soldiers erected in Chita

Siberians Ponder The Message Behind Chita’s Militarized New Year’s Decorations

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CHITA, Russia — In recent years, the eastern Siberian city of Chita has marked the New Year’s holiday with ice-sculpting competitions, with craftsmen from across the Zabaikalye region transforming blocks of ice into images of Ded Moroz, his comely sidekick Snegurochka, and other symbols of the most beloved holiday on the Russian calendar.

“Every year, I make a New Year’s fairy tale,” said one sculptor who asked to be identified only as Vladimir for fear of repercussions for speaking out. “This year, I’m making a military one.”

“There were no competitions this year,” Vladimir added. “They just summoned us and told us what to do.”

The result was a tableau of 24 ice and plastic sculptures of Russian soldiers in full combat regalia, together with ice slides and other amusements festooned in symbols of Russia’s war against neighboring Ukraine.

To mark the holiday this year, with the war in Ukraine lasting far longer and proving far costlier than Moscow anticipated when it launched its unprovoked invasion in February, the authorities in Chita have created a program under the slogan Together Into The New Year, using the Latin letter V that has become one of the Kremlin’s symbols of support for President Vladimir Putin and the war against Ukraine.

According to Zabaikalye regional Culture Minister Irina Levkovich, “the overarching task of the holiday” is to inculcate the idea that the region is “together with Russia; together with the new territories (the illegally annexed regions of Ukraine); together with the families of mobilized soldiers and the heroes of Russia.”

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The sculptures “demonstrate the New Year’s holiday as the image of a peaceful and friendly life,” she added.

“These days, you can get punished for any opinion,” ice sculptor Vladimir said when asked what he thought of the initiative. “But, in a word, of course, we have enough of war. Why do we need it here? My children want a holiday, not war.”

The sculptures "demonstrate the New Year's holiday as the image of a peaceful and friendly life," said regional Culture Minister Irina Levkovich.
The sculptures “demonstrate the New Year’s holiday as the image of a peaceful and friendly life,” said regional Culture Minister Irina Levkovich.

Another sculptor, who gave his name as Aleksandr, agreed, saying he tried to talk officials out of the idea of militarizing the holiday.

“But do you think anyone listened to us?” he said. “They got an order from above, so they are carrying it out. We will prepare our people for yet another year of war.”

‘Plastic Soldiers Cost A Lot Of Money’

Regional authorities budgeted 6.8 million rubles ($105,000) for the project amid widespread reports that mobilized soldiers have been sent into combat without proper equipment and civilians across the country are being urged to donate socks, hygiene products, thermal underwear, and other essentials for the troops.

Anastasia, 18, is a student in Chita who told RFE/RL that she liked the sculptures. “We can’t close our eyes to what is going on,” she said.

She said that her brother and her sister’s husband were recently mobilized and that her family had been forced to collect money for their uniforms and equipment.

“Yes, the army has problems with this,” she said. “Yes, these plastic soldiers cost a lot of money, while our boys have had to buy everything for themselves. But on the other hand, what guarantee is there that the money would have gone to our soldiers? At least now these soldiers will be standing here. People will look and remember our boys and pray that the war will come to an end next year.”

Regional authorities budgeted 6.8 million rubles ($105,000) for the project amid widespread reports that mobilized soldiers have been sent into combat without proper equipment.
Regional authorities budgeted 6.8 million rubles ($105,000) for the project amid widespread reports that mobilized soldiers have been sent into combat without proper equipment.

Cities across Russia have canceled mass New Year’s celebrations this year as a cost-cutting measure because of the war. Dmitry Denisov, the mayor of Kaluga, some 200 kilometers southwest of Moscow, announced in November that all holiday celebrations in the city, except for events for children, would be canceled.

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“We will direct all these freed-up funds to supporting mobilized Kaluga residents,” he wrote on social media.

Officials in St. Petersburg, the Tomsk region, the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), Yaroslavl, Nizhny Novgorod, and elsewhere have made similar decisions.

‘Either Blind Or Mad’

Kira Antonova is an 18-year-old Chita native who moved to Kazakhstan in September because of her opposition to the political situation in Russia and the war against Ukraine.

“I packed up and left literally in three days,” she told RFE/RL. “It was a matter of self-preservation…. I just wanted to run off to a world were you could speak openly about the war, where you could help the victims, where you could protest and where your opposition might mean something.”

An ice sculptor at work.
An ice sculptor at work.

Returning to Chita to spend the holidays with her parents, Antonova calls the soldier effigies “an incomprehensible madness that they call patriotism.”

“I thought it wasn’t possible to degrade themselves any more, but it turns out they can,” she told RFE/RL.

“I’m thinking: What is the message? What are they saying?…. That we are a police state? That we will soon have soldiers patrolling the streets? That the coming year will be a hard one?” she said.

“People are either blind or mad,” Antonova concluded.

Another Chita local who was admiring the ice soldiers gave his name as Nikolai and said he appreciates the efforts of regional officials.

“There is a war going on and we must not forget about the glory of our warriors,” he said.

Nikolai added that he had spoken with military recruiters two weeks earlier and they told him to be prepared for further mobilizations.

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“They have sent off all of those already mobilized and are getting ready for more. And when none of those are left, they’ll have to send these,” he said, gesturing toward the ice sculptures.

“They say the way you meet the New Year is the way that you’ll spend it,” he added. “It looks like this war will continue.”

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Chita by RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities

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