The town of Volosovo, near St Petersburg, is booming. Not the economy – it’s the loudspeakers.
Like many towns in Russia, Volosovo has them installed on tall poles that line the main street. Traditionally they are used for playing patriotic music during national holidays. Now, though, they have a different purpose.
“Two volunteer artillery battalions are being formed. We invite men from 18 to 60 years old to join,” the speakers blare out.
It’s a message that’s being repeated up and down this vast country. On social media, on TV and on billboards, men are being urged to sign short-term contracts with the military to fight in Ukraine.
In the face of significant losses in the conflict, the authorities have launched a recruitment drive for the Russian army.
I stop one man on the street in Volosovo and ask him if he supports the call-up for volunteers. “Yes! If I were young I’d go, but I’m too old now,” he tells me, clenching his fists. “We should bomb them!”
But most people in the town seem less enthusiastic. “[The war] is too painful to even talk about,” one woman complains. “Killing your brothers is wrong.” I ask her what she would say if one of her relatives wanted to join. “Why go? Only their bodies will be brought back.”
And many bodies are.
Russia does not give numbers, but Western officials say between 70,000 and 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded since it launched its invasion six months ago.
In order to attract fresh recruits, the authorities are offering volunteers huge sums of money, plots of land and even premium places for their children in Russian schools.
Recruiters have even been visiting Russian prisons to sign up inmates, promising them freedom and money.
Investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov says the recruitment drive is a sign of desperation on the part of the authorities: “This is not the type of soldiers needed for a victorious war. The Kremlin still hopes that quantity can win over quality. That they can get these hundreds of thousands of desperate people with their debts and just throw them into the conflict zone.”
Despite the eyewatering amounts of cash on offer to potential recruits – up to £4,700 ($5,700) a month in some cases – Roman says the reality is different.
“People don’t actually see this money,” he says. “They are returning [from Ukraine] now and telling us journalists about how they were deceived. This is also influencing the situation, this lack of trust in our government, so I don’t think this strategy will be successful.”
But some are happy to join up.
Nina Chubarina’s son Yevgeny left their village in the northern region of Karelia to join a volunteer battalion. Nina says her son, who had no military experience, was given a gun and sent straight into Ukraine.
He was killed just days later. He was 24 years old.
Nina agrees to meet me in a park near Moscow, where she has found part-time work in a bread factory. She says the monotonous task of packing loaves takes her mind off the loss of her son.
She remembers pleading with her son not to go to Ukraine.
“I tried to talk him out of it. I cried. I said, ‘There’s a war, you’ll be killed!’ He said, ‘Mum, everything will be fine.'”
Nina is critical of how the authorities recruit volunteers to fight in Ukraine.
“They just send them in like dumb little chickens! They’d hardly even held a gun before. They’re cannon fodder. The generals think, ‘We’ve got a volunteer: great, in you go!'”
Not everyone is as keen to sign up as Yevgeny.
Travelling around this country, you are not left with the impression that the Russian people are all fully behind the “special military operation,” as the Kremlin likes to call it.
The number of cars on Russian roads displaying the pro-war “Z” symbol is still relatively few. Experts say that the numbers of volunteers joining up are low.
Military analyst Pavel Luzin says people here are not ready to sacrifice themselves for their president.
“The problem for the Kremlin is that most Russian people are not going to die for Putin or for the restoration of ‘the great Empire’. Recruitment isn’t possible in current circumstances because there is no civil consensus in Russia for the war.
“Compare this with Ukraine. The Ukrainians are ready to fight.”
With thanks to Alla Konstantinova from Mediazona.