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A still image taken from a video footage shows Vitalina Bordova, widow of Russian marine commander Sergei Bordov killed in Syria, during an interview in Sevastopol, Crimea October 18, 2017. Picture taken October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Reuters TV(reuters_tickers)
By Maria Tsvetkova
SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (Reuters) - Vitalina Bordova received a good morning text message from her husband Sergei, a Russian marine major deployed in Syria. Half an hour later, he was hit by mortar fire that killed him.
Since he died on April 18, Bordova has been in dispute with the Russian military, trying to get the financial support she believes she is entitled to as an officer's widow.
Bordova described the row with the Defence Ministry in an interview with Reuters, becoming the first relative of a Russian serviceman killed in Syria to complain publicly about her treatment since Russia launched operations there two years ago.
The ministry did not reply for a request for comment on the dispute.
Her case shows how the Syrian war is exacting a greater toll on Russians whose lives are touched by it as the conflict changes from a swift anti-terrorist operation to a longer drawn-out engagement.
The true level of casualties in the Syrian conflict is a sensitive subject in a country which was stung by casualties sustained in the Soviet-Afghan war which ended in 1989.
According to a Reuters tally, more than 80 Russian fighters, including high-ranking officers and private military contractors, were killed in Syria in the two years of the operation. The official death toll is 39, because the defence ministry does not disclose all deaths.
AS WAR DRAWS ON, MORE AFFECTED
The government has denied understating casualty figures in Syria, where President Vladimir Putin entered the conflict to support President Bashar al-Assad.
Officially, Russia is participating only in an air war over Syria with a small number of special forces and non-combat troops on the ground. Moscow denies that its troops are involved in regular ground combat operations.
With the conflict drawing on, more people are being affected as the death toll rises.
Bordova, who works as a military psychologist, said her wage is 8,600 roubles ($149) per month. She said that she had previously depended on the wages of her 42-year-old husband to survive.
To date, she has received a payment of about $17,000 -- a one-fifth share of compensation that was paid out to her husband's closest relatives -- children from his first marriage and his mother.
She has not received the pension to which war veterans' widows are usually entitled, or the apartment to which she argues that she is entitled under Defence Ministry rules.
The dispute centres on the fact that she is still officially registered as living in the apartment of her first husband, whom she divorced three years ago. Officials say this means she does not qualify as a person living alone in need of housing support and the pension.
BORED WITH DESK JOB
However, she argues that this is not the case because she does not live with her first husband, and cannot cash in the share of his apartment which nominally belongs to her.
Bordova cannot change her status unless she has her own apartment and only then can she register as living alone.
"My wage is very small," Bordova told Reuters in her parents' house, where she lives with her daughter from her previous marriage. "I have no money for lawyers. My husband supported me."
She described how she had reacted when her husband, bored with a desk job he had just been moved to, said he wanted to sign up for the deployment in Syria.
"He asked me if I would let him go," Bordova recalled.
"I said nothing and started crying. Later ... he asked one more time. I told him 'I can't keep you from it and I can't let you go'," Bordova said in the interview.
Bordova lives in Crimea, a region of Ukraine that was annexed by Russia in 2014. It was already home to many Russian military families, like Bordova's, before the annexation because Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based there.
Reuters has seen an official Russian Defence Ministry response to Bordova, which said she is not eligible for an apartment as she owns one third of her first husband's flat.
Bordova says a benefits office issued her with a document stating she is a family member of a military veteran who was killed. As a person living alone with a child, that would ordinarily entitle her to a widow's pension.
But the certificate was taken back from her once a local official learnt that she is registered with her ex-husband and therefore officially is not living alone. An employee at the benefits office confirmed to Reuters that Bordova is not eligible, citing the law on veterans.
(Editing by Christian Lowe and Peter Millership)