What can we do in the face of conscription? What does “patriotic duty” mean in a country waging a criminal war? Remarks from six Russian men and women about their choices and their ideas of patriotism
Xenia, medical professional, 30 y.o.:
I work in the medical field. I only learned history at school, and I mostly read professional literature. So I had always been relatively apolitical and just observed everything without involvement, but I now think it was my big mistake. When, on February 24th, it was announced that Russia started a “special military operation,” I was shocked, but I tried to put my emotions aside and think. They called it a “special military operation,” but it was clear that there would be civilian casualties. The country’s leadership took responsibility for the crime in the name of some goals, but what goals? I could not find an answer.
I was even more disgusted when propaganda attempted to explain why Russia started the war. First, there was talk about “denazification,” then about “biological laboratories,” then about “protection of people of Donbas,” now they proclaim “protection of external borders” as a national idea. This reshuffling horrified me, and I realized they were trying to fool me. Some of my acquaintances went through a reverse transformation. At first, they were against the war but gradually started accepting it under the influence of propaganda. This difference surprised me.
I believe that war is like any other crime: you can scandalize, you can defend yourself, but once you have used physical force, that is a criminal offense. No matter what they say about the danger of NATO at our borders, there was no attack on Russia. The excuse that Russia made a “warning strike” does not convince me. They say that we are protecting our homeland, but the Ukrainians are genuinely the ones who are protecting their homeland.
I am a conscript but don’t want to be involved in the war. I am a woman, a doctor, limited in eligibility. Some women of my specialty are now being drafted, but this choice looks random. I do not understand the criteria for this decision. So I do not know whether and when the call-up paper will come to me. I’m not leaving the country and my workplace, but I don’t understand why I have made that decision. Perhaps I feel responsible for everything that has happened in Russia in my lifetime. I plan to sabotage the mobilization as much as possible. I don’t consider going to the rallies because I don’t think they work: people are afraid, and I am scared too. I will decide what to do next if I have to sign a subpoena. I don’t understand how one can simply go there and kill, but it is out of the question since I won’t be mobilized as a soldier. My profession implies helping people regardless of the side they choose to fight for and their viewpoints. This moral dilemma is more complicated.
I hope the mobilization will fail and the Russians will refuse to commit crimes and surrender. I feel sorry for the untrained guys who will be thrown to the front lines, regardless of their views. I hope that despite righteous hatred, the Ukrainian officers will not treat captives harshly. And the Russian authorities will be held accountable for their crimes.
I consider myself a patriot, and, in the Russian authorities’ terms, my personal “staples” are religion and roots. My favorite holidays are Christmas and Easter. It surprised me that the Orthodox Church supported the war. Victory day and the memory of the Great Patriotic War have always been very important for me. Still, I realize how wrong my view had been: I was romanticizing the heroic deed while I should have considered them a tragedy, a dark period in our history. I think the current war started because of the political ambitions of a bunch of people and none of them are beneficial to my country. Propaganda has corrupted everything dear to me to justify these crimes. I have nothing left.
Dimitry, lawer, 32 y.o.:
I had negative feelings about the war from the beginning and realized that it would eventually result in mobilization. I didn’t participate in the protests, but I talked with my colleagues, parents, and acquaintances. I didn’t hide my position from anyone. It was hard to talk to the older generation, but now even they are noticing the discrepancy between reports on the TV and reality.
I didn’t serve in the army but had military training alongside my degree. I am a lieutenant in reserve, so I am subject to the draft. Already on September 21, I came to the conclusion that mobilization could affect me. When the media reported that the president and the minister of defense were going to address the nation, I had no illusions that they would say anything reassuring. I found and booked a ticket to Turkey, and as soon as I heard the word “mobilization,” I clicked the button and paid for it. I spent very little on the ticket and mostly paid for it with the airline miles I had collected. It is hard to believe this story because now tickets cost a fortune, if available at all. My friends also concede they need to leave, but at this moment it is much more challenging.
Leaving was not easy. I had to sacrifice a lot. I have a home, a wife, a baby, and a job that requires my presence in Russia. But when I was making this decision, only one thought was running through my head: “You have to stay alive.” My wife supported me and encouraged me to leave. I don’t know how long I will be unable to see my family.
I’m a lawyer, but I don’t believe you can defend yourself against mobilization with legal tools. In Russia, everything that concerns political issues exists outside the law. Of course, the authorities are trying to create the illusion of legitimacy. But our state has not been governed by the rule of law for a long time.
I talked a lot with my friends and colleagues about the mobilization and the situation in general, and we agreed that nothing good would come of it. The Russian authorities have backed themselves into a corner, and the only way out for them is to try to win this war somehow. But even if they can win, I don’t think Russia will be a decent place to live.
The announcement of mobilization has sobered up many people supporting the war, including my relatives. Fear for their loved ones became the primary emotion in such a situation, and my parents felt relieved when they learned that I had left the country.
Mobilization and calls to fight in the war have nothing to do with patriotism. There is no national idea behind them. Nobody needs this war. Patriotism is about working for the people’s well-being and freedom in their country. I see that many fine people are forced to leave Russia, and I hope they will be able to return when the situation changes and work for the country’s good, although this idea seems utopian at this moment.
Roman, graduate student, 22 y.o.:
On February 24th, I went to a protest. But then my friends and I decided that it was better to focus on education and create an alternative agenda that didn’t coincide with either liberal or propaganda discourse. So we launched the podcast “This is the Base” and tried to get people from different backgrounds to record it. I also coordinated one of the teams in the “Nomination” platform for municipal elections and headed the staff of the “Nomination” candidate in Sokolniki, a district in Moscow. Even though the vote rigging through electronic voting almost destroyed the opposition’s chances, we still achieved our goal of uniting people around a social agenda set by the opposition.
Mobilization changed a lot of things. I went to the protest because my two childhood friends from Perm were mobilized and will soon be fighting at the front. For me, going out to protest was more of a therapy, because there was nothing else I could do. Better, of course, to focus my efforts on helping those who are worse off: the Ukrainian refugees and the forcibly mobilized in Russia. I was detained, but almost immediately released, while the others were held in custody all night. The police department issued a call-up paper, which was expected. But it has no legal force because it wasn’t drafted according to the rules, and it’s more to intimidate.
Formally the risk of being mobilized is not very high for me now because the president signed a decree that full-time students at state universities will not be mobilized. I don’t rule out leaving the country, but it probably won’t be possible soon. So I will try to work remotely and interact less with the authorities.
Both my parents are doctors, and they are also quite nervous. They are not likely to be drafted themselves because of their age, but they are worried about their colleagues. Doctors have recently gone through a pandemic, and now they are being sent to war en masse. I see fear among fellow students and friends. I have eight friends who left the country after the war started, and four of them left after the mobilization was announced. Those fellow students who supported the war now want a deferment at university. When asked if they supported the war, they didn’t want to answer. They didn’t think it would affect them, and the nature of their support was absolutely childish: they wanted to play in geopolitics and territorial expansion.
I am a student of the international affairs department hence I immediately understood why Putin decided to declare a mobilization. When he went to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, many leaders of other countries criticized his actions and called for an end to the war. In his usual manner, he decided to take offense and show that he would not stop and would stake it all now. Mobilization is, on the one hand, a way to intimidate, and on the other hand, a means to show that he is ready for reconciliation. This is evident in the unequal prisoners swap [Note. On September 22 Russia released 215 Ukrainian prisoners including five top commanders of Azov in exchange for Putin’s ally and former Ukrainian MP Victor Medvedchuk]. Mobilization is unlikely to change the course of the war because due to poor infrastructure and supplies most of the mobilized will simply not make it to the front. However, it may change the public sentiment because people who used to be supportive of the regime have already begun to question why Putin is sending “our guys” to war. This was a terrible mistake for Putin: he invaded the only sphere he left to the Russians — their private life and well-being.
I talked a lot with people all over the country, and most of them do not really believe in “patriotic duty.” It is indicative that since the beginning of the war, so-called military “volunteers” have been attracted solely by the opportunity to earn a lot of money. The majority have a demand for a decent life, and patriotic feelings are mainly manifested in a local context, such as in the protection of the environment. There are, of course, people who believe that the state is always right, but they are very few.
For me, the most patriotic gesture right now is not to leave Russia. Although my reference points have gone astray since the announcement of mobilization and I am now confused. But the most important thing is to try to stick together, not to lose contact with like-minded friends, relatives, or even distant acquaintances. We need to put aside personal anger and petty disputes and turn all our hatred toward Putin’s regime. We need to work out alternative development projects for Russia in the future when society is ready to overthrow the regime.