‘It’s the frontline or the cellar.’ How Russian soldiers are being denied the right to refuse military service
BBC found out, that the "refuseniks" are not guaranteed their appeals will be heard, and detention can be long. Here are their personal stories.
Mobilised Russians who were sent to war with Ukraine and retreated from the front line after heavy losses – are lodging appeals saying they refuse to take part in further hostilities, even in the face of criminal prosecution.
However, as the BBC found out, the "refuseniks" are not guaranteed to get what they want, and detention can be long.
The BBC has contacted the relatives of drafted soldiers who are being held in the basement of a house in the village of Zavitne Bazhannya in the Donetsk region.
By the beginning of November, the relatives knew the names of 18 prisoners; later, they learned that the number of detainees had grown to 26. All of them - recent mobilised men from Primorsky Krai in the Russian Far East - were assigned to unit 16871. According to relatives, appeals from soldiers refusing to participate in hostilities are not even being processed.
According to several media reports, this prison is neither the only one nor the most crowded. It is believed that the number of such prisoners in different places of Donetsk and Luhansk regions is already in the hundreds.
"You are just cannon fodder to me"
Irina, the wife of one of the conscripts from the small town in Primorsky Krai (the names and exact place of residence of the heroes have been changed), says that her husband was in the very first wave of recruits sent to Ukraine from a distribution point in Rostov-on-Don on October 1. Igor spent about two weeks on the front line.
“Igor wasn’t able to get in touch until 15th October. He didn’t tell me any details about his service, so as not to scare me, probably. He said that he was shell-shocked and that a tank had driven into them when they were in the truck,” says Irina.
“He didn't really explain anything to me, but he said that that something very terrible had happened. He said: I think I’m going to refuse to fight - even if it means going to prison.”
Victoria, the wife of Vitaly, another man drafted from the Far East, (names have been changed), says that he, too, found a lack of coherent combat training and the complete indifference of commanders on the front line.
“They themselves don’t tell us the whole truth. But it so f***ed up that they told the commander, “Well, you, or at least someone, cover us.” And he answered them, “No one will cover you. You are just cannon fodder to me. You today, the next batch tomorrow". Conscripts, in general, are not military men, but they understood that the orders of the commander meant certain, inescapable death. So they made a decision – we’re not going to be just sent to the slaughter.”
In mid-October, the Primorye soldiers leaving the front line began to file appeals refusing to participate in hostilities. The majority cited poor command and a lack of training as reasons, but some also cited reasons of conscience after their experience on the battlefield.
No-one knows what has happened to these appeals. A month later, there is no reaction, except repressive one. Conscripts who refused to fight were detained and remain in isolation to this day.
Such treatment is illegal, says Maksim Grebenyuk, lawyer and founder of the Military Ombudsman group on the Russian social network VKontakte: “A drafted citizen is still protected by rights to immunity and to free movement - you can’t just lock up a serviceman, legally this means kidnapping and unlawful deprivation of liberty.”
In such cases, the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office and the Investigative Committee must take measures for the immediate release of military personnel, Grebenyuk says. But - say the relatives of those soldiers - none of this is happening.
The village of ‘Coveted Desire’
At first, according to the wife of one of the soldiers, the officers told the refuseniks that they would be taken to Luhansk for trial and even, as promised, for rehabilitation. Instead, the Primorye soldiers who left the front line were taken to a pre-trial detention centre in the city of Perevalsk, 50 km from Luhansk. Apparently, since at least the beginning of the summer this pre-trial detention centre served as a prison for others who refused to fight.
In early November, journalists became aware of the detention of drafted refuseniks in Perevalsk. The prisoners were moved to other places.
"On November 3, my husband and the rest of the guys detained there were informed that a representative of the Far East would come for them and they would be dismissed from military service, after which they would be taken to the city of Vladivostok for further investigation," Irina wrote in her statement to the Presidential Council for Human Rights.
"However, the commander of the brigade of military unit 16871, who arrived after them, put them in cars and said that they were returning to the front line, to their current location near the village of Rozovka. He is not going to make any legal decision on their report, and they have only two options: the front line, or the cellar.”
The Primorye soldiers were brought to the village of Zavitne Bazhannya, which, by bitter irony, can be translated from Ukrainian as ‘coveted desire’. They have been in the basement of one of the houses in this village for a month now.
The detainees spend the whole day on wooden planks laid on the floor - with the exception of visits to the toilet. They are guarded by other conscripts, some also from the Far East. They allow refuseniks to recharge their phones and occasionally call their relatives.
‘They sleep on the ground, in sleeping bags. I think it’s damp there, because my husband is coughing very, very badly. He is also shell-shocked and experiencing terrible headaches, he says, his heart is playing tricks, the blood pressure jumps back and forth," Irina relates her husband's experience.
"Why would they lie to us?"
In recent weeks, wives of the mobilised men from the Far East have been trying to get answers from representatives of military unit to which their spouses were assigned. They're trying to establish whether their written refusals to fight have been officially noted and what are the commanders decisions.
The reaction of the officers at home is evasive: they say that representatives of the prosecutor's office deal with the reports on the spot - that is, in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic.
Stacked up in a folder, Irina goes through copies of appeals that have accumulated over the past weeks: to the local and regional military and civilian prosecutors, the Investigative Committee for Primorsky Krai, the Deputy Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, the chief military prosecutor, the commander of unit 16871. She has been told that the appeals have been forwarded further but there are no concrete answers.
As the BBC reported, similar appeals were sent at the end of July by members of the Presidential Council for Human Rights (HRC) who were concerned with the plight of refuseniks in the ranks of contract soldiers, also from the Far East. Again, they were detained en-masse in the basements in various villages of Luhansk region.
Human rights activists received answers only in September. They stated that "it is impossible to confirm or refute the information about the illegal detention of servicemen" in the Lugansk region "due to the lack of reliable information".
On November 13, HRC member Natalia Evdokimova again appealed to the chief military prosecutor. This time she sent to the prosecutor's office a list of those drafted who, according to relatives, were being held in Perevalsk, a town near Luhansk. The human rights activist asked to check the legality of their detention and take urgent measures for their release. She did not receive a response to her appeal.
"Relatives are in a panic - they say that it is cold there, the men are coughing, one has already been hospitalised," says Yevdokimova. Smartphones, according to her, were taken away from them - they cannot send copies of their reports to their relatives. "Illegal detainment of people is a crime, it should be prosecuted," she stresses.
And meanwhile, the the pressure on the conscripts continues relentlessly.
“They are being intimidated with pretty much one thing: that they are deserters, they will go to prison, cases will be filed and investigated,” says Victoria. “But our guys understand that and say: 'we submitted refusals, go ahead, start the cases’. But nobody does anything. They have been there for over a month and no one has ever come and questioned them on this matter.”
Victoria is sure that if criminal cases connected with refusals to fight were to reach the court, then in a fair trial the prosecution would fall apart. The main argument in defence of her husband Vitaly and others is that the new soldiers were not trained to serve on the front line, and then were deceived by being sent into battle instead of the promised work at the rear.
Victoria tells of her husband: “When he was departing, he was in a good mood, because when they flew there, the commander told them that they were not going to fight, that they were being taken to guard Mariupol [the city occupied by Russian troops in the spring]. No-one told them the truth. All the guys were sure that they were going to guard Mariupol, so everyone was positive, everything was fine. And then they brought them right to the front line".
Irina tells nearly identical story: ‘Before they were taken to Rostov, there was an evening formation. After that, the husband called me and said, ‘We’ve just been given a talk by some higher officers. They told us we won’t be taking part in hostilities, we’ll be in the border zones, guarding important places or something like that. Don't worry, everything will be fine’. His voice was so calm; I thought to myself, thank God he won’t be involved in active fighting,” she says.
But Victoria was restless. ‘I immediately understood that it was all a lie. I told him that there was nothing to do there. Well, they believed that no one would deceive them. Of course, I told him, ‘Do you understand that most likely this will turn out to be untrue?’ And he said – why would they lie to us? But that’s what happened in the end.”
On November 14, at least one drafted refusenik was released from the basement in Zavitne Bazhanya, taken to Russian territory and released, apparently on medical grounds. Georgy (not his real name) a 25-year-old lieutenant, told his story to the ‘Astra’ news site.
The lieutenant who changed his views
"We were the first ones. They hadn’t perfected their system for applying psychological pressure on people,” Georgy told the news site. “But now they know how to do it, and it’s much harder for people than it was for us,” he says about those who are trying to refuse to fight.
Georgy made the decision to refuse to fight back in June. Several weeks of arrest, beatings, and even execution threats followed, but he was finally allowed to return home to his military unit. He is still waiting for the official termination of the contract.
Georgy ended up on the frontline because he had volunteered to go and fight in Ukraine – convinced that Russia was fighting for a just cause. It was a decision which horrified his father, Yuri. “I tried to dissuade him, but he was determined to go,” he says.
Yuri has never lived with his son. “I called his mother and said, if he goes, he no longer exists for me. I reminded him that he has relatives in Ukraine, I told him that this war is the doing of just one man [Russian president Putin]. He didn’t like it, he was saying this was all propaganda from the opposite side."
Georgy, in his own words, went to the front line to protect the local population from the oppression of the Ukrainian state. After a couple of months at the front, after fighting and talking with local residents, the lieutenant changed his views.
By June, having waited until there were no soldiers left under his command (the wounded were taken to hospitals, some refused to serve even before him), the lieutenant filed a report refusing to participate in the "special military operation."
The pressure started immediately. At first, Georgy and several other contract soldiers who refused to fight were summoned for discussions with a special commission, which was supervised by senior officers. The comission failed to get Georgy and others back into the front line. Then the commanders put them under arrest.
For a month and a half, the detainees were moved between three improvised prisons. Two of these centres - in Perevalnoye and Bryanka – are often mentioned in stories about arrested soldiers.
According to Georgy, in Bryanka the detachment of refuseniks already numbered at least 100 people. He realised he could not get out on his own, so he called his father.
'We have come up with a heroic story for you"
On July 24, Yuri, arrived in Luhansk and went straight to the military prosecutor's office.
"They told us that the story of my son's detention was impossible. They said he was on a combat mission. But we already had his geolocation and knew where exactly he was," Yuri remembers.
The prosecutor's office workers quickly lost interest and stopped talking to Yuri and other parents.
And then chance intervened. By the doors of the office Yuri saw a group of officers one of whom happened to be nothing less than a general. Having got his attention, Yuri told him about his son. After 20 minutes, the father was let into the prosecutor's office, where a report was filed.
The son was finally released two weeks later. During this time he was moved again. This time, according to Georgy, fighters from the [private military company] Wagner Group, in one of the rear detachments were trying to change refuseniks' minds.
"First they talked to us in some forest,” says Georgy. “From there, some of us were sent to the Wagner Group. I said again that I refuse to fight. I was told to reconsider my decison. I said that my position is firm."
In another car, this time by himself, Georgy was taken to their headquarters.
“There I was **** (beaten up), my face was twice the size it is now. They said, “we don’t need you any more, your command gave permission to “zero” [kill] you, we have already come up with a heroic and then I’m going to shoot you. There was a feeling that they might shoot, but I thought that maybe he was bluffing."
Georgy refused to count. The fighter began to beat him on the head with the butt of the pistol. He threw him back on the ground and again began to prepare for the execution. More beatings followed.
The lieutenant was saved by another Wagner mercenary, who declared that an officer like him would be useful in his detachment. There, he was treated well, fed normally, and provided with new clothes. No-one mentioned returning to the ranks. Compared to the first weeks of detention, the conditions were very good.
On August 13, Georgy was told he had been authorised to take some leave, and needed to pack. He was taken to a military base, where the parents of some other refuseniks had gathered. They all left together for Rostov, and from there he got to his unit.
"I'd rather go to prison"
Georgy says that many of those who were being held with him have still not been allowed to go home, and remain in Ukraine, in rear detachments.
The decisive factor for his release, Georgy is sure, was the pressure his parents exerted - knocking on the door of the prosecutor's office and sending statements to the investigating authorities and human rights activists. “We must say thank you to our parents who fought for us. If our parents hadn’t done it, no one would have known or heard about us, and we wouldn’t have escaped".
Since August, Georgy has been in his military unit. His application to terminate his contract is still being considered. From time to time, commanders suggest that he returns to war. The lieutenant refuses to cross the state border, although he goes on other duty trips. Recently he went to Rostov-on-Don to pick up the body of a conscript assigned to his unit who had been killed at the front.
He is not sure that his story will have a happy end. "They already want to send me back. I told them I'm not going anywhere. But our commander-in-chief [president Putin] has come up with some interesting laws: if you don't go, you'll be sent to prison. It's no good ending up in jail. But I'd rather go to jail that go back to the frontline.”
Georgy's father also understands the danger of criminal prosecution. But he thinks it’s still better than what could happen otherwise.
“I talk to many people,” he says. “Soldiers who are there now as well as newly mobilised men, just don’t understand the situation, “Oh my god! Prison!" Well, consider this: two or three years behind bars, and you come out with a clear conscience and will live with a clear conscience. Some say it’s a stain for life. And to that I say that the stain will last only as long as one particular man [Putin] is alive. On the contrary, a prison sentence like that will be a mark of honour."
Now father and son no longer argue about the war. "We are on the same wavelength now," says Yuri.
Surprisingly Georgy's refusal to fight did not stop the unit commanders from sending him to train new recruits in the first weeks after the mobilisation started in September. The lieutenant did not refuse - three months on the front line gave him a wealth of experience, he says. During the training, he did not advertise his personal disagreement with the war and neither did he try to influence any of the new recruits. They were still completely unaware of the realities of war in Ukraine, he says.
Georgy cannot explain this decision of the commanders. “Did you serve in the army?” he asks the BBC correspondent. “If you served, you would understand that half the people here are completely brainless. No, not half, but most of them”.
And if not him, then who else would be able to train the new recruits, he says. There are almost no officers left in the unit - most are either on the frontline or they’re already dead.
Read this story in Russian here.