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‘We’re dying like flies’: Remote Russian village grapples with shortage of men amid Putin’s war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Andrei Epov ferries passengers to the small Siberian village of Bukachacha by bus from the nearest major city, the regional capital, Chita.

Set deep in the taiga, the village of 1,200 in Zabaikalsky Krai, in Russia’s Far East, is difficult to reach – and, according to locals, an even more difficult place to live. And Russia’s war on Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin launched in February and rages on with no end in sight, has only exacerbated the problems for Bukachacha’s residents.

A significant percentage of the village’s military-age men were swept up in the Kremlin’s nationwide mobilization that Putin announced in September, including one man who ran the local bakery and another who delivers water to elderly residents, locals say.

“The authorities forgot about Bukachacha. They remembered it only now, during the mobilization,” Epov says in between calls he fields from people seeking to book a seat on his bus.

RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities traveled to see firsthand the impact of Putin’s war and mobilization on remote villages like Bukachacha, where Soviet-era factories have long since closed and career prospects for young people lie mostly in coal mining.

Epov drew a comparison between Bukachacha and the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which was captured by Russian forces following a brutal siege that left the city in ruins.

“[Life] in Bukachacha is like after a war,” Epov says. “There’s just one difference: They’ll rebuild Mariupol, whereas we lived in ruins and will continue to do so.”

‘Taken Away’

In the weeks following Putin’s military mobilization, news emerged from Bukachacha that a local man who had delivered water to village residents, including the elderly, had been enlisted for Russia’s war on Ukraine.

That was confirmed by a local official, Viktor Nadelyayev, who told the news portal that “the drivers we had have been taken away” in the mobilization.

That has left the elderly in Bukachacha, like Natalya, to haul buckets of water from a well up to several kilometers back home by foot.

“It’s still winter, and we have no street cleaners, so it is icy. It’s not easy to haul buckets,” says Natalya, who spoke on condition that only her first name be used.

She says the locals tried to find a replacement but that the candidates turned out to be either alcoholics or fellow pensioners.

“You can negotiate with private individuals, and they will bring water – 150 rubles ($2.50) per barrel. But where do we get that kind of money?” says Natalya, who worked at a local store before retiring.

She takes a dim view of protesting or making demands that water be delivered to homes, calling such grassroots pushback largely pointless and “frightening.”

Natalya says that her daughter and her grandson live in the town of Chernyshevsk, about 50 kilometers south of Bukachacha, and that they fear he will be sent to fight in Ukraine.

“He has two classmates who died in Ukraine. One was buried recently. He was a draftee,” she says.

In contrast to Russia men enlisted in the Kremlin’s mobilization, Russian authorities have pledged not to send new draftees to fight in Ukraine.

When a reporter noted this pledge to Natalya, she replied: “Those are just words. In practice, they are [sending them].”

In Bukachacha, women and pensioners like Natalya were left behind after Putin’s mobilization.

Another local woman, Irina, says her 27-year-old son Gera had been mining coal when he received his conscription notice.

“Like everyone else, he was taken from home, loaded onto a bus, and taken away,” says Irina, who also gave only her first name.

Irina says her son is now based in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, “transporting equipment from there” to the other side of the Ukrainian border some 200 kilometers away.

“He was neutral about the topic of the war, but when I suggested that he try to save himself from mobilization, he refused,” Irina says. “He said that if the motherland called, he would fight. I didn’t try to persuade him anymore.”

‘See How Patriotic We Are?’

Pro-war graffiti – the Latin letters ‘Z’ and ‘V’ that Kremlin loyalists have adopted as patriotic symbols of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – adorns the school bus stop in Bukachacha.

“See how patriotic we are?” Galina, a local resident who also spoke on condition that only her first name be used, says with a laugh. “And nobody mentions the fact that the stop has not been used for more than a year. Earlier, it was intended for a school bus. Now, we do not have a driver.”

Around 200 pupils are enrolled at the local school in Bukachacha. History teacher Yelena Gritsko says the school’s graduates include many talented students who win prizes in a range of competitions.

But the school suffers from an acute lack of financing and resources, Gritsko says.

“Our physical education teacher buys balls at his own expense…. Most of the computers are obsolete and out of order.… And most importantly, we have no Internet. There is almost no mobile communication in the village, and the Internet is only available at night – and not always,” she says.

The lack of reliable Internet has made it difficult to comply with mandatory curriculum, Gritsko says, including new requirements on how to teach about the war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “special military operation.”

“You have to work according to special manuals that must be downloaded on a weekly basis. These are games, lesson plans. Sometimes you can download them, sometimes not,” she says.

Gritsko says around two dozen relatives of students at the school had been enlisted for the war against Ukraine, nine of whom have since returned.

‘The Village Won’t Have Bread’

Among those who have not returned from the war in Ukraine is the proprietor of a privately owned bakery in Bukachacha, at the site where a state-owned bakery burned down in the 1990s, its ruins never cleaned up.

Several years ago, Vladislav Akhmadulin took over the bakery from his mother, Tatyana Akhmadulina, and his father, who had opened it some two decades earlier.

“Baking is my life’s work,” Akhmadulina says. “But soon I may have to close the bakery. True, then the village will be left without bread. And it is already physically difficult for me, and it is not known whether my son will return from Ukraine.”

Akhmadulina says her son was mobilized in late September, receiving a notice as he was making a run to deliver flour to the bakery from Chernyshevsk.

“He asked to be allowed to bring the load [of flour] to the village. They refused. We had to find a driver ourselves and take the flour out of there,” Akhmadulina says.

She says her son, having previously served in the military, felt it was his duty to enlist.

“In my opinion, it’s not a duty but a fear of how the neighbors would look at you if you refused,” Akhmadulina says. “Now I really regret that I listened to him. I shouldn’t have. Still, I will try to get him back. I will write to the prosecutor’s office. I’m scared, of course. I’m scared for my son.”

She says her son purchased his supplies for his deployment at his own expense, “even the spare parts for an armored personnel carrier!”

“He says they don’t give anything government-issue there,” Akhmadulina says.

‘They Pretend Like They Don’t Even Hear Us’

Nadezhda and Nikolai Ogarkov are natives of Bukachacha who met at the now-shuttered metalware factory and have been together ever since.

“At the end of October, we celebrated 50 years together,” Nadezhda says.

They say their 24-year-old grandson, Aleksandr Ogarkov, worked at the local coal mining company until this past summer, but that the work was “very bad,” prompting him to go to Vladivostok, where he had completed his military service.

“He was mobilized there,” Nikolai says. “He never told us anything about it. He called once, said they were taking him to Ukraine. He spent a week in training and that was it. He has been at war for a month already.”

As the couple speaks with a reporter, Nikolai tosses coal into the stove.

“Do you know what happened to the coal?” Nadezhda asks. “The families of the mobilized men were given wood or coal. We were told that we were not entitled to anything, that we are not entitled to assistance from the authorities. Because, you see, [Aleksandr] was drafted by the military enlistment office in Vladivostok. We told the administration: ‘But he is registered in Bukachacha.’ And they pretend like they don’t even hear us.”

‘We Are Dying Like Flies’

There are two cemeteries in Bukachacha. Andrei, a local retiree, gives a tour of one of them, deep in the woods, which features a memorial for Japanese soldiers who had been buried there.

Around two decades ago, Andrei says, descendants of those Japanese soldiers came to the area to repatriate the remains of their ancestors.

“We dug out the remains, and the Japanese took them home. We were paid with dollars for our work back then,” Andrei says.

The other cemetery in Bukachacha had been filling up fast, Andrei says, even before Putin launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February.

“Because of the coal mining in our area, the place is, shall we say, not for living. We’re already dying like flies without war,” Andrei says. “And soon we will have to bury the young — the ones that will be brought from Ukraine. Look, they’ve already prepared a plot of land for new burials.”

Andrei gestures to the snow-covered cemetery grounds.

“They said that if there’s not enough space, they will allocate more.”