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How A Small Siberian Town Struggles With The Fallout From The War In Ukraine

Yevgeny Sayapin's grave in Yashkino, where he was killed 11 days after returning from the front in Ukraine.
Yevgeny Sayapin's grave in Yashkino, where he was killed 11 days after returning from the front in Ukraine.

YASHKINO, Russia -- When 26-year-old Yevgeny Sayapin returned in January after two months fighting in Ukraine, he was broken, damaged physically and psychologically. He hadn't told his wife he was going, and she announced she was divorcing him as he recuperated in a local clinic.

Eleven days after returning home to this small Siberian town, his lifeless body was found, shot and dumped on the side of the road. He had gotten into a fight with a man who had begun a relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife, according to Sayapin's sister Yelena. The man allegedly shot him and is now under investigation for his murder.

"Did he need the money? Heck, we all need it. He worked and helped me when our house burned down. He provided for his children, mine too. But he didn't obsess about it, as they say. Here today, gone tomorrow," Yelena said. "He didn't go there because of the money; that's for sure. He wanted to help the Motherland. He was just that kind of guy."

As the Kremlin's war on Ukraine hit its 500th day on July 8, the fallout from the conflict has seeped deeper into Russian society, slowly changing the fabric of life across the sprawling country. That goes double in small, isolated towns like Yashkino, which benefits from a single employer -- a confectionary factory -- but still struggles with poverty, alcoholism, a lack of opportunities, and petty grievances of small-town life.

Western officials say Russia has suffered up to 200,000 dead and wounded since launching its invasion in February 2022.

In Yashkino, a town of around 13,000 people located about a 90-minute drive northwest of the coal mining city of Kemerovo, 19 men have been officially recorded as killed in action in Ukraine.

'I Pray To God That...My Son Isn't Taken Away'

Yashkino hasn't yet figured out how it wants to memorialize its war dead. A memorial plaque to two of those killed in Ukraine hangs not on the outside of Elementary School No. 4, but inside.

Yashkino's memorial to its fallen sons is in an elementary school.
Yashkino's memorial to its fallen sons is in an elementary school.

That's both confusing and frightening to one woman who asked to be called only by her first name, Olga. Standing outside the school, she said her son was an eighth-grade student.

"It's all scary, of course. I pray to God that the war ends quickly and my son isn't taken away," she said. "He's 14 so far, but if it drags on, they will take him."

Outside the town's main cultural and social institution, the Central House of Culture, and in many places around town, there are ample signs of sanctioned messaging exhorting people to support the war -- officially known as a "special military operation."

In front of the House of Culture on one recent summer weekday, mothers strolled with baby carriages while a handful of children drove amusement-park electric cars. On a stage set up in front of the building, a 12-year-old boy walked around the stage and sang: "Glory to the freedom of our Fatherland! To the ageless union of our fraternal brothers! To the folk wisdom granted by our forebears!"

Not long after the launch of the invasion, local authorities delivered a decommissioned T-55 tank to a central location called the Square of Heroes. Officials regularly organize patriotic rallies and public demonstrations there, including schoolchildren competing to show off how quickly they can assemble a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

Yelena Sayapina said her brother Yevgeny had initially volunteered to fight in Ukraine, but recruiters turned him away because he was father to two small children and because of his lack of previous military experience.

So he signed up with the Wagner Group private mercenary company in November 2022 -- without telling his wife.

"He was told at the military registration and enlistment office: 'There's nothing for you to do there'," his sister said. "But he decided that he would go anyway, because his 'boys' were already there. "

Still, she said, he advised other friends and acquaintances against signing up to fight: "He told them: 'Brother, you sit this out for now, and then you can decide later, maybe you'll go.'"

After he returned home on January 13, Yelena said, he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, shrapnel wounds in his legs, and a broken arm. While he was recovering in the hospital, his wife announced she was divorcing him.

"He said that four of 12 men in his unit survived," Yelena said. "At first, the sniper worked them over; he was hit in the helmet. Then artillery started, they were covered in a wall of fire," she said.

Sayapin's ex-wife refused to comment to RFE/RL, saying that "personal lives don't need to be put on public display."

'We Don't Have Much Work In The Village'

Not everyone in Yashkino supports the war, however,

Last fall, a 31-year-old woman was fined 50,000 rubles ($550) after being found guilty of a misdemeanor for trying to organize an anti-war protest. She ended up on a social-media black list called the "Wall of Shame." The woman did not respond to messages from RFE/RL seeking comment.

The war and its dead hang over the town, like they do for countless towns and cities across Russia. But the needs of daily life also weigh on residents.

"People think that if we live in a village, then we don't need money. But our prices are the same as in the city," said Svetlana Kazantseva, who was near the Central House of Culture with her children. She said most homes in the town don't have potable water; people have to buy bottled water or fill up at a spring on the town outskirts.

Children play on a war memorial in Yashkino.
Children play on a war memorial in Yashkino.

Although 19 men have been officially registered as killed in action in Ukraine, it's unclear how many men in all have been sent to fight, either as mobilized troops or as in Sayapin's case, as volunteers with the Wagner Group.

Still, most go to war in Ukraine precisely because of the lack of work and job prospects, many residents said.

"My husband was taken during mobilization, but he didn't jump at the chance (to fight)," another woman who asked to remain anonymous said. "First, it's pointless, and second, he's making money there at the very least. We don't have much work in the village, you have to understand."

Another woman, who gave her name as Yelena Aliyeva, said her son had returned from Ukraine after completing his contract. She said that instead of the 200,000-ruble ($2,200) wage he was promised, he only got a fraction of that amount.

"The contract ended, but they said they might pull him back into service. He doesn't want to go back," Aliyeva said.

"As far as we know, even now it's a complete mess: there are delays (in getting paid). Sometimes they're underpaid," she said.

If you can get job at the confectionary factory, the pay is good, she said, but you have to put in 12-hour days

"Elsewhere in town, they generally pay just pennies. So people go to war," she said, shrugging. "What are you going to do about it?"

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