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Binge drinking, prison and loony bin — how Russians evade mobilization

The Insider has previously reported on how Russian conscripts manage to avoid military service, but the problem of evasion becomes even more critical for those who are mobilized, as they are directly sent to the frontlines without adequate training. However, apparently even within the military unit itself, there are various methods employed to avoid deployment to the front. Mobilized Russians shared with The Insider their strategies for evading combat: one individual became a defendant in a criminal case, another sought refuge in a psychiatric clinic, and a third, originally from the Luhansk region and having fled the war in Donbass to Russia in 2014, has successfully resisted being dispatched from his unit for several months.

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  • Option 1: Escape from military unit

  • Option 2: Accept the risks of being sent to a penal colony and refuse to leave the unit

  • Option 3: End up in a mental asylum

  • What the experts say

Option 1: Escape from military unit

“My mother took me away and told the commander I'd gone on a binge”

After September 21, 2022, Alexander's life took a drastic turn. <Here and below the names are changed in the interests of the interviewees - The Insider>. Prior to this, he was employed as a road maintenance worker at a company in Yakutia. However, he soon found himself in a unique and challenging situation as he became the first conscript to face face criminal prosecution for deserting his unit.

“I heard rumors about mobilization starting, but I had no clue what it meant. So, I went to work and had a chat with the guys. I told them there's a war happening, and if they get calls from random numbers, they better not pick up the phone! Because those calls could be about dragging you off to the war zone.”

On that very day, Alexander received a call from an unfamiliar number, but he decided not to pick up. Just three days later, his boss approached him, saying they had been searching for him and couldn't get hold of him. Soon after, Alexander got a call from the personnel department, urgently telling him to “quickly get over there” with his passport and military ID card.

Things were chaotic in the personnel department, as they seemed to be dealing with a massive list of around a hundred mobilized individuals.

“I handed over my passport and military ID card, and those folks just tossed them into a folder without a word of explanation. I asked them what the heck was going on, but all they said was that I was fired and being mobilized. They flat-out refused to return my documents, insisting that I had to rush to the enlistment office now. They also handed me a summons, scribbled messily with only my address in pencil and no name on it.”

Upon arriving at the military registration and enlistment office, Alexander discovered a similar chaotic scene. Determined to find out what was happening, he turned to an acquaintance who worked in the administration. This person escorted him to the office, where Alexander's name and surname were hastily scribbled in pen. He was informed that he had to be at the assembly point by 6 am the following day, as that's where the mobilized people would be transported from.

“I walked out of the enlistment office and stood there, taking it all in for another 15 minutes or so. I pondered, lit up a smoke. I called my buddies, telling them I had been mobilized. When I got home, I packed my essentials, grabbed some clothes, snacks, cigarettes, and a charger. The next day, at 6 a.m., I showed up at the enlistment office as instructed.”

They had to wait a couple of hours for the plane. During that time, Alexander met some acquaintances from neighboring villages who had also been mobilized - when they were leaving work, three buses had been already waiting for them:

“The instructions given to them were clear: “Get your stuff together, grab your documents, say goodbye to your loved ones, and let's get moving.” What caught my attention was that everyone seemed to be drunk, stumbling around and muttering indistinctly. We were herded into buses like a flock of sheep, destined for the airport, and eventually onto the plane. Surprisingly, there was no thorough inspection at the airport. They simply ushered us directly onto the aircraft. Nobody had a clear idea of where exactly they were taking us.”

Upon landing and turning on his phone, Alexander realized he was in Ulan-Ude. He discovered that he had been sent back to his former unit. Hoping to encounter familiar faces, he was surprised by what he saw.

“We were simply dumped at the checkpoint. I approached a military guy and told him we were mobilized, asking where to go. He replied with a careless “How should I know?” to every question, offering no guidance. I mentioned my previous service and requested entry for the night. He nonchalantly opened the gate, allowing 50 of us inside.
Inside, it was a drunken mess. People were wasted, fighting in the bathroom, and there wasn't a single officer around. I wondered where the hell we ended up. As I went up the floors, it was more of the same until I finally met an officer on the third floor. I told him about our arrival from Yakutia, but he had no clue. He said there was no room for us and suggested we find a place to crash on our own. The unit had six barracks, but we ended up finding a corner on the floor somewhere to sleep.”
Inside, it was a drunken mess. People were wasted, fighting in the bathroom, and there wasn't a single officer around

Alexander was horrified by what he encountered at his unit—an information board displaying pictures of dead Ukrainian soldiers. Alongside the images was a caption to the effect that these soldiers were “fascists” who needed to be killed.

On the second day, officers finally appeared, but the highest-ranking officer was just a senior lieutenant who had no idea what to do with the mobilized soldiers. When Alexander mentioned his previous service, the officer “told me that those I served with were no longer there. They were all killed in Ukraine. The whole unit was sent there when it all started.” Later, Alexander encountered a surviving contracted officer who had been wounded in action but recovered. The officer advised Alexander to join the artillery to increase his chances of survival, cautioning against tank units or infantry as they would be immediately sent to the front lines. At this point, Alexander made a firm decision that he would not go to war.

The following day, Alexander reached out to his mother and shared the entire situation with her. “She questioned why I had agreed to it in the first place, and honestly, I didn't have an answer myself. Ultimately, she reassured me that she would come, and we would leave together. It was largely thanks to her support that I made up my mind to leave.”

On the fifth day, Alexander approached the commander and expressed his unwillingness to participate in combat and take lives. He asked about alternative options. In response, the commander scoffed, called him a traitor, and insisted that he had no choice but to go regardless.

“He started threatening me: 'Do you know what happens to people like you? Your own comrades will shoot you on the spot.' He told me to write a formal refusal and wait for the military police. I refused to comply and mentioned the possibility of alternative civilian service (ACS). He told me not to play dumb and that I was not eligible for alternative civilian service because I was mobilized.”

After talking to the commander, Alexander received a call from his mother, who said she was waiting for him at the agreed place.

In that tense moment, Alexander experienced a surge of panic, although the unit lacked any semblance of control as everyone was departing. “Even back in 2013-2014, during my previous service, there was a hole in the unit's wall, convenient for taking a shortcut. I could have simply gone through the checkpoint, but I decided to take a covert route by using that hole.” Waiting for him on the other side were his mother and a taxi. The observant cab driver quickly grasped the situation and started hurrying us up. He empathetically remarked, “There are no men left in Buryatia,” expressing his support for Alexander's decision. The driver suggested that they fly to Kazakhstan or Mongolia immediately, before Alexander's absence was noticed by his unit. He arranged for them to spend the night at his sister's place.

The cab driver said, “There are no men left in Buryatia,” and helped us escape

Later that same day, the officer Alexander had encountered in the unit began searching for him. “He contacted me, but my mother answered the phone and informed him that I was in an agitated state, drunk, and unable to return at that moment. However, she told him she would bring me back the following day. The next day we flew to Novosibirsk, and he called again. Mom said that I had gone on a binge, and the officer said that I had to be back in a few hours, otherwise he would put me on a wanted list. Thanks to that we knew how much time we had. I immediately bought a ticket to Kazakhstan. I said goodbye to my mother in Novosibirsk”.

Despite worrying about potential detainment during the layover in Moscow, Alexander decided to push through and continue his journey. He flew to Kazakhstan without any trouble and only three days later was officially listed as wanted for leaving his unit without permission. This marked the first criminal case against a mobilized person for such an offense. Now, he plans to seek political asylum and is considering different countries as potential options.

Option 2: Accept the risks of being sent to a penal colony and refuse to leave the unit

“If they don't let me join alternative service, I'll go to jail”

Maxim, originally from the Luhansk region, left the war behind almost a decade ago and obtained a Russian passport while residing in Russia. However, in September, he was suddenly mobilized. Within a single day, he received a summons to verify his information on September 20, which was the day before the official mobilization announcement. On September 22, Maxim, along with approximately twenty others who were also mobilized, were gathered onto buses at the military registration office and transported to their assigned unit in the Western Military District.

Upon reaching their unit, they were provided with information regarding the unfolding events and anticipated paychecks: “They also said that they weren't expecting us. That is, it was news to them that the buses with the mobilized people would start arriving. By evening there were fewer people - some had been taken to another unit, some had confirmed their exemptions or health problems, and they were released.”

Around 10 p.m., the remaining eight mobilized men were gathered in the office, where an attempt was made to pressure them into signing contracts. The rationale presented to them was that no accommodations had been made for their situation and they were left with no alternative: “Either we sign this contact and agree to serve, or they will bring criminal charges against us. The military managed to convince only three of us.”

Either we sign a contract and agree to serve, or they will bring criminal charges against us

Two of those who refused to sign the contracts decided to leave the unit altogether. According to Maxim, they were later tracked down and deployed to fight in Ukraine, specifically near Kreminna, with no further updates on their whereabouts. As for Maxim himself, on the first evening, he left the unit with his wife and parents to purchase medication for his failing heart. Upon his return, he discovered that he was already classified as a deserter. He was summoned to the commandant's office to provide an explanation: “I had a lengthy conversation with a Justice Captain who exerted a lot of pressure on me, insisting that I should serve. He showed great curiosity about my background and origins. My personal history seemed to draw considerable attention from everyone involved. As a result, the situation culminated in disciplinary action being taken against me.”

Maxim continuously negotiated with his commander to be granted weekend leave, while he and his family relentlessly searched for a way out of their predicament. “We submitted appeals to the prosecutor's office, the President, and the Ministry of Defense.” Maksim also sought assistance from the military prosecutor's office, where a prosecutor's assistant acknowledged that his conscription was improper and pledged to investigate the violations. However, he insisted that Maxim had to return to his unit. Eventually, Maksim was granted an extended leave of absence from October 7 to December 26. Throughout this period, he and his family persisted in submitting appeals to the military enlistment office, the prosecutor's office, and other relevant authorities.

Maxim says that the most significant document he obtained was the response to his wife's initial appeal, which contained the results of the prosecutor's investigation. It confirmed the presence of violations during the mobilization process, such as the improper issuance of summons and the absence of a medical examination. However, the prosecutor's office emphasized that, according to the law, Maxim was still considered a serviceman since both those who had previously served and those who had not are subject to mobilization.

“We went to court, but the court did not see any violations in my mobilization. By the way, the case was considered with lightning speed: we applied on December 21, and the hearing was held on December 23. We had only five days to appeal, but we didn't appeal because the lawyer we worked with at that time said it was futile.”

Now Maxim understands he should have tried to challenge the court decision.

In December, Maxim applied for alternative service, and now he really regrets that he did not do it sooner - it was not easy to think about everything at once because of the stressful situation:

“In my application for alternative civilian service, I clearly expressed that military service conflicted with my beliefs and principles. I stated that I couldn't participate in activities that involved harming or killing others. However, despite my intentions, I was assigned to a repair platoon. Even in that role, I would still be involved in repairing missile systems that are ultimately designed to cause harm and take lives, which is something I strongly oppose.”

Since the end of December, Maxim has been in a military unit. When he arrived there, he filed a report to the military medical commission (MMC) complaining of anxiety-depressive disorder, which began to manifest itself after mobilization: “The report was granted: a psychologist in the unit conducted a study, which confirmed that I did have a disorder and did not recommend me for active duty. I was referred to a psychiatrist in the military unit, but he, despite all the medical records that were given to him, declared that I was fit for service. I asked him how he would be able to sleep at night if he sent me to serve and I ended up causing harm to myself or others. He said he would sleep just fine.”

Despite all the medical records, the psychiatrist at the military unit declared that I was fit for service

Despite the psychiatrist's recommendation for observation and interviews, Maxim claims that none of these measures were carried out. Following the doctor's advice, he was transferred to a military hospital for 39 days of inpatient treatment.

“I was admitted to the psychoneurological ward at the military hospital, but I also had other health issues such as kidney stones and stomach problems. I underwent several surgeries. Eventually, the doctor declared that I was recovering, and I was given a B-category status, meaning I was deemed fit with minor limitations. Although I have a vision impairment of minus five, it was not recorded in the medical records, and it seems to be overlooked. Although there is a strict prohibition on accessing medical records, I managed to sneak a glimpse and take a picture.”

While Maxim was in the hospital, he received a response to his request for alternative civilian service. They informed him that it was not permitted during mobilization. “When I returned to the unit, the commander insisted on sending me to the permanent deployment station, disregarding the psychiatrist's recommendations for constant observation by the psychologist and psychotherapy sessions.” Maxim once again refused to go until the commander thoroughly reviewed the ACS application. However, instead of addressing the matter, the commander sent him to an FSB colonel who happened to be present in the unit.

“He persistently questioned me for an hour, showing a keen interest in my origin from Luhansk. He asked if I was a Cossack and why I didn't want to go to war. He also mentioned that I was not eligible for ACS and showed me documents related to criminal cases against people who had refused to serve. By that point, my wife and I had already made up our minds. If I was not granted alternative civilian service, I would still refuse to go to war. Even if a criminal case was initiated, I was prepared to go to jail and serve my sentence, but I would not participate in taking lives or contribute to it in any way.”
The commander showed me documents related to criminal cases against people who had refused to serve

Maxim's strong anti-war convictions solidified during his time in the hospital, where he shared a space with other soldiers, both contract and mobilized, who had been wounded in military operations. As he listened to their accounts and the realities of war, Maxim came to the firm realization that he did not want to be involved, even indirectly. “I knew that my unit had already moved beyond Russian territory, nearing Kreminna, a mere 20 kilometers from the contact line. They just wanted to transfer me out of the unit in order to get rid of me.”

Despite repeated attempts to relocate Maxim to a unit closer to the border, he adamantly refused each time. Eventually, he received a warning that a criminal case would be initiated against him:

“Currently, I'm stationed in a military unit, wearing the uniform they provided. I am prohibited from walking around in civilian clothes. I live among fellow conscripts, and my duties involve manning the hotline, fielding calls from the wives of both contract and mobilized servicemen. I address various inquiries, such as the whereabouts and well-being of their husbands, sons, and loved ones, as well as financial matters. I collaborate closely with other mobilized people, working around the clock.”

Maxim says he considered leaving Russia, but in that case he would never be able to return - the criminal cases wouldn't go anywhere:

“This is my home now, with my family and everything I hold dear. The war had already forced us to relocate once, back in June 2014 when the conflict in Donbass erupted. Within a month, I managed to evacuate my mother, sister, and grandmother. Initially, we thought it would be temporary, but as time passed, the situation deteriorated, and it became evident that returning was no longer an option. We had to rebuild our lives from scratch. It has been a decade-long struggle to not merely survive, but to truly live. And now, finally, it feels like things are starting to fall into place…”

There were times when I felt like giving up, Maxim reflects. However, he and his wife now challenge every decision they receive and fight for every detail: “Did we lose? No problem, we'll move on to the next level. We must never surrender; we must fight till the end. If they deny me the alternative civilian service, I will go to jail. I have come to terms with it and fully understand the risks involved, but it's still better than being involved in what is unfolding.”

Option 3: End up in a mental asylum

“If you failed a psychological test, they'd make you rewrite it”

Evgeny, a resident of Kursk, decided it was safe to visit the military registration and enlistment office to pick up his Military ID card, as he knew about several of his illnesses that prevented him from being drafted. However, he unexpectedly found himself assigned to a military unit and later admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Reflecting on the situation, he explains, “I didn't receive a draft notice, but I have flat feet, a hernia with spinal curvature, and hypertension. That's why I thought it was safe for me to get my Military ID card. Unfortunately, I ended up making a foolish mistake.”

Around that time Evgeny was recovering from “nerv-related problems,” which had led to his resignation from his job. After about six months, his situation started to improve, and he began attending job interviews in search of new employment. In early April, Evgeny visited the military registration and enlistment office, submitted his documents, and underwent a commission assessment, which assigned him a military fitness category B. He received two summonses: one for a medical examination at the regional military registration and enlistment office on April 20 and another for the city military draft commission on April 21. Evgeny recalls, “I relaxed, thinking that since the summons was scheduled for the next day, it meant they had no immediate plans for me.”

At the regional military registration and enlistment office, Evgeny submitted copies of all his documents once again. He remembers that the commission lasted for an unusually long time, about six to seven hours, and the behavior of the doctors seemed suspicious as they “rushed around.” Eventually, they claimed to take a break. After a couple of hours, the doctor from the city military registration and enlistment office, who was accompanying everyone, emerged and informed Evgeny that he needed to proceed to the third floor where draft notices were being canceled. When he arrived there, he noticed the presence of military police. They escorted Evgeny to the office of the head of the military registration and enlistment office and informed him that he was now considered fit and must sign the draft notice, emphasizing its mandatory nature.

“The military police began pressuring me with some unclear documents, threatening that I would be imprisoned if I didn't comply. Despite my repeated refusals, the intense pressure forced me to eventually sign the draft notice. There were nine other people with me, and I recall one person who didn't sign the summons at all, instead signing a refusal to do so. We were then taken to have our fingerprints recorded and to collect our personal belongings. Throughout this entire process, the military police closely monitored us, ensuring we couldn't move or attempt to escape.”

The draft notice was issued swiftly, taking just one day. Evgeny spent the entire day at the military registration and enlistment office, and around 10 p.m., he and the other mobilized men were transported to a unit located near the border. The training at the unit commenced, focusing on a young fighter course, and the recruits were encouraged to sign contracts. Promises were made that, after taking the oath of allegiance, they would be deployed even closer to the border: “There were people in the unit who moved between units. They said that the enemy was already dropping bombs in those areas, and that it was probably there that we would be sent. I complained about my health, but nobody cared at all. There were times when I was exempted from drills, but still everyone started to get mad, saying I was shirking my duties - they resented me a lot. They invented chores for me, sent me to clean the unit. At some point I caught a cold, asked for pills, and they told me that if I didn't have a fever, they didn't care if I had a runny nose or sore throat.”

They said that the enemy was already dropping bombs in those areas, and that it was probably there that we would be sent

Amidst the unfolding events, Evgeny started experiencing nerve-related issues. During the initial days of his stay in the unit, psychological tests were conducted, which he failed, leading to a referral to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist expressed concerns about the negative impact on his life and provided him with a form to fill out if he wished to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The diagnosis given to Evgeny was depressive disorder with poor adaptability. Another man who was conscripted alongside Evgeny was also sent to the hospital from the same unit due to conditions such as prostate stones, hypertension, and psychiatric disorders. This man also did not pass the tests.

In some cases, people were coerced into retaking the psychological tests: “Our unit's commander had a conversation with the doctor and emphasized that the number of test attempts didn't matter. Instead, he insisted that the tests should be rewritten until a passing grade was achieved. I know some people who have retaken the tests 10 times, and nobody cares.”

Evgeny was told that both he and the second conscript had been officially recorded as being dispatched from the unit, but he did not believe it:

“I talked to people who stayed in the unit, and according to them, our names still appeared on the roll call list. However, they mentioned that we will soon be removed from the list. The supplies we were initially provided with, such as camouflage uniforms and underwear, have already been confiscated from us.”

It will take approximately a month for the hospital to confirm the diagnosis, following which Yevgeny will be sent for a military-medical commission. According to his estimates, it will most likely take two months until that time arrives. “Nothing is happening in the hospital. There is complete silence, we just lie on our bunks. It is cold and the conditions are not particularly pleasant, to put it mildly, but it is not the end of the world.”

During Yevgeny's time in the unit, he and the other mobilized men were summoned to the commander's office, where they were instructed to write explanatory letters detailing the situation concerning the military enlistment office. “He told us that an internal investigation or sorting out had occurred, with FSB officers conducting inquiries. Subsequently, we received information indicating that our military commissar was being prosecuted for bribery.”

What the experts say

According to a volunteer from the Movement of Conscientious Objectors (MCO), it is women, including girlfriends, wives, and mothers of mobilized individuals, who frequently challenge the draft because the men are “petrified because of stress”: “In some cases the situation escalated to the point where people were mobilized; we filed reports then, and due to our persistent efforts they were sometimes released. Admittedly, not all cases resulted in release, but there are people who remain in the unit and refuse to go to war. There have been cases of soldiers deserting from their units or being kidnapped by their relatives. Being absent from one's unit for two days without permission is not a criminal, but rather a disciplinary offense, which most commanders avoid acting upon.”

Being absent from one's unit for two days without permission is not a criminal, but rather a disciplinary offense, which most commanders avoid acting upon

During those two days, experts recommend doing three things:

  • Draw up a power of attorney in favor of people close to you;
  • Consult a psychiatrist and obtain an official diagnosis. This will provide substantial grounds for discussion during the commission. “Many mobilized men have developed various disorders due to the traumatic experiences and prolonged stress they have endured,” a volunteer explains.
  • Visit the investigation department and submit a written statement expressing your position. This statement should assert your inability to return to the unit based on your circumstances. It is preferable to have legal representation, but if that is not possible, it is important to at least bring along a trusted person. The investigator will initiate an inquiry and direct the applicant to the military-medical commission.
“The list of recognized diseases in the military is designed in a manner that makes it difficult for a mobilized person to be discharged. Unlike during regular conscription, the process becomes more complicated in this context. However, there is still a possibility to pursue treatment or obtain a non-combat service designation, known as category B, which allows a person to remain in the unit. I know that's how people kind of get off the radar. Yeah, they don't get discharged from the service, but they don't get sent to war either.”

During the mobilization process, any person categorized as A, B, and C based on their service ability may potentially be drafted, specifically, all males aged 27 to 50, if they are privates, and up to 60 years old if they are junior officers, says Sergei Krivenko, the leader of the human rights group 'Citizen. Army.' Krivenko says, “The initial wave of mobilization took place in September and October, followed by a pause, but we are currently anticipating a second wave. The timing of this second wave remains uncertain, with suggestions indicating a potential occurrence in the summer months, such as August-September. However, these suggestions are speculative in nature.”

He cautions that military registration and enlistment offices often employ tactics to manipulate people's sense of patriotism, pressuring them with statements like, “You are not a real man if you evade.” Additionally, they may resort to enticing with monetary incentives and deceitful tactics, falsely claiming that there are no alternative civil service options, and even to threatening criminal prosecution. However, it is crucial to understand that during mobilization, there is no criminal liability for evading draft, the expert says.

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