President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization of Russian men to fight in Ukraine has brought home the reality of war to ordinary Russian families.
For months, Russian voices of dissent were largely silent. Initial antiwar demonstrations were quickly crushed and there were only small displays of defiance in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. But that all changed after Putin’s announcement on Sept. 21.
Through angry protests, acts of violence and an exodus of more than 200,000 citizens, Russians are rebelling against the prospect of further escalation of the war and the steep price they will probably pay.
Kremlin officials have downplayed the turmoil but the scenes coming out of Russia tell a different story, one of widespread opposition against a government known for quashing it. Dissent has been documented across the country even in areas that were previously quiet.
Videos and images verified by The Washington Post show Russians are angry and afraid for their lives. Dozens of protests broke out in large cities and rural areas that have already lost many men to the war in Ukraine. Some took to violence, while others chose to escape: Miles-long lines of cars waited to cross land borders out of the country and international flights out of Moscow were full of fighting-age men.
On Sunday, demonstrations erupted in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim republic in the North Caucasus. Soldiers from the region have suffered disproportionately high casualties during the Ukraine invasion. In protests in the regional capital of Makhachkala on Sunday and Monday, women confronted, even chased, local authorities. “We are for peace,” they chanted in one widely shared video.
Security forces responded harshly, violently detaining both women and men. Some 120 people were arrested in Makhachkala, according to OVD-Info, an independent group monitoring protests.
The head of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, has blamed the unrest on foreign influence “trying to escalate the situation inside the country” and has vowed that the republic will fulfill its part of the mobilization.
In Endirey, a village of around 8,000 people northwest of Makhachkala, video taken Sunday showed police firing into the air. According to local Telegram channels, 110 men had been called up there.
There were more protests Monday in Makhachkala, and security forces again clashed with locals.
Within hours of Putin’s announcement, protesters took to the streets in several large cities including St. Petersburg, Perm, Yekaterinburg and Moscow. Police, as they did months earlier, responded with beatings and mass arrests.
Protesters also came out in western Siberia. A video posted Sept. 21 showed people standing in Novosibirsk’s central square. “I don’t want to die for Putin,” one shouted before being pulled away by police.
Police surrounded demonstrators in a main square of the Siberian city of Tomsk on Sept. 21. One protester was led away holding a sign that said, “Give me a hug if you’re also afraid.”
In the eastern cities of Siberia, protesters fought with police shortly after Putin’s announcement and continued demonstrating through the weekend.
In a video posted Sunday on Telegram from the far eastern city of Yakutsk, an impoverished area where ethnic minorities have also borne the brunt of casualties in the war, women surrounded police and chanted, “Let our children live!”
There have also been attacks against military recruitment offices. More than a dozen incidents of violence have been reported across the country against military commissariats since the mobilization announcement.
On Monday morning at a recruitment center in Ust-Ilimsk, the chief recruitment officer in charge of conscription, Alexander Eliseev, was shot and critically wounded.
The alleged shooter, 25-year-old Ruslan Zinin, was detained and a criminal case was opened against him, according to Russian News Agency Tass.
A video posted Monday to Telegram showed a person throwing a Molotov cocktail at an enlistment office in the town of Uryupinsk, part of the oblast or province of Volgograd in southwest Russia.
In a statement from the administration of Uryupinsk posted on the Russian social media channel VK, the office confirmed the enlistment building was set on fire and that “the person at fault has been detained.” The administration said that there was minimal damage and no injuries.
A military recruitment office in Tomsk was evacuated following a bomb threat just hours after Putin’s announcement, media in Tomsk reported.
Rather than engaging in attacks or protests, many more young men seeking to avoid the war have opted to flee the country. Social media posts and satellite imagery showed miles of cars lined up at Russian border crossings as neighboring nations reported influxes of Russian migration.
Lines of cars stretched back at least nine miles from the Upper Lars checkpoint on the border with Georgia, far longer than the usual backup, according to Stephen Wood, senior director at Maxar Technologies. The traffic jams are visible both in satellite images and videos posted online.
For Yana and her boyfriend, crossing into Georgia took days. The 28-year-old, who gave only her first name because she didn’t want to be identified by authorities, described a desperate scene at the border.
“People had been standing there for three or four days already,” she said. “Online help chats are being created, people asking for water, food, diapers, gasoline.”
“I’ve seen a lot of things at the border but never the mayhem such as this,” a tour guide said in a video posted on Sept. 22.
Georgia’s interior minister said there had been a 40 to 45 percent increase in Russians crossing the border daily since the mobilization announcement.
After days of waiting, the couple made it across on Tuesday. “He hadn’t received a summons yet,” Yana said of her boyfriend. “Once it arrives it’s too late to leave.”
Satellite imagery captured by Maxar Technologies on Friday showed a line of vehicles nearly a half-mile long waiting to cross from the Russian republic of Buryatia into Mongolia.
“There are definitely more vehicles trying to leave,” Wood said. Images from Aug. 15, which he said were typical of traffic volumes before the mobilization, contained only a handful of trucks on the Russian side of the border.
Satellite imagery taken in the week since Russia’s announcement also indicated extensive delays at several land crossings into Kazakhstan.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev estimated Tuesday some 98,000 Russians had entered the country since Sept. 21. “Most of them are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation,” he said in a speech. “We must take care of them and ensure their safety.”
Video taken at the Mashtakovo border crossing into Kazakhstan and posted Sept. 22 also showed cars lined at the checkpoint and men on foot. Footage recorded late Sunday showed large numbers of men still at the border.
“There are many refugees. I feel sorry for them,” Aidos Kairzhanov, who shared the videos with The Post and said he helped transport some Russians from the border.
Many also scrambled to fly out of Russia.
“The decision to leave was a very hard one,” said Alexander, 27, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals. He left behind his family, girlfriend, mortgage and job, and booked a flight to Kazakhstan when he heard of the mobilization. At first he was nervous and confused, but he made friends on the flight - young Russian men who were also escaping.
“I’m happy I left and have no regrets. But the future is very unclear,” he said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.