Remote Russian village grapples with manpower shortage amid Putin’s war in Ukraine

BUKACHACHA, Russia – Andrei Epov transports passengers to the small Siberian town of Bukachacha by bus from the nearest major city, the regional capital, Chita.

Nestled deep in the taiga, the village of 1,200 in Zabaikalsky Krai in Russia’s Far East is difficult to access and, according to locals, an even more difficult place to live. And Russia’s war against Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin launched in February and continues with no end in sight, has only exacerbated the problems of Bukachacha 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 a man who ran the local bakery and another who delivers water to older residents, locals say.

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

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

“[Life] in Bukachacha it is like after a war”, says a resident.

“[Life] in Bukachacha it is like after a war”, says a resident. “There is only one difference: they will rebuild Mariupol, while we lived in ruins and we will continue to do so.”

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

“[Life] in Bukachacha it is like after a war”, says Epov. “There is only one difference: they will rebuild Mariupol, while we lived in ruins and we will continue to do so.”

‘Taken away’

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

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

That has left Bukachacha elders like Natalya hauling buckets of water from a well several kilometers on foot back home.

“It’s still winter and we don’t have street cleaners, so it’s freezing. It’s not easy to carry buckets,” says Natalya, who spoke on the condition that she only use her first name.

An elderly Bukachacha resident carries a bucket of water home.

An elderly Bukachacha resident carries a bucket of water home.

She says locals tried to find a replacement, but the candidates turned out to be alcoholics or retirees.

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

She does not take kindly to protests or demands for water to be delivered to homes, calling such grassroots rejection largely unhelpful and “scary.”

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

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

RFE/RL traveled to see firsthand the impact of the war and Putin's mobilization in remote towns like Bukachacha.

RFE/RL traveled to see firsthand the impact of the war and Putin’s mobilization in remote towns like Bukachacha.

Unlike the Russian men who enlisted in the Kremlin mobilization, the Russian authorities have promised not to send new recruits to fight in the Ukraine.

When a reporter noticed this promise 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 she received his draft notice.

“Like everyone else, they took him out of his house, put him on a bus and took him away,” says Irina, who also only gave her first name.

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

“He was neutral on the issue of war, but when I suggested that he try to save himself from mobilization, he refused,” says Irina. “He said that if the country called, he would fight. I no longer tried to persuade him.”

‘See how patriotic we are?’

Pro-war graffiti, the Latin letters ‘Z’ and ‘V’ which Kremlin loyalists have adopted as patriotic symbols of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, adorn the school bus stop in Bukachacha.

“See how patriotic we are?” Galina, a local resident who also spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, says with a laugh. “And no one mentions the fact that the stop has not been used for more than a year. Previously, it was intended for a school bus. Now, we don’t have a driver.”

Pro-war graffiti adorns the school bus stop in Bukachacha.

Pro-war graffiti adorns the school bus stop in Bukachacha.

Around 200 students are enrolled in the local school in Bukachacha. History teacher Yelena Gritsko says that among the school’s graduates there are many talented students who win prizes in a variety of competitions.

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

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

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

Half of the computers at the Bukachachi school are down.

Half of the computers at the Bukachachi school are down.

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

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

‘The people will have no bread’

Among those who have not returned from the war in Ukraine is the owner of a private bakery in Bukachacha, on the site of a state bakery that burned down in the 1990s, the ruins of which have never been 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,” says Akhmadulina. “But soon I will 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.

If this private bakery closes, the town would be left without fresh bread.

If this private bakery closes, the town would be left without fresh bread.

Akhmadulina says that her son was mobilized at the end of September and received a notice while running to deliver flour to the bakery from Chernyshevsk.

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

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

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

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

“He says that they don’t give anything from the government there,” says Akhmadulina.

“They pretend they don’t even listen to us”

Nadezhda and Nikolai Ogarkov are Bukachacha natives who met at the now closed metal factory and have been together ever since.

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

They say his 24-year-old grandson, Aleksandr Ogarkov, worked at the local coal mining company until last 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,” says Nikolai. “He never told us anything about it. He called once, said they were going to take him to Ukraine. He spent a week training and that was it. He’s already been at war for a month.

The metal goods factory, now closed, in Bukachacha.

The metal goods factory, now closed, in Bukachacha.

As the couple talk to a reporter, Nikolai throws coal into the stove.

“Do you know what happened to the coal?” asks Nadezhda. “The families of the mobilized men were given firewood or charcoal. They told us that we had no right to anything, that we had no right to assistance from the authorities. because, you see, [Aleksandr] it was drawn up by the military enlistment office in Vladivostok. We told the administration: ‘But he is registered in Bukachacha.’ And they pretend they don’t even listen to us.”

“We are dying like flies”

There are two cemeteries in Bukachacha. Andrei, a local retiree, takes a tour of one of them, deep in the forest, which features a monument to the Japanese soldiers who were buried there.

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

“We dug up the remains and the Japanese took them home. Back then, we were paid in dollars for our work,” says Andrei.

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 coal mining in our area, the place is, shall we say, not for living. We are already dying like flies without a war,” says Andrei. “And soon we will have to bury the young people, those who will be brought from Ukraine. Look, they have already prepared a ground for new burials.

Andrei gestures toward the snow-covered cemetery grounds.

“They said if there is not enough space, they will allocate more.”

Adapted from the Russian original by Carl Schreck of RFE/RL.

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