Russia mourns victims of plane crash in Egypt

St Petersburg ceremony remembers dead with 224 red balloons on day of mourning

A hush fell over the square in front of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace as 224 red balloons took off into the night sky, one for each passenger who died on the Russian airliner that went down in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula while en route to the city on Saturday.

Hundreds of mourners gathered in a large circle in the light rain to watch 36 white doves as they rose above the angel and cross that top the central Alexander Column to commemorate the deaths of the travellers.

Many of the attendees were crying and several told journalists that the tragedy had made them want to be closer to their own loved ones.

One young woman told a television channel that she had come to commemorate her friend Lilia Vasilyeva, who had been flying back to St Petersburg on the plane after a vacation with her mother. She had died aged 15.

The Kogalymavia Airbus 321 had been flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg when air traffic control lost contact with it.

Debris and bodies were still being discovered miles away from the crash site on Sunday, but the causes of the disaster were yet to be determined.

A group declaring an affiliation with Islamic State claimed responsibility for the crash, but experts have said this is unlikely

Russia, meanwhile, has been plunged into a state of grief, with president Vladimir Putin declaring a national day of mourning.

Television channels cut entertainment programmes, concerts were cancelled and sporting events began with a moment of silence.

Flags were flying at half mast across St Petersburg and also on the ships of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, its headquarters in Crimea.

State of shock

Yevgeniya Beryozina, who lost her friend Viktoria Sevryukova (24), on the downed plane, told The Guardian that she and other friends remained in a state of shock on Sunday.

Ms Sevryukov worked at a local restaurant chain and had been vacationing with friends in Sharm el-Sheikh.

“We’re not forgetting her for a second,” Beryozina said.

Mourners also gathered outside St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, which held a memorial service, and a steady flow of people continued to lay flowers and light candles at a makeshift memorial in front of Pulkovo airport on Sunday.

Among them was governor Georgy Poltavchenko, who arrived with an armful of red roses.

Teddy bears and other toys commemorated the 24 children on board the downed plane.

Mr Poltavchenko said the city was ready to create a special memorial site with the graves of those who died in the catastrophe if relatives approved.

He declared a three-day period of mourning in the city.

“This is a tragedy, and it yet again showed that we’re together, in happiness and in sorrow,” he said.

A woman at the airport who would give her name only as Tatiana told state television that she had lost her daughter on the flight.

“She had just turned 32, she still hadn’t had children. In a single moment, life ends,” she said.

Several Russian media outlets and television channels ran the list of victims, as well as their photographs.

Many of these pictures showed passengers vacationing in far-off locations in activities such as skiing, boating and sightseeing.

Among the victims was Alexander Kopylov, the deputy mayor of Pskov, and his wife, Yelena Melnikova.

Prayer services

Churches around Russia held prayer services for those lost.

At a Sunday service in Moscow, Orthodox Patriarch Kirill prayed for the victims of the tragedy, saying that "many of us could have been in that airplane".

Several companies also took measures to help victims’ friends and relatives.

Russian mobile broadband services provider Yota said it was making all calls and text messages between Russia and Egypt free, and Uber said it was not taking payment for trips to St Petersburg's Pulkovo airport, so that those who had lost loved ones could make it to help centres there.

Well-wishers in other countries also expressed their condolences, laying flowers outside Russian embassies in capitals including London, Berlin, Riga, Baku and Yerevan.

The political rancor between Russia and Ukraine was put aside as state television showed images of Kiev residents bringing flowers to the Russian embassy there.

The Vatican said Pope Francis was offering the "assurance of his prayers" to those who died.

Mr Putin thanked leaders of other countries for their condolences, the Kremlin press service announced.

The president did not appear in public on Saturday or Sunday, although the Kremlin press service said he expressed his condolences to the victims.

Guardian service