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Russia’s Mining Heartland Grapples With Fallout From Ukraine War

  • More than 18 months into its invasion of Ukraine, Russia is facing high military casualties that are particularly affecting impoverished, remote areas like Kemerovo, known as the Kuzbass.
  • Locals are dealing with declining wages, obsolete mines, and health issues due to pollution, alongside the losses of fathers, sons, and brothers in the war.
  • Residents express skepticism about the war and corruption at local levels, drawing parallels to the poor-quality construction that followed the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Coal

In the heart of the Russia’s coal-mining Kemerovo region, residents struggle with the harsh economic realities of declining wages, obsolete mine facilities, and chronic medical conditions that come from life below, and above ground.

Many are retired coal miners like Vladimir Miroshenko, 71, who recalls the halcyon days of the 1970s, when Prokopyevsk became a sister city with Horlivka, in the heart of Ukraine’s Donbas coal-mining region. Miroshenko also recalls his service in the Soviet Army in the early 1980s, during the decade-long invasion of Afghanistan.

“We trained for a month and a half and then were sent to man the howitzers. I won't even tell you what happened there. When I came home, I just started drinking,” said Miroshenko, whose last name has been changed at his request.

“Now what’s going on in Ukraine -- the oligarchs; they were getting fat and they’re just getting fatter,” he said. “It’s the same thing that happened in Afghanistan. And for what? What’s the point? It’s not clear.”

“I heard here that 50,000 people have already returned from [Ukraine] with disabilities,” he told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities. “Why did they go? For the money, mostly. You yourself understand that now no one will go to war for Stalin, nor for Putin.

More than 18 months into its invasion of Ukraine, Russia is grappling with the mounting toll from what has become the largest land war in Europe since World War II. Anonymous U.S. officials have put Russia’s military casualties at close to 120,000 killed and up to 180,000 injured.

And the toll is hitting impoverished, remote, shrinking regions of Russia even harder. Like in Kemerovo, widely known as the Kuzbass, where economic opportunities are fewer and the allure of war wages in Ukraine and compensation for the dead draw capable young and less-young men, further draining the region of able workers -- and fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands.

At least 46 men from Prokopoyevsk, a city of around 170,000 people, have died since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, according to an unofficial tally compiled by Siberia.Realities.

Many are buried in a special section of a cemetery in Vysoky, a village southwest of Prokopyevsk. According to Tatyana Yefremova, who sells flowers and funeral bouquets at the cemetery, the fresher graves include two riot police officers who died on February 25, 2022, just three days after the invasion was launched.

In the plots where new casualties of the war in Ukraine are buried, the graves are so close together that the wreaths appeared to be intertwined and entangled.

They include Ilya Piryazev, 45, who grew up and went to school in Prokopyevsk and who went on to serve as a conscript during the First Chechen War in the 1990s, then during Russia’s intervention in Syria in the 2010s, and also in Libya. According to his daughter Polina, a month after deploying to Ukraine in April 2022, he was killed in the southern Zaporizhzhya region.

In recent years, Polina said, she and her mother had had little contact with Piryazev; her parents divorced in the 2000s.

“We didn't even know he was in the war. We only found out when he died,” she said.

“He went to Ukraine on his own,” Polina said. “He didn’t need money, unlike many. It was just patriotism, the conviction that the country must be defended. He never spoke about the war, didn’t say why he constantly returned there.”

Not far from Piryazev’s grave is that of Andrei Yartsev, 22, who died on November 22, 2022, somewhere in the Luhansk region while serving as a marine infantryman attached to the Pacific Fleet.

Yarstev had served as a contract volunteer soldier for several years before enrolling in the law department at Novosibirsk State University. He was in his third year last fall when the Kremlin ordered a partial mobilization to bolster troop strength in Ukraine; Yartsev volunteered to fight, according to an acquaintance, who gave his name as Andrei.

“Apparently, he was smitten with this whole romantic army ideal: like, brother for brother, and so on,” Andrei said. “Seems to me that he had no idea what was really going on there, in Ukraine. It's too bad for the kid; he spent only a few weeks at the front.”

'We Don't Have Any Other Options'

At the mining technical school in Prokopyevsk, where engineers and other mine personnel are trained, officials put up a memorial plaque for dead graduates on May 5, 2023. The names included Yevgeny Kobzarev, a 37-year-old riot police officer who died on the second day of the invasion.

On the social media site formerly known as VKontakte, someone published a page about the memorial plaque for the dead alumni. “Soon enough there won’t be enough walls,” one anonymous poster wrote.

“When you look at the death toll, it’s a little creepy,” another graduate told Siberia.Realities. “But if they call me, I’ll go too, but where should I go? I don’t have any kids yet, though strangely enough, many go there [to fight] because of their children: to make some money for an apartment or for education. We don’t have any other options.”

Then there’s the case of Ilya Krumin, 21, who served as a driver and mechanic for a tank unit. He stayed in the military after completing his mandatory conscription service. An orphan, Krumin died about a month after the invasion.

“What choice did he have besides the army?” said one of his friends, who gave his name only as Aleksei. “As an orphan, there’s no one to take care of you, you have to live somehow. So this is the most obvious choice. Yes, and these kinds of soldiers are beneficial to the army: you don’t have to pay compensation later to relatives.”

'We're Dropping Like Flies Around Here'

Like many towns in the Kuzbass, Prokopyevsk has seen better days. Residents complain regularly about the state of city services, including the main local hospital where equipment frequently doesn’t work. Years of heavy industrial emissions, including coal ash and other toxic chemicals, has polluted wide swaths of the region, and left chronic health problems for many.

“We're dropping like flies around here. Some in the mines, some in the war,” said Vitaly Smorodin, a 55-year-old retired miner and lifelong resident who now works as a municipal security guard. “And the rest of them: from [the environment]. Every other person has [cancer].”

City officials are also happier to trumpet the sister-city relationship between Prokopyevsk and Horlivka, which is now mostly under Russian control in Ukraine, than they are to publicize the exact number of locals who have been killed or wounded in the war.

For residents jaded by endemic corruption on the local level, the cynical view is that the sister-city relationship will just be another way to steal municipal funds.

Vil Ravilov, who works as a photographer, pointed to the example of Mariupol, the Ukrainian Sea of Azov port that was all but obliterated during a Russian siege soon after the invasion began. Russian officials are now hurriedly building new apartment housing, and other structures in the city, but reports of shoddy construction abound.

Ravilov drew a parallel to what happened after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when some of the public infrastructure built for the event was marred by bad-quality construction.

“What is happening in Ukraine is a huge tragedy, what else can I say?” Ravilov said. “I doubt that the houses that are being built in Mariupol or any other [Russian-controlled] territories are made with high quality. Most likely, everything is stolen, all this infrastructure is waiting for the same fate as the buildings after the Olympics, when asphalt paths were washed away after the rains.”

“Everything is done for the sake of appearances,” he said.

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By RFE/RL

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