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‘It’s like making a tank operator fly a plane’ How Moscow military officials alter documents to draft men with no combat experience

Source: Meduza
Donat Sorokin / TASS

Interviews by Anna Evdanova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

Over the course of its mobilization campaign, the Russian military has drafted hundreds of thousands of people — including some who have never previously held a weapon. After receiving summonses, these unqualified draftees have gone to their local military commissariats to sort things out — only to get conscripted on the spot. But because they don’t have the skills the army needs, the men have gone on to spend days being sent from unit to unit until officials eventually replace their true military occupational specialty — be it “cable technician” or “musician” — with the word “gunner.” Multiple draftees who were drafted under these false pretenses have filed a complaint about this illegal practice with the Russian Military Prosecutor’s Office. They told Meduza about their experiences.

Sergey, 31 years old

Military occupational specialty: Radio communication equipment mechanic

I received my military occupational specialty in the army in 2012 and followed that track through my entire mandatory military service. I’ve never held a machine gun, except when taking the military oath.

I received a summons on October 13. I took it to the military commissariat, because I had no intention of fleeing, and I still don’t. I went to the commissariat to update my information, [as was indicated on the summons]. There were about a hundred of us. They had me undergo a medical assessment, then handed me a mobilization summons for October 15.

When the day came, I went to the military commissariat. They sent us by bus to Patriot Park [a military theme park in the Moscow region]. There were 48 of us. The next morning, the so-called “customers” started to arrive — the people who choose which draftees to recruit. Over the next three days, they took seven people — the healthiest, most highly-trained guys with the skills they needed. On the fourth day, only 21 people remained. Then they announced that since nobody needed us, we would go back to the military commissariat to [officially end our conscription].

the state of the mobilization campaign

‘I’m convinced there’s nothing legal about any of this’ The whole of Russian mobilization in one man’s story

the state of the mobilization campaign

‘I’m convinced there’s nothing legal about any of this’ The whole of Russian mobilization in one man’s story

At 10:00 pm, [Viktor] Kuznetsov, a lieutenant colonel and our military commissariat, called and said we wouldn’t be returning to the commissariat because he had arranged for us to be brought back to Patriot Park. We were a little frustrated, but those were the orders. The next day — the fifth one — we were taken to the “customers” again. This time, part of our group made it to the second round, and some of them ended up getting recruited. There were 14 people left. We spent the night at Avangard [a children’s military camp].

On the sixth day, they took us to a military training center at the Peter the Great Military Academy. They’d brought everybody there — all of the drunks, the lowlifes, and the useless. Everyone who was left. There were 14 guys from our district, and all of us had military occupational specialties that weren’t needed. The unit’s lieutenant colonel came out and suggested all 12 of us become gunners. We explained that we’d make shitty gunners, to put it lightly. He said, “Then you’re not what we need,” and told our chaperone to take us back to the commissariat. The chaperone called [military commissar] Kuznetsov, who said he’d come [to the training center] and make sure they took us [to the front] anyway.

For eight and a half hours, we sat in a bus, because they didn’t need us at the unit. They didn’t feed us, but we had some dry rations. At around 10:00 pm, Kuznetsov came, lined us up in front of the bus, and suggested we refuse to take part in mobilization. If we did that, we knew he would write us up — and the Investigative Committee would get involved and we would all go to prison — so nobody left.

He said that in that case, he would sign us all up as gunners, to which we responded that this was illegal. Kuznetsov said that he had the right to write in any specialty he deemed necessary. A representative of the military commissariat said [in front of Kuznetsov] that his actions were unlawful. Kuznetsov said, “I have my authority, and I’ll be responsible for my actions.” He took our military IDs and left. After writing “gunner” in as our positions, he came back and said, “Problem solved.” And left.

The next morning, they issued us orders to show up at the military commissariat to end our mobilization. Our bus arrived at the military commissariat at about 8:00 pm. There was nobody there except for an on-duty officer and two police squads who were guarding the building. We tried to enter, but they stopped us and explained that they’d been ordered by Kuznetsov not to let us in. The captain went to tell the guards that we’d been issued orders [to show up at the commissariat], then came back and said, “You need to show up at the commissariat tomorrow.” The next day was Saturday, and the commissariat was closed.


Written off in advance How an untrained and unarmed ‘platoon’ of new conscripts from Moscow was decimated near Svatove


Written off in advance How an untrained and unarmed ‘platoon’ of new conscripts from Moscow was decimated near Svatove

We realized that if we left, we would officially become AWOL [and thus subject to prosecution] the next day. We started calling all of the commissariats. Ultimately, they decided that we needed to be issued orders to come to the military commissariat the following Monday.

On Monday, we were all herded into a single office, and from there they took us one-by-one into another office, where they issued new draft orders for November 2. When we asked why they didn’t just declare our mobilization complete, they said, “We’re going to make sure you get fully mobilized, because the mobilization drive isn’t over yet.”

Now we’re in limbo. We have mobilization orders that say we’re supposed to be attached to a unit, but since we’re not needed, we can neither go to work nor do anything else except work through the chain of command. On November 2, we’ll go to the military commissariat. I have no intention of hiding from anybody, because I’m not saying anything illegal. I want the law to work, and I want [the guilty] people to be punished.

Igor Zhadanov, 33 years old

Military occupational specialty: cable and communications technician

Police officers from the military commissariat came to our work [in Moscow] and demanded our employer give them the military IDs of everybody who had previously served. They issued our draft orders right there — about 26 of them. I was off work, but I came in and asked, “Why exactly do you need me to go to the military commissariat?” They said, “Because you’re from a different region [the Rostov region], so we need to verify your information.” I thought that since they just needed to check their records, why shouldn’t I go?

I went to the military commissariat in the Tsaritsyno district at around 9:00 am on October 13. At 6:00 pm, they told me, “You’re not going anywhere — you need to undergo a [medical] exam.” They took my passport and my military ID. I underwent the medical exam, reported my congenital heart defect and my flat feet, and told them my wife has a disability and is undergoing gene therapy. That evening, they issued me a draft order and told me to show up with my things packed. I was a little bit in shock.

On October 15, after having us change clothes [at the military commissariat], they sent us to Avangard [a children’s military camp]. The next day, the command arrived from Nizhny Novgorod. They took the drivers and medics. On Monday, October 17, they looked at us again — and decided again that we didn’t fit their needs. We spent another night [at Avanguard]. On Tuesday, they brought us to the Moscow Higher Military Command School, where I saw my card and realized they hadn’t indicated my fitness category. I went [to the head doctor] and she asked what my profession was. I told her I’m a maritime cable technician. She said, “Oh, [your specialty] doesn’t fit our needs — go see the colonel and he’ll sort everything out.” I went to him and waited in line. He gave my military ID to his superior and said, “You can take him back to the military commissariat. We don’t need him.” He called the commissar, Kuznetsov, who said, “No! Stay there and wait.” We waited for a while and were about to head to the military commissariat when Kuznetsov called and said, “Go to Avangard — I worked it out with them.”

getting out of dodge

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getting out of dodge

‘Entire subjects are being cut’ Russia's schools are hemorrhaging teachers as they flee mobilization

After a day of being examined by “customers,” we spent another night at Avangard, then they sent us to the Peter the Great Military Academy. It was [October] 21. There, I was given a confidentiality agreement — and if I didn’t sign it, I would [automatically] be given the title of gunner. They told me, “Sign it first, then we’ll tell you everything.” I said, “No, tell me what exactly I’m going to be doing.” I knew they didn’t need cable technicians in those units. They said, “We’re going to sign you up as a gunner.” But I’m not a gunner! I’ve never held a gun, and I don’t know how to use one. They said they didn’t have a more suitable position for me. I refused to be retrained as a gunner, and they gave my military ID to the chaperone.

After that, they assigned us to our units. Kuznetsov came and said he would write whatever military occupation specialty he deemed necessary in our military IDs.

The lieutenant from the prosecutor’s office who represented that unit was standing next to him, as was the unit’s commander. Both the lieutenant and the commander said that writing in a new military occupational specialty was illegal. But Kuznetsov took all of our military IDs from the chaperone [and wrote our new specialties on our IDs].

The command didn’t designate us as gunners; they sent us to spend the night in [a nearby village]. I didn’t understand where we were going, and I called my wife, who got worried and called the police. When we arrived, we realized they had sent us to a local health resort. A police squadron showed up there and documented the fact that “gunner” had been written in on our military IDs.

In the morning, we were taken to the Peter the Great Military Academy, where they issued orders to end our mobilization. The Strategic Missile Forces command provided a bus to take us to Moscow. The captain went in [to the military commissariat], then returned and said, “They won’t let you in. You can go home.” We said we wouldn’t go home, because this was a trick — if we left, they could declare us deserters.

what awaits russia's conscripts

'Honestly, they're all going to die' What Russian soldiers who have already fought in Ukraine think about Putin's mobilization effort

what awaits russia's conscripts

'Honestly, they're all going to die' What Russian soldiers who have already fought in Ukraine think about Putin's mobilization effort

Finally, the captain wrote an official letter dismissing us until Monday. On Monday, when we went to the military commissariat, Kuznetsov, as far as we understood, had left so that he wouldn’t have to see us. His subordinates said that he wasn’t going to declare our mobilization complete — meaning he was going to find a way to sign us up as gunners no matter what. They issued us new draft orders.

On November 2, I plan to go to the military commissariat. If we don’t show up, we’ll be declared wanted, then sent to jail. We [the conscripts] are responsible citizens: when there’s an issue, we show up. Thus I responsibly went to [the commissariat the first time]. If Kuznetsov found a unit that needed my military occupational specialty, I was prepared to serve. As Putin said, mobilization should be done legally, according to people’s specialties. [Otherwise,] I’ll just be killed — I’ll be completely ineffective. It’s like putting a tank operator in a plane and sending him into the sky.

Anastasia, sister of Alexey, a 31-year-old draftee

Military occupational specialty: military band musician

My brother is a musician. In 2010, he underwent his mandatory military service. At first, he was in the village of Dalneye Konstantinovo [in the Nizhny Novgorod region]. He ended up in a company where they classified him as a gunner. But after two months of basic training, he took his oath and transferred to the military band in Yoshkar-Ola. He spent his entire mandatory service in the military band. That’s the specialty they put on his military ID.

They put his draft card in the mailbox. He was with our parents, not in Moscow, so it was his wife who found the summons. Nobody handed her anything directly. Then the police came to his wife at their home and said he was a draft dodger and that his absence could have serious consequences. The next day, the district council started searching for him. When my brother came home, he immediately went to the military commissariat and learned what was going on. He’s just not somebody who would hide. He’s really a very kind person, and he immediately told them [he would comply with the conscription]. But we went [to the commissariat] thinking they wouldn’t need him.

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We waited there for a whole day. Since he wears glasses [and has poor eyesight], they told him he had to see an ophthalmologist — but no other doctors. The ophthalmologist just asked whether he had any complaints — and he never complains about anything. In my view, that’s not right: to not even examine someone before sending them off somewhere. But they ultimately only gave Alexey a single day before it was time for him to go.

The next day, they sent him to Patriot Park. Alexey spent a day there, then they took everybody who had been conscripted [along with him] to the Moscow Higher Military Command School. There, the heads of the school wrote a new specialty on his military ID: “gunner."

Since October 10, Alexey has been training in Naro-Fominsk as part of the 4th Guards Tank Division. We’ve seen him twice; at one point, they gave him a full day off. They [Alexey and other conscripts] were told that they’ll be in Naro-Fominsk for 27 days. But it all sounds very suspicious, because every time [we talk], he says someone else has been deployed [to the front]. And nobody tells them exactly where those people have been sent.

Interviews by Anna Evdanova

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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