A Russian Town Where the War Dead Were Everyone’s Neighbors

The ceremony to honor a fallen Russian soldier went viral for all the wrong reasons.

Officials dedicating a park and a playground to a local hero who died in the Ukraine war chose a song from “The Hunger Games,” blaring out the national anthem in the movie about a totalitarian state where young people are forced to kill one another to survive.

The musical faux pas last May in the eastern Russian town of Kyakhta, home to a prominent infantry brigade, soon rocketed around social media. If the incident was discordant in the extreme, it also accentuated the contradictions of Vladimir Putin’s war that are changing the face of garrison towns across Russia.

Patriotism and military pride have become the order of the day in communities with military bases, evident in proliferating memorials to the dead, medal ceremonies, community efforts to supply the troops and large renditions of the letters Z and V decorating the streets to show support for the conflict.

Yet there is also pain and sadness. Mothers lament sons missing on the battlefield. The local cemetery is growing exponentially. The flood of newly purchased cars in Kyakhta telegraphs loss as much as prosperity — the money comes from large government payouts to families of the dead and grievously injured.

If Kyakhta made news before the war, it was because its base earned the nickname “The Death Camp,” because of young conscripts dying repeatedly in hazing rituals. Elements of that dark reputation have not faded entirely. Some soldiers from the brigade have been accused by the Ukrainians of committing atrocities.

These days, the unit, called the 37th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade, is mostly a source of pride. Its exploits are being lauded repeatedly on the national news, by the president no less.

Lt. Yuri Zhulanov, a member of the brigade, got a high-level taste of the glory last June when Mr. Putin called him around 2 a.m. as he lay in a hospital bed near the Ukrainian front. Lieutenant Zhulanov had just led his platoon to safety while repulsing a Ukrainian assault, despite limping from shrapnel wounds in one leg, according to the official account. Mr. Putin wanted to congratulate him.

The president told the lieutenant that he was now a Hero of Russia, the highest state honor. The Russian leader later pinned a gold star to Lieutenant Zhulanov’s cobalt blue hospital pajamas personally, lauding battle-hardened veterans like him as the future of the Russian military. “The armed forces need people like this, who have been tested by fire in combat operations,” the president said.

That’s one side of the story. Cpl. Dmitry Farshinev, 21, the soldier whose bust was unveiled to the music of “The Hunger Games,” is part of the rising death count of soldiers from Kyakhta. He was one of 165 members of the brigade who have been killed in action, according to the tally from several online accounts devoted to memorials.

At least 82 lived permanently in Kyakhta. When a regional publication did a story about the city in June 2022, the toll stood at 45.

Even during the Covid pandemic, “people didn’t die like they do now,” Elena Takhtaeva, the cemetery’s caretaker, told the publication, “People of Baikal.”

The number stands in stark contrast to earlier wars, too. The official tally for the 37th Brigade from the two wars in Chechnya was 11 dead; from Afghanistan, just two.

This account of life in Kyakhta is based on interviews with several residents, articles and photographs in local publications as well as scouring more than 50 chat groups or web pages devoted to the town.

Kyakhta sits in a large basin surrounded by tree-covered hills, with a baby-blue Russian Orthodox Cathedral dominating the skyline, pictures show. Long concrete fences line the road around the main military base.

Just a few hills over from the cemetery, a concentration of barbed wire denotes the border with Mongolia. In earlier centuries, Kyakhta was a major hub in the tea trade between China and Russia. When thousands of young Russian men fleeing mobilization last fall lined up at the border post, a common sentiment in Kyakhta was that such traitors deserved to be arrested.

Online chat rooms on Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, and other social media platforms reflect the mood in the town, thrumming with discussions about the war and the brigade, about the need to buy it supplies like better radios.

Occasional critics of the war emerge among the pervasive cheering.

“The bodies of the dead are returned to their homeland, but they are in such a state that their relatives cannot identify them,” wrote one man on a Vkontakte page dedicated to the brigade. “What is all this for? What are these young guys dying for?”

Fierce arguments have erupted online over the Immortal Regiment, the civilian march in many Russian cities that follows the annual May 9 military parade commemorating World War II. Those participating usually hold aloft black-and-white pictures of their ancestors who fought.

This year organizers suddenly changed the format to pictures of World War II veterans circulating on a truck. They said it was for security reasons, but some suspected it was because last year some marchers held up color pictures of dead soldiers from the Ukrainian war.

“It’s one thing to remember your great-grandfather and to pay tribute to his memory,” someone identified as a Kyakhta resident wrote on Vkontakte. “But it’s quite another matter if the mother carries a photo of her son.”

Those who serve in Ukraine tend to do it for the “paycheck” rather than patriotism, said a town resident, who requested anonymity because he feared that residents would make his life difficult. People who used to criticize the government and to praise Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed opposition leader, have stopped, said the man. “Now they support the war.”

In the town of about 20,000 people, almost everyone knows somebody who died in the war, he said. He knew about 15 men killed, and at least five had been his acquaintances. There are more disabled people on the streets, he said, and some families boast about their huge government payouts, which they often spend on cars and heavy drinking.

The sums vary by region, but the base payment for a soldier killed starts around the equivalent of $90,000, while for a serious injury it is about $35,000. The median monthly salary for a Russian worker equals around $955 per month, although regional differences are wide, so in impoverished regions of Siberia such payments represent a windfall despite the circumstances.

Unlike in large Russian cities, many cars are marked with a giant Z or V, or sometimes both — letters used to symbolize support for the war. The letters are also painted on fences all over town.

The war altered the city’s streetscape in other ways. Patriotic banners flutter across the facades of numerous buildings, including City Hall, the cultural center, the children’s library and the local history museum. The Z in the Russian word for museum was printed much larger than the rest — муЗей — to salute the war.

The town has also raised some permanent memorials to the dead. Besides the bust of Corporal Farshinev, who grew up in Kyakhta, a giant mural outside his old high school depicts him in uniform. Several alleys of mountain ash trees have been planted to commemorate fallen soldiers.

In Ukraine, the Security Services have accused soldiers from the 37th Brigade of being involved in numerous atrocities against civilians in Bucha and other places, including torturing and murdering the mayor of a village near Kyiv called Motyzhyn, along with her husband and son. The brigade has not responded to such accusations, although Russia in general has accused the Ukrainians and their Western allies of staging the atrocities.

Locals are more focused on their own. In early September, a group of wives and mothers of missing soldiers recorded an appeal to Mr. Putin. “If they died, we ask you to return their bodies to us,” they said in their statement. “If they are in the hospital, we ask you to let us know.”

Such cries for help have become relatively common from garrison towns across Russia.

Local news outlets profile young widows. Kyakhta has long been a difficult place for wives who accompany their husbands from larger cities. They can end up in houses heated by stoking wood stoves and are frustrated by the lack of doctors and poor roads.

Alina Deeva, 23, had lived in Kyakhta for five years and was four months pregnant when her husband, a recent military academy graduate, got called up last May for immediate deployment to Ukraine. He was killed six days after arriving.

Ms. Deeva named her newborn son after his late father, but she has one firm wish: “I just don’t want him to be a military man,” she said.