'Kremlin Doesn't Know We Exist': The Siberian Village That Still Backs Putin

Yevgeny Aleksandrovich remembers the relatively good times in Loshchinka, a village of weather-beaten timber cottages and rutted roads that stands isolated in the Siberian taiga.

A nearby "sovkhoz," or state farm, was the main job provider, explains Aleksandrovich to RFE/RL's Siberian Desk.

"There was enough work for everyone. I haven't lived in this house the whole time. We lived in another one, then we moved. The sovkhoz gave us an apartment. I drove a tractor there," Aleksandrovich recounts fondly outside his ramshackle abode.

The sovkhoz hung on for more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union before shuttering in the early 2000s, sucking the life out of Loshchinka and other villages in the region, Aleksandrovich explains.

"But now there are practically no cattle in the village. Some keep pigs. Cows are difficult to raise. Feed is expensive and you need space for them to graze. I don't have a car. I had a tractor once. The big problem: a lot of drink," he adds.

Turbulent Times

Families have left in droves, leaving behind abandoned homes, many of which were cannibalized for building materials or bought up to serve as garden plots for some of the fortunate few in the region. Only some two dozen people now live year-round in Loshchinka, all pensioners, except one boy who is bused out for school.

Andrei Yegorov operated a bulldozer on the sovkhoz in the 1990s, when the state farm was already in decline, he explains.

"So people worked, but they didn't get paid -- they simply went to work for free. So I left with my family and rented an apartment in the town of Borodino. But rent was expensive, so we bought a small cottage nearby, Yegorov recounts, adding his marriage didn't survive the turbulent times.

"After that, I divorced my wife. She got everything, so I returned here," he explains.

Walking the four mud-rutted roads in Loshchinka, the occasional bark of a dog is about the only sign of life.

All the shops, including a public bath house, are long gone. Food staples, including bread, are trucked in a few times a week for sale to anxious locals. Water has to be pumped in, as there is no well in Loshchinka. Mail deliveries are closely monitored because they can include pension payouts, meager sums but crucial to existing here. The only 'business' left is the medical clinic, run by a woman who is on the verge of retirement. The lone street lamp in Loshchinka hasn't shined in years.

Vera Shkudina says complaints to local officials in nearby Borodino to fix the light were pointless. "They told us that there were people even worse off than us," Shkudina, a longtime resident, shrugs. "The local officials only come here during elections."

The sentiment that government is not working for them is a common lament across Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has managed to grab more and more power for himself over the years, shutting out civil society. But as he sits at the controls in the Kremlin, not only is Russia's economy sputtering, its population is dwindling, affecting villages like Loshchinka that are on the verge of dying out.

Despite the hardship and absence of hope, all the ballots cast in Loschinka in the March 18 presidential election -- 25 in all -- were for Putin, who won a fourth term as president.

With all the voters in their twilight years, pensions were a big consideration.

"After working 40 years and eight months, I receive 8,500 rubles a month for retirement," says Valentina Yegorova. "My husband worked his whole life on a state farm. As a military veteran, he gets 15,000 [rubles a month, approximately $245]. And with my beggarly.... Well, it's possible to survive."

Vera Shkudina is not nearly as fortunate.

"I worked as a milkmaid all my life, but what's the point. I have to raise my grandson; his dad is somewhere stumbling about drunk. They live separate from us, across the road. I've raised him since he was in diapers."

Shkudina explains how a "businessman" in nearby Borodino trucks over goods to the town every week, offering them on credit, an offer too good to ignore for the cash-strapped folks in Loschinka.

"I don't know whether the prices are high or low, there's nothing to compare it with. They sell on credit, so a lot of people take it, it happens. We get our pensions, they bring the goods, we come and pay off the last order, and they sell us stuff again on credit. Pensions are small, I get the minimum, 8,300 rubles [$135]," Shkudina adds.

Hard-Hit Hinterlands

Putin's vow to raise pensions, something he promised to do in his annual state of the nation address on March 1, is what won Shkudina over to the man who has become Russia's longest-serving leader since Stalin.

"The pension, it might not be much, but it comes every month. That's why we're for Putin," Shkudina says.

"I don't know why everyone voted for Putin. But who else was there to vote for?" asks Yegorova, who worked at polling station No. 1841 in Loshchinka on election day.

"I voted, of course, for Putin, because -- what if I had voted for [Ksenia] Sobchak, for example? What would she do? We need Putin. Let it be Putin. He, how to put it, knows what's going on in the world and that's it," Yegorova says.

Her husband echoes the sentiment in Russia's hard-hit hinterlands that Moscow ignores them.

"What is happening here in Loshchinka...the Kremlin doesn't even know we exist on the map," Yegorov says.

Despite feeling that Moscow is oblivious to their plight, Yegorov, like others in Loshchinka, is firmly in the Putin camp.

"I'm for Putin. Let him rule."