Ethnic minority groups in Russia are increasingly rising up in defiance against Vladimir Putin after being blamed for committing some of the worst atrocities of the war in Ukraine.
When the strategic Ukrainian city of Mariupol finally fell to Russian forces, it was images of Chechen soldiers cheering and chanting in front of bombed-out, burning buildings that went around the world. Shocking footage that emerged last month showed a Russian soldier – reportedly from a Chechen unit – castrating a Ukrainian prisoner.
The massacre of civilians at Bucha, perhaps the most horrific single atrocity of the war to date, was at first linked to fighters from Buryatia, which borders Mongolia in Russia’s Far East.
Now, ethnic minority anti-war activists from Buryatia and Chechnya tell VICE World News that the violence allegedly committed by soldiers from their regions has either been over-played in reporting or entirely fictionalised. In response, they are forming some of Russia’s most vocal anti-war campaign groups.
The media focus on ethnic minority soldiers is a double win for Putin, and is partly fuelled by Kremlin-linked social media channels. Not only does it divert attention from atrocities carried out by ethnic Russian fighters, it also presents the many peoples that make up the population of the Russian Federation as united behind their president.
There are no official figures available for the ethnic breakdown of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine, but analysis of the names of confirmed deaths suggest 70 per cent of casualties are ethnic Russians, or Slavs, who make up around 80 percent of Russia’s population.
Ethnic minority activists are striving to correct what they say is distorted coverage of the war in Western, Ukrainian and Kremlin-linked media. They are helping soldiers fighting for the Russian army in Ukraine to terminate their contracts and return home.
And they are using the conflict to push for a historic reckoning with Russian racism and imperialism within its own borders.
“We want to convince Buryats not to fight,” says Alexandra Garmazhapova, the co-founder of the Free Buryatia Foundation, which was set up in the weeks following the invasion of Ukraine. “This is a Russian imperial war, and we are the victims of Russian imperialism. We have to be on the side of the Ukrainians.”
As surveys consistently show that three-quarters of Russians now support the invasion, Garmazhapova claims that it is ethnic minorities who are leading the fight against the Kremlin’s aggression. “We are doing more to speak out, because we understand Ukrainians and they understand us.”
Buryatia – a region of around one million people, a third of whom are ethnic Buryat – has historic ties to Mongolia, but was incorporated into Tsarist Russia during a period of imperial expansion from the 1600s onwards.
It is one of 22 republics in today’s Russian Federation, which were originally divided along ethnic lines. Others include the Muslim-majority Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, and the far northern Yakutia.
Buryatia, a traditionally Buddhist and Shaminist steppe region, is also one of the poorest parts of the country. The average monthly salary there is 44,000 rubles (about $740), around a third of the equivalent in Moscow. Signing up to the army after completing mandatory military service is one of the most attractive options available for many young Buryat men.
But the Free Buryatia Foundation has helped more than 150 soldiers, some of whom were on short-term contracts, to resign their positions after seeing the reality of the war in Ukraine. Garmazhapova says a total of 500 personnel have requested support from their legal team, and more are getting in touch every day.
“Early in the conflict it was relatively easy to leave,” she says. “There was a sense among the commanders that ‘we can always get more’.” Six months into the war, the process is harder, with soldiers being put in detention or threatened with prosecution if they leave their posts.
At the same time, the foundation is working to debunk reports of Buryat involvement in the worst of the violence. An investigation claimed that less than two percent of the Russians stationed in Bucha had Buryat names, while one Buryat soldier who was reported as a perpetrator of the massacre had in fact left the army three years earlier.
“We express our deepest sympathies with the victims [of the Bucha massacre] and their loved ones…criminals should be punished to the full extent of the law,” the foundation wrote in its report.
But it added that Buryat involvement was one of the “main myths” of the war, which has proved all but impossible to correct after the initial story has gone out. These myths also tap into a deeper, older prejudice about violent “Mongol” Buryatia in Russian culture that dates back to the Golden Horde and its invasions from the 13th century.
Garmazhapova, a 33-year-old who is now based in Prague, says the “negative PR” around Buryats and other ethnic groups is at least drawing attention towards the racism that prompted her to emigrate from Russia in 2016. All of the several dozen activists working for the foundation are based outside the country, and its website is blocked in Russia.
Garmazhapova says: “To be equal, you have to be twice as good. You have to be better dressed so as not to be stopped by the police asking for documents. You have to speak faultless Russian otherwise people will ask if you’re ‘really Russian’.
“I’ve been told so many times to ‘go home’ that it felt like I should leave – I didn’t know where my home was but it seemed like it wasn’t in Russia.”
Just a week before she emigrated, a woman shouted racial slurs at Garmazhapova and her mother near their home in St. Petersburg. “I was shouting back at her…but my mother told me to leave it. If there’s a fight and a criminal case, she said it would be me who’s the guilty party.”
Like the other activists who spoke to VICE World News for this story, Garmazhapova pointed to the irony of Moscow’s aim of “de-Nazifying” Ukraine when violence and discrimination against ethnic minorities are so widespread at home, and the rights of ethnic Russians are so privileged.
The ultimate goal of the Free Buryatia Foundation is greater autonomy as a federal republic, with the right to preserve its own language and traditions. It opposes the increasingly centralised authority that has been imposed over Putin’s decades in power, crushing earlier hopes of a genuine federal system after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Some activists, however, go further – calling for their regions to break away from Russia and form new states.
Raisa Zubareva, who grew up in Yakutia, a vast region in Russia’s far east, says the invasion has exposed the imperial nature of Moscow’s rule and given fresh momentum to many Yakuts’ “dreams of ending hundreds of years of Russian occupation”.
“I have heard these sentiments since my childhood – from my family, from teachers. And now the time has come when the dreams of the Yakut intelligentsia may finally come true.”
Zubareva, a 45-year-old former journalist, left Russia for Poland in 2014, following Moscow’s invasion of Crimea. If she were still in the country, expressing such opinions could see her jailed for up to five years for “violating the territorial integrity” of the Russian Federation.
“We have been deprived of our language, our culture, our traditions,” Zubareva says of the Turkic ethnic group, which traditionally practises shamanism. She is working to establish a Free Yakutia foundation with other activists in the diaspora.
“The Ukrainians went through Russification, the imposition of the Russian World, just as we did,” she says.
“As cynical as this may sound, and a lot of people will shout at me for saying this, the war in Ukraine and the Ukrainian victims are a way for ethnic minorities in Russia to finally see what is really happening, how damaging this Russian occupation is, and how we need to break away from it to become completely free.”
The sentiment is shared by Abubakar Yangulbaev, a 30-year-old Chechen opposition activist who fled Russia under pressure from authorities last year. His family have also been targeted by the regime of regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Moscow cracked down ferociously on Chechnya after it tried to establish a breakaway republic in the 1990s, killing an estimated 300,000 people and laying waste to its capital, Grozny, over the course of two wars. Kadyrov is staunchly loyal to Putin, but that sentiment is not shared by all Chechens, who have enduring memories of the bloodshed.
“I never thought that Putin would launch the war in Ukraine because it reveals him for what he is, and other Russian conflicts for what they are. The Chechen wars were never about eliminating terrorists [as the Kremlin claimed] but about Russian colonialism.
“Of course Chechnya must be independent,” he says during a telephone interview from Prague.
Yangulbaev has been documenting how Chechen fighters have been deployed in the invasion, and argues that their actual impact has been over-represented in Ukrainian and Western reporting.
“There are only about 500 troops there,” he suggests, though official figures are not available. He also points to the estimated hundreds of Chechen volunteers fighting on the side of the Ukrainians, against “imperial enemy” Russia.
The activists admit that real change within Russia may be a long time coming, as the Kremlin continues to stamp out any opposition to the war and tighten its grip over the regions. But they believe that attitudes are shifting, and all hope one day to return to the places of their birth.
“If we can bring soldiers back home while ourselves living outside Russia, it is possible to change public opinion from abroad as well,” says Garmazhapova. “Nobody has had this conversation about ethnic minorities before. It’s been like this for a long, long time.
“Now people are feeling more able to say ‘I am Buryat’. Even people who have mixed-Buryat heritage. More people are deciding to learn the language. They feel prouder of who they are.”