Original story by Anna Ryzhkova for Verstka. English-language version by Emily Laskin.
In the nearly 13 months since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, thousands of Russian men have returned to Russia, wounded and traumatized from combat. Those who require extensive rehabilitation are sent to sanatoriums for treatment and restorative procedures. An employee at one Russian sanatorium told the publication Verstka Media about the physical and psychological toll of the war on Russian soldiers and about those who care for them when they’re wounded. Meduza is providing an English-language version of this account.
‘It’s a generally tense environment’
Anna Ryzhkova has worked in the intake department at a Russian military sanatorium for six years. Before the war, she mostly admitted retired military pensioners who would come for vacation. But in spring 2022, participants in Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine began to arrive for rehabilitation after they’d been wounded or suffered psychological damage in combat.
At first, only contract soldiers arrived; they had shrapnel wounds, amputated limbs, ruptured internal organs. They came to the sanatorium after being evaluated at military hospitals and usually stayed for three weeks. If their injuries can be treated, they go back to the front once they’ve healed.
Ryzhkova’s job has gotten more hectic since March 2022, in part because some fighters, especially those who return from the front traumatized and shocked, drink heavily and behave badly. Meanwhile, retired career soldiers still come to the sanatorium to relax, and they’re unhappy with that kind of company. Some have stopped coming so that they don’t have to cross paths with the rehabilitation patients. “It’s a generally tense environment,” Ryzhkova says.
When the war started, the sanatorium sometimes received as many as 100 people a day. To help each other out, employees started coming in during their time off.
Every soldier who comes has to fill out forms detailing his medical history. “Some sit there, filling out the forms for hours,” Ryzhkova says. “Some have injuries that make writing difficult, some ask dozens of questions, and some are so drunk that they don’t even understand what they’re supposed to do.” The latter circumstance became more common when the sanatorium started taking in draftees.
Ryzhkova finds it particularly frightening to be alone with them. There’s no security camera or panic button, and the soldiers are often quite forward, especially if they’ve been drinking. They make inappropriate comments, she says, or “sometimes they throw money in my face, trying to express gratitude or ask me on a date.” She’s been asked out more than once.
She says the sanatorium’s administrators don’t care about how stressful the work has become. “They make good money by treating service members — the more people, the bigger their budget.” And they don’t have to interact directly with the soldiers.
Employees do get time off for overtime hours, but there have been no salary raises, even though the job has become much harder. For the first six months after the full-scale war started, the facility didn’t even have ramps, and staff members had to carry patients who arrived in wheelchairs up and down the stairs.
“It’s a shame about amputees,” says Ryzhkova. “[But] what kind of rehabilitation can they do at a sanatorium? It’s not a specialized center. So, some literally just lie there, passing the time, until the state gives them a prosthesis.” The process is long and arduous, however, and some men go through several periods of rehabilitation while they’re waiting, just so they have somewhere to be. If they do manage to get a prosthesis while they’re at the sanatorium, rehabilitation staff help them learn to use it.
The sanatorium isn’t always the right place for badly wounded soldiers. It’s neither a hospice nor a special rehabilitation facility, and it lacks special staff to care for patients who are bedridden. Sometimes, when fighters arrive too injured to care for themselves, their mothers come to help.
‘One got drunk and drowned in a lake’
The sanatorium offers entertainment, but its nights at the piano and evening dances are geared toward the older clientele who come to vacation. “There’s nothing to do for guys who’ve just returned from the front,” says Ryzhkova. So, they entertain themselves by shopping at the nearby liquor store.
Alcohol isn’t allowed at the sanatorium, but soldiers get together in their rooms and drink secretly. If they keep to themselves, the staff turns a blind eye. But sometimes patients drink and have flashbacks, or they start fights. Occasionally, they even attack the doctors who try to calm them down. Ryzhkova says these incidents happen weekly, usually late at night. Doctors have had to summon the military police in several cases.
Once, the secret drinking ended in tragedy. There’s a lake on the sanatorium grounds, and a group of patients headed there one night to get drunk. A soldier in the group decided to take a swim. When everyone else got ready to leave the lake, he wasn’t with them. His friends thought he’d just gone back to his room, but in the morning, he wasn’t there. Divers later found his body.
Just a day before, the same man had bragged that he was the only surviving member of his platoon. “Then he got drunk and drowned in a lake,” says Ryzhkova. “Can you imagine his family’s reaction? To return from war alive and be killed during rehabilitation.”
‘Everyone knows what’s happening’
People also come to the center for psychological rehabilitation, which a psychiatrist oversees. The center has a separate psychiatry department and also employs a therapist and a psychologist.
Other patients sometimes complain about those who come in for psychological treatment, saying they shout in their sleep or stay up all night. Occasionally, patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are hostile or extremely easily offended, which is disruptive to others in the sanatorium.
Soldiers’ psychological issues can be disturbing to the sanatorium’s staff, as well. “When combat had just started in Ukraine, I understood that it was awful,” Ryzhkova says. “But when you see the consequences with your own eyes, it convinces you beyond a doubt: it’s total bullshit.”
When she found out that the sanatorium would take in combatants, Ryzhkova thought she would look on them with hatred for committing terrible acts in Ukraine. But in reality, she says, when she sees “guys who were born in 2001” who will live the rest of their lives without an arm, or with a colostomy bag, she feels sorry for them. “On the other hand,” she says, “they had a choice, they could have not gone to war.”
There are likely former prisoners among the facility’s patients. Wagner Group fighters arrive with nothing in their documentation to differentiate them from soldiers employed by Russia’s Defense Ministry, though their personal histories usually make it easy to guess. A diagnosis of tuberculosis is a giveaway that a person has done time and been recruited by Wagner Group from prison.
Sometimes, seniors come to the sanatorium, including veterans’ wives, and find it so upsetting to see the young men recently returned from the front that they quickly leave again. Some have a son in the army and can’t help but imagine their own child in that condition. “I understand them,” Ryzhkova says. “In the first weeks [of the full-scale invasion], the sanatorium staff and the town locals had the same impression.”
Soldiers are often very willing to talk about the front and what happened to them there. It makes staff, local residents, and even taxi drivers “aware of everything that’s going on with us.”
Still, says Ryzhkova, many of her colleagues are connected through their families to the army or the Defense Ministry, and they believe what those institutions tell them. They’ll say they’re sorry for their young patients, but that Russia has to defend itself. “I ask them: from what? It’s not like anyone has attacked us.” But she says she soon realized that arguing is useless.
English-language version by Emily Laskin