It took Alina three calls at the local conscription center to get her husband out of the Russian war in Ukraine.
She knows the local officials leading the mobilization in her town south of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, she said. When her husband, who has health problems due to his weight and served in the army more than 15 years ago, was called up, she began urging her to review his case.
“I said to them, ‘What war?’ Have you gone insane? And the top [official] just gave me that sad look,” she said.
But as protests erupted in Dagestan last week and anger grew over conscription, she said something had changed. Suddenly they told her that her husband’s call had been a mistake.
“They told me we were lucky,” she said, “but they couldn’t help us if there was another round [of mobilisation].”
Russia’s first draft since World War II has caused unprecedented chaos and anger across the country. Hundreds of thousands of men have fled their homes: some have been trafficked to fight in Ukraine, more are heading to the borders to avoid conscription. A popular gag now features internet memes with men airbrushed out. “Meanwhile in Moscow,” they say jokingly.
To salvage Vladimir Putin’s conscription, an army of Russian propagandists and local technocrats are now harshly criticizing the process, drawing attention to a few “bad apples” in Russia’s conscription centers rather than military failure and the poor decisions by Putin that led the way war in its eighth month.Russians cross into Georgia to avoid military service in Ukraine.
Photo: Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images
Every day, Margarita Simonyan, the head of the RT media company and a well-known pro-war advocate, posts the stories of what Russians say are illegally issued draft notices. The naming and shaming is intended to put pressure on draft committees, she says. But it also boosts her political credibility as a person who can lobby the government to have the draft pardoned.
“Do you really think that if [Putin] did not even want to send conscripts to Ukraine, he wanted hairdressers, cardiologists, people with back problems, the teacher of the year from Pskov, a musician in an orchestra or a theater director? she said on state television last week.
Criticism of convening bodies diverts pressure from Putin, whom Simonyan often refers to as “the boss.”
“They are all trying to act in one way or another in the interests of Putin,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the analytics company R.Politik. “It’s not that any of them really regret what happened or think Putin’s approach is wrong… they’re trying to smooth over the excesses of the system. To protect Putin.”
Stanovaya added that the knee-jerk reaction reminded her of Russia’s response to the pandemic: “The government is not fully developed. It cannot solve problems affecting large social circles.”
The mobilization seems less popular than the war itself. To forestall the anger, even Putin has criticized the process. “If a mistake is made, I repeat, it must be corrected,” he said during a conference call with his Security Council last week. “Those who were called up without a valid reason should be brought back home.”
As the draft grew more controversial, a number of celebrities and journalists tried to allay fears in Moscow by announcing that it would now be overseen by Sergei Sobyanin, the city’s mayor, who fetishized data-driven solutions to the city’s problems .
“The draft in Moscow was additionally controlled,” wrote Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian socialite who is the daughter of Putin’s former mentor. “Well, let’s be fair: Sobyanin does.”
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For years, Russia’s government has tried to replace free and fair elections with technocratic solutions to the problems of everyday life. Trust the managers we put in place and we promise they will listen to your concerns. This thinking has now passed to Putin’s mobilization. While the draft itself is beyond reproach, they argue fiercely about how mismanaged it is.
There is a sense that Russia’s politicians and pundits are auditioning for higher positions in government on an issue that has touched most Russian households to the core. “You can see new rulers emerging trying to gain political influence in all this chaos,” said Alexey Kovalev, head of the investigative department of Meduza, an independent Russian-language news website based in Riga, Latvia.
They include the founder of the Wagner Group’s mercenary army, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Kovalev said. “But there’s also Sobyanin… and he’s trying to portray himself as this benevolent technocratic ruler who’s going to show everyone how this can be tweaked.”An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin appears on a screen in Moscow’s Red Square as he speaks at a rally and concert marking the annexation of four regions in Ukraine. Photo: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
At the Zakharovo Migration Center in a Moscow suburb, Sobyanin has promoted a “one-stop shop” for migrants who wish to join the war effort while applying for their work or citizenship documents. (Activists complained last week that flyers in languages like Tajik were used to persuade migrants into signing up for annual contracts with the armed forces in order to retain their citizenship.)
A temporary mobilizing point at the Museum of Moscow is a clean, minimalist aesthetic and crisp sans serif fonts. It exudes the cool airspace aesthetic that has become ubiquitous with Sobyanin’s modern Moscow. While the men wait inside, a TV shows old Soviet war movies in black and white. It feels like one of the pop-up vaccination centers or local registries known as My Documents centers that Sobyanin built to simplify paperwork in the capital.
The team at Veter Fall Fest, a pop-up market featuring local brands, didn’t even realize that a draft center had been built at the museum where their festival was to be held until it was too late. “We have decided not to hide this information and not to jeopardize the safety of not only the participants of our festival, but also our thousands of readers,” Veter magazine said in a statement on the event’s cancellation. Anti-mobilization activists have warned Russians to stay away from conscription centers to avoid being forced into conscription. In Dagestan, officials have taken a more traditional route, berating their subordinates for their enthusiastic efforts to recruit soldiers. “Are you bloody idiots?” shouted the head of the republic, Sergei Melikov. when playing a video from social media shows police officers in the town of Derbent urging all male residents to leave their homes and report to the local military service.
For Alina, persistence paid off. But she said she doesn’t trust local officials to set the future mobilization rounds, if they happen. “Everyone fights for themselves,” she says. “No one comes to help you.”