‘Everyone knew it was coming’ A dispatch from Russia's Republic of Buryatia, where mobilization is already underway
Story by People of the Baikal. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
According to available data, the Republic of Buryatia has been losing soldiers at a higher rate than almost any other region of Russia since the start of the war against Ukraine. An analysis from the independent outlet Mediazona suggests that’s no coincidence: Buryatia residents, roughly 30 percent of whom are ethnic Buryats, make well below Russia’s median salary on average, which has been a reliable predictor that a given region will have high losses in this war. Vladimir Putin’s September 21 mobilization announcement looks unlikely to reverse the pattern: conscription-eligible Buryatia regions began receiving draft orders that same day. A new report from local outlet People of the Baikal describes how the men were picked up from their homes early the following morning and taken to the military commissariat’s assembly point in the regional capital, Ulan-Ude. With permission, Meduza is publishing a lightly abridged translation of the story.
On Shumyatsky Street (Editor’s note: in Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia), an elderly woman in a woolen headscarf holds a plastic bag containing five cartons of Peter the Great cigarettes. She’s waiting for her son-in-law to be brought to the recruitment center. Last night, the 35-year-old was served a military summons in his home district of Barguzinsky, and he should be arriving in Ulan-Ude soon.
“I have three sons who are there already,” the woman says quietly. “Now they’re taking my son-in-law. They all want to fight. All of them. Men have something wrong with their heads.”
The woman’s phone rings and she answers. First she's calm, then she breaks into a shout: “Pasha, are you here? Yes, I brought the cigarettes. Tell everyone there that you have four kids, you hear me? Tell them all! Maybe they’ll release you.”
Buses of conscripts have been arriving in Ulan-Ude since the morning. The men are brought to the Military Commissariat of the Republic of Buryatia’s assembly point on Shumyatsky Street, a large, fenced-in territory directly adjacent to a tall apartment building. Just a 10-minute walk from here is the city’s archery hall, where memorial services for soldiers killed in Ukraine are held.
The first conscripts to arrive are from the Tunkinsky district. According to a local government official, 130 people were picked up from the district, which has a population of about 20,700 residents. The entire Republic of Buryatia has about 980,000 people, and about 6 to 7 thousand of them are eligible for the draft.
According to a local government official who asked to remain anonymous, none of the people who have been conscripted so far have objected or complained. “Everyone knew mobilization was coming, and everyone was internally prepared for [the conscription authorities] to come for them,” he said.
It takes about 6–7 hours to reach Ulan-Ude from the Tunkinsky district. On the bus ride, the conscripts are given a lunch of buuz, a type of steamed dumpling popular in the region. “Each person ate 10 of them,” said one woman in a messaging group for soldiers' wives in the district. Members of the group have already begun collecting money for things like cigarettes and warm hats for the future soldiers. They’ve also discussed giving their husband bags of sacred sand from the Burkhan Baabai datsan, a Buddhist monastery in the district.
The Tunkinsky district residents arrive in two white Ford vans and two yellow school buses. When the vehicles stop in front of the gates of the assembly point, the conscripts — almost all in camouflage military uniforms — get out for a smoke break. Many of them are carrying bags packed by their wives or mothers.
“I’m 45 years old. I served a thousand years ago, and I wasn’t sent to a single hot zone,” says one heavyset, unshaven man. “But hey, I guess it’s my turn to do some shooting.” After the men finish their cigarettes and return to the buses, they’re driven through the gates to the assembly point. One of them shakes his fist and sings an upbeat song in a minor key as he waits for the others.
Ten minutes later, another batch of conscripts shows up, this time from the Yeravninsky district. Then buses arrive from the Zaigrayevsky, Kurumkansky, and Barguzinsky districts. Sergey, who hails from the Yeravninsky district, steps out of his bus with a bottle of cheap beer. He stands there for a moment in his plaid shirt and puffer vest, wobbling and smiling at a group of Kurumkansky residents. They stand in a circle, drinking vodka straight from the bottle. “Hey, come film me,” he says, waving his arm. “I think our country, or Buryatia, will crush old China — I mean, uh, Ukraine.”
Sergey is 49 years old. He served in the army once, but that was “a long time ago.” He has a wife and two daughters, the youngest of whom just entered the first grade. He says he’s not afraid of death. “Though I did tell my wife goodbye, and my daughters, too,” he adds, tears welling in his eyes. “But here we are: I’m headed to the front.”
All of the men being mobilized from Buryatia will be sent to either Chita, a city in Russia’s Zabaykalsky Krai, or Blagoveshchensk, in the Amur region, for training. From there, they’ll go to Ukraine.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale