Mobilisation explodes the myth of Putin’s united Russia

Last weekend I received an email sent by a man who hails from Buryatia, a far-flung region of Russia that sits next to Siberia’s Lake Baikal, some 3,000 miles from Moscow.

Zhargal (I’ve withheld his surname) explained how he had fled the country to avoid being conscripted after president Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilisation of 300,000 reservists to bolster his forces in Ukraine. Minority groups such as the Buryats were, Zhargal wrote, being used as cannon fodder in Russia’s war and being mobilised at a dramatically higher rate than in Moscow.

Reports estimate that more than 3,000 residents of the region were conscripted on the first night alone. “I want to scream. I want to speak about real genocide of my [Buryat] people,” he wrote. “From my hometown… they drag people from houses giving them 15 minutes’ preparation.”

I first wrote about how the Russian army was disproportionately using minority soldiers in Ukraine a few months ago, amid widespread reports that these minorities were suffering per-capita casualty rates far higher than Slavic soldiers. This feels prescient now, but Putin has regularly pushed the idea that Russia, where groups such as the Tuvans, Buryats, Sakha, Kalmyks, Dagestani and Chechens have lived for centuries alongside the majority Slav population, is a multi-ethnic state, despite its complex history.

In pre-Soviet days, Russia’s imperial elites abused non-Russian groups they had conquered in Siberia and Central Asia (much like the Victorian British empire). After 1917, however, the Soviet Communists championed the idea of the multi-ethnic state and, to this day, groups such as the Buryats often say that they are “Rossiyane”, or Russian citizens, albeit not “Russkie”, ethnic Russians.

And while racism in Russia is rife, minorities do occasionally obtain positions of power. Putin’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu is an ethnic Tuvan. Indeed, a cruel twist in this tale is that minorities in Russia sometimes view military service as a means for them to garner more status and economic clout.

I saw this for myself in the Soviet Communist era where, as an academic, I spent time living in a remote Tajik village. Before my arrival, I assumed that local Tajiks must hate military ­service, given they had suffered under imperialism.

Not so. The older men, who had been mobilised during the second world war, spoke of their experience with pride. Amid the horror, they had welcomed the sense of equal Soviet identity among those fighting. One elderly man would constantly display his medals and reminisce about the black-and-white cows he had once seen in East Germany.

Even in the 1980s, the village’s men often spoke positively about compulsory military service. There was brutal bullying in the Soviet army. Yet it seemed many relished it as a chance to escape their poor valley, even if only for a period. At the time, it came as quite a shock to me and a radical contrast to my Russian student friends in Moscow, who hated military service and took desperate measures to avoid it. (For a while, one ate a diet entirely comprised of lemons to try to develop ulcers and get an exemption.)

This tangled Soviet history helps explain some of the patterns we are seeing now in the post-Soviet Russian Federation. In recent years, groups such as the Buryats have volunteered as soldiers in the Russian military in disproportionately large numbers, partly because army pay is far higher than what they can earn at home. It is another grim twist of abusive imperialism. This is one reason so many people from minorities such as the Buryats have died in Ukraine. In the wake of so many mobilisations, this inequality seems certain to continue.

Might this lead to a backlash? Perhaps. Back in March, an activist group called the Free Buryatia Foundation was created by expatriate Buryats, and is now campaigning against the war, trying to exfiltrate Buryat soldiers from Ukraine and demanding more political autonomy. The latter has not been seen before. Meanwhile, the Mongolian government has offered refuge to all Buryats, Kalmyks and Tuvans who flee.

But remembering my time in Tajikistan, I am wary of assuming that a full-blown anti-Putin rebellion will occur (even though I would dearly love to see this). There have been violent protests in other minority regions such as Dagestan in recent days. However, Buryat social-media posts show young conscripts seeming to accept their fate. Maybe this just reflects repression. It is still unclear. Either way, I’m fervently grateful that some, like Zhargal, have been able to get out and speak out.

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at gillian.tett@ft.com

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