This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
A polytechnic school in Russia’s Tatarstan, a region some 900 kilometers east of Moscow, is using manufacturing facilities that are part of a nearby special economic zone to assemble Iranian attack drones and are increasingly turning to underage students as laborers, many of whom often work in exploitative conditions.
The revelations at Alabuga Polytechnic University raise troubling implications about the lengths that Russian authorities are going to in order to boost the war effort and how the advanced Iranian weaponry — which is increasingly used to bombard Ukrainian cities and has only recently begun to be manufactured inside Russia — could contribute to escalating tensions and rising civilian casualties.
The use of underage students as drone factory workers and the details of the manufacturing facilities were first reported by Russian independent media outlets Protokol and Razvorot, which published a series of investigations in July.
Since then, RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities has spoken with students who describe grueling working conditions and interviewed dozens of parents whose children have been enrolled at Alabuga Polytechnic University — some as young at 15 — who say that their children were forced to work exceedingly long hours, often without proper breaks or meals, and under hostile conditions that have deeply affected their mental health.
“My son enrolled and 2 1/2 months later he called for me to take him away,” Zhanna, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect against reprisals for speaking about the operation, told RFE/RL. “He said to me on the phone, ‘Come and get me or I’ll die,’ so I picked him up immediately.”
Zhanna, who asked that her underage son’s name also not be used, says that she sent him from Nizhny Novgorod to study at Alabuga Polytechnic University in 2022 because of its reputation as a leading technical institution inside Russia.
The school offered students — often between the ages of 15-18 — an opportunity to get vocational training as part of a dual program that combines a classroom education with practical work experience. Students were also promised an opportunity to work and earn a locally competitive salary of up to 70,000 rubles ($700) a month as part of the work experience program that could further their career growth.
But, instead, those enrolled were encouraged and in some cases pressured into working at the drone facility, where the salaries of the mostly underage laborers are contingent on meeting tough production quotas.
“This is a textbook definition of what constitutes exploitation,” Sergei Podsytnik, an investigative journalist at Protokol who worked on the series of reports, told RFE/RL. “[Students] assemble drones, with the work taking priority over their studies.”
The pressure to fulfill these quotas has allegedly led to strenuous back-to-back days — with some shifts lasting up to 15 hours — with little time for sleep or adequate sustenance. Overtime work is often unpaid, further highlighting potential labor violations. Exhausted students also reported not always meeting their quotas, which led to them not earning the salary initially promised by the school. Many students came from disadvantaged backgrounds and relied on their earnings to cover costs for tuition, room, and board and would send the remainder home.
Other parents, such as Marina, said she decided to take her daughter out of the program when she discovered that she was working in apparent unsafe conditions and that staff from the school had instructed students not to tell their parents about the drone assembly work.
“This was the last straw for me,” Marina, who also asked for her identity to be concealed, told RFE/RL. “This is a dangerous production process that involves dangerous chemicals. They also forbid the kids from telling everything to their parents.”
RFE/RL sent multiple requests for comment to various staff and administrators at Alabuga Polytechnic University but received no replies.
Making Iranian Drones In Russia
The complicated and concerning dynamic at Alabuga Polytechnic University stems from growing military cooperation between Iran and Russia that has accelerated since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Iran has said it provided drones to Russia before the start of the war, but not since. However, U.S. intelligence officials have warned for months of continued deliveries and deepening cooperation between Moscow and Tehran, saying the two sides were exploring how to set up a manufacturing plant for Iranian drones inside Russia.
According to The Wall Street Journal, an Iranian delegation visited Yelabuga in Tatarstan on January 5, touring a potential site for such a factory at the Alabuga special economic zone close to Alabuga Polytechnic University. U.S. officials released satellite images in April of the plant being built.
Russia already possesses an array of unarmed aerial vehicles, or UAVs, which are used mainly for surveillance and artillery spotting, but has turned increasingly to Tehran for attack drones.
After being forced to abandon Ukrainian territory that its troops captured in the early stretches of the war, Moscow shifted to a strategy of relentless air assaults on Ukrainian cities. These attacks often rely on a combination of cruise missiles and self-detonating drones packed with explosives to knock out electricity and running water for the civilian population in Ukraine.
So far, Iran has provided Russia mostly with so-called “suicide” drones, known as the Shahed-136, that contain a modest amount of explosives that can detonate when the drones crash into targets, military experts say.
In acquiring its own domestic assembly line, Russia could dramatically increase its stockpile of the relatively inexpensive but highly destructive weapons systems.
The arrangement also offers substantial economic and political benefits for Iran, which has sought to portray itself as neutral in the Ukraine war. The appearance of Iranian-made drones over Ukrainian cities, however, has triggered threats of new economic sanctions from the West. The United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom have also all issued rules in recent months designed to cut off the flow of drone components to Russia and Iran.
The Washington Post reported in November 2022, citing unnamed U.S. intelligence officials, that the agreement to deliver Iranian drone schematics and materials for manufacture in Russia resulted from Iranian leaders believing that the arrangement would allow Tehran to avert new sanctions.
Foreign Recruitment And Patriotic Education
Alabuga Polytechnic University is formally not a college. All of its students are officially enrolled at nearby Yelabuga Polytechnic College, with the Alabuga institution existing on paper as a specialized program for students looking to break into high-tech industries.
Currently, about 1,000 students are studying at Alabuga Polytechnic University, with several hundred of them — most of whom are between the ages of 15 and 17 — involved in assembling the Iranian drones.
In addition to the work on the drones, there are other signs that point to blurred lines in Russia between the education system and the country’s military amid the war in Ukraine.
According to current and former Alabuga Polytechnic University students, team-building and organized extracurricular activities through the school often take on a “patriotic” character that may be designed to expose students to official government narratives of international events or echo talking points from state television.
Organized paintball games have become a mainstay for students, especially first-year arrivals, in which they are encouraged to compete against one another and then play together against more experienced outside players. Teachers and administration officials regularly refer to paintball as being part of a “patriotic” education needed to complement the technical aspect of their studies.
In one instance, a group of new students competed in paintball as Soviet soldiers against outside players who were dressed as troops from Nazi Germany in a capture-the-flag competition meant to simulate the World War II battle of Stalingrad. According to one student, the Nazi flag contained the compass symbol used by the NATO military alliance instead of the swastika used by Nazi Germany.
Other instances of political teachings from staff are more direct. In a recording obtained by RFE/RL from June 16, a senior administrator can be heard telling the teenagers that NATO launched a hybrid war against Russia back in 2011 and that it has slowly become more overt. The man then goes on to tell students that their hard work and exceeding long days at the drone factory are part of a nationwide struggle against the West and that their patriotism will be rewarded.
Several students and parents identified the man in the recording as Timur Shagivaleev, the director-general of the special economic zone where Alabuga Polytechnic University and the drone factory operate.
Shagivaleev did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment.
The man in the recording then goes on to tell students not to take holidays and to continue working “even if it’s mom’s birthday,” before ending his speech with, “Long live our great country.”
Multiple current and former students told RFE/RL that students who work in the drone factory are often praised by staff, while those who have refused or asked to be reassigned due to the high workload are often publicly shamed. In some instances — according to recordings heard by RFE/RL — staff even encourage students to bully others who are not deemed “patriotic” enough.
According to Protokol and Razvorot’s investigations, Alabuga Polytechnic University has also turned toward recruiting foreign students to enroll. The majority of them come from African countries, but also from Central Asia and Azerbaijan, where they are promised “world class” salaries as part of the dual-track world experience program.
However, these foreign students are then given low-skill and menial tasks around the campus and the special economic zone, such as janitorial work, and are also paid lower salaries than initially promised.