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In Forgotten Karelian Village, Frustration With Moscow Runs High

  • Sergei Khazov-Cassia

Tatyana Bogdanova lives in the remote village of Vegarus and says she spends much of her time just watching TV, although even that is often not possible due to regular power outages.

Tatyana Bogdanova lives in the remote village of Vegarus and says she spends much of her time just watching TV, although even that is often not possible due to regular power outages.

VEGARUS, Russia -- The stream bounces gaily on its bed of pebbles as it passes through this tiny village in Russia's republic of Karelia, some 70 kilometers from the Finnish border.

Up until 1939, the pristine, wooded area was part of Finland.

Today, despite its proximity to one of Europe's most affluent countries, Vegarus is one of the myriad villages dying a slow death in Russia's provinces.

Russian authorities are unpopular here.

Many local residents say they are left to fend for themselves, and they accuse President Vladimir Putin of waging quixotic campaigns in Ukraine and Syria at the expense of Russian citizens like them.

Officially, 200 people are registered as living in Vegarus.

In reality, the village is home to only about 50 people. Many of them were born here. Others were brought to Vegarus as children in its Soviet heyday.

The village was founded in the wake of World War II. The Soviet Union was actively rebuilding itself after the war, and Vegarus quickly grew as a base for logging.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, logging companies were privatized. Machines gradually supplanted manual labor, prompting locals to move to cities in search of employment.

Vegarus emptied and fell into disrepair.

"We once had a school, a kindergarten, a clinic, a canteen, a services center, a grocery store, a department store, a garage, and a gas station," recalls pensioner Tatyana Bogdanova, gesturing toward the snow piles lining the deserted road.

Bogdanova was brought to Vegarus by her parents in 1952, when she was just 3 years old.

She never left.

'Nothing To Do But Drink'

A former nurse and projectionist at the local community club, she now lives on a monthly pension of 15,000 rubles ($216) -- generous by local standards.

She says she would live relatively comfortably were it not for her son, who is unemployed and drinks away much of her pension.

"What else is there to do here?" Bogdanova sighs.

For a long time following the Soviet collapse, Vegarus had no grocery store; villagers had to travel to the nearest town to stock up on food. Since only a handful of them owned a car, most relied on the bus that comes to their village twice a month.

When Moscow investors finally opened a small store in Vegarus, local residents breathed a sigh of relief.

Bogdanova's biggest gripes are now the electricity blackouts that routinely hit Vegarus. Help is usually slow to come. Sometimes, she must wait two full days for power to be restored.

"It's bearable, but I'm afraid to go outside because of the wolves," she says. "They drag the dogs away. But I don't need to go anywhere, I've lived my life. Now I'm preparing to die."

Bogdanova's house is warm but rundown. The wallpaper is dotted with rust stains, and old linoleum covers the bumpy floors.

She never privatized her house when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and continues to receive bills for maintenance and repairs. She doesn't bother paying them -- the last time someone fixed anything in her house was in 1975.

The pensioner spends much of her time watching television from a shabby armchair. This day, Putin is delivering a speech to lawmakers in Moscow.

Asked what she thinks of the president, she shakes her head for a long time.

"I don't trust anyone," she finally answers. "Of course I feel sorry for people in Ukraine, but not that much. Russians need help, too. And now we will go to Syria. We are always helping everyone but not our own people."

Not So Splendid Isolation

Outside the house, her neighbors Tatyana Sergeyeva and Yelena Morozova are taking a walk down the lane.

The two women complain about life in Vegarus, and their grievances closely echo Bogdanova's: the power blackouts, the isolation, the snow that no one bothers clearing.

Medical care has also been an issue since the clinic shut down.

A medic now visits the village once a week. But in case of emergencies, villagers often find themselves unable to call for an ambulance because of the blackouts. They have to climb up the nearest hill and try to catch a signal on their mobile phones.

First-aid medics almost never make the journey to Vegarus anyway, frequently advising patients over the phone to take a painkiller and get some rest.

"She once fell badly on her back," Morozova recalls, pointing to her friend. "I climbed up the hill and called, I said she needed to be taken to the city. They answered that the medic was scheduled to come the next day. I told them that she needed to be taken to the city for X-rays. She has no husband, no car.... They never came."

Several of the men in the village have vehicles, but Morozova says they charge hefty fees for the trip to town.

"During bank holidays you can forget about it," she complains. "They may have cars, but you just try and catch them sober!"

The two neighbors also share Bogdanova's misgivings about Putin.

The embargo on food imports, imposed in response to Western sanctions over Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, has gone unnoticed in Vegarus -- Western delicacies have never been available here.

But like many locals, they feel let down by Moscow and Putin.

"I have the feeling that ever since Ukraine started, it's been his only concern," charges Sergeyeva. "Just like Syria now."

Morozova nods.

"I don't like him either," she chimes in. "He's not doing anything for us, especially for pensioners."

Overpowering Stench

Life is only marginally more comfortable in the district's main city, Suoyarvi, some 40 kilometers away from Vegarus.

Just under 10,000 people live in this town, most of them in rundown Soviet-era apartment buildings.

There are two types of housing in Suoyarvi: with amenities and without.

Lyubov Yegorova lives in the latter, which means there is no running water and no toilet in her apartment building.

Residents relieve themselves in a hole in the basement that has not been cleaned since the house was built in 1954. Despite the freezing temperatures, the stench is overpowering.

"Nothing has been fixed since they settled me in this flat," she laments. "The walls are crumbling, they are completely moldy, and the floors are moldy, too."

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Yegorova has lived in this 40-square-meter apartment since 1996. This is where her two sons grew up before leaving Suoyarvi in search of work.

Her meager pension of 12,000 rubles ($170) is barely enough to make ends meet.

In the summer, she makes some extra money by picking berries that grow in abundance in the surrounding forests.

But the winters are hard.

"All I eat is black bread and instant noodles," she says. "I sometimes buy potatoes at 10 rubles ($0.14) a kilogram and some oil, but that's all. I don't have money for anything else."

Yegorova has access to the Internet and knows about the corruption scandals swirling around top officials in Moscow, including close allies of Putin.

But she pins the blame for her woes squarely on Karelia Governor Aleksandr Khudilainen, whom she accuses of embezzling state funds and letting the republic fall into ruin.

She fervently backs Putin, although she says he may have neglected Russia's provinces in his pursuit of foreign policy goals.

"He's a fine president, I support him," she says. "But 70 percent of the houses here are dilapidated. How to draw his attention to this problem? If I record a video appeal, will he watch it?"

Written by Claire Bigg based on reporting by Sergei Khazov-Cassia