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Thousands of Russians are trying to flee before it’s too late to avoid conscription into the war in Ukraine. But not all countries are welcoming the deserters

People cross from Russia into Georgia on Sept. 26 at the Verkhny Lars border checkpoint. Many Russians of fighting age have gone abroad since President Vladimir Putin's latest draft of reservists.Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters

David Bezmozgis is an author and filmmaker whose most recent book is Immigrant City. He is creative director of the Humber School for Writers.

How to make sense of what is happening in Ukraine, Russia and the lands of the former Soviet Union right now? Events move rapidly and not very coherently. It is a war and war is chaos.

It is also a war founded on a lie – which may be true of all wars – but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lie creates a particular kind of disorientation.

Does anyone actually believe that Russia had to attack Ukraine to protect from genocide the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk – two breakaway regions spawned by Russian aggression in 2014? Does anyone believe that Russia must de-Nazify a country whose democratically elected president is a Jew?

Does anyone believe that Mr. Putin believes this? If Mr. Putin doesn’t believe this, what does he believe? If he believes it, is he insane? If he is insane, how far will he go? If he decides to go very far, is there anyone in Russia who can stop him? Nobody knows.

'Serving Russia is a real job,' reads a billboard promoting contract army service in St. Petersburg on Sept. 29.OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images

Events of recent days have narrowed the definition of “believe.” In a country like Russia, where democracy is a thinly veiled fiction, people have voted in the only way they can, with their feet. Thousands of men of military age, eligible to be conscripted into the army under Mr. Putin’s “partial mobilization,” have fled or attempted to flee the country. The “partial mobilization” officially intended to conscript some 300,000 men with prior military experience is partial the way that Mr. Putin’s “special military operation” is special.

Those who could afford flights to the few countries that don’t require a visa snapped up the flights. Those who could reach a land border that would admit Russians – Georgia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Finland – raced to those borders.

Meanwhile, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia closed their borders to Russian tourists. The Latvian foreign minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, declared that many of the people who were now fleeing Russia because of mobilization “were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them conscientious objectors.”

That statement, of course, can be broken down clause by clause. How can we know that these Russians were previously fine with killing Ukrainians? How many ordinary people could be expected to protest in a country where protest is effectively forbidden? If these men do not wish to fight for your enemy against your ally, might it not be wise to let them in?

Germany continues to let them in.


Russia’s borders in recent days: A passport holder stands at the Vaalimaa crossing in Finland, new arrivals get welcoming high-fives at the Syrym crossing in Kazakhstan, while at Verkhny Lars, a protest organized by Georgia’s Droa party warns Russian deserters to stay away. Janis Laizans/Reuters; AFP via Getty Images; Shakh Aivazov/AP

I recently wrote an e-mail to a friend whom I had met in Russia in 2018. We hadn’t been in touch for months.

“Hi Sasha, Are you in Moscow?”

“I arrived in Warsaw 2 days ago.”

He celebrated his 50th birthday in a long line of cars waiting to cross from Belarus to Poland. It was his birthday present to himself. Sasha (not his real name) writes books and articles; he is a university lecturer. From Poland, he would continue to Israel.

I asked if he could talk. He said he could. Though my friend had continued to write articles critical of the regime until his last days in Moscow, I would have been reluctant to draw him into conversation for fear of consequences. Everything had ears again.

Sasha shared a current joke: In Russia, television defeated the refrigerator, but it remains to be seen if television will defeat the refrigerator’s big brother, the freezer. I intuited the meaning of the television and the refrigerator, but the freezer? For storing the corpses of Russian soldiers.

He also shared an analogy formulated by some friends in Warsaw. Ordinary Russian men had watched the war in Ukraine like it was a soccer match. They drank beer on the couch and cheered on their side until they were told that they too must take the field. Now they cried foul. But was this the worst response?

What is new about what’s happening in Russia now? There have been wars. Russian men have been called upon to fight. But it is a new phenomenon that they have had any ability to refuse.

Russia’s decade-long war in Afghanistan was not popular but it was the Soviet period, there was no place to go, and people were still programmed to accept the dictates of the Party. The two Chechen wars were fought in a post-Soviet Russia, but just barely. Rightly or wrongly, they were presented as an internal conflict against a radicalized Islamic foe. The Russian state apparatus was not as consolidated or sophisticated as it is now and some people could shirk the draft. Sasha recalled letting his friends burn his draft notice in the common room of their university residence.

Today, a totalitarian Russia was letting men of military age leave while Western countries refused to admit them. At the start of the war, Ukraine refused to allow men of military age to leave, while Western countries were willing to admit them. It is hard to know what is and what isn’t a contradiction.

On a popular independent Russian news podcast, exiled to Riga, the host asked a man described as a political observer what he felt the impact of the mobilization would be. What could it be when the regime was taking people at random, not subjecting them to proper medical reviews, lacked the facilities to train them, the equipment to outfit them, and an adequate officer staff to command them? He estimated that the Russian army was short as many as 25,000 officers and he doubted that junior officers could command the respect of the motley assortment of conscripts, many of whom were their seniors by a decade or more, some with criminal records or quasi-criminal tendencies. Perhaps, the host inquired, Mr. Putin hoped to overwhelm with sheer numbers as Stalin had done in the Second World War? “Quantity has a quality all its own,” Stalin reputedly said.

Quite often, the justification for one war is a previous war. It is an article of faith for Russians and other Soviet people who opposed the Nazis that, but for their sacrifices, Germans would still be goose-stepping along the Champs-Élysées and swastikas would be fluttering in Times Square et cetera, et cetera. The might of the Soviet nation had saved the world from Hitler. Where was the gratitude?


People walk past the Soviet-Afghan war monument in Moscow’s Poklonnaya Hill War Memorial Park on Sept. 26, the week Mr. Putin called up some 300,000 reservists for the war in Ukraine. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images
The Victory Monument in Riga, capital of Latvia, falls on Aug. 25 after officials agreed to demolish the Soviet-era war memorial, despite objections from ethnic Russians. Kaspar Krafts/f64/AFP via Getty Images

In August, I travelled to Latvia, where I’d been born in the time of Brezhnev. While there, the Latvian authorities resolved to topple a Soviet-era monument. Its official name was the “Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders,” but it was commonly known as the Victory Monument. It was erected in 1985 and was 80 metres tall. Ethnic Latvians regarded it as a symbol of occupation; ethnic Russians, who constitute a sizable minority in Latvia, regarded it as validation of the heroism of their fathers and grandfathers. Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine provided the final incentive for the Latvian authorities to bring it down. On Aug. 25, the demolition was broadcast live for the nation to watch. I was of two minds.

One day before, I met two elderly people at a park in Daugavpils, Latvia’s second-largest, and substantially Russian-speaking, city, where my father had been born in 1935. In June of 1941, in the four days between Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union and the German army’s entry into Daugavpils, he and his family, Latvian Jews, managed to board a train to Russia – hence, with a few other caveats, I exist.

The park in Daugavpils also contained a monument to the Soviet Liberators from the German Fascist Invaders. I had come to deliver 200 Canadian dollars from the woman’s cousin in Toronto. The woman, Lilia, was described as having Jewish features and her husband, Sergei, as a typical Russian with a mustache. I’d offered to meet them at their apartment but they preferred it be at the park. They too, I discovered, feared they were being surveilled – this time by the Latvian security services. We sat and spoke on a park bench as in a spy film.

As Russian speakers in Latvia, they felt under assault. Russian television channels and internet sites had been blocked. They felt unwelcome by the Latvians, disenfranchised because many Russians had been unable to acquire Latvian citizenship and either had to take Russian citizenship or nothing at all. They sympathized with the people of Donetsk and Lugansk. Lilia, in particular, subscribed to the Kremlin’s narrative about merciless Ukrainian attacks upon the peaceful citizens of Donetsk and Lugansk and about widespread Ukrainian fascism. Her antipathy for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, a fellow Jew, reminded me of some women’s loathing of Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It is not good, Sergei said, when a population doesn’t trust its government. If the Russian minority in Latvia, and particularly in Daugavpils, continued to be oppressed, he predicted protests in the streets or acts of quiet sabotage. This sentiment, he assured me, was not fringe. He believed that Mr. Putin wouldn’t allow Russians to be humiliated, that Russia was strong and would defend its people. And yet, he acknowledged that the sizable Russian minority posed a challenge for the Latvian state but that the solution was not to squeeze them out but to invite them in. After all, people just wanted to live decently. I ventured that this would perhaps be possible when a new generation of leadership emerged, one less beholden to the past.

“Yes, but by then Lilia and I will be dead,” Sergei said with levity, and we parted friends because, although I didn’t share their opinion, I had heard them out and they were not going anywhere.


Graphic: Russia’s military mobilization at a glance

Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced a partial

mobilization of military reservists, as Moscow continues

to lose ground in Ukraine.

Military strength before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Sept. 21: Russia orders

partial mobilization of

300,000 reservists

900,000

Active personnel

(includes army,

navy and

air force)

Active personnel

196,600

Total

2,900,000

2 million

Total

1,096,600

Reserves –

people who have

completed their

military service*

Reserves

900,000

RUSSIA

UKRAINE

*All Russian men aged 18-27 are subject to conscription for one year of military service

Mobilization

Involves assembling

and preparing troops

for active service.

Russia’s call-up will

apply only to reserve

personnel with

previous military

experience

Deployment

Troops to be given

additional training

before being sent to

Ukraine. Mobilization

will not include

students and those

currently serving

as conscripts

Resources

Russia could in theory

call upon 25 million

people for military

service. Current partial

mobilization covers

about one per cent of

that number

graphic news: Source: BBC; Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced a partial

mobilization of military reservists, as Moscow continues

to lose ground in Ukraine.

Military strength before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Sept. 21: Russia orders

partial mobilization of

300,000 reservists

900,000

Active personnel

(includes army,

navy and

air force)

Active personnel

196,600

Total

2,900,000

2 million

Total

1,096,600

Reserves –

people who have

completed their

military service*

Reserves

900,000

RUSSIA

UKRAINE

*All Russian men aged 18-27 are subject to conscription for one year of military service

Deployment

Troops to be given

additional training

before being sent to

Ukraine. Mobilization

will not include

students and those

currently serving

as conscripts

Mobilization

Involves assembling

and preparing troops

for active service.

Russia’s call-up will

apply only to reserve

personnel with

previous military

experience

Resources

Russia could in theory

call upon 25 million

people for military

service. Current partial

mobilization covers

about one per cent of

that number

graphic news: Source: BBC; Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced a partial mobilization of military reservists,

as Moscow continues to lose ground in Ukraine.

Military strength before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Sept. 21: Russia orders

partial mobilization of

300,000 reservists

900,000

Active personnel

(includes army,

navy and air force)

Active personnel

196,600

Total

2,900,000

Total

1,096,600

2 million

Reserves –

people who have

completed their

military service*

Reserves

900,000

RUSSIA

UKRAINE

*All Russian men aged 18-27 are subject to conscription for one year of military service

Deployment

Troops to be given additional

trainingbefore being sent to

Ukraine. Mobilization will not

include students and those

currently serving as conscripts

Mobilization

Involves assembling and

preparing troops for active

service. Russia’s call-up will

apply only to reserve person-

nel with previous military

experience

Resources

Russia could in theory call

upon 25 million people for

military service. Current partial

mobilization covers about one

per cent of that number

graphic news: Source: BBC; Reuters


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