Ethnic minorities volunteer for long trek from far east to oppose Putin’s regime
November 9, 2023
The men left Siberia separately, telling no one of their ultimate destination. Their backgrounds were very different, but one thing united them — a desire to defend Ukraine and return to Russia to take up arms against President Putin’s regime. Upon arrival in Ukraine, they joined the Siberian Battalion, a newly formed unit of the Ukrainian armed forces that consists mainly of members of Russia’s ethnic minorities from beyond the Ural mountains, far from Moscow. “I couldn’t stand aside while such crimes were being committed against Ukraine and its people,” said Gennady, a native of Buryatia, an impoverished Siberian region 3,500 miles east of Moscow. “I left Russia on my 29th birthday and I will only return home to a free Buryatia.”
The Kremlin has mobilised a disproportionate number of soldiers from Siberia in an attempt to minimise losses and dissent among residents of its biggest and richest cities. At least 1,200 soldiers from Buryatia have died in the war, according to publically available obituaries. The true figure is thought to be much higher. A Buryat soldier is 275 times more likely to be killed in Ukraine than one from Moscow, a Ukrainian presidential adviser has said.
Like other members of the battalion, Gennady said he had experienced discrimination and racism in Moscow, where Russian citizens of Asian appearance can find it hard to rent apartments and are frequently harassed by the police. “Russia considers me to be a second-class citizen,” he said. “We were colonised by the Russian empire and our culture was Russified. Even my name — Gennady — is Russian.”
Tsarist Russia began conquering Siberia in the 16th century, later exiling critics such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, the 19th-century novelist, to its vast frozen territories. President Putin’s regime extracts vast quantities of oil, gas and diamonds from its land, but has pocketed the profits instead of building up the region’s infrastructure. Buryatia, where many people practise Buddhism or shamanism, has an average monthly salary of just 44,000 roubles (£390). Many rural homes in Siberia still have no gas and people burn wood to stay warm in the harsh winters, when temperatures can plunge to minus 50C. “We came to Ukraine to help and to gain experience for the fight to liberate our homelands,” said another member of the Siberian Battalion, who gave his callsign as Yakut. The former businessman had travelled more than 5,000 miles from Yakutia, Russia’s vast ice kingdom, to fight for Ukraine. The recruits were training with a Ukrainian military instructor. None of the men I spoke to had ever been to Ukraine before.
Alexandra Garmazhapova, the head of the Free Buryatia Foundation, an opposition group, has accused the Kremlin of using ethnic Buryats as “cannon fodder” in Ukraine. “Moscow
purposefully drove Siberian regions, including Buryatia, to poverty and then used them for their own self-serving interests,” she said.
Gennady is unperturbed by the prospect of fighting against other Buryats on the battlefields of Ukraine. “For me, they are enemies,” he said. “My advice for them is to flee or surrender.” Although most of his fellow recruits from Siberia wear masks to hide their identities when speaking to journalists, Gennady said he wanted to be open about his involvement with the Ukrainian army. “I’m tired of being afraid. I want other people in Buryatia to realise that there is no need for them to be afraid, either,” he said.
The men, who travelled by circuitous routes that were complicated by the difficulties of reaching other European countries directly from Russia, were assisted on their journey by the Civil Council, a Russian dissident movement that recruits volunteers for Ukraine’s armed forces. The movement, which was formed last year by exiled opposition figures, says its aim is to try and “wash away the blood of Bucha”, a reference to the town near Kyiv where Russian soldiers slaughtered civilians last year. Other Russians fighting for Ukraine include the Russian Volunteer Corps, a group of nationalists opposed to Putin, and the Freedom of Russia Legion, which is linked to Ilya Ponomarev, a former opposition MP.
So far, there are dozens rather than hundreds of fighters in the Siberian Battalion. Numbers will rise, however, as more recruits are checked, put through their paces and approved, said the battalion’s Ukrainian spokesman. Some are already on the front lines in eastern Ukraine. “The problem isn’t that there aren’t Russians willing to join us. The problem is that Ukraine can’t process the large number of applications it is receiving,” he said. “We have to carry out lots of checks to ensure that the battalion isn’t infiltrated by Russian agents. We also need to make sure they meet the requirements of the Ukrainian armed forces, of course.”
One of the youngest recruits is a 19-year-old from the region of Khanty-Mansiysk whose call-sign is Pepsi. He said that his mother was still unaware that he was in Ukraine. “I decided to come as soon as the war began but I was underage, so I had to wait.”
He and his fellow Siberians acknowledged, however, that defeating Putin’s regime was a massive undertaking that some would describe as unrealistic. Putin, a former KGB officer, has been in power for almost 24 years and has ruthlessly crushed all domestic opposition. “Yes, it’s difficult. But we are just at the start of our journey,” said “Poet”, another recruit from Buryatia. “We have the opportunity in Ukraine to create an armed resistance. Lots of people in Siberia think badly about Muscovites, that they have seized power, and that they control all of our resources. We just need to give them some hope.”
Marc Bennetts has been covering Russia and the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, for The Times and Sunday Times since 2015. He has reported from all across Russia, from Chechnya to deepest Siberia. He has also reported from Iran and North Korea. Marc is the author of two books: I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives, about Putin’s crackdown on the opposition, and Football Dynamo, about Russian football culture. He is now writing a thriller, set during the polar night in Russia’s far north.