In Russia, the number of conscientious objectors is increasing. Thousands of men are fleeing their homeland for fear of mobilization and deployment in Ukraine. DW spoke to two of them.
Low-slung hood, inconspicuous clothes: Nikita looks around. He is afraid. fear of being discovered. The Russian has been living with this feeling in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi for a few months. Nikita actually has a different name. He prefers not to give his real name.
Until February, the young man is studying in Moscow. He has a contract with the military, which is not uncommon in Russia. The Ministry of Defense pays for his studies, Nikita tells DW, and guarantees a place in the dormitories. In return, he undertakes to serve in the army for three years after his studies: “I signed the contract out of stupidity. Many things were not clear to me. Okay, I thought, I’ll waste three years in the army, but I’ll get my degree.”
When Nikita gets his draft, he decides to resign. However, the military does not accept his request for dismissal and offers a compromise: “They transferred me to a position in the leadership where I was supposed to help the commander with the paperwork. Then in September I got another job, I worked with military technology and should have repelled the enemy in case of an attack.”
Nikita realizes that he could be sent to Ukraine at any time. He decides to leave Russia. He flees to neighboring Georgia: “I didn’t want to go to war. Escape was my only chance,” he explains. He is aware of the risks: “That I have to hide from Russia my whole life, that I can never come back. I’m not afraid of dying or going to jail. But I just don’t want to kill people.”
Thousands in court for alleged desertion
Nikita is not the only one. Human rights activists know of more than a thousand lawsuits for alleged desertion. In fact, the number of deserters is said to be even greater, reports Grigory Swerdlin from the Russian NGO Idite Lesom to DW. The association, whose name loosely translates to “get away”, helps Russian conscientious objectors to flee abroad.
Some are afraid of being mobilized, says Swerdlin, others have already been to the front and no longer want to fight. “We get a lot of reports about the chaos that reigns at the front: sometimes nobody knows where the commanders are. Some say they were just abandoned in the open, completely unaware and without any guidance. It is said that nobody teaches the recruits anything, that the training consists only of firing a machine gun once.”
Especially last fall, when mobilization began, many conscripts posted videos on social media about abuses in the training camps and at the front. Igor Sandzhiev knows them from personal experience. The 46-year-old construction worker deliberately gave his name to DW – he wants to make his story public. Today the Russian lives in Uralsk in western Kazakhstan.
“This Lottery Called War”
In the fall of last year, Igor reportedly reported to the military, allegedly to compare personal data. However, when he appears at the office, he is immediately assigned, he explains. That same evening he is supposed to report to an army training camp, and a few weeks later he is to go to the front.
Feeling trapped, Igor decides to flee: “It was all or nothing for me. I thought: either I’ll go to prison for many years for leaving the military unit, or I’ll die somewhere in Ukraine. I’d rather go to jail. I don’t want to take any risks. I don’t want to play this lottery called war that President Putin is running.” It is deadly. According to media reports, the war has already claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Russians. This information cannot be verified.
Many of those who were mobilized by Putin’s decree last year were fathers. Many who volunteered counted on lucrative wages, especially men from poorer regions. This is also confirmed by Igor Sandzhiev, who originally comes from the Republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia: “Our financial options are limited. Wages are not paid. Going to war is the only chance for many to increase their budget. One has a daughter about to graduate, the other has taken out a mortgage, and the third needs a car.”
Kazakhstan is already the second place of refuge for Igor. First he travels to Belarus, but says he was picked up by the police there and has to go back to the training camp near Volgograd. He flees a second time, this time to Uralsk in Kazakhstan. There he applies for asylum, but it is rejected.
According to the court ruling, his case does not meet the criteria for refugee status. In addition, the Russian has been sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence for illegally crossing the border. Sandzhiev sues and fails. Now he is threatened with deportation to Russia.
“War or jail await me”
That’s not an isolated case either, Denis Zhivago, deputy director of the International Office for Human Rights in Kazakhstan, told DW. More than twenty Russians were waiting for their asylum applications to be processed: “These people did not cross the border illegally. They are in Kazakhstan legally, but some are wanted (in Russia, editor’s note) and exit restrictions have been imposed on others. They are trying to find other ways to get to third countries.”
Igor Sandzhiev has no illusions about his future: “I’m either going to jail or the war in Ukraine. The Russians are getting the message from the state media right now that front-line personnel are scarce and that working-age men should be fighting.”
Young Nikita’s future in Georgia is also uncertain. He also feels unsafe in the country, “not because the people here are bad or anything. Georgians don’t treat me badly as a Russian. But I still fear the Russian state here. Sometimes I have nightmares where my old boss comes knocking on the door and says, ‘Come on, I found you.'”
In any case, the two Russians Igor and Nikita want to try to stay abroad. as long as they can.