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‘Do you know why the Ukrainians are mad at us?’ How the war in Ukraine has changed Dagestanis’ views of the Russian army
Story by iStories. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
Dagestan has long been a reliable source of personnel for the Russian army. In peacetime, while eligible conscripts in other regions would seek ways to evade mandatory service, young men in Dagestan would pay bribes to enlist. That’s not necessarily because they were eager to experience military life; a stint in the army is effectively a prerequisite to getting a public-sector job, and government service is the best-paying and most stable career track available in the region. But Dagestanis have shown far less enthusiasm for the military since Russia invaded Ukraine last year — and it’s no wonder, given that they were drafted in disproportionately high numbers, and that Dagestan lost more residents in the first few months of the full-scale war than almost any other region of Russia. After Putin announced mobilization in September, Dagestan had some of the country’s largest protests, prompting a brutal police crackdown. With the war in Ukraine approaching its one-year mark, a journalist from the independent Russian outlet iStories went to Dagestan to see how residents feel about military service, mobilization, and the war in Ukraine. In English, Meduza is publishing an abridged version of the dispatch.
‘We’re used to respecting the authorities’
We’re in an addressless one-story building in a small mountain village in southern Dagestan. An older woman named Patimat is sitting in an armchair behind a wooden table and dicing pieces of cow liver. She and her daughter-in-law started buying the cheap protein source from their neighbors back in the fall. Chickens and ducks roam around their property, but the family doesn’t eat those anymore: “Those are the meat pies we send to my oldest son, who’s at the front.” Forty-year-old Ramadan was drafted in September.
“To be honest, I still can’t tell if he wanted to be called up or not,” Patimat says. “But the draft order came. A lot of people here got them, by the way. Not everybody went.”
“What other option did they have?” asks the iStories correspondent.
“Some people paid the doctor, while others paid [the enlistment officers] directly. They told everyone the price right from the start,” answers Sabiyat, the wife of Patimat’s youngest son. “That’s not something we respect… Nobody respects cowardice. Ramadan said that if he hides, and if others hide, who will be left to protect the motherland? Doesn’t somebody have to go? He’s always been a real man.”
Sabiyat’s own husband is exempt from the draft due to health problems.
“Are the rest of the men really looked down upon now?”
“At first, yeah, that was the case. But then ‘the rest of the men’ became our whole village, except for our Ramadan,” Sabiyat says. “And things died down.”
“They died down,” Patimat repeats, rubbing her bloodshot eyes.
When Vladimir Putin announced mobilization, Ramadan was off working in Moscow. When he learned that a draft order had come for him, he immediately went to Derbent to “figure everything out.”
“I asked him to wait ten days so he could pack, spend some time at home before going to war, and give us time to talk,” his mother says. “He said, ’No, I’m going right now.’ Well, inshallah [God willing]. It’s up to him. I worry about him, of course, but I supported my son. What makes a man beautiful, if not his courage?”
In the five months since Ramadan was drafted, according to his family, he hasn’t received a single payment. Patimat paid for his body armor, helmet, and warm clothes herself; she transferred 50,000 rubles (about $670) to the bank account of “one of the commanders.”
None of Ramadan’s relatives know where he is. Their phone calls with him are so short that they haven’t even been able to ask whether he’s received the homemade food they’ve sent him.
Suddenly, the iStories correspondent hears children laughing: four-year-old Zakhra and two-year-old Ibad, Ramadan’s niece and nephew, burst into the room with a toy dump truck. Sabiyat lifts Ibad up into her arms to feed him some liver.
“Even our kids know about war,” she says. “On May 9, at the kindergarten, we always used to have to bring camouflage uniforms.”
“What about now?” asks the iStories correspondent. “Are [the kindergarteners] still told about the war, like elementary school students are?”
“I don’t know. We’re used to respecting the authorities,” Sabiyat says, lowering her voice. “And the kindergarten teacher is part of the authorities. I can’t ask her about anything. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”
‘You’re the ones going off to die for me’
From a cursory glance at the streets of any Dagestani city, it would be easy to think that Russia hasn’t been waging war against Ukraine for the last year. Most of the food products that have disappeared due to Western sanctions have been replaced by their Turkish or Iranian equivalents, and the stores that have blue and yellow IKEA signs hanging out front were full of locally made lamps and Turkish carpets even before the war.
It’s not rare to see “Z” symbols around the republic, but they’re definitely not as common as in Moscow. The only exception is southern Dagestan, where pro-war stickers adorn storefronts, cars, and restaurant windows.
Zarifa, a civil servant in the southern city of Derbent, proudly tells iStories about how she recently sent 205,000 rubles ($3,346) to volunteer fighters in Grozny.
“They started to thank me. I said, ‘What are you thanking me for? You’re the ones going off to die for me, for my security!’” she says.
In the fall, Zarifa and some of her friends started sending meat and hingels to the front. One of her colleagues involved in the initiative, Farida, starts to cry as she talks about it; her brother has been at the front for months now.
“Sometimes, we don’t hear anything from him for months at a time. Evidently, they don’t give them access to their phones,” she says, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief.
“Are you crying? Doesn’t the government give him the equipment he needs? Is he hungry? Is he sleeping in the cold?” Zarifa asks sharply.
“I’m not complaining, of course. He’s doing fine. As fine as he can be,” Farida responds.
Zarifa’s husband doesn’t have to worry about getting called up; he’s a high-ranking security official. Their eight-year-old daughter studies in a prestigious private school, where, in addition to gymnastics, dance, and English-language classes, she attends Russia’s government-imposed “patriotism” class: “Conversations About What’s Important.”
“Mom, do you know why the Ukrainians are angry at us?” her daughter asks when she gets home from school. “Everybody left the country to come to Russia, and the government got offended — so now they’re waging war against us. And I hate their president, Zelensky, too!”
“That’s my smart girl,” Zarifa says, giving her a kiss. “I try not to discuss politics at home, but her school shapes [her views] too. The other kids probably had people [from their families] go to the front, as did their teacher. And now Jamila hates him [Zelensky] — for making our people, from Derbent, have to go there.”
‘The Quran prohibits it’
Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, was the site of one of Russia’s largest anti-mobilization protests, which lasted for days. Law enforcement responded brutally to the demonstrations, using stun guns, batons, and pepper spray to disperse protesters, arresting at least 200 people. In the days that followed, the local Investigative Committee opened at least 30 criminal cases.
On September 25, more than 100 people blocked the Khasavyurt-Makhachkala Federal Highway near the northern Dagestani village of Endirey. Police ultimately fired guns in the air to make them leave.
One of those protesters was a 38-year-old Endirey resident named Gulyusa. She told iStories that she didn’t want her husband or her sons to die in a war that she doesn’t support.
“My heart began to ache back in February. I thought that, in Dagestan, everybody would condemn the war; after all, there’s not a single family who didn’t lose someone in the Chechen [Wars],” she says. “And that’s basically what happened. Nobody supported it, and everybody hoped it wouldn’t affect them. My youngest son is still 14. It’s not clear how long this will last for, but I hope it’s less than four years.”
After Gulyusa’s oldest son, 19-year-old Musa, received a draft order, the family decided it was no longer safe for him at home, so they went to Makhachkala. Now, unable to enroll in a university or get an official job, he works under the table assembling furniture. When he comes home to join his family for a meal, he travels incognito, always using other people’s cars.
And though her youngest son, seventh-grader Ilyas, is too young for the draft, the war has affected him, too.
“Today, there was almost nothing for me to do [at school]: we had free time instead of P.E., and I don’t go to ‘Conversations About What’s Important,’” he told iStories.
“No — almost nobody goes,” he says, laughing. “At first, the school tried to fix it by going through our parents, but the adults themselves say that these lessons aren’t really school; they’re not subjects like math or English, so we shouldn’t be required to be there. I went to two [of these] lessons in September. One was about cosmonauts and the other was about Russian songs. Usually, I go for a walk during that time, or eat breakfast at home, or study biology. I want to become a doctor.”
“Maybe by then, they won’t be drafting doctors anymore,” Gulyusa says with a sigh.
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Gulyusa’s family goes to an elderly mullah whose family continued practicing Islam throughout the entire Soviet period. Nowhere, he’s told her, does the Quran say that Muslims are required to protect non-Muslims, so — from a religious perspective — nobody from Endirey is obligated to go to Ukraine. On the other hand, the mullah says, the Quran does prohibit murdering innocent people, placing it on par with killing all of humanity. “If a man fears [obeys] Allah, he won’t go [to fight in Ukraine],” the mullah has said.
“The mullah isn’t afraid of the consequences? It sounds to me like he’s turned a lot of people [against the war],” asks the iStories correspondent.
“Everyone in Endirey will stand up for him,” she says. “What can they do to a respected man like him?”
‘Allah should help’
Islam, an Avar who lives in the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt, and his wife, a Chechen woman named Aishat, wanted to join the September protests, but they simply couldn’t make it: they’re raising seven kids, all under the age of ten.
One of Islam’s younger brothers was drafted, and he didn’t try to resist. According to Islam, he’s a “straightforward, honest person, so when the order came, he went [to the enlistment office].” The family hasn’t heard from him since October.
“It was a sin for me not to save him; I’m the oldest,” Islam laments, rocking his newborn son. “I probably should have hidden him. Our imam said afterwards that it’s more shameful to kill a non-Muslim on his own land than to hide in your home.”
The family can’t afford to emigrate; one of their daughters was born with cerebral palsy, and they’ve spent all of their savings on her treatment.
Ibragim, another one of Islam’s brothers, runs a shoe shop in town together with a friend. A draft order came for him in September, but he tore it up. He says he’s not afraid to stay in Khasavyurt.
“Some people were saying that the imam would keep the recruiters away from all of his students, though I don’t know if that’s possible without paying,” Ibragim says. “On the other hand, Allah should help, I think. If you refuse to go kill people because of your faith, then you’re on a certain path that the state has no power over.”
* * *
After the trip to Khasavyurt, amid talk of a new round of mobilization, the iStories correspondent received a call from Ibragim, who was now in Uzbekistan. He said he decided to help Allah protect him, and that he now plans to wait things out while abroad. He’s promised his brother and his business partner that he’ll return as soon as possible.
“I mean, it can’t last another year,” he said. “Can it?”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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