“How should I help a wounded comrade?” asks Pavel (not his real name), who until recently worked as a driver in the town of Raduzhny in western Siberia. At the end of October he was sent a draft notice.
Most recently, the 41-year-old was a non-commissioned officer in the Russian army 20 years ago. “I was fine at the time,” he recalls, adding that now he suffers from spinal problems, among other things, and “can’t lift anything heavier than a kettle”.
He reported his health problems to the draft board, who referred him to a doctor. But he could not open the CD with the diagnostic reports. So Pavel was simply classified as fit.
He then went with his wife to collect sweaters, hats, gloves, medicine, gauze bandages and underwear, in the face of reports that conscripted men were ill-equipped. But he doesn’t have a bulletproof vest. “They say the governor could bring some, but they say they don’t even protect against a simple machine gun,” says Pavel.
Pavel is currently being prepared for deployment at a training ground near Chebarkul in the Chelyabinsk region. “We were promised to practice shooting. But we are only busy with everyday things. We are in tents, there are only bunk beds and mattresses. There is electricity but no sockets. The toilet is outside, cold and without light. Only cold water or none at all flows in the showers. Volunteers cook the food, but I don’t think they even taste it themselves,” Pavel complains. Soon he and his comrades are to be sent to the front in Rostov-on-Don and then in the Ukraine.
“Actually, I don’t want to kill people,” says Pawel. He admits to being afraid of dying: “Everyone is afraid, but it is undesirable to talk about it here. Whenever I speak to my mother myself, tears come to my eyes. I don’t want any of that, but it’s not my fault.”
Pavel has a wife and three children. She was not interested in politics. “I don’t understand what to fight against. Okay if that was in my city or county. But war is fought today with robots and not with humans. We are not prepared for this. Such weapons are used there that we cannot walk five meters across the field without being killed in one fell swoop,” says Pavel.
Anton Trushin also thinks that the Russian army is poorly equipped. Before he was called up, the 38-year-old worked as a lecturer at the Plekhanov University of Economics in Moscow. He has a wife and a four-year-old son. Now Anton is in an armored division near Naro-Fominsk in the greater Moscow area and is due to go to the front in a few weeks.
“There are organizational flaws. I’m uncomfortable, I’m not used to being given orders by unqualified 23-year-olds,” he says. Anton thinks his draft was a mistake and wants to go back home.
When Anton received the call-up notice, he went to the recruiting office. “I wasn’t in the military, I have a college degree and I have problems with one leg,” he says. After a medical examination, he was told he had to await a decision. Meanwhile, Anton wrote to the prosecutor’s office, the State Duma, the Federation Council with a request to consider his case. “The procedure is running, but I’m already in training,” says Anton. He hopes that he is only temporarily in the army.
Despite this, Anton is grateful to his country: “It enabled me to get an education and earn good money. If the state needs me here, even though I’m here involuntarily and waiting for justice, I try to be as useful as possible.”
His grandfathers and great-grandfathers were military, and if he hadn’t joined the army now, his family would have considered him a traitor. He finds it terrible that “grown men run away from mobilization”.
They would have had the opportunity to express their position in elections. Anton believes that Russia is a democracy with only a few “distortions”. As for Ukraine, he never saw it as an independent country. “Russia’s task now is not to prove anything to the West or NATO, but to demilitarize Ukraine,” says Anton.
Alexej (name changed), who also has to go to war, thinks that all this is not in his interest and that it is just dirty politics. “But I know what honor is, I did military service and graduated from military school, so I have to join the army,” he says. The 25-year-old lieutenant is a career soldier. Where exactly he is now, he does not reveal.
“No one has any definite information about this war. One wonders what to fight for and what to die for. I’m not bitter about it, I’m a man, a citizen of my country, I’ve taken an oath. But I don’t know what I personally have to do with this war,” says Alexei, adding: “But if I meet a Ukrainian at the front and either he has to kill me or I have to kill him, then the matter is clear to me . I know there will be blood on my hands. But orders are orders.”
Mikhail (not his real name) went into the army voluntarily and enlisted until January. The 54-year-old says he is a lawyer and blogger from the Chuvash Republic. His wife and four children would be waiting for him there. He is currently at the front in the Kherson region. “I’m a tank gunner and I still have experience from the Soviet era, which can be useful,” he says.
When asked if he’s killed anyone, Mikhail says, “I’m in a unit that repairs tanks. I didn’t shoot. But if our unit is attacked, I will face it. I have a helmet, a body armor and a machine gun.”
However, he was already on the front line: “I was in a building that was hit by a grenade. I miraculously survived.” Mikhail has heard about the dead and wounded in the Russian army, but doesn’t want to talk about it. He sees the purpose of the war in “protecting the Russian-speaking population from attacks by nationalist groups”. Mikhail promises to “return with a victory”. But he doesn’t know what this should look like.
According to official figures, 300,000 people have been mobilized in Russia, and another 18,000 are volunteers. Nikolay Mitrokhin from the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen says: “There are volunteers, but obviously not that many. Then there are those who follow the call of the fatherland – and they accept that the country has them as a military resource. Such are mostly found among former military personnel.”
According to Mitrokhin, most of them don’t really want to join the army, but fear being persecuted for it.
Margarita Zavadskaya, a postdoctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute for Russian and Eastern European Studies at the University of Helsinki, points out that men who seek justice at the conscription office are delusional.
“They don’t want to see that the state sends people to the front lines at random and treats them like cannon fodder,” she says. According to Zavadskaya, the men are drafted because the state has mandated it: “Many of them are employed in government agencies or state-owned companies.”
The psychologist Maria Potudina believes that many mobilized men are not aware of the real danger in war: “This is mainly due to the propaganda that hides the dead as if they didn’t exist.”
Above all, men who are less educated and hardly know their rights are called up. In addition, people are taught from kindergarten on to have no opinion of their own and to submit to themselves. “The third reason is that for many men, it’s worse to look ‘coward’ than to go to war,” Potudina said.
Pavel, the driver from western Siberia, says he doesn’t know what the politicians are up to with the war. “It would be better if we continued to live as before,” he emphasizes. Anton Trushin is worried because he does not know how this conflict can end. Alexej, on the other hand, recommends strengthening yourself mentally. “Many of my friends have seen so much at the front that their heads are out of order. You can’t go back to normal life,” he says. And Mikhail, who is at the front, says he heard about “senseless deaths” there and he doesn’t want to die like that.
Adaptation from the Russian: Markian Ostapchuk
Author: Irina Chevtayeva
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The original of this article “The feelings Russians go to war with” comes from Deutsche Welle.