Buryatia is far from the wars in Europe.
It is a Russia. Vast snowy plains with Buddhist temples are closer to Mongolia than Moscow, which is five time zones away.
However, the motifs of Russia’s war in Ukraine are everywhere.
An enormous Z and V were stuck to an apartment building that we pass. Another V sign is located on the side Ulan-Ude’s largest Lenin head.
Billboards erected along the roadsside to honor some of the men Buryatia lost in the past year, with dates and words such as “We Love, We Remember, We Mourn”
We meet a young man who just returned from Kazakhstan, where he had fled the draft.
He had been there for two weeks but was unsure how to continue financing his own expenses.
He says, “This is a poor and subsidised region.”
“People in this area live on loans to survive, and propaganda says they’ll make money if you go and fight.”
A Buryatia army contract is big cash. This is why it has experienced a high rate of casualties in the war, along with enthusiastic recruitment policies.
Although the numbers are difficult to verify, there appears to be a correlation between high casualty rates and poor ethnic minority regions such as Buryatia and Dagestan.
We spoke with Polina, a woman whose nephews had joined the army. They were in Belarus for what they believed were training exercises when Putin invaded Ukraine.
Both men requested to end their contracts after a few weeks but were denied.
Polina claims that one of them was taken into custody, and the other was threatened by execution.
She said: “The commander actually put the gun to his head. My nephew agreed and said, “Okay, let’s do it!” “I’d rather die right now than go back. They’ll either make you an invalid or force me to kill someone.”
He was finally allowed to return home.
“Not all of us bloodthirsty”
In the first months of war, ethnic Buryats were often accused on Ukrainian social media for alleged atrocities in Bucha.
NGO Free Buryatia Foundation is based in Russia and describes the “Buryats In Bucha” as “the biggest myth of war”. It has attempted to prove through open source investigations that ethnic Buryats are unfairly singled as guilty of war crimes partly because of their distinct ethnicity.
Polina won’t be bound by the accusations. She says, “I want the whole world to know that not all Buryats are against the war.”
“Not all of us have to be bloodthirsty. We’re not all bloodthirsty.” “We were made to look that way.”
It’s difficult to find Western media-friendly people. It’s safer to keep quiet. When we were about to interview a man who had lost 20 of his friends in war, his wife sent us an email.
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She wrote, “State repressions have already begun.”
“Even for a repost on a social network, young people are imprisoned/tried/fined. That risk is too high for me. My great-grandfather was suppressed only because of suspicions from the government. It did not do any good for my family.”
He refused to do the interview.
This is why Elena Pavlova has such courage. She lives in Ulan Ude. We met her after she posted on social media a statement in which she declared herself to be completely opposed to war.
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Ms Pavlova states, “It seems that people in Russia don’t believe in themselves.”
Many people support Putin and believe the country would fall apart without him. Everyone just gives up.”
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She considered leaving the country like so many others who feel it doesn’t reflect their values. She doesn’t know what she would do to fund her daughter and herself.
She claims that she believed more in the Russian people when war began, but she has since lost all faith in them.
“Let’s just say that we keep silent. What can we do to continue living in this country? What can we do to live in such circumstances? These are some of the people. “I don’t know.”