Russians are being plunged into a bleak winter where power outages and heating failures are already freezing people to death while President Vladimir Putin is choosing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars prosecuting an illegal war in Ukraine instead of helping his own citizens.
In many of the remote regions where conditions are at their worst, people are also being forced to contribute the most to the war via conscription drives that strip healthy young men out of the local workforce and send them to their deaths on the front line.
“They take young men—the only breadwinners—away and send them back in coffins. The guys freeze on the front, get sick, die while their families live in poverty,” Valentina Melnikova, a prominent advocate from the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, told The Daily Beast. “It seems authorities have no interest left in human lives at this point.”
While Russian missile attacks leave Ukraine without water, heating and power, Russia’s own cities—in Siberia, the Altai Mountains, Baikal and Kamchatka—are freezing without central heating.
The hot water pipeline burst in the center of Abakan, the capital of the Russian republic of Khakasia in Siberia. The crossing of Krylov and Kati Perekreschenko streets disappeared in clouds of steam. The accident meant a disaster for at least 70,000 local people: no hot water, no heating in the freezing -8F. Dozens of people spent the night calling the local emergency hotline on Sunday, asking when their apartment blocks would be warm again. But nobody seemed surprised—worn-down infrastructure and bursting pipes are typical crises in wintertime not only for this part of Siberia but for dozens of other regions of Putin’s Russia.
In a country of extreme winter temperatures, these infrastructure failures are often deadly. Last year 5,557 people froze to death in Russia, according to a study by First Moscow Medical University.
Scanning through social media, residents of regions including Omsk, Voronezh, and Barnaul are complaining about their heating going out on a massive scale. “Help, we freeze on Korolenko street #3, we have not had heating for five days!” Barnaul 22 channel published on Monday. “Everybody is freezing on the 9th of May street,” Artem Khaustov wrote.
People are frustrated that while Moscow spends billions of dollars on the war, they are left to die at home. The Russian regions of Tyumen, Karaganda, and Yakutia were among those which reported cases of frost victims in the past week.
Authorities mobilize men from the poorest of Russian regions, where a couple of strong hands are always in demand for cutting firewood.
“Dark times. Ukraine is surviving without heating and light and here in Khakasia our life is awfully hard,” blogger Nikolay Zolotov, 56, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “Bursting pipes is not the worst problem: people live on tiny salaries in a poorly maintained city, without cash to buy food, while our government spends billions on the special operation in Ukraine.”
Last year Putin admitted that poverty was Russia’s biggest challenge: “We have something to work on, here is our main enemy. Our main goal is to improve the quality of life for our citizens,” he said. But instead of spending money on fighting poverty this year, the Kremlin found a new enemy and decided to spend around $155 billion of the $315 billion annual state budget on defense and security. That meant less money for fixing central heating systems or for figuring out how to install modern plumbing for 35 million Russians who still live without a sewage system and have to rely on freezing outhouses.
The annual death rate in Russia was growing even before the war, increasing by 15 percent last year as the population shrank by 693,000 people. This year it is on course to be even worse, according to official statistics.
The poverty level in the republics of Tuva and Buryatia—where Russia has mobilized thousands of soldiers for the massacre in Ukraine—has become so critical that the Buddhist leader, Damba Ayusheev, formally asked Putin for help.
The lama begged the Kremlin leader for firewood for Buryatia, a republic near Baikal Lake that adheres Buddhism. “It’s necessary to provide concrete aid for families of mobilized soldiers,” he said last week.
The Republic of Buryatia with almost 1 million people is one of Russia’s poorest regions, where more than 40 percent of the population lives on $176 a month or less. And yet, on the scale of Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine, Buryatia comes second after the southern region of Krasnodar. According to recently published official data, 345 soldiers from Buryatia have already died in Ukraine.
One of them—who had to be buried in a closed casket—was 23-year-old Dmitry Sidorov. He had only returned to his home village to help his mother for two days when he was forced to sign up for the war despite his poor eyesight. He died in Ukraine just 12 days later.
Melnikova, the veteran campaigner for soldier’s rights, said the situation was worse than anything seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Putin meets with mothers of dead soldiers but it looks like a staged show,” she told The Daily Beast. “Nobody checks their health, nobody cares if they freeze to death or get killed.”