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Confession

“I know that my hands are elbow-deep in blood”: Confessions of Russian deserters

More than a year has passed since the start of mobilization in Russia. In September 2022, the military leadership promised newly recruited soldiers service in the rear and a swift return home – both turned out to be lies. Unprepared conscripts are used in “meat grinder” assaults, and one can only legally end their service through injury or death. In these conditions, many contemplate escape, though only a handful summon the courage to act – people are intimidated and disoriented. The Insider spoke with three Russian military servicemen who decided to flee, and they shared what compelled them to take this step and why escaping is easier than it initially seems.

RU

Content
  • “150 people died for a patch of forest”

  • “From the very beginning, I was thinking about desertion”

  • “Instead of training, we were just digging trenches, and then they sent us to the front to demine fields”

“150 people died for a patch of forest”

Denis, 27. Worked as a trader before mobilization

I knew about the mobilization as early as August. This was because many of my school and childhood friends work in the “three-letter shop” [FSB]. I contemplated leaving the country, but my friends insisted it wouldn't work for me—allegedly because, in 2018, during the World Cup, I served in the Rosgvardia [National Guard]. They claimed that if I arrived at the airport or the border, I would be immediately detained and sent to serve in the infantry. There, I would end up as “cannon fodder.” So, they persuaded me to voluntarily enlist in a unit where I would have a chance to survive. They estimated the odds at 30 to 50%.

That's how I found myself, through connections, in the army spetsnaz. I considered myself a mercenary. I signed a contract only to later discover that all contracts were extended until the end of the war. That's when my world exploded. Initially, we were promised three months of preparation: physical and psychological. In reality, none of that happened. I had some background myself because I engaged in airsoft and paintball in civilian life, went on hikes in the woods. But there were many regular civilians with me who had no skills at all.

Later, we were told that throughout the contract period, we would serve relatively safely and avoid direct confrontation with the enemy. But in the end, they sent us to the front line—to work with sources and the border service of the FSB. Tasks were assigned to us like this: there's an outpost or a sector—storm it, throw artillery fire, tank fire or anything at it. By whatever means necessary. Our commander, who understood that he was dealing with essentially civilians, took on most of the tasks. But I had a few contacts with enemies as well. I still don't know if I killed anyone then; I didn't see bodies, didn't hear screams.

But I know that my hands are not just in blood—they are elbow-deep in blood. On the front line, I was a drone operator's spotter. We conducted most of the operations using drones. The drone operator recorded everything and told me where to direct the fire, and I transmitted it via radio to the intermediary to guide the artillery. And then I watched as bunkers, vehicles, and everything else exploded.

It's hard to count, but probably more than a thousand people died as a result of our attacks.

My hands are not just in blood—they are elbow-deep in blood

I tried to keep myself away from what was happening as much as possible. I didn't see the person on the other side of my weapon as a human. My main thought was just to get through this service term. Plus, the higher-ups told us we were up against terrorists, ukronazis, invaders. People only start thinking about who they're really fighting when they run into problems like getting wounded or the contract not being honored. By then, it's too late to realize why I came here.

In the beginning, we saw a lot of mistreatment from both Russians and Ukrainians towards POWs. There were a lot of paybacks. For instance, Ukrainians saw their prisoners being beaten, shot in the legs. The SBU quickly responded—they were better prepared, had better gear; they could just sneak behind our lines, grab someone sleeping, and start torturing them.

The “Storm” units face the biggest losses. I've seen it—150 people would die for a small wooded patch of land or an outpost sized 50, 100 or 200 meters. Being careless and not paying attention also leads to losses. People come back from leave thinking they dodged death. But then a T-72 shows up and wipes everyone out.

I'm not even talking about the mobilized. They can spend three days just dying in the woods or at a base. People just lie there with open wounds in the cold for a day, bleed out, and die during transport. Unlike us, the enemy can send transport to retrieve even one or five wounded soldiers. We have to do everything ourselves, and we're not trained, not sure what to do. For instance, 20 trained Special Ops guys can make a 10-kilometer run and only afterwards realize they're all wounded. But the mobilized with their lack of training can't even perform a 200–300 meter charge. That's why our losses are so high.

The AFU can send transport to retrieve even one wounded soldier. As for us, we have to do it ourselves, without any training

Being captured by the enemy was not an option in our unit. We were explicitly told: do anything, but don't let yourself be captured. There are a lot of videos of Wagner mercenaries “leaving the game” — they simply detonate a grenade next to their head. We were told that the grenade simply disconnects you from the server. You leave this world without feeling any pain.

If I were to generalize, people like me are very few. There are very few of us who decided to up and leave everything behind — family and home — and run away. Many try to hide but they come out of hiding as soon as they or their relatives start getting phone calls or house searches. I understood that I needed to leave even as I signed the contract and found out it was extended until the end of the war. But I arrived at the front and waited for the right moment. At first, there was the idea that maybe I could try to resign while on leave after the contract expired. But it didn't work out.

I got injured, and they gave me a 15-day leave, after which I decided not to return. They were looking for me; in the first few days, they called my relatives and everyone they knew, asking where I was. On the 11th day, the calls stopped, and they just came to my house. Knocking on the doors, covering the peephole, not introducing themselves: “Come out, we know you're in there.” Then they left.

They plastered my photo all over the area. It was then that I decided to reach out to organizations specializing in helping people escape, such as the “Go to the Forest” project. I sent them a message, asking about the practicality of hiding and the potential consequences. They warned me that authorities would be on the lookout. However, the Ministry of Defense faced a challenge; they lacked funds for extensive surveillance, so over time, the scrutiny would diminish. My friends from the organization alerted me to a brief window of opportunity to make my escape. And that's exactly how it played out.

They plastered my photo all over the area

It sounds incredibly silly and amusing, but I also sought advice from my connections in high places. They told me, “Don't be afraid, keep moving forward, and try to leave the country.”

Right now, I'm far away on another continent. But I'm aware of what Russian special services are doing – discreetly eliminating people. That's why I still don't feel entirely safe.

As for those who want to escape, they should understand that it's a high-stakes game, and it's tough. Let's be honest; thoughts of escape are widespread among all conscripts who were deceived and left on the front lines. Only a few summon the courage to act.”

“From the very beginning, I was thinking about desertion”

Alexander, 36. Worked in IT before mobilization

I got mobilized at the end of September 2022. Before that, there were some warning signs – and not just warning signs, more like an alarm bell. They handed me the draft notice in the HR department. Our colleague had been summoned to the local draft board in the morning, and they gave him notices for the entire institution; he brought them to work. He had no choice but to hand them out, and I could not refuse.

The first thing I felt was shock. Then horror at what lay ahead. I knew what awaited me: I had seen many videos, read numerous stories. I wanted to avoid it, to leave Russia. But it was too late. There were huge traffic jams at the border with Georgia. I didn't even have a foreign travel passport. All I could do was hope that everything would work out. There are many like me.

They assigned me as an assistant to a machine gunner. The first two weeks were paperwork. Then training commenced, encompassing both theory and practical exercises on the training grounds. The theoretical aspect drew upon regulations from Soviet times. However, the on-site training was conducted by seasoned specialists who had experience in various conflict zones. They were well-trained, really knew what they were doing. You could see it in their eyes, reactions, and actions. They taught us to storm buildings, enter correctly, move properly between buildings.

They sent us to the front in November. They brought us with our belongings to a military airfield and then by plane to Crimea. From there, we took Kamaz trucks to our deployment site – some small village. They put all of us together in the local club. Everyone was paranoid about security, they kept telling us, “Don't use phones.”

They put all of us together in the local club. Everyone was paranoid about security, they kept telling us, “Don't use phones”

In the first days, no one knew anything at all. It was just a nightmare, complete confusion about where we were and what to do. Gradually, information began to surface, indicating that we were positioned well within the rear. Initially, we were told our task was to protect ourselves so that no one would approach and blow up our building. Then we were given small chores: fix lighting, paint something, or tidy up the cemetery.

We found ourselves at the front line in early 2023. By that time, I had been working in the headquarters – an opportunity presented itself: they needed a specialist who could handle documents on the computer, and I seized it. That's why I ended up not in the frontline trenches but 70 meters away from the front.

While I worked in the headquarters, I heard all sorts of things. For example, with the officers' knowledge, soldiers were given faulty launchers. There were many stories about looting near Kyiv. I witnessed soldiers in our unit taking abandoned cars, motorcycles, mopeds. Later, they would attach black-colored military license plates. I saw people from the regiment taking refrigerators and other household appliances from houses.

In our battalion, almost everyone was mobilized, except for a few officers. Many understood that they weren't fighting against some fascists, but they didn't talk about it openly. On the other side are ordinary people defending their land.

After six months, by June, we were transferred to Bakhmut. By then, the city had already been taken, and even the Wagner mercenaries were no longer there. They had rebelled and headed towards Rostov, so that's when we moved in.

By that time, I had switched from the headquarters to the medical unit as a medic. I couldn't handle the psychological pressure in the headquarters, listening to everything the commanders were saying. Their idiocy. Imagine sitting next to Skabeeva and Solovyov all day long, around the clock, 24/7. And seeing those faces...

I couldn't handle the psychological pressure and the idiocy of the commanders in the headquarters

That's why I started dealing with the evacuation of the wounded. The closest I could get to the front trenches was about 30 meters. The wounded would be pulled out of the trenches by their buddies first, and then we would pick them up from a “safe” spot, provide some initial aid, and transport them further.

The thought of escaping crossed my mind from the moment I received the draft notice. But how could I do it? It requires psychological preparation and money. Basic things like having a travel passport. Initially, I couldn't leave the front at all. But even there, people managed to escape.

It takes a week to reach the border and cross it, but they put you on a wanted list after just two days. On the front, the only chance is to cross the red line, that is surrender as a prisoner of war. But it's very dangerous. The terrain in front of the trenches is typically mined and under drone surveillance. They might mistake you for a scout or saboteur and open fire. The only legal way to leave the front is to be wounded or killed in action. Or be within the age range of 50 to 60.

The only legal way to leave the front is to be wounded or killed in action

So, I decided to escape during my leave. Even before the leave, we were in an area with internet access, and I started looking for organizations that assist in such situations. Eventually, I just followed their guidance.

No one knew that I was planning to desert, not even close relatives. They still don't know where I am or how I'm doing. This is for my safety because I'm still at risk. After my escape, relatives were visited, not only by the police but even officials. They said, “Don't worry, everything will be fine with him — just let him come back, we'll accept him, everything will be fine.”

Now, trucks are occasionally seen parked near my house. None of my neighbors has such vehicles. They just arrive and sit there.

But what I want to say is, if you're contemplating desertion, it's definitely worth doing. Later, you'll regret not doing it. For me, the question was always how and when to do it. Where I am now is a different world. Not the one portrayed on the First Channel. It's very nice here.

“Instead of training, we were just digging trenches, and then they sent us to the front to demine fields”

Oleg, 32. Worked as a designer before mobilization

Before February 24, 2022, I had many plans. Now the world is split between before and after. I wanted to leave right away. I got a travel passport, but they turned me away at the border. I thought, well, okay, I'll try again later. In September, they brought a draft notice to my mom's house. I decided I wouldn't go by the draft. I'd just pay the fine. I'd be living in the countryside in the meantime.

I didn't immediately think about just leaving for Georgia—everyone was on edge, and I couldn't leave my parents like that right away. Besides, they wanted me to go to war. Two weeks passed. As I was entering the subway and passing through the turnstile, two policemen approached me, saying the facial recognition system was triggered: “You're registered as a conscript.”

Two weeks later, as I was entering the subway two policemen approached me, saying the facial recognition system was triggered: “You're registered as a conscript”

We went to the police station, and it was only there that I realized I probably wouldn't be going home. From there, they immediately took me to the draft board. It was in a movie theater, surrounded by the police, so there was no way to escape. In the evening, a bus arrived, and they took us to a training center. That's how I ended up in the army.

They promised us that we would be in the rear. You've probably seen YouTube videos where everyone complains about the lack of training and having to buy their own gear? Well, we had the same situation. They promised we would be sappers, but they didn't train us; we just dug trenches. After two months, they sent us to Ukraine. We were promised that we would be in the rear, thinking we might end up in Crimea or Belarus. Instead, we were just 30–40 kilometers from the front line.

They dropped us in the field, and we had to, for example, check if it was a mined area or, in contrast, set up a minefield.

When we were still at the training center, guys had mixed opinions about the war; some thought it wasn't really needed. But later, when we arrived there, I don't know if it was stress or for some other reason, their attitudes changed.

Or regarding the Prigozhin mutiny: initially, there was widespread support, with thoughts like, “Wow, perhaps the war will come to an end, and we'll finally get to return home.” However, sentiments shifted, and criticism arose, questioning why he abandoned the front, and so on.

I talked to contract soldiers, and their moods were even more pessimistic. I think they're tired too and just want to go home. Our commanders constantly suspected someone of wanting to escape. They resorted to intimidation. Recording a video would lead to immediate significant issues. They made threats to dispatch offenders to the front or simply transferred individuals they disliked to “Storm” units. My superior was sent to the front, got wounded, and ended up in the hospital; he was fortunate. Another acquaintance was reassigned to a “Storm” unit and was killed in action.

Mostly, they put those who got caught by the military police in a drunken state into the basements. Or those guilty of hazing. Once they put my superior in there because he was drunk—it was in winter, and it was cold down there. Often, it's not even basements, just holes dug in the ground.

I promptly decided that I couldn't endure being part of a war, especially an unjust one. I began exploring options, considering surrendering as a prisoner of war or attempting to apply for alternative civilian service. Despite my attempts, the latter proved unsuccessful.

The remaining option was to escape, either by getting wounded or going on leave. I chose to wait for my leave. I observed that some of the conscripts had managed to escape without consequences—they couldn't be found afterward. For instance, there was a guy who simply stayed at home, untouched for six months until he eventually turned himself in.

We were promised that we wouldn't be kept for more than nine months, expecting to be sent home. However, a year had passed, and we realized we had been deceived. This deception compelled me to escape. I believe it's better to stay alive or risk going to prison than to continue the kind of existence I had on the battlefield. I decided to take the risk and reached out to organizations that offer assistance.

While I generally knew what to do, I contacted the organization more for psychological support. They confirmed that the situation would indeed unfold as I had envisioned. I escaped immediately during my leave. It was terrifying until the last moment, and even now, I'm still afraid, especially after the incident in Kyiv when a man was abducted and killed. I fear that someone might come after me too.

Before my escape, I had lengthy conversations with my parents, but they believed it was better for me to return to the war and continue fighting – they were influenced by what they saw on television. It's heartbreaking, frustrating, and unpleasant, but there's little I can do. When I received my first draft notice, they went to the draft board themselves, saying, “Our son is hiding somewhere, refusing to come.” I was shocked by this. When I left the country, I tried to stay in touch with them, assuring them that I was fine, but they don't respond.

When I received my first draft notice, they went to the draft board themselves, saying, “Our son is hiding somewhere, refusing to come”

I'm very glad that everything worked out for me. Yes, escaping is scary. On the front, you constantly hope that things will soon go back to how they were – demobilization will happen, and we'll go back to living as we did before. But I feel like it won't be the same as before. That's why it's better to take control of your life and escape.

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