While living in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan, Aygul Lyon avoided traveling to Moscow. The capital, famous for its shiny onion domes on Saint Basil’s Cathedral and subway stations adorned with marble arches, was mostly known to Lyon as the city where bands of Russian skinheads targeted anyone who didn’t look Slavic.
Even after she moved to Los Angeles about 13 years ago, Lyon, a native of the Muslim republic Bashkortostan near the Ural Mountains with a population of about 4 million, continued to hear stories of other Bashkirs who were facing oppressive nationalism in Russia.
When this spring she learned that two of her distant relatives were among soldiers sent to fight in Ukraine, she was stunned. When she later learned that many soldiers killed on the battlefield were mostly from ethnic minority groups like her own, she was outraged.
“It’s silent genocide against my people,” Lyon said in Russian. “They are going to Ukraine to die a meaningless death because someone is trying to get his hands on an independent country.”
As the war on Ukraine enters its eighth month, more and more coffins of dead soldiers are returning to Russia. News reports and early data collected by pro-democracy independent groups show that many soldiers who died in Ukraine came from remote and often poor regions of Russia. And with the latest partial mobilization announced by the Kremlin earlier this week, the largest conscription drive since World War II, experts say the new wave of mobilization is going to impact minorities from the Eastern part of Russia and so-called ethnic republics.
Like other members of Russian ethnic minority groups, Lyon strives to understand why Bashkirs are sent to die in Ukraine when they face discrimination in their native Russia.
Aygul Lyon works on a puzzle with her daughter Miriam Lyon, 9. Lyon left Bashkortostan, Russia, 13 years ago for Los Angeles. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
The Kremlin has not disclosed estimates of the full impact of its losses in Ukraine, a war that Moscow has called a special military operation. In March, shortly after Putin’s February invasion, Russian officials said that nearly 1,850 Russian soldiers had died in Ukraine. While wartime death estimates are hardly accurate and hard to confirm, the Pentagon recently reported that 80,000 Russians have been injured or killed since the start of the war.
Early figures collected by independent news outlet MediaZona which works in collaboration with BBC News Russia, estimated that most of the killed in action comes from ethnic republics, with Buryatia and Dagestan leading the way.
“Most reports about soldier deaths are coming from the poorer regions: the average wage there is lower than the Russian median wage. Moscow and Saint Petersburg, representing over 12% of the country’s population, are almost never mentioned in those reports,” according to MediaZona.
The news about the high toll of death among soldiers from poorer republics sparked outrage in some parts of Russia and abroad. Critics say the Kremlin uses soldiers from impoverished republics for its imperialist goals.
In a recent interview with Voice of America, the famed Russian rock musician Yuri Shevchuk, who leads the band DDT, questioned why “coffins do not come to St. Petersburg and Moscow, they come to the villages. The howl is all over the Buryat steppe, but no one shows this on TV, and it turns out that the tragedy occurs locally, it is curtained, and few people know about it.”
Buryatia reports mobilization hell – people are being taken from out of beds, it will soon look during WWII with only females, infants and seniors in most villages. https://t.co/dyXO5YxrDh
— Anton Barbashin (@ABarbashin) September 22, 2022
Victoria Maladaeva, a native of Buryatia, a remote republic in Russia’s far east between Lake Baikal and Mongolia at the eastern end of Siberia, said Buryats are paying the highest price for the war.
“Our soldiers are thrown out to the front line because no one feels sorry for the Buryats,” Maladaeva said in Russian. “They are used like cannon fodder.”
Maladaeva, who now lives in San Francisco, co-funded the Free Buryatia Foundation with a group of friends in the weeks following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The organization provides legal help to soldiers who want to leave Ukraine, she said, and fights the stigmatization of Buryats as the main defenders of the “Russian World,” or Rursskiy Mir, which calls for the Kremlin’s sphere of influence to extend to Ukraine and other territories of the former Soviet Union.
“There are ads in Buryatia saying, ‘The country needs heroes,’” Maladaeva said. “But don’t you need heroes from Moscow? Do you only need heroes from poor regions?”
Russian soldiers patrol an area of the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal, in Mariupol, on the territory which is under the Government of the Donetsk People’s Republic control, eastern Ukraine, Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo)
FILE – Russian soldiers patrol an area of the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal, in Mariupol, on the territory which is under the Government of the Donetsk People’s Republic control, eastern Ukraine, on June 13, 2022. (AP Photo, File)
FILE – Russian mine clearing experts work to find and defuse mines along the high voltage line in Mariupol, on the territory which is under the Government of the Donetsk People’s Republic control, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (AP Photo, File)
A Ukrainian soldier passes by a Russian tank damaged in a battle in a just freed territory on the road to Balakleya in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. (AP Photo)
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Maladaeva added that when the war started, the majority of soldiers in Buryatia thought they would go to military training, not combat zone in another country. Recently, the foundation made a video about two soldiers in their early 20s from the small town of Kyakhta in Buryatia who were enlisted as volunteers in April and two weeks later returned in coffins.
“They had no training or experience,” she said. “And they still were thrown to the front line.”
It’s ironic, Maladaeva added, that Moscow said it sent its troops to Ukraine to free it from neo-Nazis while Russia is plagued with racism and nationalism.
The news about the partial mobilization shook Russia on September 21, sparking protests across the country and a mass exodus of draft-age men.
The Free Buryatia Foundation has assisted more than 150 Buryat soldiers, helping them terminate their military contracts and return home. The group’s services have been in such high demand, she said, that it is now providing training sessions for those who want to offer legal assistance to soldiers from other ethnic Russian republics.
“150 Buryat Soldiers in Russian Army Resign”. Actually, there more and will be more. A.Garmazhapova, the leader of @FreeBuryatia says “soldiers saved their own and others’ lives…You don’t have to fight for the ambitions of putin”#russiadisintegration https://t.co/hfNoDG0jXn
— Idel-Ural (@IU_embassy) July 18, 2022
Paul D’Anieri, professor of political science and public policy, at the University of California, Riverside, said the reason “there are so many ethnic minorities in the Russian military is that there was so much poverty in ethnic minority communities.”
Men from remote regions like Siberia join the army “for a good salary and way out of poverty. We see this on some level in the United States. It’s not the wealthiest Americans that enlisted the military.”
Still, it’s a potential danger for Putin’s regime, he said, to have “well-armed, alienated young men who’ve who’ve basically realized that they’re living worse off than the people that they’re supposed to be saving.”
Those soldiers, D’Anieri added, “have been mobilized. They’ve been armed. They’ve been lied to, and they’ve been abused by their officers. Now they’re angry.”
In recent weeks, Ukraine has made major gains in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, taking back territories captured by Russia months ago. Experts say the morale levels between the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers differs drastically.
“In Ukraine, they’ve got a million people who volunteer to fight before they even conscripted anybody,” D’Anieri said, and while Ukraine lost a large number of trained troops, people are still willing to fight. Russians, on the other hand, lost many of their best-trained troops and now lack the same kind of drive to fight for their homeland as has been seen in Ukraine.
“This is why the United States lost in Vietnam and Afghanistan, it’s because people who are going into somebody else’s country never have the level of commitment that the people who are defending their own territory do,” he said.
In March, Viktor Ochirov moved out of Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, after watching in disbelief as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.
“So many young Buryats die for a questionable idea of the Russian World, which we don’t even belong to,” he said, and there were funerals in every Buryatian town. “They were young people who had their whole lives ahead of them.”
While living in Moscow as a college student, Ochirov was violently attacked by skinheads. “You just don’t want to step outside sometimes, especially on days like Hitler’s birthday,” he said in Russian.
And even in his native Ulan-Ude he was called offensive names and saw ads that would offer leasing an apartment to Slavic tenants only.
“Buryats are treated in Russia like second-class citizens,” Ochirov said.
Still, there were not many opportunities in Buriatia for young men, he said, especially in small towns.
“All resources go to Moscow and young men don’t have many opportunities besides joining the army to support their families,” he said. “That’s why they sign military contracts.”
About 13 years ago, Aygul Lyon had no choice but to travel to Moscow to get her U.S. visa before permanently moving to the United States. Once she settled in Los Angeles, she displayed a Bahskir flag in her back yard and made up her mind to continue speaking Bahskir with her two children, and to teach them traditional cuisine.
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She still hears about cases of discrimination from her relatives and friends. She is worried about her three brothers and their children who stayed in Bashkortostan. She also fears that the declining population of ethnic republics like Bashkirtostan will take a hit after the war.
“Our men are going to Ukraine because someone wants to put their hands on an independent country,” Lyon said. “We forgot who we are. We have to fight for our own independence instead of fighting for the Russian World.”