LOYGA, Russia – “First time here?” the conductor on the train that stops at the logging outpost of Loyga asks some departing passengers. “My condolences — there isn’t even cellphone connection.”
This desolate village, deep in the far northern Arkhangelsk region, is the hometown of one of the suspected GRU Russian military intelligence agents who is believed to have poisoned a former Russian spy in Britain. The other alleged attacker and an alleged military intelligence operative accused of a hacking attack in the Netherlands come from equally dismal places.
Their stories suggest how important the military and intelligence services are for ambitious young men determined to escape the gloom and poverty of rural Russia.
Owning a car in Loyga is almost pointless — all but two roads are mud and navigable only by all-terrain vehicles. Most of the houses are unpainted, looking leaden in the constant autumn drizzle. Only one train a day connects it with Moscow, stopping for just one minute for visitors to descend onto a bare platform with a line of oil tank cars on the side track.
“It’s grey, and we have no roads,” says Svetlana Lukina, chief of the village whose population of about 1,000 is a third of its onetime peak in the 1970s.
The chilly stillness of the village streets is interrupted by a dog’s barking or the sound of a passing freight train. A 28-year-old man biking home from a shift at the railroad appears intoxicated.
“Only those who had nowhere else to go are left,” says resident Yuri Poroshin, who occupies his time painting landscapes. “Only the drunkards and pensioners are left. Good young men are all gone.”
Alexander Mishkin is one who got out, leaving the village for a military academy in St. Petersburg. The investigative group Bellingcat said he’s the man known to British authorities as Alexander Petrov, one of the two suspects in the nerve-agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
For locals, Mishkin is an object of praise: he was awarded Russia’s highest military decoration, Hero of Russia, and his portrait hangs at the local school, residents say.
Work in the military and especially in the intelligence agencies has a special allure to youth from villages or small towns who were raised on movies about Russian spies and war heroes.
Mikhail Trepashkin, a retired colonel in the Federal Security Service (FSB), says that under President Vladimir Putin, himself a former intelligence officer, the security apparatus has emerged as the only available social lift for rural youth.
“In Soviet times, people were using the (Communist) party to get ahead: if you have chosen this path, that means everything is going to be all right. Now the FSB or the GRU does that,” he said.
Another suspected GRU officer, Alexei Minin, grew up in the coal-mining town of Gremyachinsk, in the Urals, more than a three-hour drive away from the Urals city of Perm. The mines are now shut, the streets of the town were deserted on a recent visit and the facade of the Soviet-era House of Culture was crumbling and some of its windows replaced with plastic.
Minin is one of four Russians suspected in the Netherlands of trying to hack into the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons.
Minin’s neighbours told the AP last week that he made an enviable career by joining the military and moving to Moscow. Minin entered the prestigious Military Diplomatic Academy and during his years of study he listed the school, as his residence, public records show.
Miskhin’s fellow traveller to England’s Salisbury, where the Skripals were poisoned, has been identified as Col. Anatoly Chepiga, who comes from a village in the Amur region in Russia’s Far East. He left before he finished high school and enrolled into the Far Eastern Military Command School, where his name is now engraved on a monument to honour his Hero of Russia award.
Villagers identified him as the Salisbury suspect who called himself Ruslan Boshirov in an interview with state-funded RT channel, and they proudly spoke of his career, referring him as a smart young man who managed to get ahead.
In Loyga, where villagers cover the roofs of their houses with what were once sheets of tarpaulin advertising Moscow’s booming property developments, Mishkin’s success story stands in contrast to the slow disintegration of rural life.
“The village is dying: Ten years will pass and there will be no village anymore,” painter Poroshin says.
His granddaughter Yulia, who is in the sixth grade, is one of only four students in her class, and they don’t have an English teacher anymore. This year, the local school didn’t enrol the final 11th and 10th grade because of the lack of students.
“People from Moscow, (like) people from New York, are not so interested in a military career and being special ops,” said military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. But thousands of miles away from the capital, “it’s a way to get out of the misery of rural life in provincial Russia, and make a career.”
Kate de Pury and Veronika Silchenko contributed to this report.