In the middle of the forest taiga more than 4,000 kilometers from Ukraine, even the remote Siberian village of Vanavara felt the consequences of the Russian invasion of its neighbor.
Authorities last month confirmed the death of Russian soldier Sergei Vasilev, 22, who was born in a settlement near Vanavara but spent several years in a boarding school in the village with his younger sister.
Ethnic Evenki, one of the indigenous people of Eastern Siberia, Vasilev was killed in early May. It took almost a month for his body to be returned to Vanavara from what locals call “the big land”.
With no rail or road connections, the only way to get in and out of Vanavara is by plane or – during the summer months – by boat on the Podkamennaya Tunguska River.
Finally, the community held a memorial service at a local culture house, attended by representatives from the Ministry of Defense and local officials.
“The place was packed with people and funeral wreaths. The boy was a native [Evenki] – one of us – which meant that even though we weren’t blood relatives, it was everyone’s personal loss,” a 24-year-old resident told the Moscow Times.
The death of Vasiliev, who enlisted as a contract soldier in the Russian army in 2019, is a stark reminder of how the repercussions of Moscow’s bloody invasion of Ukraine were felt in regions Russians thousands of kilometers from the fighting.
News of his passing quickly spread among the approximately 15,000 inhabitants of the Evenkiysky district of the Krasnoyarsk region, where Vanavara is located, and which covers a vast expanse of land in central Siberia that is larger than any European country.
“Until then, everyone was trying to ignore the war,” said the local, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
With the Russian armed forces relying heavily on the services of contract soldiers, the geography of the country’s casualties in Ukraine has been disproportionate towards the most economically disadvantaged areas, especially those populated by non-Slavic indigenous communities.
“There are no jobs and no prospects [in remote rural regions]. Incomes are pathetically low,” said Tomila Lakina, an expert on Russian politics at the London School of Economics.
“For these people, getting a contract to serve in the Russian military and fight in Ukraine offers unimaginable wealth that they have never seen and their parents and grandparents have never seen,” he said. she told the Moscow Times.
Stories of loss similar to Vasiliev’s in Vanavara have unfolded in other towns and villages in far corners of Russia since the war began in February.
Several people from the village of Dogoi in the Zabaikalsky region on the border with China are currently fighting in Ukraine, according to Dolgor, an 18-year-old resident.
“Serving in the military is the only way to earn money,” said Dolgor, who asked that his last name not be used.
While Dogoi, a farming village nearly 7,000 kilometers from Ukraine, has yet to see any deaths, many residents have friends and relatives who have lost loved ones.
“My relatives at [the neighboring republic of] Buryatia goes to funeral services every day,” Dolgor said.
The Siberian republic of Buryatia and the neighboring Zabaikalsky region are among the Russian regions with the highest number of military losses. A total of 164 soldiers from Buryatia and 102 from the Zabaikalsky region were killed in Ukraine, according to an independent report score the number of Russian deaths in Ukraine by the independent media iStories.
In Dogoi, families whose loved ones serve in Ukraine visit Buddhist monasteries every day to pray for the well-being of their loved ones, according to Dolgor.
Despite the deaths, most of those living in remote areas seem to support the war.
“I was very surprised to learn that our indigenous Evenki people support the ‘operation’ as we constantly fight for the preservation of our forests and against discrimination against ethnic Russians,” the Vanavara local said.
Independent vote suggests that more than three quarters of Russians support the Kremlin’s military campaign in Ukraine.
“It’s so much more than hardware drivers like income [that motivate people to join the war]”, said expert Lankina. “It’s about the feeling of deprivation and ‘us’ versus ‘them’, where ‘us’ is the poor and ‘them’ is the liberal intelligentsia who have always been preferred.”
Often without a reliable internet connection, the only source of information in many remote areas is television, which dutifully relays the Kremlin’s narrative.
Although the northern village of Sizyabsk in Russia’s Komi Republic, where reindeer herding drives the local economy, gained some internet access several years ago, many locals still get their information public television.
Not only are the residents of Sizyabsk broadly supportive of the government, but they remain seemingly indifferent to the prospect of economic trouble.
“Whenever I ask about prices or availability of medicines, my relatives say they are ready to put up with it and can grow whatever they need in their garden,” he told the Moscow Times. a woman whose extended family lives in Sizyabsk.
Internet access cannot change people’s worldview, according to Lakina. “Destitute young people [in rural communities]… growing up in families where maybe the grandmother was still illiterate,” she said.
While the human cost of the Ukrainian war in Russia may have been felt most harshly by poor rural communities in remote parts of Russia, there is little sign of any desire for political or social change in these regions.
“Some people are crying and praying for the war to end, but I haven’t noticed any real resistance,” Dolgor said in the farming village of Dogoi. “But there must be someone who is against it. It is not possible that everyone is for it. »