For Opposition to Putin’s War, Look to the Fringes of His Empire

The dirty secret of the Russian military is that long-conquered subjects are the Kremlin’s cannon fodder.

By , an investigative editor at Meduza.
Russia's assault on the South Caucasus in the 19th century
Russia's assault on the South Caucasus in the 19th century
A painting depicts the Battle of Ganja, part of Imperial Russia's assault on the South Caucasus, in 1826. Franz Roubaud/Museum of the History of Azerbaijan

We are all familiar with the imperial fantasies driving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” to subjugate Ukraine: It’s not a country, its independence when the Soviet empire fell apart in 1991 was a historical mistake, and it’s time to bring Ukraine home into the Russian world.

But that’s not the only way Putin is fighting an imperial war. Russia’s own army is in many ways an imperial one: Members of ethnic minorities subjugated by the expanding Russian Empire centuries ago appear to be disproportionately fighting and dying in the Kremlin’s army—while ethnic Russians, especially those from better-off regions such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, overwhelmingly manage to avoid duty at the front, mainly by dodging the draft for young men in the first place.

It’s the dirty secret of the Russian military: Russia’s peripheral subjects—Buryats, Dagestanis, Tuvans—are Putin’s cannon fodder.

We are all familiar with the imperial fantasies driving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” to subjugate Ukraine: It’s not a country, its independence when the Soviet empire fell apart in 1991 was a historical mistake, and it’s time to bring Ukraine home into the Russian world.

But that’s not the only way Putin is fighting an imperial war. Russia’s own army is in many ways an imperial one: Members of ethnic minorities subjugated by the expanding Russian Empire centuries ago appear to be disproportionately fighting and dying in the Kremlin’s army—while ethnic Russians, especially those from better-off regions such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, overwhelmingly manage to avoid duty at the front, mainly by dodging the draft for young men in the first place.

It’s the dirty secret of the Russian military: Russia’s peripheral subjects—Buryats, Dagestanis, Tuvans—are Putin’s cannon fodder.

Consider the Buryats, one of Siberia’s largest Indigenous groups. Closely related to Mongolians, they were subjugated, annexed, and subsequently colonized by Russia in the 1600s. By analyzing open-source data such as obituaries and social media posts, Russian independent news outlets Mediazona and iStories found that by mid-May, Buryatia had the second-highest number of soldiers killed in Ukraine since the start of the invasion—just after Dagestan, another conquest of the Russian Empire. By May 18, Buryatia had lost 117 soldiers (the actual number is likely higher), whereas the city of Moscow, with a population around 15 times Buryatia’s, lost only three. Relative to the population, Buryatia’s rate of battle deaths was the highest in all of Russia. Go through lists of names of Russian war casualties, and the preponderance of Muslim names—mainly from units raised in Dagestan and other North Caucasus republics—is striking. Russians of Central Asian ethnicity are disproportionately dying as well: According to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, at least 10 ethnic Tajiks have already been killed in Ukraine while fighting for Russia.

The debate is only beginning, and who knows if Putin’s empire will still be around when it ends.

In part, it’s an issue of poverty. Buryatia and other ethnic republics, which surpass European Russian oblasts in deaths by a large margin, are also among Russia’s poorest regions. For many young men in Tuva or Dagestan, signing a contract with the army is one of the very few options for a regular income and a possible career. Russia’s military is disproportionately made up of poor, nonethnic Russian men. But unlike in the U.S. military, which also recruits among minority groups for its all-volunteer forces, few minority Russians harbor any illusions about their equality, either inside or outside the military, in a country where the white Slavic majority makes up about 80 percent of the population and where a deeply engrained culture of Russian supremacy and racism remains utterly unexamined. The notorious “Slavs only” clause in rental listings on CIAN, Russia’s premier online real estate market, was only banned in late 2021, but it’s easy enough to circumvent. When public signs in the Uzbek and Tajik languages appeared on Moscow public transportation—there are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Central Asia in Moscow alone—it caused such a fierce xenophobic backlash that St. Petersburg ditched similar plans. Even European non-Slavic minorities—such as the Finnic Udmurts or Komi—complain that their cultures and languages are suppressed or marginalized.

As Russian casualties in Ukraine reach the tens of thousands, these inequities have become glaringly obvious—and people in the periphery are getting increasingly restless about sending their sons, brothers, and husbands to die in a war fought for the cause of Slavic unity. It’s no coincidence that one of the most significant anti-war movements in Russia isn’t one run by Moscow’s cowered liberals but Buryats Against War. In Buryatia and other peripheral, non-Russian regions, local activists are cleverly subverting the Kremlin’s severe censorship by creating anti-war posters in their native languages, such as Buryat, Kalmyk, and Chuvash. Because Russia is so centered on ethnic Russians, these slogans simply don’t register on the federal censors’ radars.

Prompted by Putin’s ludicrous claims about “de-Nazifying” Ukraine and the Russian state media’s nakedly fascist narratives, Alexandra Garmazhapova, a former journalist and co-founder of Buryats Against War, began to crowdsource first-person experiences of non-ethnic Russians. The response was overwhelming: Thousands of Kazakhs, Yakuts, Dagestanis, and other nonwhite Russians flooded her Instagram inbox with horrific accounts of xenophobic and racist abuse by their ethnic Russian colleagues, classmates, neighbors, and strangers. Another activist, the Yakut film director Beata Bashkiroff, gathered a similar collection of testimonies and came to the conclusion that it is Russia itself that needs to be “de-Nazified.” She says her ethnic Russian friends simply refused to believe her when she told them about the level of casual racism and xenophobia in Russia. Blinded by their racial privilege, most ethnic Russians—including the liberal intelligentsia, traditional opposition, and other mostly educated exiles now gathered in Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, and Kyrgyzstan—are scarcely aware of the centuries of hidden grief Russia’s long and very much active history of imperialism and colonialism has caused.

In a particularly poignant exchange in The Occupant, a 24-minute documentary assembled from footage found on a captured Russian soldier’s phone, a 23-year-old ethnic Russian lieutenant films his chat with a stranger near Shali, Chechnya, a town where several army units are stationed. “Just leave us alone,” the elderly Chechen says, pleading exasperatedly with the young Russian soldier that his dream is to live in an independent Chechnya. But what’s striking is how genuinely perplexed the soldier, born barely a year before Putin launched the brutal Second Chechen War that crushed the restive region, appears in the video. “It’s the first time I’m hearing about this,” he says, betraying his utter ignorance about Chechnya’s still-fresh history.

Whether Russia wins or loses the war, it’s clear that the country will be internationally shunned and isolated for many decades, with only North Korean dictators and European former chancellors for friends. Because Putin has literally weaponized Russia’s long culture of ethnic supremacy and victimhood, the country’s future redemption must be contingent on a comprehensive national campaign to reexamine its history and reenvision its future.

One place to start might be the question: Who, exactly, is a “Russian”? As activists from Russia’s Indigenous lands are rediscovering their ancestral heritage and languages suppressed by colonialist policies—or simply considered unfashionable or inimical to one’s career—they are now also motivated by an anger that their status as imperial subjects has turned into a matter of life and death.

For me—an ethnic Russian, politically liberal, an emigrant since March—Putin’s war and my fellow Russians’ sadistic behavior in Ukraine have made me question my own assumptions. I, too, have been part of the problem: I should have recognized the inexcusable racism and xenophobia in every Russian punchline stereotyping Ukrainians, Georgians, and Chukchis from the Far East as somehow inferior. My acquiescence is a cousin to Putin’s warped view of a world where only ethnic Russians deserve statehood and whose culture must prevail above all others, by force if needed.

The debate is only beginning, and who knows if Putin’s empire will still be around when it ends.

Alexey Kovalev is an investigative editor at Meduza. Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev

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