On September 21, seven months after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the war finally came home to the Russian people. For seven months, it was mostly Ukrainians who lived with the war that Putin had unleashed. They felt its effects daily, fleeing their homes or dying in them as Russian missiles rained down, killing as many as 30,000 Ukrainian civilians. In the meantime, Russians, especially those living in Moscow and St. Petersburg, could pretend the war existed only on state TV. All summer long, the party didn’t stop. Restaurants were full, as were the parks and clubs and theaters. Sure, there were sanctions, but Russians with the means to do so shopped and traveled and life mostly went on, undisturbed.
Then on September 21, after the stunning success of two Ukrainian counter-offensives, Vladimir Putin announced what he called a “partial mobilization.” The call to arms, Putin said, would be limited to 300,000 men with military experience—reservists—but it became immediately clear that this was a lie. Ukrainian intelligence said the real number was closer to one million and soon reports emerged on Russian Telegram channels and Russian independent media in exile that echoed that number: apparently, a secret clause in the mobilization order capped the number of men not at 300,000 but 1.2 million.
As draft notices followed Putin’s announcement, panic descended on a nation that had managed to push the war off to the edge of its consciousness. Men with zero military experience began receiving military summons. The case of a 32-year-old I.T. specialist at Sberbank went viral. A 21-year-old man with autism and schizophrenia, who is unable to speak or care for himself, received a notice as well. Military recruiters began showing up at offices, grabbing white-collar workers from their jobs and dragging them off to military recruitment posts. Before long, Russian business had to appeal to the Kremlin to stop: the Russian army was taking so many of their employees that they could barely maintain their operations.