A year ago today (21 September), the Russian authorities announced the start of “partial mobilisation” – calling up reserve soldiers to fight in the war against Ukraine. Not everyone liable for military service would be called up, but everyone felt the risk of mobilisation. In response, hundreds of thousands fled the country.
Those who stayed in Russia but didn’t want to fight had to avoid being contacted by the military bureaucracy – for example, by moving immediately to a new apartment or city, changing their phone number and leaving their social media accounts. Several NGOs and mass media outlets published guides on how to “run away from the military registration and enlistment office”. One NGO called Go Through The Forest started to help Russian conscripts leave the country to avoid mobilisation.
One year on, openDemocracy has talked to three men in Russia who have avoided mobilisation. They spoke to us on condition of anonymity; after 18 months of Russia’s war on Ukraine, it has become so unsafe to express thoughts and emotions in the country that war topics are generally not discussed outside a close circle of friends. All statements below are published under pseudonyms.
Pyotr, 44, self-employed, construction worker
I have not been living at the address where I’m officially registered for a long time, for reasons not linked to the war. But when mobilisation was announced on 21 September 2022, I thought that if a summons arrived at my registration address, I would have to move to another region [where the local authorities would not be looking for me]. I began to save money in case I needed to survive in another place. This was a new and strange feeling for me.
Over the past year, I have experienced a lot of stress planning for leaving in a hurry. The main question is: will I have time to leave the region? I can’t say that I follow the news closely and monitor it every day, but there was a moment at the beginning of this summer when I refused all travel; I was expecting a counter-offensive by the Ukrainian military, and some of my family could be under threat.
I’ve been trying not to come into contact with any Russian government agencies. I don’t pay taxes and haven’t declared, in any way, that I have been working anywhere for the last year. I’ve had less work, but I manage.
I wanted to get a foreign passport, but I’ve decided to abandon this idea for now. I’m not on the military reserve register and don’t want to register there. None of my friends have been mobilised, but I’m still scared of being drafted, like I was a year ago. I expect there will be a new wave of mobilisation. But I don’t think men will be picked up in the street.
I’ve had no problems communicating with my close circle of friends, I talk to them as I did before, go to the same bars and have no quarrel with anyone. I don’t talk about the war with people outside my close circle. If discussion can’t be avoided, then I will definitely find out what the person thinks first. If I don’t trust them, I won’t express my opinion on the war. My position remains the same as it was from the very beginning: there is no need for war.
I was shocked when a former colleague of mine told me he had signed up with the Wagner group. He is still fighting for them. He told me what happens when former prisoners [who have joined Wagner] are sent to the frontline, and what they do: they kill animals and rape women.
Andrey, 36, entrepreneur
I was in Russia when mobilisation was announced on 21 September, and my wife was in another country on a trip. My first thoughts, of course, were that I needed to leave urgently. On 24 September, a summons was delivered to my brother’s house – we’re both category B [fit for military service] – but he had already left the country two months previously. At first, I carried my identity documents wherever I went, including my military ID [in case I was grabbed off the street and needed to contact someone in a hurry].
My relatives have power of attorney, so they can make all decisions for me [if I am mobilised].
We decided that the whole family needed to move abroad and started preparing the documents, but it turned out that leaving with two small children was quite difficult. We did leave, but I returned a couple of months later and stayed in Moscow. I can’t see yet how the whole family could live abroad.
By spring this year, it seemed to me that things had become calmer. But it’s still not completely safe. Our whole family has new citizenship [of another country], which makes me think I might be able to escape if I have to. When you’re very afraid of something on a daily basis, you end up getting used to it and learn to abstract yourself from this fear. Over this past year, our whole family has become used to this insecurity.
Of course, I don’t discuss the war with strangers. I believe that the war has been slowly normalised
On 1 September, I became a full-time student at college in my city. I think that data on full-time students is sent to the military registration and enlistment office, and the chance of them being drafted is minimal. I’m studying now.
I applied to various colleges, and some asked me why I wanted to study at my age – I’m about 15 years older than the average student. I made no secret of my intention to get a deferment from military service. Almost everyone I spoke to treated me with understanding and support.
At the beginning of the war, it seemed that everyone in my close circle of friends was against the war. But a year and a half later, I sense many now support it. Of course, I don’t discuss the war with strangers. I believe that the war has been slowly normalised. My attitude towards the war has not changed: I am against it, but I cannot influence its end in any way.
I have a school friend who I’ve rarely communicated with in recent years, though I sometimes saw his father and maintained friendly contact. At the beginning of the war, I decided to check in and ask how he was doing. He replied “What war?” and sent a message with the letter ‘Z’. I have not communicated with him since.
Vasily, 33, part-time teacher at a state institution
I remember very well the day when mobilisation was announced. In the morning, I read a Telegram post from a sports journalist I follow, which said: “He’s gone crazy.” I was driving to work, and realised that I would have to explain what was happening to my students. Because they would definitely want to discuss it.
My wife, who works at a state media outlet, and I started to panic. We immediately considered our options for leaving the country, but both our professions are linked to the Russian language. I realised I couldn’t compete on the international market and would not be able to continue my career. Later, I decided that the fact that I was still studying while teaching was what saved me from immediate conscription. The state was paying my fees.
Some colleagues behaved very differently. The wife of one guy simply packed his suitcase and he disappeared to Kazakhstan without even requesting holiday leave or resigning. There were many such cases in our city; men suddenly stopped going to work.
After mobilisation had begun, my colleagues and I gradually stopped talking about the war. I seriously began to fear denunciation. I had to constantly choose my words and speak very carefully in front of my students and when communicating with fellow teachers. At one point, I wanted to quit.
There were also more conflicts between students, because they had different positions on the war. Fights in class occurred more often. I was not prepared for this.
Now, when talking to my colleagues, I notice that topics related to the war, and the emphasis on it, have faded into the background. At the beginning, phrases expressing some kind of support for [the war] were heard more often; now, everyone is more inclined to say: “I wish it would be over faster.”
I realise that any of my statements in class can be recorded. I also know that [new patriotic classes] have been introduced and the war cannot be ignored completely. At the beginning of the war, I was shocked by colleagues who claimed that “a war has begun for children” and that we need to talk about some “correct position” [on the war] – instead of just teaching – and that those who do not share this position should leave the profession.
Snitching among teachers has flourished. Many just decided to “make a career” as state school teachers loyal to the authorities. In our city, teachers can be sacked for political reasons and replaced by those who go to pro-government rallies.
I had one colleague I got on well with. I was sure we had the same views. Then, suddenly, in the middle of a conversation she said: “The Nazi nation [Ukraine] must be destroyed.” Of course, I argued with her. She deleted me on all social networks and we no longer communicate.
Most of my friends are anti-war, but some subscribe to ‘Z’ channels. I don’t discuss the war with them at all, and we don’t talk about politics. For myself, I decided that I would get involved in other unpaid activities where I can minimise Russian military propaganda.
All names have been changed to protect identities.
The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and are not necessarily the views of The Big Q.