Perhaps, nobody prior to February 24/2022 expected that there would be a real war but when the invasion broke out, it caused various responses and reactions in Russia. As one of the results, the war especially boosted political activism among ethnic minority groups. There are around 180 different ethnicities in Russia, whose activists established various oppositional movements. In their opinion, the military aggression in Ukraine and the situation of ethnic minorities in Russia are closely related things: the Kremlin does not want a strong and prosperous Ukraine, just as it does not allow the cultural and economic independence of its ethnic regions. Some of the movements in fact existed prior to the war, others appeared as a reaction to it. Although most of them appeared among diasporas and on the internet, it doesn’t mean that these movements do not have any political influence or local support. In this short review, let’s focus on the Free Buryatia Foundation, which was among the first ethnic anti-war organization in Russia.
The members initially gathered to shoot anti-war videos on you-tube, but in March/April ended up registering a nonprofit nongovernmental organization the Free Buryatia Foundation in the US and later in the Czech Republic. The Foundation is made of Buryats from all over the world who could not remain indifferent to the fate of Ukraine. Most of them did not know each other before the war but now are united by one purpose – to speak up against Russian aggression in Ukraine and strive for our multiethnic region within the framework of a true federation. The foundation is engaged in anti-war propaganda, volunteering activities, and legal assistance to soldiers who refuse to fight.
The military participation of ethnic minorities of Russia was especially emphasized in the media. At the very beginning of the war, Russian propagandist showman Artyom Sheinin on the main political talk show on Channel One said “… large Russian people that consists of Russians, Chechens, Dagestani, Mordovians, Buryats came to help Ukrainians. Yes, it was very hard, but we will do it. So go to work, brothers. But when our brothers work, how we can be without our Buryat brothers. So ‘azhalaa khegty Buryaad khübüüdüüd’ – go to work, Buryat brothers!”. The curious part is that he was speaking in the Buryat language ‘Go to work Buryat boys’ to propagate the war while it is an extremely rare occasion on official Russian TV to hear any ethnic language other than Russian. This was among the reasons why the Buryats being just a couple percent of the servicemen engaged in the invasion of Ukraine received disproportional attention from the media and popular bloggers.
There were many misunderstandings and misinformation presented by those media. For instance, many innocent people, who by 24 February 2022 were not serving in the army were wrongfully accused of war crimes, and their images and images of their family members were exposed online. Soldiers of other ethnicities with a slightly ‘non-Slavic’ look were presented as ‘Buryats’ while footage of the Mongolian army was presented as the “Buryat troops” for the viewers. However, there are no purely Buryat units/troops, and the Buryats are serving in the Russian military personnel on a common basis and intermixed with all the other ethnicities. Thus, one of our activities is performing analytical work using open-source data on the participation of Buryat military personnel in the war in Ukraine to give an unbiased assessment and stand for objective coverage of the war in Ukraine.
Buryatia is one of the 85 federal subjects of the Russian Federation located in Eastern Siberia/Far East of Russia. Ethnic Buryats make up only 0.34% (461,389) of Russia’s population. According to the census from 2010, Buryats make up 29.5% (286,839) in Buryatia, 3.3% (77,667) in the Irkutsk Region, and 6.3% (73,941) in the Trans-Baikal Territory. Buryats are also a minority in military units. As was mentioned earlier, according to estimations of the Foundation’s analytics, ethnic Buryats make up around 2.4% of the Russian troops involved in this war with one of the highest casualties per capita: by mid-July, there were 275 soldiers from military units based in Buryatia who died in the war in Ukraine. 114 of them were Russians and other ethnicities from Buryatia, 77 – were Russians and other ethnicities from other regions, and 84 – were ethnic Buryats from Buryatia. All in all, 117 ethnic Buryats from Buryatia, Transbaikal Territory and the Irkutsk region died in the war in Ukraine. According to some reports, the casualties among minorities are disproportionally high. However, it could be just the effect that those casualties are more discussed and counted in some regions and much less in others. Many facts are concealed from publicity while the true numbers and facts about the war will be hopefully revealed and objectively accessed in future.
Nevertheless, the Free Buryatia Foundation is trying to find out and present the actual situation of Buryat’s participation in the war. Our members gave more than 40 interviews including with the largest world’s media. The foundation has its pages on all main social media portals such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Vkontakte etc. In June we launched our webpage, which was later blocked by Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office. Apart from the informational activity, the members of our foundation do volunteer activities with refugees and help with consultations with military personnel who do not want to participate in the war. The lawyers who volunteer and cooperate with the Free Buryatia Foundation have consulted more than 500 soldiers since April 2022. Many of the servicemen refused to fight and terminated contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.
Using various media, the Foundation tries to speak up against the war in Ukraine and tries to convince people in Russia that this war should be stopped as soon as possible. It is worth noting that every day we receive words of support from other Buryats for the fact that their voice is finally expressed.