Coffins in Buryatia: Ukraine invasion takes toll on Russia’s remote regions | Russia


Holding smoking incense sticks and singing hymns, a group of Buddhist monks sat in front of the open coffins of four Russian soldiers killed fighting in Ukraine as hundreds of mourners gathered on Monday at a local sports centre in Ulan-Ude, the capital of the remote Buryatia region in Russia’s far east.

“We are distraught. This bloodshed needs to stop. Our boys are dying,” said Olga Odoeva, the sister-in-law of Bulat Odoev, one of the four soldiers being buried.

Odoev, who joined the military 10 years ago, was killed in battle outside Kyiv on 15 March, nearly 4,000 miles away from his home town.

“He just didn’t want to let his team down. He felt it was his duty to go,” Olga said hours after the funeral finished. “Our family opinion on this differs from the one held by authorities, but what can we do?”

Russia has only disclosed the most limited information about its losses in the war in Ukraine, saying that 1,351 of its soldiers have died in the fighting, a number that is far lower than the estimates made by Nato and Ukraine.

Officials have also not provided the names of the dead or given any details about where they served, but as the war in Ukraine has entered its second month, group funerals such as the one of Odoev and his comrades, as well as reports by independent local media outlets, indicate that Buryatia, and other republics far away from the Kremlin, have been disproportionately affected by the conflict.

“It is becoming clear that a lot of the soldiers who are dying are from the poorer ‘ethnic minority’ republics like Buryatia, Kalmykia and Dagestan,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian military expert.

Russia is divided into 85 federal subjects, 22 of which are republics, originally created as regions to represent areas of non-Russian ethnicity.

Luzin said the lower ranks of the Russian army were particularly filled with young men from those republics who enlist after their mandatory conscription ends, mainly for financial reasons.

“It is a golden ticket for many young guys to get out who don’t have any other prospects in life. The army offers a job, a decent salary, a future.”

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Buryatia, lying between Lake Baikal and Mongolia at the eastern end of Siberia, is one of the most impoverished of Russia’s regions, with an average monthly salary of just 44,000 rubles (£390), despite holding some of the country’s largest deposits of natural resources. Between 30% and 40% of its 1 million population are ethnic Buryats who traditionally practise a mixture of Buddhism and shamanism.

Ludi Baikala, a small independent media outlet that covers the region, has so far identified and named 45 soldiers from Buryatia who have died in Ukraine, but it believes the real number is much higher.

“The 45 are just the ones we managed to identify. There will be many more that are not talked about,” said Olga Mutovina, a journalist for Ludi Baikala.

In other republics, local journalists’ investigations and rare admissions by officials also reveal a significant death toll.

In Dagestan, Radio Svoboda reported that at least 130 soldiers from the mountainous Caucasus region had died, and a senator from Tuva on the Mongolian border has publicly said that 96 soldiers from her small republic were killed in Ukraine. If these numbers are accurate, the three republics of Buryatia, Dagestan and Tuva alone would make up almost a quarter of all the official Russian war deaths.

Buryatia, lying between Lake Baikal and Mongolia at the eastern end of Siberia, is one of the most impoverished of Russia’s regions. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

“It is just so hard to find all the real names, and the authorities don’t like to publicise it while journalists choose not to write about it, fearing consequences,” said Mutovina.

Russia has introduced a series of laws that threaten those who “knowingly” spread “fake news” about the Russian army and state bodies with fines and prison sentences of up to 15 years.

Mutovina said that she and two of her colleagues were the only journalists who attended the funeral in Ulan-Ude on Monday, describing an “intense” atmosphere.

“We did not expect all four bodies to be laid out at the same time with hundreds of grieving family members around them.

“The foul odour of the dead bodies soon mixed with the Buddhist incense, creating a nauseating smell,” she said, adding that she and her colleagues were escorted away as soon as the local police realised they were journalists.

Many soldiers from Buryatia fighting in Ukraine, including two of the men who were buried on Monday, are part of the 11th Guards Air Assault Brigade, which participated in the crucial battle for the Antonov airport two days into the invasion.

But while the scale of the current conflict is unprecedented in modern Russian history, the country has a history of using Buryat soldiers to achieve its military goals.

In 2015, numerous independent media outlets reported that a tank battalion from Buryatia was sent to Donbas to fight alongside Russian-backed separatists against the Ukrainian army, a conflict in which Russia has always denied involvement.

Pointing to the war of 2015 and the present invasion, Luzin said there was also a darker, more cynical reason why scores of soldiers from the country’s more remote republics have been dying.

“Unfortunately, the average Russian will care less about the death of a Buryat or Dagestani than about the death of blue-eyed soldiers from Moscow and St Petersburg,” Luzin said.

“That also goes into the minds of those planning military operations. Buryat soldiers get sent on missions on which commanders wouldn’t send other troops.”

Some local anger has started to spread over the increasingly noticeable number of Buryat soldiers dying.

Vyacheslav Markhaev, a member of the state duma from Buryatia has been one of the few officials in the country who have condemned the war, accusing President Vladimir Putin of “hiding plans to unleash a full-scale war with our closest neighbour”.

Buryats residing abroad have also launched a campaign called “Buryats against war”, saying they are the “only ethnic minority of Russia” which has initiated an anti-war movement. But ultimately, the mood in Buryatia itself remains calm, local people say, as a mixture of fear and genuine support for the war prevail.

“I thought when the body bags would start coming back we would see more anger, maybe even a rise in Buryat nationalism. But so far that has not happened yet,” said Karina Pronina, another reporter at Ludi Baikala who lives in Ulan-Ude.

She said the constant anti-Ukrainian messages aired on Russian stated television, which have appeared to galvanise support for Russian military actions across the country, also had an impact in Buryatia.

Others who disagreed with the war said they were simply too scared to speak out, citing the “fake news” law.

“There is a large group of younger Buryats who see what is really happening,” said one artist from Buryatia who asked to stay anonymous out of fear of prosecution. “We feel like we are dying in a war that isn’t ours to fight. But speaking out is dangerous.”

For some, however, keeping quiet was not an option.

Irina Ochirova has been holding one-person anti-war pickets after she recognised her captured son on a video shared online by Ukrainian Telegram channels just two days after the invasion.

She has since started a campaign to retrieve her son Sergey, but complained that her pleas had fallen on closed ears. “I am awake at night, thinking if my son is still alive,” Ochirova said. “How can I go on?”