In early November, 19-year-old Russian conscript Andrei Lazhyev died at a naval hospital in Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the illegally annexed territory of Crimea.
The recent university graduate's death came just a little more than four months after he was drafted into the Russian military, and was officially determined to be the result of swelling and hemorrhage of the brain, according to documents reviewed by RFE/RL's North.Realities.
His parents -- who were not allowed to see Andrei after he was hospitalized -- have never been told how or when he received the injuries that killed their son and have yet to receive his body.
But they have their suspicions as to how he died; namely, that Andrei was beaten in an attempt to force him to sign a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry that would allow him to be sent into combat in Ukraine.
In late September, less than a month after Andrei informed his parents that he had completed his military training in Russia and was being transferred with other conscripts to Crimea, he called to tell them that he was in a field hospital.
"He didn't know where exactly he was," Nikolai Lazhyev, Andrei's father, told RFE/RL. "He only said that everyone lived in tents in a field, and there were mountains around. He said that he felt very bad and complained of constant nausea."
'They Stopped Talking To Us Altogether'
The 19-year-old conscript's parents, who live in the northwest Russian region of Karelia, turned to the local recruitment and enlistment office in the hope of learning where their son was stationed and why he had been hospitalized.
"The military commissar just threw up his hands and said that he did not have access to information about where the conscripts were," the elder Lazhyev said. "And then they stopped talking to us altogether."
The parents eventually learned that Andrei was discharged from the hospital within a few days and was transferred two weeks later, on October 6, to Armyansk, a town in northern Crimea.
From there the parents had no word of their son's situation until, on October 23, Nikolai was contacted on social media by a man who claimed to be Andrei's hospital roommate.
The man told Nikolai that Andrei had been admitted to the naval hospital in Sevastopol around October 8 and was in grave condition -- unable to walk or see properly, and constantly vomiting.
During a call, the roommate handed his phone to Andrei, who told his father that he had lost his phone and did not recall what happened to him or how he got to the hospital.
'We Didn't Even Recognize Him'
When the roommate sent a photograph of Andrei, the young conscript's parents were shocked.
"We didn't even recognize him at first. The sight was terrible," Nikolai said, saying that while his son weighed more than 100 kilograms when he was drafted he looked in the image like he weighed less than 60.
"I immediately started calling the hospital. But no one would talk to us," Nikolai said. "I wanted to determine my son's diagnosis. One of the doctors said that she would only talk to ‘the competent authorities.'"
Nikolai never learned the doctor's name -- no one he spoke to from the hospital introduced themselves.
Seeking to visit the hospital to see Andrei, the parents were told they would not be allowed to without special permission. They attempted to obtain permission, Nikolai said, to no avail.
"We couldn't get permission anywhere, since the enlistment office [in Karelia] had no information at all that Andrei was hospitalized," Nikolai said. "We didn't even know exactly what unit he was in."
The family next learned that Andrei had undergone a brain scan on October 21. Two days later his parents were contacted by a psychiatrist who told them no internal damage had been discovered and that Andrei was transferred to a psychiatric ward.
Andrei's condition, they were told, was the result of psychological trauma.
"They told me that Andrei allegedly did not want to serve to such an extent that he had something like a nervous breakdown," Nikolai said. "They called it 'homesickness syndrome.'"
But the psychiatrist also revealed that he had noticed obvious signs of beatings on Andrei's body," according to Nikolai.
The family maintained telephone contact with their son until their last conversation on October 26. After that, the hospital roommate called with news that Andrei had been taken to intensive care.
Nikolai managed to contact a medical worker who had treated his son and was told that Andrei suffered from cerebral edema and hemorrhage.
Nevertheless, Nikolai recalled, he was told that while his son might "need some medicine" Andrei was in good hands because the naval hospital had "everything."
In further conversations with the hospital authorities, Andrei's parents were told they could not visit the facility because Sevastopol was located in the war zone amid Russia's ongoing war with Ukraine, but doctors promised he would be evacuated to safer ground.
The evacuation never came -- the family was told that Andrei's condition was too serious. Finally, on November 1, Nikolai and his wife obtained the documents needed to visit the hospital, but it was too late. The next day, while at a Moscow airport en route to Crimea, they learned that Andrei had died.
'No One Tells The Truth'
The parents were told to go back to Karelia, and upon their return home again began contacting the local military authorities to determine what happened to their son.
Nikolai said they were told that none of the local conscripts were sent to the military district of which Armyansk, where Andrei had been transferred, is part.
"I still don't know what happened to Andrei," Nikolai said. "The worst thing is when you see everything and can't do anything."
Some clarity came within a couple days. A man who introduced himself as a commander contacted Nikolai through Telegram. Without revealing his name or rank, the man sent a photo of Andrei's death certificate that showed he died from "cerebral edema, internal hemorrhage of the brain stem."
"It was written there in black and white," Nikolai said, saying the document revealed the diagnosis had been known for a month before Andrei died.
"Why this swelling happened is unknown," Nikolai said. "My son lay dying for a whole month, and they did not report anything. If he had been evacuated, I think he would be alive [today]."
Looking back, Nikolai cannot erase the memory that Andrei was repeatedly asked to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry despite his reluctance.
By law in Russia, which has compulsory two-year military service, conscripts cannot be deployed to fight outside the country. That means that, in theory, those drafted into the military cannot be sent into combat in Ukraine.
Russia's illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and Moscow's claim that four partially occupied eastern Ukrainian regions were Russian territory, raised concerns that a loophole could be exploited to send conscripts into combat in those areas.
Another avenue is for draftees to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry that would allow them to fight in Ukraine.
This fact, along with widespread rumors that some draftees are physically coerced to sign up for combat service, leads Nikolai to suspect his son was beaten in an attempt to get him to sign the contract.
When Andrei contacted him on September 21 to say he was in a field hospital, Nikolai said, his son said he was being pressured heavily to sign the contract.
"Every day. Contract, contract, contract," Nikolai recalled his son saying. "I told him: just don't sign. He didn't sign."
However, Nikolai said, "there is information that they were allegedly forced to sign contracts by beating them. And I cannot rule this out."
Nikolai, a former military man himself, said that following Andrei's death, he simply cannot trust the authorities.
"I can't believe them, I can't, that's all," Nikolai said.
Nikolai has still not received any official documents from the Defense Ministry regarding his son's service and death, his requests for information have gone unanswered, and Andrei's body has yet to be returned home.
These factors have led Nikolai to reach the conclusion that his son died after an attempt to force him to sign up for combat abroad.
"I'm afraid that's how it's done," Nikolai said. "Suspicions are strengthened by the fact that no one explains anything. No one tells the truth."