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Draft upends life for many across Russia

Notices propel conscripts into hiding, across border by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette Staff from wire reports | September 23, 2022 at 4:52 a.m.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Thursday at the Kremlin with Vitaly Mutko, chief executive officer of a state-owned company involved in the mortgage and realty market, as draft notices went out to hundreds of thousands of civilians. (AP/Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov)

A day after President Vladimir Putin announced a call-up that could sweep 300,000 civilians into military service, thousands of Russians across the country received draft papers on Thursday and some were being marched to buses and planes for training -- and perhaps soon a trip to the front lines in Ukraine.

Putin's escalation of the war effort was reverberating across the country, according to interviews, Russian news reports and social media posts. As the day wore on, it became increasingly clear that Putin's decision had torn open the cocoon shielding much of Russian society from their leader's invasion of a neighbor.

Mothers, wives and children were saying tearful goodbyes in remote regions as officials -- in some cases, ordinary schoolteachers -- delivered draft notices to houses and apartment blocks. In mountainous eastern Siberia, the Russian news media reported, school buses were being commandeered to move troops to training grounds.

Russian officials said the call-up would be limited to people with combat experience. But the net appeared wider, and some men decided it was best to head for the borders.

Yanina Nimayeva, a journalist from the Buryatia region of Siberia, said that her husband, a father of five and an employee in the emergency department in the regional capital, had been inexplicably called up. She said he received a summons to an urgent 4 a.m. meeting where it was announced that a train had been organized to bring men to the city of Chita.

"My husband is 38 years old, he is not in the reserve, he did not serve," Nimayeva said in a video addressed to regional officials.

Despite the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent, protests broke out Wednesday night across Russia in response to Putin's move, with at least 1,312 people arrested, according to the human-rights watchdog OVD-Info. More protests were reported on Thursday, including in Dagestan, an impoverished southern Russian region where anti-draft protesters blocked a federal highway.

"When we fought in 1941 to 1945 -- that was a war," one man yelled in a video of an angry crowd widely shared on social media. "And now it's not war, it's politics."

Military-age men clogged airports and border crossings trying to flee, and some ended up in distant cities like Istanbul and Namangan, Uzbekistan. "We decided that we don't want to live in this country anymore," one reservist said after arriving in Turkey.

Historians said it was the first time since World War II that the Kremlin had declared a wartime mobilization. Putin's spokesperson, however, maintained on Thursday that officials would continue referring to the invasion he ordered as only a "special military operation," and not a war.

In Moscow, where there were reports of young professionals with no military experience being called up, a Russian lawyer, Grigory V. Vaypan, compared the shock of Thursday to Feb. 24, the day Putin's invasion began.

"Then the war started there," he said. "Now it also started here."

As with much about Putin's war, the draft caught many Russians unawares. Many had been tuning it out, with polls showing that nearly half of the public was paying little attention to events in Ukraine.

For months, military analysts and Western officials had been predicting that Putin would be forced to impose a draft at some point, given his army's severe losses in Ukraine. But as recently as this week -- even as the Russian parliament passed a law that codified a punishment of as much as 10 years in prison for draft dodging -- senior officials and the state media insisted that any talk of a draft was part of a Western propaganda campaign.

Then, on Wednesday, Putin announced one, describing it in a morning address to the nation as a necessary measure. The West, he said, was using Ukrainians as a proxy force in a campaign to "weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country."

By nightfall, Russia's conscription machine had swung into action.

The call-up is being managed by local military commissariats that, according to Russia's defense minister, have some 25 million draft-eligible adults on their rolls. But some 10,000 Russians arrived at military enlistment offices even before being summoned, prompted by Putin's announcement, the military's general staff claimed, according to Interfax, a Russian news agency.

Reports of large numbers of men receiving draft notices arrived from across the country, but regions in Siberia and in the largely Muslim Caucasus Mountains appeared to be among the hardest hit.

On social media, activists in regions like Kabardino-Balkaria in the Caucasus and Yakutia in northeastern Siberia kept a running tally of the summonses that had arrived in various villages. A woman who has already lost one son in the war told a New York Times reporter that three buses carrying newly mobilized soldiers had left her town in Dagestan, in the Caucasus, one of Russia's poorest regions.

Despite Russia's challenges on the front line, where Ukrainian troops have often outnumbered Russian soldiers, Putin long resisted declaring a draft because he feared a domestic backlash, analysts say. His authoritarian rule and redoubled crackdown on dissent this year notwithstanding, the Kremlin keeps close tabs on public opinion and has sought to avoid protests.

After Putin's speech Wednesday, a backlash did indeed burst into the open, though there was no immediate sign of a nationwide anti-draft movement emerging. In the city of Baksan in the North Caucasus region of Kabardino-Balkaria, more than 100 people gathered near the city administration to protest the conscription of their loved ones, said a local activist who asked his name be withheld for his security.

"Kabardino-Balkaria, like the rest of Russia, woke up yesterday in horror," Ibragim Yaganov, an activist from the region who is now in Poland, told The New York Times. "The war, which was somewhere far away on TV, suddenly came to people's homes."

In Moscow, where OVD-Info reported 538 arrests at anti-war rallies on Wednesday, authorities came up with a novel way to discourage protests: handing draft summonses to protesters. They did so in at least six Moscow police stations where anti-war protesters were taken, according to OVD-Info.

One protester, Mikhail, 29, said he had been detained for 8½ hours at a Moscow police station. The Times withheld his last name for his security. At the station, Mikhail said, an officer wrote him a draft notice, threatening him with jail time if he refused it. He refused it anyway, and went into hiding after being released.

"You're standing there asking yourself whether you should go and fight and die there, or spend 20 years in prison," Mikhail said in an interview. "This is a rather complicated question when you face it directly, a question that you shouldn't be asked like this -- especially when you didn't do anything wrong."


Within hours of Putin's speech declaring a partial military mobilization on Wednesday, men all over Russia -- including some who had tried for months to ignore the messy war in Ukraine -- suddenly found their lives thrown in chaos as they were summoned to duty.

The men, mostly reservists under 35 who served in the army and have junior military ranks, were handed written notices in their offices or at their homes. In some cases, they had their identity documents checked on the street and were told to appear for a health check. Others got orders by telephone.

Anxious relatives, meanwhile, began searching for ways to flee the country or otherwise avoid their loved ones being called for service. Flights to the few cities abroad still offering direct service to Russia -- most destinations have been cut off by sanctions -- were suddenly sold out.

Google search trends showed a spike in queries like "how to leave Russia" and even "how to break an arm at home," raising speculation some Russians were thinking of resorting to self-harm to avoid the war.

"They've been chasing me since February, trying to offer me a contract," one Moscow resident, who served in the army and has prior combat experience, said in an interview.

The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely, said that unlike others who had received written summonses, he had received a personal call from the military enlistment office, which has had his number on hand for months. "I was ordered to undergo a [health] commission tomorrow morning," he told The Washington Post. "So, I doubt I will be spared now."


Turkey already was among the countries that received a large exodus of Russians at the beginning of the Ukraine invasion. Many were fleeing the crackdown at home, including the criminalization of dissent, with speaking out against the invasion or even calling it a war now carrying serious penalties. Others worried about the impact of international sanctions and Russia's growing isolation on the economy and their jobs.

Now, a new wave may be beginning, and while the exact scope of it was not immediately clear, the rush for plane tickets and the long lines of cars at the borders were indications that the prospects of an expanded conscription have alarmed a swath of Russian society.

Alexander, an executive manager from Moscow, said he started packing even before Putin had finished his announcement Wednesday. Minutes later, he was on his way to the airport, looking for available tickets en route.

Tickets to his preferred destinations -- Istanbul and Almaty, Kazakhstan -- had already sold out, so he settled on Namangan, Uzbekistan, a city he said he had never even heard of. Then he sweated his way through passport control, fearing that the Kremlin would close the border to reservists like him.

"I realized that the stakes just were very high," said Alexander, 37, in a phone interview from Namangan. "I was already ready for everything, that they would just turn me away at the border."

The plane, he said, was full of people like him -- "stooped young men with laptops." A passenger next to him had never heard of Namangan either.

Back in Moscow, Alexander's wife, suddenly alone with their three children, was in shock. "My hopes that things might remain more or less OK collapsed today," she said by phone.

Anastasia Burakova, the founder of Kovcheg, a group that helps Russians who oppose the war settle abroad, said her organization had seen a surge in requests for help after Putin's announcement. But it is becoming harder for Russian men to quickly leave the country, she said, with flights selling out and the prices for any remaining seats skyrocketing.

"It was a lot of panic," she said.

Until now, most Russians looking to flee had been activists, protesters or journalists who had spoken out publicly against the war, Burakova said.

"Now we see a lot of people who did not care about it, but are leaving the country because they are scared of mobilization and they worry that it could be a reality for them and their families," she said.

A 26-year-old merchant mariner who gave his name only as Dmitriy said he would wait in Turkey until his next ship job began in December, to ensure that he would not be drafted in the meantime.

"I decided that I needed to leave now," he said.

Over the past 24 hours, he said, his friends had been messaging each other to explore their options and consulting Telegram channels where people share information about the conditions at Russian airports and border crossings.

The mariner said that most of his friends had stayed in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, believing the war would not affect them much. He said most were rushing to get out.

"Lots of people want to leave Russia now because they don't want to fight for the opinion of one person," he said, dismissing the invasion as a personal project of Putin.

"It is not about defending your family," he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Anton Troianovski, Valerie Hopkins, Ivan Nechepurenko, Alina Lobzina and Ben Hubbard of The New York Times and by Mary Ilyushina, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Catherine Belton, Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova of The Washington Post.

  photo  Ukrainian soldiers fire a mortar Thursday in the recently retaken city of Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged missile and artillery barrages as both sides refused to concede ground. More photos at (AP/Kostiantyn Liberov)

 Gallery: Images from Ukraine, month 7

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