bodies began returning to the base last summer.
In September, Shlosberg asked the local office of the federal prosecutor to determine the circumstances of the soldiers' deaths, some of whom had last been reported in Ukraine - not by the Defense Ministry but on their social media pages.
The extent of active-duty Russian military involvement in the Ukraine conflict was to have been the subject of a report by prominent opposition politician and former top government official Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in Moscow last month.
"The presence of Russian troops in Ukraine is well-documented," Nemtsov told Echo of Moscow radio a few hours before his killing, which investigators suspect was carried out by Muslim radicals from Chechnya.