How the War in Ukraine Catalyzed a Re-awakening of National Identity Among Russia’s Indigenous Peoples
Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine has now gone on for over three months. The Kremlin continues hiding the extent of injustice it is committing against the Ukrainian people, and it’s hiding the true cost of the war to the Russian people— including the number of those killed in action.
The official numbers that are released, however, indicate that ethnic minorities from economically disadvantaged regions of Russia are disproportionately represented among casualties. It was Christo Grozev of Bellingcat who was among first suggesting that losses among “non-Slavic” troops from remote regions were disproportionately high.
The Russian media outlet Mediazona, together with a team of volunteers, has examined more than 1,700 reports on the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, and it turned out, that, in absolute numbers, natives of Muslim Dagestan and Buddhist Buryatia are in the lead among the casualties. And if we compare these data with the population size of the Russian regions, the national republics are again the leaders: the top three in the number of killed soldiers per 100 thousand people are Buryatia, Tyva and North Ossetia. Residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which together account for more than 12% of the country’s population, are virtually absent from the casualty reports.
The Kremlin takes advantage of the fact that the national republics are some of the poorest and most socially and economically depressed parts of the country. In 2020, Buryatia ranked 81st out of 85 regions of Russia in terms of quality of life. The neighboring Irkutsk region was in 55th place. According to the republican statistics department, 20% of residents in 2020 had incomes below the subsistence minimum. In 2013, it was slightly better at 17.5%. In 2019, Ulan-Ude ranked last in quality of life among 78 cities with a population of 250,000 or more. In a region with a salary of 20 thousand rubles, young people have two choices: either go look for jobs in the harsh Arctic region or the bustling Moscow, or join the military as a contract mercenary. But even there, men from republics like Buryatia, Tuva, Dagestan, and Chechnya are at the bottom of the pay scale. Military insiders say that their salaries in warzones are set at about 250 thousand a month.
In the first days of the war, videos showing Russian prisoners of war with non-Slavic appearance began to circulate on social networks. Later — and even before the Russian Defense Ministry officially confirmed the first combat casualties — several regional governors announced the deaths of their fellow countrymen. In early March, when the first coffins arrived in Buryatia, the head of the republic, Alexei Tsydenov, attended several funerals. He was accompanied by TV cameras and journalists. The obituaries were published on the main pages of the regional media. Then the burials began to take place almost every day, and Tsydenov stopped going. Since mid-March, the names of those killed in Buryatia have been published only in provincial newspapers or on the social media communities.
Buryats make up only 0.3 percent of the Russian population, but among those officially killed they constitute 2.8 percent. Dagestan surpasses Buryatia in the number of war deaths, but Dagestan’s population is three times larger.
At the end of March, the head of Buryatia, Alexei Tsydenov, gathered artists at the Buryat Opera and Ballet Theater and delivered an address about the “special military operation.” After the speech, the Buryat Drama Theater spokesman Batodalay Bagdaev asked the official: “There is a guard of honor No. 1 on Red Square. Have you ever seen a ‘narrow-eyed’ person there? There’s a clear selection there — blue-eyed, tall, Slavic-looking guys. Our fellow countrymen with bowed legs and large cheekbones are barred from the guard of honor. And if they’re going to die, they’re going to die.”
As voices from the audience shouted, “Bastard!” he asked Bagdaev to turn off the microphone, and shortly thereafter Vladimir Rylov, the director of the Buryat Opera and Ballet Theater, took the floor. “I would like to respond to this scoundrel who humiliates the Buryat people in front of me at my theater. We are all Putin’s Buryats! We will not allow the country to fall apart. If we now reproach the country’s leadership with the fact that, yes, there are killed, there are wounded, there are casualties — we will betray those killed and wounded. Then they have died for nothing. Only victory will be their redemption!”
After February 24, many people of non-titular ethnicities in Russia began searching for their souls, connecting to their ethical roots and examining their identity— and felt compelled to disassociate themselves from Moscow, its war, and unite with their fellow countrymen in this stance. Several formal ethnic anti-war movements have emerged, such as the Free Buryatia Foundation, which aims at ending the war, combating Kremlin propaganda, and ridding the Buryats of the involuntary burden of being “the main mascots of the Russian world.”
According to Alexandra Garmazhapova, the president of the Free Buryatia Foundation and seasoned journalist, the Buryats have a bad reputation in Ukraine. When Putin unleashed the war in Donbass, soldiers from Buryatia were often sent there to fight under the guise of so-called local militiamen and miners. There was a notorious interview that Novaya Gazeta conducted with 20-year-old tank crewman Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, a young man who was badly burned in the battle near Debaltsevo and talked about how the Russian authorities had sent Buryat contract soldiers there to fight in secrecy. And in 2015, the “Network” movement (a branch of the pro-Kremlin “Nashi” movement) recorded a crass video entitled “The Appeal of Putin’s Buryat fighters to the panicking people of Ukraine.” In the video, which went viral, Irkutsk Buryats promised Ukrainians that their economy would “plunge into the crotch of Conchita Wurst.”
“Then the Ukrainian media started actively writing about the Buryats. They used the phrase “the Putin’s military Buryats.” This narrative was very much amplified, memes on the subject going viral. Already with the start of the current invasion, some Ukrainians began to say that they are prepared to fight Russia to the last Buryat. This is very upsetting. We have a small nation and it’s no good that it has such an image,” says Garmazhapova.
Soon after the massacre in Bucha, fakes began to circulate on the Internet that it was Buryats who committed the atrocities there, and these posts were accompanied by photos of Yakut soldiers with the flag of the Sakha Republic, taken in 2018 in the military unit in the Far East where they had served. Why would anyone want to shift the blame for the mass murders onto the Buryats? The answer may sound utterly cynical: it is convenient for the Russian propaganda to blame everything on the national minorities of the Russian Federation who went out of their way to obey orders. After all, it is so advantageous to convince Ukrainians that their enemies are not Russians, but Buryats (as well as Yakuts, Chechens, Dagestanis, and other peoples of the Russian Federation), and that they should fight not against Russia, not against the Russians, but against the peoples colonized by Russia.
The Free Buryatia Foundation came about quite naturally. Maria Vyushkova, a Buryat woman living in the United States, went to a rally in San Francisco on February 28 with a “Stop Putin” banner. She decided to come out in protest when she realized that there were many of her countrymen waging war in Ukraine — she had been receiving such news since the first days of the invasion of the neighboring country by Russian troops.
Her action was followed by several other events in other countries — held by representatives of the Buryat diaspora, who began to coordinate their actions. People came out with “Buryats against Putin’s war” posters and flags of Buryatia. “At the rallies we were constantly being asked what organization we represented. So we decided to make the Free Buryatia Foundation. War, like a vampire, sucks the young blood out of my people — and of course I have reconnected with my identity much deeper now. It has become very important to me to assert that I am a Buryat and I am against the war,” Vyushkova told “The Cold” media outlet.
Ten people are now on the team of the foundation, all outside of Russia. People from inside Russia constantly apply to the organization, but the foundation does not want to endanger their fellow countrymen and reminds them of the law on fakes about the Russian army, which can lead to up to 15 years in prison.
In addition to the publicity campaigns, the foundation provides legal advice, drafts instructions for military personnel who want to avoid being sent to war, and advocates for sanctions against regional officials, such as Buryatia’s head Alexei Tsydenov and deputies of the People’s Khural, who have expressed support for the war. Activists have released several anti-war videos: “We are triggered by the goal of ‘denazification of Ukraine. We ourselves constantly face discrimination in our country — where is the denazification of Russia?”
The organization asserts that the leaders of Buryatia are fully responsible for what is happening, because the function of the regional government is to protect its people. Alexei Tzydenov has clearly failed this function, and moreover, he contributes to the deaths. Free Buryatia Foundation is preparing sanctions lists, which it plans to submit to international institutions.
“We have an activist from New York, Tuyanna Lubsanova. She has mobilized, I think, her whole family and all her Buryat friends from there. We ended up with 19 people in the first video. We thought that would be the end of it, we had no far-reaching plans. But suddenly other Buryats, living in different countries — from Germany, from Poland, and from America as well, started writing to us. And we realized that we needed to make more videos. We’ve recorded four videos, and now we’re preparing a fifth,” says Alexandra Garmazhapova.
How are Buryats supposed to promote the ideas of the “Russian world” if they themselves, living in Russia, constantly are victimized by xenophobia and racism? According to Garmazhapova, a psychological factor is probably involved. “Buryats feel that participating in the war gives them an opportunity to ‘elevate themselves’ up to Russians. They are willing to forget this discrimination so that in the fight against the “bad Ukrainians” the Russians will recognize them as equals. I can’t explain it any other way,” she says.
In Russia, discrimination in one way or another affects everyone who does not meet the “standard of Russianness” on ethnic, religious, racial grounds. It is well known that the national question in Russia is a painful and unresolved problem. On the one hand, the Constitution was written in the name of “a multinational people, united by a common destiny in their land.” The authorities regularly cite this multinationality. Vladimir Putin at the beginning of the war, speaking about Nurmagamed Gajimagomedov, a Lak man from Dagestan who died in Ukraine, stated: “I am a Russian, <…> but when I see examples of such heroism, <…> I want to say: I am a Lak, I am a Dagestani, I am a Chechen, an Ingush, a Russian, a Tatar, a Jew, a Mordvin, an Ossetian.”
On the other hand, at a press conference in 2018, when asked by a journalist of the GTRK “Dagestan” Elena Yeskina, whether the president notices that in a large multinational country only “pretty babies with blond hair and big blue eyes” are shown on television and that in the Kremlin regiment the “unspoken criterion” is Slavic appearance, Putin replied, “It is just your perception.” More recently, on April 20, the president publicly mocked the Bashkir language by distorting the name of a cafe in Ufa as “iPad, halyava.”
Ruslan Gabbasov, head of the Bashkir National Political Center, says that the Russian Federation has long been essentially a unitary country. His assessment is even harsher: “The Russian Federation is not a federation at all, but a colonial-type empire.” The national republics have been stripped of their sovereignty, their constitutions rewritten under the Kremlin pressure and brought into line with the Russian Constitution. In 2017, speaking in Yoshkar-Ola, the president declared that the Russian language is “the natural spiritual framework of the country,” “everyone should know it,” and it is unacceptable to reduce the level and time of the Russian language teaching. A year later corresponding amendments were inserted to the Law on Education, which linguists and language activists opposed.
“The state languages of the national republics are relegated to the level of second-rate languages on their territory. Now, for a Bashkir child who wants to study his native Bashkir language at school, the parents have to write an application for choosing the language, and if there are not more than seven such applications in the class, the language is not taught. In urban schools, where Bashkir children are not so strongly represented in numbers, they are deprived of the opportunity to study their native language. The Russian language, however, which is not native to the Bashkirs, is studied on a mandatory basis. Where Bashkir state language is studied, it is taught only one hour a week, which is catastrophically insufficient. Russian literature is compulsory, but Bashkir literature has long ceased to be taught as a separate discipline,” said Ruslan Gabbasov.
The strengthening of national identity against the backdrop of war is a natural way to distance oneself from Kremlin politics and rhetoric, says journalist and regionalism researcher Todar Baktemir. “Moscow sends people to fight in Ukraine. Would an independent Kazan (capital of Tatarstan) do that? I don’t think so, because the Tatars as a political nation have no claims against the Ukrainians,” he explains.
On April 21, Alexandra Kibatova, a student of the Higher School of Economics, went out on the Moscow Arbat with a poster in Mari language: “Mylanna sogysh ogesh kӱl” — “We don’t need war.” The police detained her and filed a report on discrediting the Russian Armed Forces.
Kibatova came from the village of Krasny Bor in the Agryz district of Tatarstan, where Tatars, Russians and Maris live. With her action, she wanted to express her disagreement with the policies of the Russian authorities. “The rhetoric of propaganda is built on defending the idea of the Russian world, but what does it mean to be Russian? Can all people in Russia be equated with Russians? I was born in a Mari family, for my parents, especially for my father, national identity is very important, this mindset was absorbed in me as well. Russian culture is also an important part of me, it’s what we all breathe in Russia. But it was important for me to say that I don’t support Russianness,” the student told “Idel.Realii” media outlet.
Since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, numerous campaigns emerged containing anti-war statements in the national languages of the peoples of Russia. Alisa Gorshenina, an artist from Nizhny Tagil, came out on a picket in April with a white rose in her hands. Ribbons with the inscriptions “Epir vӑrҫa hirӗҫ!” and “Kirәkmi begә suhysh!” were attached to the flower. Translated from Chuvash and Tatar, it means “We’re against the war!”
Gorshenina made another artistic piece where on a huge coat she wrote anti-war inscriptions in 14 languages — Tatar, Komi, Bashkir, Karelian, Chuvash, Udmurt, Altaian, Khakass, Buryat, Kumyk, Avar, Mokshan, Nanai and Sakha. She captioned the photos of this work “Hearing Russia’s Voices.”
In early March, Ruslan Gabbasov asked the head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, to issue a decree “to ensure that our Bashkir boys do not go to war in Ukraine. “If this war is at Putin’s will, our Bashkortostani guys should not participate in it. Issue an order that our guys should not be sent to war. Show your wisdom and willpower. Show your will, the way President of Tatarstan Shaimiyev did when he issued an edict for Tatar boys not to be sent to Chechnya. How many Bashkir boys’ lives do you have to lay down before you understand that this war is not ours? Have the courage to refuse to let Putin send our guys — regardless of nationality — to Ukraine. This is not our war, and our guys should not die there,” Gabbasov said.
On May 8, the international conference “Forum of Free Peoples of Russia” took place in Warsaw. The event was attended by representatives of the Tatar and Bashkir communities, as well as other peoples of Russia, who were described by the organizers of the event as “enslaved by Russian imperialism.” Tatar activist Nafis Kashapov, who represented the “Free Idel-Ural” public platform at the forum, described the work he and his associates have carried out in Tatarstan over the past 30 years. He mentioned projects that included the production of educational literature in the Tatar and Russian languages. The Tatar representative expressed dismay with the situation in Russia. He believes that what is happening in Ukraine should encourage the Tatars to rethink many important issues.
In 2013, the Kalmyk Aldar Erendzhenov and his wife created the clothing brand 4 Oirad, which popularizes the culture of indigenous peoples. After the start of the war, a billboard appeared in the capital of Kalmykia supporting Russian troops with the inscription “I am Kalmyk, but today we are all Russians.” When Erendjenov saw it, he got the idea to produce items with the “Nerussky” (“Non-Russian”) print, referring to nationalist T-shirts with the inscription “I am Russian” in stylized Cyrillic script. “It’s a response to the Russian world, because we actually have our own non-Russian world. We wanted to make the word ‘non-Russian,’ which is used as an insult, positive. I’m not Russian, and I’m proud of it,” says the designer.
At the end of April, Aldar Erendzhenov decided to emigrate to Mongolia. This decision was due to the numerous threats that the designer began to receive after the start of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. The authors of the denunciations believe that the word “non-Russian” insults the state-forming people. “We are receiving threats. The propaganda media accuse us of inciting ethnic hatred and threaten us with a criminal case. We see activists in Kalmykia getting their tires slashed and their cars set on fire, and the police do nothing,” Erendzhenov says.
The year 2021 is remembered for the unprecedented activity of civil society in Kalmykia. After a three-year break, a congress of the Oirat-Kalmyk people was held here and a public court was established for the first time. At the same time, the hopes for change after the election of Batu Khasikov were replaced by complete disappointment in him. The head of Kalmykia turned out to be one of the most isolated governors, unwilling to make contact not only with members of the public, but also with deputies.
On March 10, 2022, the Oirat-Kalmyk people opposed the war by signing an appeal to the Russians and residents of Kalmykia. The appeal, signed by the leader and his three deputies, says that over the last 400 years Oirat-Kalmyks have participated in all military conflicts on the side of Russia, but they don’t need a war with Ukraine. On March 30 the Elista city court of Kalmykia fined the deputy chairman of the congress of Oirat-Kalmyk people Aducha Erdneyev 30 thousand rubles for signing an anti-war letter. A protocol was drawn up against him for “discrediting” the Russian military (Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code).
Despite unprecedented repression, national minority activists in Russia continue their work, because their task is to stop the hostilities and human sacrifices.
According to Alexandra Garmazhapova of the Free Buryatia Foundation, all the words of the Russian authorities about the need for so-called “denazification” of Ukraine are lies. “Almost immediately I had a cognitive dissonance: okay, we will get rid of the Nazis in Ukraine, but who will get rid of them in Russia?”
The Free Buryatia Foundation invited subscribers to share their stories about racism in Russia. There are now more than a thousand and a half such stories. As these stories show, the experience of the peoples of Russia is more a story of disunity than unity. “The standard slurs — ‘churka,’ ‘chinese,’ ‘hach,’ ‘narrow-eyed’ — were heard by almost everyone who wrote to me. As someone who has a strong oriental appearance, I thought that only “narrow-eyed” people got it. This is why I was surprised by the reports from Udmurts, Chuvashs, Mordvians, Marians, and Karelians who wrote that they’ve been taught their entire lives that it’s shameful to be an Udmurt. The peoples living in Russia have much more in common with Ukrainians than they may realize. In Soviet times, all languages except Russian were declared peasant languages. And if the Ukrainians get their language back, the Karelians or Buryats have it very bad… People think that racist outbursts are forgotten, like remarks about a bad haircut, but they are not. It hurts for years to come. Because they insult your whole species, your history, your essence. And thanks to the Kremlin, who talked about denazification, for reminding us who we are. And we are non-Russians. And this is normal,” says Alexandra Garmazhapova.