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‘I’m ready to die for Russia but not for criminals and thieves’ Three former Russian military officers speak out about why they deserted after Russia invaded Ukraine
Russian independent news outlet iStories spoke to three former Russian officers whose consciences would not let them fight in Ukraine. They described why they joined Russia’s Armed Forces and what it took to get out again once they were swept up in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the mobilization that followed. The three former officers spoke on condition of anonymity, though their identities are known to iStories’ editorial staff. Meduza shares an abridged English version of their stories, by agreement with iStories.
After high school, I enrolled in a military academy. I can't say it was my decision — my parents insisted on it. There aren't many ways to earn money in the provinces. So I decided it was a good option since I'm not from a rich family — they feed me and they clothe me.
I joined the army in 2016. I began to have doubts immediately. The people there are, I’m sorry, mostly idiots.
On my second day, I wrote a resignation letter and took it to the commander. My relatives told me I’d betrayed the family. They started brainwashing me: “The army is life’s path. You have to, you have no other choice.” My immediate commander also picked up on this, saying “Everything is great in the army, we have medical care, we’ll give you a good education, you’ll wear a uniform, you’ll have a salary, stability.” I wrote a few more [resignation] letters, but I stayed because my mother insisted. In the end, I finished the academy.
Back in 2021, I tried to quit six months before the war started. I didn’t go on service, left the garrison, committed all sorts of violations. Then I just bought a plane ticket and flew home for a week. I was writing resignation letters every day, giving them to the commander, and he was tearing them up in front of me. In a normal job, you come, write a letter, and within two weeks you have to be released. This is not the case in the army.
After the New Year holidays [in the beginning of 2022], we were told that we were all going on a training trip to the annexed Republic of Crimea. The commander of the unit told us that no one was going to fight. In 90 percent of cases, these exercises are fake. The unit commander’s speech influenced most of the servicemen. Some believed that we were really going for training, others suspected that there would be some clashes, but no one thought that war would start. Nobody believed that. But I didn’t believe the commanders, according to the old Russian precept “Don’t trust the state.” I had a bad feeling.
Lawyers advised me to write a report refusing to go. We understood perfectly well that this report would have no effect on anything, just like all the previous ones. But I tried. The commander drew a large penis on this report.
In early February, we went to Crimea. I realized that this was not a training exercise around February 15–16, when combat orders began to arrive allowing tracked vehicles to move on the asphalt road. That’s when I realized something big was going down.
Sometime on February 23, we were ditched close to the border. We stopped in a wooded area. The order came to refuel all the vehicles. We were given ammunition, weapons, and two magazines each. And so on February 24th we crossed the border. At the first stop, I approached my immediate commander and asked: “Did we attack Ukraine? Why did we go outside the Russian Federation? What’s going on?” To which I received an answer: “Wait 10 days, we’ll stand here for a while and go back home. Everyone will earn the veteran certificates and receive payments.”
No one expressed dissatisfaction. But there were dissatisfied people. The mood was “sit down and keep quiet.” Why couldn’t we revolt if there were many dissenters? The army isn’t about ideological people. They’re paid to kill and to follow orders.
I stayed on the territory of Ukraine from February to the end of summer 2022. I did not take part in any combat. My task was to provide supplies. Quite often, we came under fire, hiding in cellars and trenches. I had a gun, but I did not shoot. I didn't see any fighting, but I was on the front line. There’s nothing good on the front line — constant shelling, fear. Deaths on both sides.
[Once] we were moving in a column to one of the settlements when we met a car with three men in it. I was passing by when our special forces stripped these three citizens of Ukraine, all in civilian clothes, to the waist. The commander told special forces to check for tattoos, to take documents, and then ordered them to shoot the three people. I heard it on the radio. I had already passed the place and heard three shots. It could hardly have been anything else. For what reason they were shot, I don’t know. But I can be sure that they were not interrogated to find out anything — only two minutes had passed.
It happened in the first days of the war. Somewhere around the end of April, I got on the Internet, saw Bucha, read what was being tweeted....
I’ve been talking to civilians myself. Now, I can look at the situation reasonably, but back then, after talking to some people, you think you’re an occupier, and after talking to others, you think you’re a hero. And you have a dissonance.
Around mid-summer we started being sent to Russia on leave. I was sent with the second group. After that, I refused to perform any duties and wrote a resignation letter. Everything was in order. At the beginning of September, a commission was convened and they made a unanimous decision to dismiss me. And then mobilization began. I was told: “Pack your bags, you’re going back.” And at that moment I realized that I couldn’t go back. My morals would not allow me to go back.
I only had a Russian internal passport, so I had to choose between Armenia and Kazakhstan for my escape. I went for Kazakhstan because it was closer and cheaper. My relatives did not support me. They said that I was a betrayer, that if necessary, they would take up arms themselves and go to war. We are not in touch to this day.
To those who want to sign a contract with the Russian army, I would like to say: under no circumstances should you do so. It endangers your life, health and freedom. This is not your war. If you have a [travel] passport, you can try to get a visa to another country. It’s stressful, it’s unclear what will happen next. But it’s much better than being at war. I am now a betrayer to my country, let them think so. Time will sort things out.
I’m from a small village far from Moscow, but I decided to enter a Moscow technical university to study design engineering. I didn’t have any plans for the future, I just did what I had to do. I didn’t want to ask my parents [for help], and it would have been impossible: salaries in our village are small.
The university advised me to apply to a military training center — something like a military department at a civilian university. But those who study at the military center sign a contract and [after graduation] go to serve for at least three years. You pay back the debt for a dormitory and a small scholarship — a deal with the devil.
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Did I think much when I was 20? Not at all. I came in, signed this piece of paper, really without looking at it. “It’s no big deal — I’ll serve three years.” But when I finished studying, I already had some idea of life and realized that the army was not a place where I wanted to spend three years.
There was a clause in the contract that if you stopped your studies, you would pay three times the amount that the Ministry of Defense had paid for you. In fact, you are held hostage by the Ministry. For me, this amount was 2 million rubles (over $21,000).
February 24th , I had a terrible experience. At that time I was finishing my diploma and was to become a military officer in a few months. I was on my way to work and learned that war had broken out. Horror, panic. What to do? But my debt to the Ministry of Defense was huge. And my parents said, “Serve for a while, then you’ll think about it.”
My contract started in July 2022. The military lawyer explained to me briefly what to do to quit. The day after my arrival, I went to the unit commander. I said that I was not a military man, knew nothing about my specialty and did not want to serve. I asked him to please dismiss me.
Nobody liked it. They told me how bad I was, how I was a betrayer, how I was not a man. They said: “You gave your word, you signed a contract. You need to squeeze your balls in a fist like a man and go serve!”
I started to sabotage the service: I went away for a few days, brought my cell phone to the unit. They started threatening me with a criminal case, promising that they would put me in jail, but it didn’t work on me. My immediate commander said: “It would be easier for me to take you to the forest and shoot you.”
Many of the officers I’ve talked to don’t have a good attitude toward the army. They are, of course, pro-government people. But if they had the opportunity to quit without consequences, they would do it. If you start the dismissal process and do not make it, you’re screwed. Everyone is against you. They don’t let you live a bearable life. Most people are not ready to make such sacrifices, it’s easier for them to serve a contract.
Starting in February, I kept thinking that I might end up in the war. Until September I managed to avoid it, but then my commander suggested sending me to Karabakh [where Armenia and Azerbaijan have had recent border clashes]. I said, “No, any military action is unacceptable to me.” And he said to me, “Don’t you dare say that to me when martial law is declared in Russia. I will take you outside the barracks and shoot you.”
Then they gave up and said, “Let’s compromise. We’ll dismiss you in about six months, but you will not interfere with anyone.” It was a good option for me. I was just an office worker, sitting in front of the computer, dealing with documents. The plan was for me to quit by the end of 2022. But that did not happen: September, Putin’s decree [on mobilization] — and that’s it. It is no longer possible to quit.
I realized that I would be sent back to the commander who threatened me with execution. I decided to say that I was suicidal and ask to go to a psych ward. I made arrangements with the [right] people. But they told me right away that no one would fire me for health reasons, I would just stall for time. I agreed.
When I came out of the hospital, I asked the unit commander to transfer me. I gave him a bottle [of alcohol], as is traditional. He was indignant, but he took the bottle and transferred me to another place. I served there for another four months.
All this dragged on until February . In February, they started recruiting officers to be sent to war. I talked to those who had returned from Ukraine, and they said they were cannon fodder. I was lucky: first they were looking for warrant officers and contractors who would agree to become officers, given that they would be sent to war. This gave me time to prepare to escape Russia.
I realized that if I were sent to war, I would be forced to kill people. And I would probably not come back. With the beginning of mobilization, all military men were given papers to sign. I just went home when I got that sheet. I talked to a lawyer, and we found no way out of this situation except escape.
How can you plan anything when the state changes the laws as it wants? You’re always gonna lose. The only option is to go to jail or flee Russia. It was hard. I realized that I was a criminal now. Most likely, I would never be able to return. Desertion and AWOL are crimes with no statute of limitations.
When I made the decision to escape, I found the organization Get Lost. We spent a couple of weeks preparing for our escape, developing a plan, thinking through everything: how to answer questions at the border, what stuff to take, how to buy tickets, how to use communications.
I have been living in Georgia for a couple of months now. I spend all my time at the computer, retraining as a programmer, and I have slowly started to earn money. I need a large amount of money to go somewhere else. Georgia is not safe for me either.
European countries now consider any Russian as a potential security threat. And if the person was also in the military, i.e. a deserter, this is a more serious reason to fear for security. You’re not wanted anywhere. The outlaw man. I’m saving up money to legally move to another country and seek asylum.
A month after I escaped, they opened a criminal case against me. But I don’t consider myself a betrayer. How can you be a criminal in the eyes of criminals? The only thing I can do to somehow bring the war to an end is to tell my story. It might convince someone, for example, to break off relations with the army.
I studied at a military boarding school, which influenced my choice. When I was 17, I decided to go to a military academy. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to enter a civilian university, and afterwards I wouldn’t be able to find a good job. I have no connections, my parents aren’t rich. And service in the army is a sure way to achieve something in life. I finished the academy well enough. I should have been in the army for 10 years in total.
I remember that there was tension between Russia and Ukraine, but no one believed that there would be anything serious. We all traveled to the border with Ukraine for training exercises. On February 10, our commander arrived and said that there was no need to worry, there would be no war — just power play and maneuvers along the border.
We calmed down. A general commanding an army wouldn’t lie. I thought Putin was a thief, but not a fanatic. The war could have been started by Napoleon, or Hitler, but not him. He could have sat quietly, stolen for the rest of his life, and everyone would have been happy — that’s the social contract we have with the government. But everything turned around within a few days.
We realized that it was going to be serious when they gathered all the brigades before marching [to Kyiv]. I remember the phrases that later became a joke among us: “You shouldn’t worry, everything will be over in three days. Some of you won’t even realize what happened.”
We realized that we had crossed the border when we started seeing signs in Ukrainian. All the border settlements were intact. But the closer we got to Kyiv, the more and more destruction there was.
When the three days were up [and victory had not happened], the command said nothing. The main thing was to survive every day. A soldier is not given the task, “Your platoon must take Kyiv.” He is told, “You have to sit behind this tree and watch.” An officer is told, “Your line is over there, you have to get there.” We are small people, we are given small tasks.
When we were near Kyiv, there was no certain line of contact between the sides, there was no front, we just rushed in columns to the capital, and these columns were being shelled, shelled, shelled.
Partisans from the local population appeared. Every day they had more and more modern weapons, they were slowly gaining experience. We saw how partisans were caught. I know that there were cases where they were shot without trial. There were people who agreed to become executioners. And no one would ever punish them.
This is not my first war. I was in Syria for five months, but compared to Ukraine, it was a children’s camp there. It’s one thing to fight some illegal armed groups with a half-broken tank and a machine gun. And it’s another thing to fight an army with aviation, artillery, and communications. Moreover, Western arms are being supplied to Ukraine, and Russian arms are critically inferior to Western models.
I will not say that I saw the Ukrainian military directly, but they shot at us and we shot back. Other guys had incidents: they were walking somewhere at night, came face to face with Ukrainians, talked, moved away and started shooting. Stories for movies, but they’re real.
When we were leaving Kyiv, we suffered heavy losses, and two guys fell behind. They went to a local resident to surrender as prisoners: he washed and fed them. The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) came. They shot one of them in the leg and videotaped how they rendered first aid, to show how they helped a wounded Russian taken prisoner. He says in the video: “Thanks, guys, for not killing me.” A lot depends on the person. War is a place where laws take a back seat and in the end only the human factor matters.
I stayed “behind the [front] line” until May  with wounds. Well, as for the wounds…it was a whole “special operation” to leave Ukraine.
In September [after mobilization was announced], the rules of the game changed. We realized that we had to leave by any means necessary. One could leave Ukraine either dead or wounded. When I already had just a few people left, we were sent on another suicide mission. We crippled ourselves. Intentionally.
It is not an easy thing to do. But everyone knew that we were in close proximity to Ukrainian positions, and we were able to do it in such a way that everyone believed us and no one had any questions. We were shooting at each other.
Then there was evacuation, hospitalization, and rehabilitation. During the rehabilitation period, I tried various ways not to go back [to Ukraine]. It did not work. Desperate, I went for a full checkup in a private clinic for a significant amount of money to have me fully screened. Unfortunately, I am completely healthy.
I started thinking it would be easier to die. At least this would all be over. But I did not dream of dying in a trench for the ambitions of one crazy man. I am ready to die for Russia, defending it from enemies who would attack it. But I don’t want to die for bandits, criminals, and thieves.
The screws continued to tighten. There was no way out. At first I wanted to go to prison, but prison was not the answer either, because in Russia they send you from prison [to war].
I realized that I had to escape. At first I planned everything on my own. I was in Russia, hiding, but then I came across the organization Get Lost and they helped me leave.
Yes, I killed someone. I didn’t go up and shoot the person at point-blank range, but I was shot at — I shot back. That is war. I want to live, too. If I had not fired, if I had raised my hands, I would have been shot. But I did not maraud, I did not mock, torture, or execute anyone.
What would I say to those who are now thinking of signing a contract [with the Russian army]? Have enough courage for your own opinion. Do not think you can sit on the sidelines. You’re sitting there, seemingly quiet, calm, and then you’re dead.
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