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‘We want to die for the motherland too!’ A dispatch from a Buryatian village where one percent of residents have joined the war in Ukraine
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, 23 men from Selenduma, a village in Buryatia, have joined the war; that’s about one percent of the village’s population. In late March, the village buried Andrey Dandarov, the first resident to return from the war in a body bag. A week later, residents held a patriotic motor rally, lining up their cars to form the Z symbol. In early May, the local magazine Lyudi Baikala (LB; “People of the Baikal”) published a report about how young men from Selenduma have been dying in Russia’s wars for four decades now — in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Ukraine — and how residents nonetheless continue to support the ongoing “special military operation." With their permission, Meduza has translated the article in full.
‘You can’t bring these soldiers back’
A singing voice is coming from the Selenduma House of Culture: “We’re growing up to be courageous guys; we’ll all join the army when it’s time.” Two fifth graders outside the building sing along as they swerve to avoid cracks in the pavement. “What is a patriot?” LB’s correspondent asks one of them. “It's, you know, people who defend their homeland. Makar, what else did they tell us?”
Makar wrinkles his forehead, trying to recall: “They’re willing to go into battle and die!” He pulls a bottle of Coca-Cola out of his backpack and takes a sip. “We want to go to battle, too — and to die for our motherland!” he adds.
Selenduma is in Buryatia’s Selenginsky district, about 160 kilometers [99 miles] from the republic’s capital, Ulan-Ude. The village is surrounded by steppe and hills. In the 20th century, people moved here from across the Soviet Union to work in a machinery repair plant, including Russians, Buryats, Tatars, and Armenians. As a result, “people of different stock mixed together, and nobody gave anybody any trouble," according to one resident.
After the Soviet Union broke up, the plant shut down and the village began to empty rapidly. Right now, only 2.7 thousand people live here, compared to the 10,000 who lived here in the late Soviet period. There are a lot of abandoned homes, but very few trees. Work is hard to come by, so a lot of men join the army as contract soldiers.
23 soldiers from Selenduma have gone to Ukraine to join Russia’s “special military operation” — approximately one percent of the village’s population. In mid-March, 19-year-old Selenduma resident Andrey Dandarov was killed in the war; his body was sent back home shortly after and buried in the village cemetery. A week after the funeral, the village held a pro-war motor rally called “We don’t abandon our own,” a Russian military slogan; two weeks later, they held a patriotic singing contest called “The Soldier’s Envelope.”
“Mourning is understandable,” says Selenduma House of Culture head Inga Shornikova, “but you can’t bring these soldiers back. And we need to make sure our young people understand that all of these guys died for us. That way, we can continue to live peacefully.”
Shornikova refers to these patriotic children's activities as her “super objective,” a term coined by influential Soviet theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky to refer to the overall goal a character seeks to achieve in a play.
‘This needs to be instilled in our teenage audience’
Shornikova’s short hair flutters in the wind as she stands in the doorway, backlit by the sun. “Let’s begin!” she cries, and students begin filing into the auditorium in a single line. They’re here for the patriotic singing contest, “The Soldier’s Envelope.” Half of them are wearing Soviet military smocks or camouflage uniforms; the other half are wearing white shirts and dress pants. All of them are wearing garrison caps.
12-year-old Marina is one of the first kids to perform. A St. George’s ribbon is folded into the shape of the letter Z on her white shirt. Another girl glares at Marina from the audience; she’s wearing almost the exact same outfit, only the ribbon on her shirt is in the traditional shape: a cross. “I told you we should have done Z’s,” the girl whispers loudly to her friend.
A week after the concert, Inga Shornikova is still thinking hard about her role in the community. She has a great responsibility, she says, because the House of Culture and other community centers are the most important settings for instilling a sense of patriotism in the younger generation. “At school, children feel restrained, boxed in,” she says. “But with us, they have freedom. Whatever song they want to sing, they can sing. This is where the seeds of patriotism can be planted firmly in their minds. It’s something we need to actively impose on our teenage audience.
Shornikova is enthusiastic about organizing even more patriotic events. “If fascism is manifesting itself [in Ukraine], that means we really missed something,” she says. “We need to ramp up our speaking, writing, singing, even our lectures on patriotism by a factor of two or three in order to make sure we’re getting through every child’s head what a nightmare and what an atrocity this is.”
Shornikova plans and choreographs all of the patriotic events in Selenduma, from the motor rally to the memorial gathering for Andrey Dandarova. She wanted the motor rally to be “effective and meticulously beautiful.” She looked through social media to see what similar events in other districts looked like, and a comment on one of the videos caught her attention: “What’s the purpose of this motor rally? You showed off your car and your flag — so what? That does nothing at all for our guys out there in the trenches.”
Shornikova agreed. After some thought, she decided to combine the motor rally with a children’s soccer tournament and a supply drive for Selenduma soldiers. “A motor rally is great, but we need to at least send our soldiers some woolen socks,” she said. “A toothbrush or a letter from home — it’s just so moving! Oh, I’m going to start weeping.”
She goes quiet and takes a breath. “You know,” she says after a moment, “The fellow soldiers of our dear Andrey Dandarova, may he rest in peace, are on leave right now. They sent a message to Andrey’s parents: ‘When our leave is up, we’ll go [back to Ukraine] and avenge Andrey’s death 100 percent.’”
Inga Shornikova supports the “special military operation.” She believes that Ukraine’s civilian population needs to be saved from nationalists, who she calls “thugs and maniacs.”
‘A face that’s sort of Russian, sort of not’
“Andrey’s mom was Russian and his Dad was a Buryat. You’d look at him and see a face that was sort of Russian, sort of not,” said village administration head Tsydendordzhi Buyantuyev.
Andrey Dandarova’s mother died when he was three years old. His father didn’t live with the family, so Andrey and his older brother, Alexander, were raised by their grandmother, but she died when Andrey was 16. To keep Andrey from being sent to an orphanage, a neighbor, Maria Tkacheva, agreed to become his legal guardian.
Every Selenduma resident LB’s correspondent spoke to agreed that Andrey Dandarova was a kind-hearted guy. In every photo of him, he’s smiling. “Andrey was always helping somebody,” said his physical education teacher, Dandar Nikolayev. “He taught the guys who were bad at pull-ups how to improve.” According to Nikolayev, Andrey was in excellent physical shape and was a capable long-distance runner.
In middle school, Dandarov would go regularly to the village’s Kazachok children’s club, where kids would sing Cossack songs, dance, and play sports. “Cossack culture instilled in us a desire to win,” said Andrey’s friend Alyona Golykh. “And Andrey liked that. Everything there was in a military, patriotic style, and I think that’s why he decided to tie his life to the Russian army.”
Alyona still remembers the words to one of Andrey’s favorite songs to sing: “Hey, Cossacks, hey, guys, why do we mourn? It’s so much fun to chop your enemy with a sharp sword.”
After high school, Dandarov enrolled in an agricultural college, but quickly dropped out; not long after, he was drafted into the army. A video on social media shows his family wishing him a happy birthday and giving him a cake. “Come here,” says his guardian, Maria Tkacheva. “You’re my boy. Happy birthday! Happy conscription!” A short-haired Dandarov smiles and blows out the candles. In another video, Dandarov, wearing a uniform and holding a machine gun, takes his military oath at the training ground. His voice is difficult to hear over the sound of other soldiers shouting, “I serve Russia!”
Andrey Dandarov celebrated his birthday on July 31, 2021. That fall, he was drafted into the 11th Guards Air Assault Brigade in Ulan-Ude, and in December, he signed a contract. In January, he was sent to Novorossiysk for training, and in February, he was sent to join the “special military operation.” On March 12, he was killed in Ukraine.
Dandarov’s close relatives refused to speak to journalists from LB. His brother, Alexander, wrote, “I can’t give any detailed information.”
Dandarov’s former guardian, Maria Tkacheva, initially agreed to speak, saying on the phone that she’s not considered a “close relative” of Andrey and therefore she’s ineligible to receive compensation for his death from the government. Before meeting with LB’s correspondent in person, however, Maria paid a visit to the conscription office. “I need to look all of these military commanders in the eyes,” she wrote. After talking to the officials there, however, Tkacheva canceled the meeting and wrote, “We’re not going to do the interview. The military unit asked us not to.”
When LB’s journalists tried to get in touch with Alexander Dandarov, Tkacheva called back and shouted into the phone, “If you don’t stop, I’ll go to the authorities.”
Tkacheva did manage to say, however, that she supports the “special military operation.”
‘The people at the top know better’
Andrey Dandarov was laid to rest by his entire village. The coffin containing his body was carried from the House of Culture, where the memorial service was held, to the cemetery, a distance of about a kilometer. On the way, they made a stop at Dandarov’s childhood home. The local authorities advise journalists not to go there because it’s “unpleasant.” According to officials, there are “relatives there with a drinking problem — you understand.” Nonetheless, we go; there might be relatives of Andrey there who want to speak to us.
The house is currently home to Andrey’s uncle Sergey. A brand new Russian flag flies over the building, and a shaggy dog sleeps in the dusty yard outside. The door is closed, so a neighbor named Vyacheslav comes over to help by kicking the door repeatedly: “Sergey, open up! Some journalists are here.” After a while, Vyacheslav gets tired and starts muttering. “Andrey died for Ukraine — fuck those damned Banderites. A fucking 19-year-old kid, damn it. And they won’t take me. I went to the enlistment office and they told me to go home and relax.”
It turns out that Sergey’s not home right now, but his girlfriend, Nadezhda, eventually opens the door. She doesn’t let us see the room where Andrey lived; “it’s too dirty.” But she does let us come in to the main room, where there’s a small memorial area for Andrey. Nadezhda and Sergey set it up together immediately after the funeral. Lying across the wardrobe there is the wrinkled Russian flag that covered Dandarov’s coffin at his funeral.
On top of the flag, there’s a portrait of Andrey, his paratrooper’s beret, his Order of Courage lying on a red pillow, an icon, a glass with a dried-up pancake in it. Nadezhda tells us that in her entire life, she’s never seen a funeral as “decent” or “honorable” as Andrey’s. Then she shrugs her shoulders: “He was so modest, so soft-spoken, but so many people came to his funeral — you should have heard the speeches they gave.”
Nadezhda’s son is also in the army, but he hasn’t been sent to Ukraine yet. When she remembers her son, Nadezhda starts to cry.
When asked whether the “special military operation” in Ukraine is necessary, Nadezhda is unable to answer. “I don’t follow politics. I don’t know what’s necessary there and what’s not,” she says. “We’re not important people — there’s not much we can do to affect the situation in our country or in the world. We’re just living our lives. And at the end of the day, that’s frankly above our pay grade. Because there are some situations we just don’t know how to get out of. The people at the top know better.”
She looks at Dandarov’s portrait. “The fact that strong young guys are dying brings pain to my heart,” she says. “It’s not right for such young guys to die. He didn’t have time to do anything in his life. No family, no children. And now it’s over.”
Nadezhda didn’t take part in the motor rally because she didn’t know about it. “But if I’d known, I certainly would have been there,” she says as the tears on her cheeks dry. “As a tribute to the deceased.”
Nadezhda supports the “special military operation.” She believes that in times like this, “you need to be on the side of your homeland, because that’s the patriotic thing to do.”
‘What's there for them to do here but join the army?’
“Of course we’re all patriots here,” says Larisa Kazachikhina, a janitor at the school in Selenduma. She’s wearing a blue skirt with a pattern of white birds, perhaps doves. “If they called me [to join the war against Ukraine], I’d go without a second thought.”
Kazachikhina is standing in line in a dark hallway in the village administration building, where she has an appointment. The wall to her left is lined with portraits of young men from Selenduma who died in various wars. One of them is Andrey Dandarov.
Both of Kazachikhina’s sons are contract soldiers. 22 and 24 years old, they’re both currently in Ukraine. The older one calls home every time gets a chance; the younger one rarely calls at all.
When Kazachikhina talks about worrying for her sons, she shrugs her shoulders. “It’s fine, though,” she says. “We just don’t fixate on the fact that something’s happening there. We just know they’re serving.” Kazachikhina says other village residents sometimes judge her for the fact that her sons became contract soldiers. “Like if I’d taught them better, they would have become something else instead of soldiers. That’s offensive to hear. What else is there for them to do here?”
“In school, he was a puny little thing, in his glasses,” she says of Andrey Dandarova. “But look what a soldier he became. Until he died, I didn’t even know he’d signed a contract.”
Svetlana Tsydypova, Dandarova school principal, was also surprised when she learned Dandarova had joined the army. “He had completely different interests. He was better suited for the humanities. I didn’t expect Andrey to tie his fate to the army.”
LB’s journalists meet Tsydypova in the school, where she’s teaching a history class in the war memorial room. Behind her are portraits of Selenduma residents who died in past wars and “special military operations”; a portrait of Dandarova was recently added. Tsydypova rests her chalk-whitened fingers on the desk in front of her; her sons are also serving in Ukraine right now. “My son’s hair is graying, and he’s only 24 years old,” she says quietly. “‘I’ve lied under a tank and come under gunfire,’ he tells me, ‘but I haven’t fired a weapon.’ I ask him why. And he says, ‘Who are you gonna shoot, Mom, when there are endless shells flying by and snipers shooting at you?’”
As Andrey Dandarov’s former principal, Tsydypova was invited to give a speech at his funeral, but she declined. “I wouldn’t be able to keep it together, because of my son,” she says, even more quietly. “Because I understand as a mother what’s happening there.”
Svetlana Tsydypova supports the “special military operation.” She believes that “for eight years, nobody paid any attention to the terrible things the Nazis, the Banderites, were doing.”
'They understand what it means to have a motherland'
386 Selenduma residents served in the Second World War. 180 of them died — almost half. To honor their memory, a monument was put up in the village, and all of their names were carved into plaques. In the years since, it’s clearly been neglected.
Today, the place Selenduma residents take the most pride in is the memorial square honoring the soldiers who died in Chechnya and Afghanistan. It was erected in 2018, and is the only place in the village that’s paved with tile. The center of the square contains black marble blocks with the soldiers’ names and portraits. To the right is the village library, and to the left is an Orthodox church; both buildings are closed. Behind a nearby fence, there’s a howitzer from the time of the Second World War — it was a gift to the village from an organization called Brotherhood In Arms. The howitzer’s barrel faces the church.
There’s a lock hanging on the front of the gate; the keys are kept in a nearby convenience store. “There were some antisocial people who liked to sit here and drink,” says Buyantuyev as he goes to get the key. “That’s why we had to wall it off.”
Now, the square is opened only when people want to hold a rally or a commemorative event.
As soon as Russia’s “special military operation” is over, the village will add one more memorial to the square, this one in honor of Dandarov. “I hope no more of our guys will be killed,” Buyantuyev says. “Although it’s quite an act — giving your life for freedom, for a brighter future. I don’t think these soldiers are dying in vain.” In his view, patriotic rallies and demonstrations are important, too, because they “show people’s internal positions.”
When asked why young Selenduma residents join the army as contract fighters, he falls silent for a long time. “I need to think about how to say this correctly,” he says. “If I say it’s difficult to enroll [in college] somewhere, that won’t be quite right, either. They’re probably following the lead of their older comrades. The pay is good and reliable. So they serve. And then there’s the fact that our guys are difficult from some others — they understand the concept of “motherland.”
Tsydendordzhi Buyantuyev supports the “special military operation.” He believes it’s “the right thing to do.”
‘I don’t know what we achieved, but people were happy’
The patriotic motor rally in Selenduma took place a week after Dandarov’s funeral. A few days before the rally, village stores started selling Russian and Buryatian flags so that people could decorate their cars with them. Small flags cost 150 rubles [about $2.00] and large ones started at 500 rubles [about $7.00]. Villagers bought all of them.
The rally began next to the school’s soccer field, where the children’s soccer tournament was being held at the same time. It opened with House of Culture head Inga Shornikova addressing the crowd. “Today we’re holding a motor rally and a tournament in support of the special military operation in Ukraine!” she declared into the microphone, then raised her free hand into the air. Crowd members waved their white, blue, and red balloons and cried, “Hooray!” The soccer players carried a giant Russian flag through the crowd. Then the adults when to their cars, while the children stayed behind to play soccer.
54 cars took part in the parade, which proceeded down the village’s four main streets: Shkolnaya, Lenin, Traktovaya, and Molodyozhnaya. Almost none of the streets are paved, so the cars were surrounded by clouds of dust. Some areas had so many potholes that drivers had to slow down.
At the square next to the Victory monument, everyone stopped. The drivers arranged their cars into the shape of the letter Z. A drone, ordered especially for the occasion by village officials, took off in the air and snapped a photo of both the Z and everything around it: the abandoned department store, the ruins of the factory dormitory, the dusty square, and the old poplar trees.
Selenduma resident Sergey Yeransky helped plan the auto rally. Here’s how she responded to a question about the event's purpose:
“I’d say it was in honor of the special military operation, in honor of Putin. To show that Russia is invincible. I don’t know what we ended up achieving, but everybody was happy. They waved those flags and balloons with a lot of enthusiasm. It was really nice to look at.”
Yeransky was a military conscript in the 1980s, and he came close to being sent to Afghanistan. “We were standing there at the training ground with our blankets, waiting to be shipped out,” he said. “But someone gave the order for us to stay.” Looking back on it, Yeransky believes he was probably willing to go to Afghanistan “because I was young and had nothing in my head.” Now he’s 60 years old and he wishes he could join the “special military operation” in Ukraine as a volunteer. “But now I wouldn’t be of any use; I’d just get in the way. I’m not that age anymore,” he says, shrugging.
Sergey Yeransky supports the “special military operation.” He believes its main goal is to “bring peace to the world.”
‘They were such good boys’
Selenduma village administration employee Olga Dunayeva is collecting packages to send to soldiers in Ukraine. She leads LB’s journalists into her office, where the tables, chairs, and floor are all covered in cardboard boxes; all of the boxes have Z stickers on them. One of the boxes is labeled “vodka.” Above the box is the Russian coat of arms.
Dunayeva has requested that Selenduma residents only bring a specific set of items; the list includes candy, cookies, smoked sausage, canned meat, socks, tank tops, underwear, tea and coffee, instant porridge, shower gel, soap, wet wipes, and hand sanitizer. The announcement calling for items specifies that the package “should include a letter or a postcard with words of support for our boys.”
“Look what somebody put it,” says Olga, pulling out a page from a school notebook with a child’s handwriting on it. The message was written by an eight-year-old named Seryozha. “Hello soldier I hope that you win,” it says. “I also hope that you don’t die. We’ll be waiting for you to return thank you my uncle is there.” Next to the words, there’s a picture of a soldier holding a black flag and what looks like a gun.
Dunayeva shakes her head. “Selenduma certainly has not shortage of patriotism,” she says. According to her, village residents care so much about the soldiers that they’ve collected 150 kilograms (about 330 pounds) of food and cleaning products in just a few days.
“People are changing politically as well,” she stresses. “People are saying, ‘Now I support Putin.’ Even if they didn’t support him before. That’s the kind of people we are in Selenduma.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Dunayeva was tasked with handing out draft notices to men in the village. She was also responsible for receiving the coffins of soldiers from the village who died in Afghanistan and Chechnya. She remembers how everyone in the village cried because “they were such good boys.” In her view, people were so upset because “in Selenduma, we’re all relatives, whether close or distant.”
In 1984, the body of 21-year-old Alexander Malygin was brought to the village in a zinc coffin after he died in Afghanistan. At the memorial service, Dunayeva sat next to the boy’s mother. “There was a small hole in the coffin, and inside of it was some white material. And his mother pulled on it. She wanted to see her son, you see. Another young soldier nearby said, ‘Oh, no, don’t do that, I’ll get punished,’ so she stopped. But later, after the funeral, she told me, ‘I’ll never forgive myself for not looking to see my child in there. I should have opened it and looked,” Dunayeva said.
In 1995, coffins began arriving in the village from Chechnya. That year, three soldiers from the village died at the same time. One was 19 and the other two were 18. “We talked to their relatives, and they were crying, but they said, well, nobody’s to blame for the boys’ deaths. It’s just fate. It’s nobody’s fault that these wars happen,” says Dunayeva. Next to her is a box with the words, “To the dear soldiers of Selenduma from the team at the slaughterhouse.”
Olga Dunayeva supports the “special military operation” in Ukraine because it’s “Russia’s only hope.”
'Nobody thought there would be another war'
In 2000, during the Second Chechen War, 21-year-old Selenduma resident Andrey Nikonov died. His parents still live in the village. “At first, I couldn’t understand why Andrey died in that special operation — I mean, what was it for?” says his mother, 72-year-old Taklina Nikonova. “And then, little by little, I started to understand — it was to keep Russia from slowly splitting up further. It needs to stay intact. And somehow I started to understand.”
Nikonova and her husband live in a building near the train tracks. Cargo trains carrying coal and timber often pass by. Opposite their home is an abandoned plot where several cows graze between abandoned pieces of wood. A sign nailed to the peeling green fence says, “Here lived a soldier who was killed in the line of duty.”
The couple have created a memorial corner for their son behind some glass cabinet doors. There’s a large portrait of Andrey in civilian clothes, a small one of him in his army uniform, and a photo album. His Order of Courage lies nearby.
“I see Andrey’s old classmates around the village, and I always think, who would he have become? Those guys are already gaining weight, losing hair, getting old. And mine’s still this little boy,” Nikonova says. She finds her son in a group picture of his kindergarten class; he’s barely visible behind some other kids. As a child, Andrey was short.
“For some reason, I thought Andrey would be the last person from Selenduma to die in battle,” says Nikonova. “I never thought there would be another war. That they’d bring home another Andrey.”
She has bad memories of her son’s funeral. “Soldiers gave speeches, then someone else. I think there was snow. It’s all a blur.” 22 years later, Nikonova and her husband went to Andrey Dandarov’s funeral, where “it was like living through it all over again.” “The same speeches, the same soldiers, the same orchestra,” she said. “Nothing changes.”
Both Andreys were buried in the Selenduma cemetery, only about a hundred steps away from each other. Andrey Nikonov’s memorial is faded and white; Andrey Dandarov’s is black, new, and covered in wreaths on all sides.
When Taklina Nikonova goes to the cemetery, she goes to her son first; she puts two pieces of candy on his grave and stands there for a long while, putting her hand on his picture. Then she goes to Dandarov; she has two pieces of candy for him, too. She has to step around all of the wreaths to get to his memorial. “I have a kind of guilt,” she says, taking out her handkerchief, “because their lives ended, but ours are still going. I always ask Andrey for forgiveness.”
Three months after their son’s death, the government sent Nikonova and her husband a one-time payment of 100,000 rubles (around $3,500 at the time). In 2000, that was almost enough to buy a new Lada.
Nikonova and her husband didn’t participate in the motor rally that was held a week after Andrey Dandarov’s funeral. “I didn’t understand that event,” she says. “It was all too celebratory. They didn’t stand there, didn’t cry; instead, they rode in their cars, cheered, waved flags, and smiled. All for no reason.”
Nikonova, who’s originally from Tatarstan, considers herself a patriot; she doesn’t like when there’s “too much foreign stuff.” “All those imitations, their songs, their way of life, their culture, especially American — I don’t always understand it.”
Taklina Nikonova supports the “special military operation.” She believes “Ukrainians’ contempt for Russians has been long in the making.”
Her husband, Sergey, also supports it. “Right now,” he said, “we need to get rid of Nazism in one fell swoop.”
The couple’s son, Andrey, would have turned 43 this year.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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