Mothers for Putin

Russian soldiers singing
Photo by Contributor/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
April 21, 2022

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine eight weeks ago, Americans—both news anchors and regular people—have been asking me the same question: When coffins of Russian soldiers start coming home, won’t Russians rise up against the war, and against Vladimir Putin? Won’t grieving Russian mothers go out into the streets to protest the senseless conflict that took the lives of their children? 

Setting aside the deeply patriarchal assumption embedded in the latter question—why is it the responsibility of women to end a war that men started without their input?—the whole idea has always struck me as impossibly solipsistic and naive. It assumes that everyone else, including Russians who live on the other side of the world and have their own history and culture, sees the world exactly as we do. It assumes that what is obvious to me and to most of us in the West—namely, that this is an unprovoked and unjustified war of Russian aggression—is obvious to the Russians themselves. It ignores the reality of what it is like not just to live in an authoritarian state with full control of the media, but to have lived in one for over two decades, an entire generation. 

Many of the Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine right now were born in and around 2000, the year Putin became president. They have known no president other than Putin, no system other than his, no truth other than the one his propaganda machine has fed them both in the classroom and through the media. It took Fox News and the right-wing media just one year to convince a majority of Republicans that Joe Biden didn’t really win the 2020 election, and that’s in a country with a free press, where other sources of information are easily and readily available. Now imagine what Fox News and Breitbart could do if they and their ilk were the only media outlets in the country—for twenty years.

This point of view also ignores what happened in the United States after the invasion of Iraq in 2003—or rather, what didn’t happen. When coffins draped in American flags began coming from Iraq, how many American mothers took to the streets? How many instead believed that their sons were heroes who died fighting for their country and the very idea of freedom? True, Americans made their discontent known at the ballot box, especially in the elections of 2006 and 2008, but a huge portion of the American public doubled down in its support for the Iraq war because to not support it was, in their view, to betray the American soldiers fighting it—and dying. 

In other words, do we have higher expectations for Russians than we do for ourselves? 

Earlier this week, I listened to a podcast episode on Meduza, the independent Russian news site that has been my absolute go-to during this now eight-week war. The episode really caught my attention precisely because it captured these dynamics in Russia in a nuanced and poignant way. It featured Elena Trifonova and Olga Mutovina, the two founders of Lyudi Baikala, or “The People of the Baikal,” a publication focused on the two Russian regions that sandwich Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. One of those regions, which flanks the lake on its eastern and southern shores, is called Buryatia. It is named after the Buryats, the indigenous, Mongolian people native to the republic and who lived there before the Cossacks arrived and before the area was annexed by the Russian tsars. 

Buryat soldiers have been essential to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They began turning up in the Donbas shortly after Russia began an astroturf separatist war there in 2014. Because they look distinctly Asian, they were rather obvious evidence that the war wasn’t a spontaneous uprising by disgruntled ethnic Russians chafing at Kyiv’s rule, but a Russian military operation. Since the beginning of this phase of the war, which began on February 24, Buryatia has acquired the rather sad distinction of being the Russian region with the most reported combat deaths. In part, this is because Buryatia is an economically depressed region with few opportunities for young men. It is also part of a cruelly ironic dynamic: the people doing much of the fighting and dying in Ukraine are ethnic minorities—Chechens, Buryats, Dagestanis—who are viciously discriminated against in Russia. (It is also a sad echo of America’s war in Iraq, which was fought largely by minorities and poor people.)

I was so taken by this episode that I quickly decided that, rather than just summarizing it for you, I should interview one of the founders of “The People of Baikal,” which has been keeping a running list of Buryatia’s casualties—the only such record in the republic—and which has been blocked inside Russia by the Kremlin’s media watchdog. My conversation with Olga Mutovina has been translated, condensed, and edited for clarity. I hope you find it as sad and moving as I did, and that it gives you some insight into why Russia’s mothers aren’t rising up against Vladimir Putin. (You can join me in supporting “The People of Baikal” here.) 

Julia Ioffe: Why are there so many residents of Buryatia among the dead in Ukraine?

Olga Mutovina: Buryatia is one of the poorest regions of Russia. There isn’t a lot of work, there isn’t much industry, and the men mostly go elsewhere to work for stints—on oil rigs, in gold mines, some kind of extractive work. Or they can become contract soldiers. For young men, it provides some social mobility in a context where there’s nowhere to work and not much in the way of higher education. We spoke to some families of soldiers who had been killed and they told us that this wasn’t these soldiers’ first war. Many of them had already fought in Syria and, in 2014, Ukraine. 

Unlike [the neighboring] Irkutsk Oblast, which has oil and gas and lots of industry, Buryatia is a deeply [federally] subsidized region and so the amount of money that the region gets [from Moscow] is connected to how loyal its residents are, how they vote in elections, so people here mostly support the government. There isn’t much of a protest movement here. 

The Buryat men who become contract soldiers are mostly from poor, rural families. We’ve spoken to many relatives who said that if there had been good work for their men, maybe they wouldn’t have signed up. Some of them come back from mandatory military service, try to establish themselves in civilian life, and then realize that they could earn a lot more in the army and they go back. 

We spoke to one family [of a soldier who was killed in Ukraine] who said that he loved sports and working with children. He wanted to become a coach. But his salary was 7,000 rubles [$86] a month. He had a family to support: by the time he was killed, he had five children. 

How much did he make in the military?   

People usually sidestep this question, but we’re told that a contract soldier makes about 40 to 50,000 rubles [about $500 to $600] per month. And now that they’re in combat, this salary is basically doubled.

There’s a hope here in the U.S. that, once more and more coffins start coming home to Russia, the mothers of these dead soldiers will protest or pressure the Kremlin to stop the war. Is that a reasonable hope?

It’s not just Americans who are hoping for this to happen. We also expected this to happen, that if there were combat deaths, the families would start asking questions and that some kind of discontent would ripen. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. This has been one of our biggest disappointments. 

Why isn’t it happening? 

At first, they published obituaries of these soldiers. Our local politicians issued statements about this or that person who had been killed. But when there were too many of these funerals, then they stopped saying anything and the government press stopped writing about it. Some of the journalists we know at these places told us that they were prohibited from publishing obituaries or writing anything about those killed. There’s a big athletic complex here in Ulan Ude [the capital of Buryatia] where people practice archery, which is the national sport here, and that’s where the military funerals are held. We did a survey where we asked people if they knew that there were now several funerals a week at the complex and only two people knew anything about it. 

We also asked them what they thought of the special military operation—that’s what we call it in Russia—and they told us some absolutely incredible things. One young man told us that it was okay because [the dead soldiers] would simply be reborn. He was talking about the local Buddhist belief in reincarnation. That’s what I mean when I say that the support here for the government and the special operation is founded in tradition. These people are simply saying what the Buddhist lamas here say, and they say publicly that they support the war. There were lamas that went to Ukraine and held special prayer services and performed certain rituals [with the troops]. The lamas are directly participating in this. 

You mentioned the people who work for state media who are banned  from writing obituaries. Is it all explicit or do people already know that they should keep quiet?

It’s this all-encompassing learned helplessness. No one has any questions and no one has to explain anything. Everyone understands everything. You know, this really shocked me when I spoke to the mother of one soldier, a 19-year-old boy. I asked this mother if she had any questions for the authorities. And she said, “Who needs me and my questions?” That is, in this situation, where she’s lost everything, where a person should be screaming herself hoarse, she was silent. And most people are like this. They have no questions. It is this learned helplessness, this inertia: What can I do?

Were there family members who said that these deaths were justified, that these young men were heroes?

Almost everyone we spoke to spoke in these terms. That 19-year-old boy I was telling you about, his aunt is a teacher in the elementary school and she was telling us that she’s already teaching her students about her nephew, using him as an example. She tells them that he’s a hero and that he died for his country. These are the phrases you hear at the [government] rallies, at the funerals where local officials speak—funerals where there are several coffins at once and which are basically turned into political rallies—and they use exactly this kind of language: These boys died for you and me. They are defending their country. They died so that there would be no bloodshed in our country. The family members of these soldiers hear all this at the funeral and I think it probably would be very painful to think that your child died for nothing. It’s a defense mechanism, to tell yourself that, “Yes, my child died, but it wasn’t in vain. He was a hero.” 

One of my colleagues went to a tiny village that had lost people in every war: in World War II, in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, and already in this war. She spoke to one mother who lost a son in Chechnya [in the 1990s], and she said, “At first, I had doubts. I thought he had died for nothing. And then I was able to convince myself that he didn’t die for nothing. He died for his country.” 

In the Meduza podcast, you said that families of fallen soldiers are instructed by the Russian military not to say anything, not to take photos at the funerals. Is the military actively intimidating family members?

Things are so tense in the country right now that the military doesn’t even have to intimidate anyone. It’s enough just to hint at something and people understand everything themselves. They understand that they might not get the money [the government promised to families of fallen soldiers], that they might face unpleasant consequences. People are already so scared that a hint is enough. Here’s an example: we asked one colleague for the contacts of the family of one soldier who had been killed. The relatives immediately told the local representatives of the Defense Ministry, the Defense Ministry immediately called the local government, and the local government called the editor in chief of the publication where this journalist worked. That’s what we’re dealing with. 

The thing that jumps out most to me is that most of the fighting and the dying for Putin’s idea of this pan-Slavic, Russky mir [“Russian world”] is being done by the ethnic minorities—Buryats, Chechens, Dagestanis—who are subjected to constant racism in Russia. How do you explain this?

We get this question most frequently from foreign journalists. Russian journalists don’t ask about this. We don’t think that this is a question of [Russian] nationalism. We think it’s for different reasons. Chechnya and Dagestan, for example, have warrior cultures. There are also a lot of soldiers coming from Cossack villages. These are cultures where people are used to holding weapons. There are many soldiers from Buryatia because it’s a very poor region that is very heavily subsidized by the government. The same is true of Tuva, which is even poorer than Buryatia. That’s how I explain it. Also, if you look at our list, you’ll see that half is Russian names and Russian faces [about half of Buryatia’s population identifies as Russian – JI]. 

Maybe this is because I lived in Moscow for a few years, but I know how people there feel about people who have the “wrong” eye shape or the ugly names they call people from the Caucasus. And now these are the people defending the “Russian world.” You don’t see any irony in this?

Of course there’s an absurdity in this, in the very concept of the Russky mir

Do the Buryats take note of this, though? 

Of course they do. When the head of the republic met with the local intelligentsia, the press secretary of the theater stood up and said, essentially, “When it comes to the honor guard at the eternal flame, they have tall, blue-eyed Russians, but when it comes to dying, they send the Buryats.” This created a lot of controversy and people shouted him down. This is a real question here. Maybe people are discussing this privately in their kitchens, but it’s not something that’s really discussed publicly.

These zinc coffins coming home, are they scaring young people off of joining the military? 

This is another surprising discovery. It turns out it’s working in the opposite direction. We went to two villages that lost young men and where there’s now a big upswell of patriotism. The youth there are even more interested in the military and the war. The village I told you about, where the 19-year-old was from, his peers want to join the military and want to go fight. For those who are a bit younger, the town is buying rifles so they can do some target practice.

They’re not afraid they’ll be killed in battle?

We asked this question in the villages and it seems like they’re not really thinking about it. They’re young. Some were saying that they want to serve and are ready to die, like this young man from their village. What we do see is that the youth are really hungering for some kind of meaning, some kind of unifying idea. They want to aspire to something but there’s nothing for them. With these deaths, it seems like they’re finally getting some kind of meaning, some kind of idea they can live for. They’re proud of their fellow villager who was killed. When there’s no other meaning, the youth grab onto this. It’s very scary when people derive such meaning from such a horrific idea.

So we shouldn’t expect any protests, even if more coffins come back from Ukraine?

Of course not. There won’t be any protests, not economic protests, not mothers’ protests, and the reason for this is very simple: the propaganda machine has been turned all the way up and it’s swallowing people whole. All the entertainment programs are gone. Now it’s either news of the war or talk shows about it, where the propagandists are methodically painting a picture for people that squelches any questions they might have: It’s all done by the Nazis, it’s all crisis actors, et cetera. It’s a very simple picture of the world. If you watch TV, you have no chance. Unfortunately, a lot of people watch TV here, even young people. It’s a very simple way to press a button and have everything explained to you. 

Do most people in Buryatia support the war? Or are they too scared to say otherwise?

I think the majority supports it. We see it just based on our own little survey and how eager people were to say this to us on camera. We understand how traumatized the Ukrainian people are and what a huge tragedy this war is for them. But the Russian people are also being traumatized by it and supporting the military operation is likely a defense mechanism. Being on the winning team, being on the stronger side. It’s very uncomfortable to swim against the current, and it’s dangerous. It’s much safer to say that you support it. 

I don’t think that these people who are saying they support it in public are saying something else in private. I think people really do support it because it’s simpler. It’s much easier to sink into this comfort zone and never leave it because the truth is too horrible and hurts too much. If we realize that our country is the aggressor and that our nation is a pariah, if people who were taught for generations that the Russian soldier is always the liberator and only fights in just wars, if they learn that our soldiers did these horrific things, that they killed and raped and pillaged, that will be very unpleasant and painful. It’s much easier to shout from the rooftops that you support the special operation. I think our country has some very difficult work ahead to fully realize what we’ve done, that each individual bears some responsibility for this and has to repent for it. Without this, Russia can’t continue to exist.