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Bath salts, overdoses, and drug mules The prevalence of substance abuse among Russian soldiers on the front lines

Source: Verstka
Evgeny Biyatov / Sputnik / IMAGO / SNA / Scanpix / LETA

Drug use is widespread in the Russian army, both among soldiers on the front lines and in rear positions. One out of every 10 soldiers smokes marijuana, and many also take hard drugs, according to independent outlet Verstka. Drug mules bring synthetic drugs, namely mephedrone and what’s known as “salt,” straight to the trenches, while drug paraphernalia is often found at Russian positions. To learn more about drug use on the front, Verstka spoke with dozens of soldiers, drug users, and local residents in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory. Meduza in English is sharing an abridged translation of Verstka’s report.

In the image below, Russian mobilized soldiers are seen taking turns smoking hashish through a tin can. Behind the soldiers stands a makeshift bench, a two-liter bottle of beer, and a dugout.

“Hey, are you out of your fucking mind?” one soldier suddenly yells at another who appears to have dropped the hashish on the ground.

“What’d I do?”

“Fuck off to bed.” 

A video showing this exchange was first posted on Telegram in August. An administrator for an anti-war Telegram channel shared the full video with Verstka. The soldier recording is Vladimir Kozlov, who was found in Ukrainian captivity in August 2023 — that’s likely when the video was taken from his phone.

Screenshot taken from the video published by Verstka

While there are many reports of Russian soldiers drinking in occupied Ukraine, the use of illegal substances is documented much less frequently.

“Recently, one of my mates took [drugs], stashed them, I saw it all myself,” explains Kirill, a soldier in the Kherson region. He was referring to a 27-year-old contract soldier who had been taking drugs for three and a half years before he went to the front.

How he made it past the selection committee in the Moscow region — that’s a big question. They haven’t check anyone at all here, they just don’t have time for that. He seemed like a normal person, he was sent out to complete assignments. But yesterday he started to shake, he was lying there sweating all over, he couldn’t stand up, he was sleepy, he was trembling, but he had no fever. We called a medic.

According to Kirill, the doctor said the man had most likely suffered from an overdose. When the military police arrived, they started to conduct the search in front of everyone:

They found that my mate had used syringes. The idiot, he threw them there. After that, all 43 people in the battalion got up and immediately said, “We won’t serve with him. We’re going on assignments with him, and who knows what he might do? It could all end badly.”

‘They do drugs out of boredom’

“Since the dugout is small, everyone knows if you’re taking drugs in the trenches. Nobody gives a shit, the main thing is that you don’t bother anyone. Just don’t leave the dugout,” said one soldier who’s a drug user.

“They do drugs out of boredom,” he explains. “War is when you’re constantly waiting for something, often praying for it all to end. When I was smoking salt in the dugout, I didn’t give a fuck about anything. The boredom’s a lot worse.”

A fellow soldier brought him a gram of alpha-PVP from Luhansk right to the dugout. They smoked it through a ballpoint pen off of the metal lid of a jar, and washed it down with vodka out of a tin mug. “While I was high on salt, it even tasted good. It’s horrible, when you’re high, even ration cigarettes are quite nice, but when you’re sober, I’d rather pick sunflowers from a minefield and smoke them.”

Most of Verstka’s sources say that it’s easy to get ahold of drugs in the occupied territories and on the front lines. “It’s like in Las Vegas,” explains one soldier.

Local residents bring drugs straight to the trenches, Verstka’s sources say. They charge a lot due to the risks involved. One source said that three syringes of an illegal substance cost him around 15,000 rubles (approximately $150). Other sources says they get drugs from fellow soldiers, volunteers, or they just bring it themselves.

“You just pick up the stuff and take it with you. The first time, when we went for what seemed like training exercises in February 2022, we sure as fuck didn’t have time to take anything. But in May, one guy from our unit stopped for ‘an assignment.’ And that time he brought some. A couple dozen doses of gunpowder and pinecones,” one contract soldier from Moscow told Verstka.

It’s the second year of war that locals have been growing, processing, and selling poppies, contract soldiers explain:

When we see these kinds of gardens during clearance operations, we immediately burn everything. Last time, the neighbors of the man whose garden we burned told us that he never had a plot like that before the war. But when the Russians came, he started growing it, demand had gone up.

A few soldiers told Verstka that you can also get drugs from pro-Russian volunteers who bring equipment and other necessities to the front line.

Our company has its own kind of support service — volunteers occasionally send us everything we need. We get our friends and family to give them [the drugs]. It’s all greenlit, without inspection. And that’s how we did it last time. Well, not through the volunteers themselves, they didn’t know anything, but through our friends.

The role of booze on the frontlines

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‘Making money off of us’

One drug mule, Artem Levchenko, a 28-year-old resident of Donetsk, was arrested in January 2023. A video shows him saying he “was asked to bring” three grams of mephedrone to the trenches. “There was information from soldiers that they were bringing this shit to the trenches… Right to the positions! Fucking salt addicted low-lifers,” says a military officer who detained the dealer.

Besides those inexperienced dealers, there are also so-called “professional guides” in the occupied territories. “These are locals who can illegally bring you through the checkpoints, they have deals with them. They bring drugs through them. These are people who are making money off of the war, making money off of us,” explains one soldier, sounding offended.

As far as how they go about taking drugs, one contract soldier replies nonchalantly: “Like usual, make a line and take a hit. There are plenty of options. Go to the woods, do it during a night patrol shift, or back at the barracks. We rented apartments in a couple of places instead of staying at the base.”

“Just don’t paint a picture that we’re in the trenches, all drugged up,” explains one of Verstka’s sources from a special unit. “I haven’t even heard about that. There’s a lot of drinking on the front. But fuck knows if people are high on amphetamines while in combat.”

One air force soldier explains that he’s never seen professional soldiers do drugs —only contract soldiers.

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Alcohol abuse among Russian officials

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‘Most soldiers in the city take amphetamine, mephedrone, salt’

There are advertisements for salt throughout Donetsk and Mariupol, and even in the city of Rubizhne in the Luhansk region, which is less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the front lines.

Russian contract soldiers and draftees can afford expensive drugs thanks to payments from the government. These payments are transferred to their cards, which they then use to buy drugs through Telegram bots.

Verstka estimates that drugs in the “new regions” are two-and-a-half times more expensive. “I don’t think salt prices have deterred [anyone]. The number of addicts hasn’t gone down, it’s stayed the same. And they spend it on all this crap. Most soldiers in the city take amphetamine, mephedrone, salt — I’ve seen [Russian soldiers high], and not just once. I could tell that they weren’t being themselves. Before the blockade, I also knew people from Ukraine’s Armed Forces who took drugs,” said Vadim, a drug user from Mariupol.

New drug traffickers appeared in the region as early as April 2022. Many of them were tortured and beaten by “people in uniform.”

“Someone I know was taken to a basement. They didn’t beat him, they mostly electrocuted him,” said one resident who ran away from the occupied region. “I know that newcomers were squeezing out drugs from a local dealer in Hola Prystan. They tortured him so that he’d hand over his suppliers, so they could sell it themselves. He didn’t say what exactly he told them. But they broke his ribs, arms and legs, stole his Jeep, and threw him out on the street to die.”

Since July 2022, they’ve started to bring heroin to the Kherson region, “and very strong [heroin] at that,” explained one local drug user. “People were dying from it. There were a lot of occurrences like that. Soldiers and our local residents were poisoned by chemicals, [people] nearly died on the spot from the supply.”

“There were a lot of drugs in Kherson, just like there was a lot of booze. Both after the occupation, and now, after the liberation,” explains one of the city’s residents.

In the summer of 2022, drug traffickers from the “people’s republics” came to Kherson. In June, an online drug store called Republic started to hand out “samples” of alpha-PVP through Ukrainian drug forums.

Clearing Lyrica from pharmacy shelves

Soldiers also take pharmaceuticals to relax. “They bring us potent [drugs] and sell them without prescription. Barbiturates were everywhere in the winter,” says one resident of a city in the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic.”

“There are a lot of barbiturates. Like actually a ton, I’ve even taken them myself. Every second or third soldier takes some,” one contract soldier told Verstka.

He’s mostly referring to anti-anxiety medications such as Lyrica, which induces euphoria and relaxation. “Yeah, kind of like Lyrica. You can buy it in Bayatsk without a prescription, in specific places.”

Soldiers don’t consider Lyrica a hard drug, though — it’s seen as similar to beer or wine. “When we were in Luhansk, we crossed paths with Chechens there, they would clear Lyrica out of the pharmacy shelves.”

In Rostov-on-Don and Bayatsk, pharmacists who give out Lyrica and Tropicamide without prescriptions are occasionally arrested. Tropicamide, which drug users call “cartoon,” are eye drops that are used recreationally to enhance the effects of other substances. The substance becomes addictive after just a few uses, and is reported to completely destroy the body after 7-8 months of regular use.

More on drug abuse in Russian society

‘Why couldn’t you save me?’ How a teenager in Perm who dreamed of being a chemist built and ran a drug lab in a rented apartment

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Drug users who are caught get sent to ‘penalty battalions’

On the front lines, drug testing is almost non-existent. “But there were a few scandals in the winter when they made everyone take urine tests to check for drugs, to kick out the users,” one soldier told Verstka. “There are units where there’s a strict prohibition law, you can get in trouble for overdrinking. It was apparently all very strict for the Wagnerites, they couldn’t do anything, but no one checked the assault units. You can’t get a jar and tests out to Bakhmut…”

“They didn’t check the rest of us after they found a mate of mine with injection marks on his legs,” said one contract soldier near Kherson. “Generally, no one here gives a shit, frankly speaking. But if you’re caught, then you have one fate — a penalty battalion, the ‘Storm’ unit.”

“Storm” is referred to as “a battalion for screw-ups, where soldiers are sent for getting drunk, fighting, brawling — everything civilians would get jail time for.”

Most of the time, the courts dismiss the cases and send the relevant files to the commanders of military units to punish the servicemen themselves. Their punishment of choice — sending the soldiers to the front as part of the Storm unit.

“There, the soldiers are on the frontlines and come under fire. 95% of them are sentenced to death,” making drug use at the front effectively a death sentence, said one soldier. “Let’s be honest, no one here wants a commotion, drugs in the battalion are a stain on all of us. No one needs the prosecutor and Investigative Committee here. And there won’t be any trials. It’s easier to put them in confinement for two days and write up a document saying they’ll be transferred to Storm. They can’t say no.”

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Story by Verstka

Abridged translation by Sasha Slobodov

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