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Russian ethnic minorities bearing brunt of Russia's war mobilization in Ukraine

While Putin declared the mobilization to be nationwide, those most affected are Russia’s ethnic minorities — among them, the people of Buryatia, whose domestic Russian population is less than a million.

Buryatia, whose population is less than 1 million, has suffered highest casualty rate in Russia

Two women cry during the Immortal Regiment march in Ulan-Ude, the regional capital of Buryatia, while holding a portrait of a Russian Army serviceman killed during fighting in Ukraine. The photo was taken during Russia's Victory Day parade, held on May 9, marking the 77th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. (The Associated Press)

For about seven months, Aleksey had been largely untouched by the war in Ukraine. Like many others in the big cities of Russia, he was able to continue working and living his life. 

But that changed in mid-September, after Aleksey boarded a flight headed for his hometown of Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, which sits around Lake Baikal in the Siberian region of Russia. (Aleksey is not his real name; CBC agreed to change his name to protect him from potential reprisals.)

Aleksey was going for a short trip to visit friends and family he hadn't seen since moving to the western side a few years ago. The roughly 6,000 kilometres between the two regions means planes sometimes have a layover in countries south of the Russian border.

This was one of those flights, which meant Aleksey had to take his passport with him — something for which he would later be extremely grateful.

That's because on Sept. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists — young men who had previously gone through the country's mandatory conscription — in order to continue the war in Ukraine. 

While Putin declared the mobilization to be nationwide, those most affected are Russia's ethnic minorities — among them, the people of Buryatia (referred to as Buryat).

Aleksey had spent a few days in Buryatia before Putin's televised address, hoping the president's decision wouldn't result in a mass conscription of his people.

"We still had the hope that this would all settle, the draft notices wouldn't come," said Aleksey.

But it wasn't worth the risk of waiting it out. That night, he and his friends quickly packed their bags and co-ordinated their escape. Aleksey's international flight to Buryatia meant he had his passport with him, making a last-minute departure from Russia feasible. The next day, he and his friends left. 

But not all Buryat are as lucky.

Buryatia suffers high casualty rate

The recent Russian mobilization comes as Ukraine reclaims an increasing percentage of its previously lost territory. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touted the army's recent counteroffensive victory in Lyman on Saturday, as videos of Ukrainian soldiers taking down Russian flags and hoisting their own began circulating. 

Melissa Chakars, a professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia and an expert on Buryatia and the Mongolian peoples of Russia, called the mobilization a "big shift in the war."

"[Putin] claimed that [drafting] was going to be spread throughout the regions so people were expecting that a certain percentage of people from each region [were] going to be taken," said Chakars.

She said that while people from the more central cities, especially Moscow and Saint Petersburg, had been able to operate without much fear of the draft, Putin's mobilization announcement had "changed things."

Some of the estimated 300,000 Russians who have fled the country are seen trying to cross the border into Georgia on Sept. 26. (Submitted/Name withheld)

Protests, which had largely dwindled since the early days of the invasion in February, erupted across the country and spurred an exodus of almost 300,000 Russians to neighbouring borders within five days of Putin's televised address, according to reporting done by Novaya Gazeta. Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief is Nobel Peace laureate Dmitry Muratov, was forced to cease operations in early September due to the war and is now operating in exile out of Riga, Latvia.

While Russian men in metropolitan areas were now being conscripted, the mobilization largely reinforced existing trends in terms of which populations provided the most fighters. 

At the start of the war, reports indicated many men from Buryatia were sent to fight in the war. The region also suffered a significant number of casualties. By Sept. 23, 275 identified men from Buryatia had been killed in the war, according to an independent count by Mediazona and BBC News's Russian service

The only Russian region with a higher casualty rate is the Republic of Dagestan, with 305 identified men killed in action. However, the total population of Dagestan is more than three million; Buryatia is less than a million.

While Buryat are indigenous to the region, with their own language, many of them never learn that language, and instead only speak Russian. 

Mobilization raids

The reason for high drafting rates in the ethnic regions, especially Buryatia, is twofold. 

First, the communities of Buryatia are largely clustered around Lake Baikal, and drafting men from more remote regions of the country means any potential opposition to the war would likely come far away from Moscow or Saint Petersburg, Chakars explained.

The other piece of the story is that these areas are typically quite low-income. 

"Buryatia is one of the poorest regions in all of the Russian Federation. Traditionally, the military is a steady job," Chakars said.

A view of Bolshoy Kunaley, a village in Buryatia. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Alexandra Garmazhapova, president of the antiwar organization Free Buryatia Foundation (FBF), said the distribution of draft notices in Buryatia late last month resembled more of a raid.

"People from different age groups were getting it, disabled people and even people that are no longer alive," she said. In at least one report, a man who died two years ago from COVID-19 received a draft notice. 

"They are grabbing everyone they can and sending them to the war," Garmazhapova said. "This is not a partial mobilization, but a full mobilization." 

According to reports, between 3,000 and 5,000 men were mobilized from Buryatia on the first day of the announcement. 

One man had an officer and a teacher appear at his front door in the middle of the night between Sept. 21 and 22. He was served with the draft notice and forced to sign it, Garmazhapova said.

"The only reason he opened the door was because he thought it was his brother returning home from work," she said. "If he knew it wasn't his brother, he definitely wouldn't have opened the door."

Avoiding the draft

Under current law, citizens are obligated to open the door to the police. Citizens are also legally required to report to conscription offices once they've been served and sign their draft notices. But some began refusing to open their doors. 

Garmazhapova relates the story of another man who didn't open his door to officers who wanted to serve him with his notice. Eventually they left, and the man thought he had avoided being sent to the war. 

WATCH | Russian men head for the borders to avoid the draft:

Chaos at Russia’s borders as men try to flee mobilization drive

2 months ago
Duration 1:10
Those crossing over the Russia-Georgia border describe why they chose to leave, after Vladimir Putin's order to mobilize hundreds of thousands of reservists for the war in Ukraine.

But while filling up his car at the gas station the next day, he saw a bus coming from his village filled with men who had been freshly drafted. The bus stopped at the gas station and the man was forcibly taken on board.

"Without his things, without his documents they took him," said Garmazhapova. "The car was left at the gas station and his relatives had to come and take the car back home. There are a lot of stories like this."

In a rare social media video, Yanina Nimaeva from Ulan-Ude addresses the leader of Buryatia, Alexei Tsydenov, on why her 38-year-old husband and the father of five children, who had never served in the army, was served with a draft notice.

Word of these events spurred many young men to pack their bags and head for the closest borders to Buryatia — Mongolia and Kazakhstan. 

Part of FBF's work was helping with the evacuation efforts, by co-ordinating transportation and bringing Buryat men to the borders. Once they have crossed over, representatives from the foundation have been helping the young men find room and board, food and work. 

"It was very sad looking at them…You understand these are very young boys who didn't have plans to leave," said Garmazhapova, recounting how she has helped men get settled in Astana, Kazakhstan. She said their average age was between 20 and 22.

"It's almost as if you can visualize their parents just throwing their kids on the last train leaving, just to save them." 

Road to redemption

Many of the soldiers sent to the front lines of the 2014 war in Ukraine were also from Buryatia, notably a lot of tank operators.

As a result, Garmazhapova said many had gained notoriety as "Putin's Buryat warriors." A 2015 pro-Kremlin video featured a few Buryat speaking about their support for Putin and willingness to fight for him.

"Before, when people would ask what is Buryatia, or who are the Buryat, it would take a very long time to explain the place. We would have to explain that Buryatia is near Lake Baikal, close to Mongolia," said Garmazhapova. 

"But now if you say you're Buryat, people immediately say, 'Those are the people that fight for Putin in Ukraine.' It's very negative and is an awful reputation."

People carry portraits of relatives who fought in the Second World War during the Immortal Regiment march in Ulan-Ude on May 9. (AP)

She said the latest war has thrown Buryat soldiers "into the meatgrinder" once again. 

FBF was established in March 2022 with the release of an antiwar video featuring Buryat from around the world that countered the idea that Buryat soldiers fought willingly for Putin. 

"Unexpectedly, this video garnered a million views and Buryat [people] started to write to us: 'Oh god, finally somebody [else] said that I'm against the war. I thought I was the only one,'" said Garmazhapova.

FBF was inundated with messages, first with support and then with pleas for help in getting soldiers out of the war. Mothers began writing to the organization asking how to cancel the military contracts of sons who were either on the front lines or getting ready to go there. 

Garmazhapova said they were able to successfully help some soldiers cancel their contracts and return home. However, with mobilization, their most effective way to support the men was to help them settle into new homes outside Russia.

She hopes these men will one day be able to repay countries like Kazakhstan and Mongolia, which have given them a new home.

In the meantime, she is encouraging Buryat men to start learning Kazakh. 

"Even the most basic phrases," Garmazhapova said, "is a sign of respect to their language." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ania Bessonov is a multi-platform journalist at CBC News with a particular interest in international relations. She has a master's degree in security and diplomacy.

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