DOMNA, Russia — Besides the military, there aren’t many opportunities in this poor settlement some 35 kilometers southwest of Chita, the administrative center of the southern Siberian region of Zabaikalye.
“For us, military service is the main way of earning a living,” said local resident Aleksei. “Now, they are recruiting new volunteers. Almost everyone has already gone to the war.”
Domna’s prewar population of about 6,000 has been seriously depleted since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Many young men have volunteered or were mobilized, while others vanished after President Vladimir Putin proclaimed mobilization last September.
There is an ancient Buryat legend that Domna was founded at the place where a maiden wept for a slain warrior. Locals say the town has been weeping ever since.
“A lot of guys were mobilized,” said Aleksei, whose name has been changed for his protection. “They were taken away on buses. My brother was taken…. He’s young — just 20…. And they also brought mobilized soldiers here from other regions. They were trained here and then sent away to the war.”
The settlement is dominated by a large military airfield that is the home base of the 120th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment and a service center for Russian military transport planes.
‘The Money Helps, Too’
Domna has a rough reputation.
“It is almost impossible to go there at night,” a local taxi driver said.
“The locals are scumbags who will hit you over the head just like that. There is no normal work there. Everything revolves around the railroad or the military units. The only way to get work is through bribery…. As soon as the war started, almost all the local men were taken to Ukraine.”
Another taxi driver, Sergei Anufriyev, said he has been driving between Chita and Domna a lot lately as soldiers return from Ukraine on leave.
“You drive them, and you hear stories that make your hair stand on end,” he said. “They say a lot of our guys are dying there. And a lot of wounded guys have been sent back, too. And they are young guys, too, but you don’t see any life in their eyes.”
Aleksandr Ryabchenko, 22, was mobilized in late September 2022 and was back in Domna on a short leave. Before that, he worked as a laborer at the air base.
“We loaded artillery shells,” he said. “It was normal work, and I was satisfied. I got 25,000 rubles ($275) a month, and it was enough for bread and cigarettes. But then they came and called me up.
“And was I supposed to run away when my homeland was in danger?” he asked. “No. I’m a patriot. I went to defend it. Of course, the money helps, too.”
Ryabchenko found himself in Ukraine in November 2022, one of more than 800 soldiers from the Zabaikalye region. He recalled his arrival in the combat zone.
“They promised us we’d get training in Rostov,” he said, referring to a southern Russian region bordering Ukraine. “But that didn’t happen. We flew into Rostov on transport. They even let us smoke on the plane. That was because half of us were not going to come back alive. The officers talked about that openly in front of us. We listened to them and smoked our cigarettes. It was terrifying.”
The new soldiers, he said, were transferred directly from the plane into buses and driven into Ukraine.
“We were shelled the first time as soon as we arrived,” he recalled. “And eight men were killed on the spot. I fell to the ground and, only half alive myself, I thought: This is where I will die.”
‘You Have To Eat’
“I joined the Wagner mercenary group back in 2016,” said 48-year-old Igor, “because there was no normal work in Domna, and you have to eat. I couldn’t go to work in a mine because I’d served time in prison.”
Igor was standing in front of the local school, where there is a memorial to those killed in World War II. Last October, a black plaque was attached to the monument dedicated to the memory of those killed “in the special military operation for the liberation of the Donbas,” as the Kremlin requires its invasion of Ukraine be euphemistically described. A classroom inside the school has been named for a local man who was killed in the war.
A lot of locals have criminal records, said one woman.
“Every other person here has been driven to the police station,” she said. “A lot of them have served time for theft. You have to live somehow. All the normal people leave for Chita, and they don’t come back.”
Igor is an enthusiastic supporter of the war, repeating government narratives that Russia is “saving the world from American and Western influence.”
“What is our country built on?” he said. “The family and its development. Look at what is happening abroad: Everyone is gay. But we have traditional families — a father, a mother, children.
“I came back on leave, and I see young men wandering around Domna,” he continued. “I say, ‘What are you doing here? You should be defending the homeland.'”
Igor added that he was heading back to Ukraine soon.
‘We Bury A Lot Of People Here’
Early this year, virtually the entire village turned out for the funeral of Wagner fighter Aleksei Lukyanov, who was killed near the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the war. His family was never told the details of his death.
“There were a lot of people there,” said Kristina, a friend of the family. “There weren’t any particular signs of the war. We try to bury the guys without flags. That’s the way things are. Someone might desecrate the grave. After all, not everyone supports the war. And we bury a lot of people here.”
No one knows why Lukyanov signed up with Wagner, she added.
“Maybe patriotism, maybe to earn a living,” she said. “People think it is better to die there a hero than to die from drugs like half the town here. All of his friends died of overdoses or something else tied to drugs.”
A month after Lukyanov’s funeral, Domna buried a friend of his who went by the nom de guerre Krugly.
“He killed himself,” said Aleksandr, one of Krugly’s schoolmates. “And before that, back in October, another guy from his company hanged himself. I won’t go into the details, but drugs were to blame.”
Aleksandr said eight men from his school class had died of drug-related causes since the war began, in addition to those who were killed in Ukraine.
“One after another, they are leaving,” he said.