Russians are running and hiding from Putin’s eager conscripts

Late Sunday night, Ilya, a 38-year-old Muscovite, hobbled to his front door on crutches and found two officers who handed him a draft notice.

Ilya pointed to the cast on the leg he had broken falling down the stairs a few weeks earlier, refused to sign the papers, verbally abused the officers and slammed the door.

“I told them why don’t you guys go where the Russian warship went,” Ilya said, referring to a cruiser that a Ukrainian soldier told to “piss off” early in the Russian invasion and that Ukraine later sank on.

“What did the Ukrainians do to me? I have a lot of friends there. What should I do, go and shoot their relatives? Are you serious?”

Nearly a week after President Vladimir Putin announced the “partial” mobilization of army reservists to bolster his forces in Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russians are refusing to volunteer in the biggest backlash against the Kremlin since the invasion began in February .

With some exceptions, only fit adult males with combat experience qualify, but the Kremlin admitted on Monday that the conscription had affected a much larger segment of the population than Putin had promised – and shattered a carefully tended facade that most Russians enjoy allowed to go on living as normal.

Travelers from Russia cross the border into Georgia at Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars railway station, Georgia, on September 26, 2022
Travelers from Russia cross the border into Georgia at Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars train station © Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters

The move has prompted some to refuse, others to protest and even more to flee the country, with flights selling out for days and long lines at Russia’s land border crossings.

No longer able to rely on the tacit support or apathy of the Russians, the Kremlin faces a dilemma. Another crackdown on society — where dissent over the war has been essentially banned since March — would risk further undermining support for it.

But a retreat after Putin annexed four regions in south-eastern Ukraine and threatened the West with nuclear weapons could leave room for more instability.

“They only know how to force their ideas through. And violence, war and mobilization were not part of the social contract,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Carnegie Moscow Center fellow. “They undermine their social base of people who were indifferent and allowed to get on with their lives. That is a big mistake.”

The most prominent protests against Putin’s decree have taken place in Dagestan, an impoverished region of the North Caucasus that has sent a disproportionate number of men to fight in Ukraine.

On Sunday and Monday, people in several cities of Dagestan chanted “No to the war!”, closed a major highway and argued with officials. Footage released on social media showed women tussling with police officers, multiple violent arrests and apparent attacks on protesters by groups of thugs.

A doctor in Makhachkala said some patients have asked her to grant them TUEs so they could avoid conscription. “The day they announced the mobilization, everyone started whispering in queues, shops and on the bus,” she said. “There was already news – everyone had heard that someone they knew had been drafted. Of course people are upset.”

The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said authorities had started conscripting medical workers, including nurses, into Dagestan, prompting some of her friends and relatives to flee to Kazakhstan. “We will hide and run away. We don’t answer the door, go to the draft office, or take the notices. We discussed everything,” she said.

There is also evidence that officials are using draft notices as reprisals against those arrested for protesting the war.

Police officers escort arrested protesters to a police bus during a protest in Red Square with St. Basil's Cathedral in the background in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, September 24, 2022
Police officers escort arrested protesters to a police bus during a demonstration in Red Square © AP

Andrei, an 18-year-old student whose last name the Financial Times declined to publish, was arrested last week during a demonstration in central Moscow and taken to a police station. After spending several hours there, at around 1:00 am, he and other young men were told to go upstairs, where an officer was issuing draft notices.

They tried to refuse to sign, but a police officer threatened them with being detained overnight and other consequences. After a young man signed and immediately left the station, the others, including Andrei, followed his example. The FT saw the copy of his draft notice.

According to Russian law, conscripts must be notified personally. The penalty for failing to comply with a subpoena is a fine.

The young men signed their draft notices but didn’t go to the office the next day, Andrei said, adding that they knew their rights and would not be criminally liable.

In addition, as a student, he is said to have his compulsory military service postponed.

“I don’t fit in any way with the mobilization,” said Andrei. “My main theories are that it’s done to scare people or catch the stupid.”

Many people have attempted to avoid conscription by fleeing the country amid widespread rumors that Russia will prevent men of military age from leaving the country.

The Kremlin and Defense Ministry on Monday said there were no plans to close the borders, a sign they were trying to tame widespread public panic, blaming overzealous local authorities for the anger.

On Sunday, Vladimir Solovyov, a militant state television announcer, jokingly called for the execution of unscrupulous conscripts. Shortly after, one was shot dead in Ust-Ilimsk in eastern Siberia by a man who was reportedly furious that a friend who did not meet the criteria had been recruited.

Some officials have urged Russia to let those who want to go.

“Let the running rats run. The ship will be ours, it is gaining strength and it is clearly moving towards its destination,” said Ella Pamfilova, Russia’s elections commissioner, on Monday.

On Monday, officials at border stations at some airports and at the land border with Kazakhstan said they had received lists of people banned from leaving the country.

Alexander, a 33-year-old who works for a European company in Moscow, said he was denied boarding a flight to Turkey with his girlfriend at the capital’s Vnukovo Airport on Monday. The FT has seen a copy of Alexander’s curfew.

“You were very polite. They told me that the enlistment office forbade me to leave Russia for mobilization,” Alexander said, although he never served in the military.

“On the bench were all these other guys who had the same problem. They flew to the Seychelles, the Maldives, they had their wives and children with them, they went on honeymoon. And that’s it – the men can’t walk.”

Other Russians have opposed the draft by hiding from officials trying to deliver the subpoena.

Lev, a 27-year-old living in a Moscow suburb, quit his job and left home after officials dropped his draft resignation in his mailbox. He said he decided to avoid his registration address but stay in the country for fear of being caught at the border and handed a warning notice.

“Putin’s ‘military special operation’ just destroyed my life and all the opportunities I had,” he said. “And now he literally wants to take my life.”

Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova in Berlin Russians are running and hiding from Putin’s eager conscripts

Adam Bradshaw

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