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Draftees in Yelansky

‘They drink out of fear’ A dispatch from the closed Russian military village where six draftees have died since mobilization began

Draftees in Yelansky
Draftees in Yelansky
Novaya Vkladka

Story by Novaya Vkladka. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

Yelansky is a small, closed military settlement in Russia’s Sverdlovsk region where mobilized soldiers from throughout the Urals are sent before being shipped out to Ukraine. According to residents, the draftees’ sudden “freedom” from family obligations, their newfound “riches” in the form of military salaries, and their sense that their lives are likely to end soon have combined into a violent, alcohol-fueled disaster. And while officials have repeatedly claimed that the problem is under control, locals say the authorities’ efforts to address the chaos have had little to no effect. Journalists from the independent Russian outlet Novaya Vkladka traveled to Yelansky to find out how the draftees’ drinking reached such extreme levels. In English, Meduza is publishing an abridged version of their report.

‘Imagine if your wives and children were here’

The central Russian village of Yelansky serves as the first stop for soldiers called up from all over the Urals and Siberia. It currently has about 7,000 inhabitants, most of whom are soldiers and their families. In addition to several dilapidated five-story apartment buildings, the village has a massive military training center; explosions can occasionally be heard coming from the firing grounds in the forest and steppe outside of town.

Entering Yelansky by car requires a permit. Luckily, when Novaya Vkladka’s correspondents arrive at the train station outside the village, the woman at the ticket counter gives them phone number of a local woman named Sonya, who agrees to come pick them up. When they reach the checkpoint at the entrance to the village, Sonya shows her entry pass, but the man on duty just nods and lets them in, not bothering to examine it.

“There’s Bunker, the bar; there’s Monetka, the store; and there’s the church,” Sonya says, tapping the steering wheel to the music on the radio as she points out Yelansky’s top destinations.

The Yelansky Garrison
Novaya Vkladka

The Yelansky sunrise is bright and clear. On the ground, though, there are puddles of urine every few meters, as well as patches of vomit with bits of congealed porridge and half-digested soup. An empty vodka bottle lies behind the soldiers’ bathhouse, and crumpled beer cans stick out from snowdrifts. The streets are empty, but men wearing military uniforms occasionally walk by. Most of them sport tricolor patches with the letter Z.

Some of the men out and about are conscripts — young men who have been called up not to fight in Russia’s war against Ukraine but to serve out their mandatory year of military service. Young, beardless, and often scared-looking, they’re easy to spot.

The social center of the village is the Bunker shopping center. It has a cafe, a grocery store, and a clothing shop, which also sells everything from hookahs and gun-shaped flasks to medals that read “Participant of the military operation in Syria.” A beauty salon in the mall advertises a la carte shampooing services.

Outside of the cafe, a group of soldiers is standing around, drinking and talking. The asphalt beneath them is speckled with frozen blood and shards of glass. One brawny guy in uniform casts his head back and takes a long swig of beer. The men smell of booze and stale underwear.

The Bunker shopping center, where draftees in Yelansky spend a lot of their free time
Novaya Vkladka

Yelansky residents first noticed the draftees’ alarming drinking habits soon after Russia’s mobilization campaign began. Some of them took to Telegram to discuss the issue.

“When I first came to Yelansky, my husband wouldn’t let me go to the store by myself. He said, ‘Be careful — you wouldn’t believe how some of those draftees behave.’ Though he’s a draftee himself,” wrote one woman. Another said, “I’m going to my parents’ place [in Yelansky] this weekend, and I want to be able to walk around safely, not be afraid of draftees. I understand that you’re living like it’s your last day on earth, but imagine if your wives and children were in our place. Would you like that?”

According to official data, since the start of Russia’s draft, six draftees who were stationed in Yelansky have died without ever seeing the war. Two of those deaths directly involved alcohol: one man choked on his own vomit, while the other had a seizure. A third draftee died by suicide. A fourth, Denis Kozlov, died after going back home; the cause of his death was later reported to be cirrhosis and alcohol-induced heart failure. Kozlov told his brother before his death, however, that he was brutally beaten while in Yelansky. Another draftee died of a heart attack, while a sixth died at a COVID-19 hospital in Chelyabinsk.

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In October 2022, local authorities imposed restrictions on the amount of alcohol customers could buy in local stores. State Duma Deputy Maxim Ivanov reported that the problem had been “straightened out.”

Nonetheless, in December, an officer stationed in the village told journalists that mobilized soldiers were arriving drunk to Yelansky, and that some had even brought entire backpacks full of vodka bottles with them.

‘It’s not safe here’

Despite the reports of an alcohol sales ban, Yelansky’s liquor store turns out to be operating as normal. The shelves are full of spirits, beer, and wine, while unopened boxes of more booze sit in piles on the floor.

A customer squeezes by. He’s wearing a dirty military uniform, his stiff hat standing straight up on his head, and he smells strongly of body odor and alcohol. With trembling hands, he picks up a bottle of vodka. Then another. Then a third. He staggers towards the cash register, pays for his liquor, and carefully sets the bottles in his backpack.

“And Camel cigarettes,” he slurs.

A draftee buys vodka
Novaya Vkladka

Novaya Vkladka’s correspondent walks up to the cashier and asks about the purported ban on alcohol sales.

“Alcohol wasn’t sold here before the New Year’s holidays. The [military] command called our managers; they even blocked our cash registers for three months. But then they opened sales again, and so far, they haven’t shut it back down,” he explains. “By law, we’re obligated to sell it to them. The draftees drink until they turn into pigs. They can’t walk, they’re constantly rowdy, and they break everything. I would say it’s unsafe here.”

“Why do they drink so much?”

“I can’t say. They’re probably losing their minds at the money — they’re paid 200,000 rubles (about $2,700) each,” he says.

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“How can you tell the draftees from the [yearly] conscripts?”

“They’re easy to recognize,” he says. “They look unkempt: they’re only taken to the bathhouse to bathe once a week. When they first arrived, it was a total pigsty; they were lying all around, covered in vomit. That’s the unfortunate reality. Guys will come in here and tell me that somebody has stabbed himself, or that someone’s choked on his own vomit. I imagine that there have been a lot more deaths than the three (Editor’s note: As of January 2023, six draftees have been reported to have died in Yelansky) that have been officially reported.”

‘They drank all the cologne’

A street cleaner is shoveling snow in front of a building. Nearby, children are riding on snow tubes down a set of ice-covered stairs, nearly knocking over already-unsteady passersby. The snow around them is covered in cigarette butts and streaks of spit.

“Look, there they go,” says the street cleaner. “Drunk draftees, roaming around. They’re visible; they stand out. There used to be a whole lot of them here, seven and a half thousand. [From] Perm, Chelyabinsk, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, local villages. Now there are fewer.”

The Yelansky military base was designed for 3,500 people, but at the start of mobilization, the Russian authorities sent approximately twice that amount. Some draftees had to sleep on bare floors, and the military was ultimately forced to build a tent camp to house everybody.

The Yelansky Garrison was designed for 3,500 soldiers, but at the start of Russia’s mobilization, twice as many draftees were sent there, prompting the military to erect a tent camp.
Novaya Vkladka

Acting Sverdlovsk Military Commissar Sergey Chirkov has assured journalists that “all regulations are being observed” and that the base is not overcrowded, but local residents told Novaya Vkladka that a majority of draftees in the village are currently living in tents. They said that the military has firewood brought in for the men, but that the draftees themselves are responsible for chopping it and operating the stoves that keep the tents warm.

The street cleaner says that during the three months when alcohol sales were restricted in Yelansky, draftees began traveling to the nearby town of Kamyshlov, “where they sold the cheap stuff for crazy amounts of money.” Meanwhile, in Yelansky, according to local media, the black market price for a bottle of vodka reached 1,000 rubles, or about $13.50.

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He also says it’s not uncommon for drunk draftees to break into the homes of local residents and sleep in apartment building stairwells (though Novaya Vkladka was unable to confirm this claim).

“When alcohol wasn’t being sold, they would buy up energy drinks by the pack, drink it all, and lose their minds; they would go into withdrawal. They drank all of the fucking Triple [brand] cologne,” he says, nodding towards the perfume shop behind him.

‘How did I get here?’

Maria is a Yelansky resident who rents out a room in her apartment to draftees; a single night costs two thousand rubles (about $27). The room has a bed and a sofa, and childhood photos of her daughter and grandson sit on a high shelf. She asks Novaya Vkladka’s correspondents not to turn the doorknobs; in the last few months, they’ve all been broken by her tenants.

According to Maria, during the first weeks of mobilization, life in the village was a “nightmare.” “If [a draftee] ate like a pig at home, he’ll continue to eat like one here. If he had to hide things from his wife back at home, now he has total freedom. Some of them drank out of fear. They all have different reasons for it,” she says.

The TV in Maria’s home plays a constant stream of war movies.
Novaya Vkladka

One of Novaya Vkladka’s correspondents asks why the draftees aren’t busy with training.

“Who’s training them here?” Maria responds, waving her arms in frustration. “It goes until lunch, maximum. If he was taken from a farm, where the pay is 10,000–15,000 rubles ($135–$200), and now he’s getting 200,000 on his card ($2,700), he can barely fathom it. Naturally, he’s going to go eat his heart out and forget that he has a family and debt back at home. Some of the guys have been different, of course — they started coming to shower at my place in October. One of them would always say, ‘Why me? What grandmother did I fail to walk across the street? How did I get here?’”

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In November, one of the draftees who was stationed in Yelansky told a local news outlet that the soldiers had a lice problem. “Everyone is walking around and scratching themselves constantly. There aren’t enough places to bathe,” he said.

Maria has seen all manner of behavior from her renters. Some of them have “torn the place apart,” and she and her husband have had to kick them out. One time, a draftee’s wife came to visit, and the couple rented Maria’s room. All night, she heard the soldier beating the woman “black and blue,” and in the morning, Maria says, the woman’s face was “terrible to look at.”

Soldiers wait in line for food at the Bunker cafe
Novaya Vkladka

‘They treat you like cattle’

It’s late evening, and the cafe in the Bunker shopping center is starting to empty out. One of the only people left is Misha, a former contract fighter whose young age makes him stand out. He’s skinny, with big eyes and a forlorn expression on his face. He previously spent three months in Ukraine, and now he’s been drafted to go back.

“Nobody needs to go there,” he says in a resigned voice. “I went. Look, now I’m sitting here. There’s nothing to be done there. It’s hard there. It’s just hard. I went, and now they won’t even discharge me, do you understand? My short-term contract ended, and now they won’t discharge me, because of mobilization.”

The first time, Misha says, it was his own convictions that made him want to go to war. But the experience left him disillusioned with the Russian army.

“They treat you like cattle,” he says. “There are very few decent commanders; everybody’s afraid, nobody wants to die. There’s not enough grub. Casualties every day. On the news, everything is so rosy. But in reality, there are problems with communications, problems with supplies. It’s not like it seems.”

Two draftees try to assist another man in uniform, but he repeatedly falls to the ground
Novaya Vkladka

According to Misha, the soldiers who served alongside him in Ukraine drank just as much as the draftees in Yelansky.

“A lot of them die from drunkenness. […] Everyone drinks in our country; we really have a lot of drunks. Even more so since they started mobilizing people. People don’t know where they’re being sent, so they drink out of fear. But it doesn’t help.”

Story by Novaya Vkladka

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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