The military call-up and the flight of Buryat men to Mongolia
October 10, 2022
  • Caroline Humphrey

    Anthropologist, University of Cambridge

Caroline Humphrey writes about Buryats escaping the draft by heading for Mongolia, as well as previous flights of Buryats out of Russia and the Buryat cultural practice of mutual assistance through broad kinship networks.
A young Buryat getting a new SIM card in Mongolia. September 2022. Courtesy of author.
In the middle of the night, a few hours after Putin announced ‘partial mobilization’ for the war in Ukraine, there was a hammering on the door of Bayar’s flat in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia. His parents had been expecting this and they refused to open. “He’s not here. We don’t know where he is,” they called out. At dawn, Bayar, a young Buryat eligible for the draft, fled to a friend’s place in the country. For two days he could not decide what to do. Should he try to escape across the border to Mongolia? His wife would not be able to come – she was pregnant and looking after a young child. Also, there were rumours that men were being captured en route to the border, or even issued with the draft-notices by the border guards. These rumours persuaded many Buryats and Russians that they were trapped, there was no alternative but to go to the recruiting-office as ordered. However, Bayar did not want to fight this war. He knew about the dreadful conditions in Russian prisons and had also heard of the confusions and shortages of equipment facing the recruits in training camps. So he joined together with two friends, got hold of a car, worked through the long queue to reach the border at Kyakhta, and managed successfully to cross into Mongolia. Here his family had distant relatives and they welcomed the young man. They put him up for two weeks in their apartment in Ulaanbaatar, and then helped him with the otherwise almost impossible task in a city crowded with refugees of finding a flat to rent and work to earn a living.

Neighbors are put in a difficult position

This story is typical of many Buryats escaping from the military draft. It speaks both to the relation between Buryatia and Mongolia, which I discuss later, and to the wider issue of how the countries neighbouring Russia are refusing, welcoming – or perhaps merely enduring – the influx of tens of thousands of escapees. While the neighbours to the west, such as the Baltic states, do not let in Russians escaping mobilization, this is not true of countries to the south and in Central Asia. In fact, as of early October, the number of refugees they have taken in exceeds the 200,000 who enlisted. By far the greatest number fled to Kazakhstan with its long border and good railway links with Russia, but Georgia, Armenia, and Mongolia have all accepted substantial and even nationally destabilizing numbers. These flows have put international relations under pressure. Although Mongolia was not formally part of the Soviet Union, it existed under heavy Soviet influence for most of the 20th century. The proverbial saying ran: “Kuritsa ne ptitsa, Mongolia ne zagranitsa” (“A chicken is not a bird, Mongolia is not abroad”). Today, even though Mongolia has extracted itself from Russian dominance and pursues its own path of more Western-friendly relations, it remains very dependent on Russia for electricity, gas, and rail transport, and of course it also has to balance this with the massive economic clout of China to the south. The country’s political stance is far from clear-cut.

During the seven months of the war with Ukraine relations between Russia and its neighbours ran according to unofficial rules, according to Kirill Krivosheev. Russia, wary of destabilizing the region, did not demand that these countries recognize the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics nor declare support for the ‘special operation.’ It was enough to remain neutral and, most important, not to supply Ukraine with weapons or ammunition. Russia tolerated pro-Ukrainian media publications in these countries
and statements by opposition politicians. But this fragile status quo changed with the mobilization. The mass exodus (100,000 to Kazakhstan alone in one week) forced the neighbours into taking a more definite stance. For simultaneously Russia was openly trying to attract migrants from these countries, offering good pay and a fast-track citizenship process in exchange for signing up to fight in the army. Such conditions are potentially very attractive to men from the poorer countries of Central Asia.

Meanwhile, the accepting countries have had to work out what to do with the mass arrivals. So far, they have stated that they will not extradite Russian nationals refusing the draft. Nevertheless, the incomers only have the right to stay for a certain period, varying between one month and a year according to the country, before they are expected to move on or apply for residency through stringent procedures. In Kazakhstan in particular, there are problems of housing, rent rises, and work opportunities; in Georgia, the arrivals face unfriendly protests (“Occupiers! Terrorists!”) by locals who have not forgotten Russia’s incursion into their own territory in 2008.

Mongolia: Mixed response to Russian refugees

Mongolia has been one of the more welcoming of neighbouring countries to the fleeing escapees. On 23rd September Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, the former democratic president of that country, gave a video address in which he called on Russia not to fight against Ukraine. Speaking in English, thus addressing a global not just a regional audience, he declared that Ukraine has a right to exist as an independent sovereign nation. He invited Buryats, Tuvans, Yakuts, Kalmyks and representatives of other peoples ethnically close to the Mongols fleeing mobilization to come to Mongolia: “We Mongols will greet you with open arms and an open heart.” Yet the situation is considerably more complicated than this warm invitation implies. Since 2017 Elbegdorj no longer holds office, and the current government is trying to maintain strict neutrality. The public response is also mixed.
There have been small demonstrations in Mongolia against the war, but many Mongols retain a traditional residual loyalty to Russia and are reluctant to blame their erstwhile ‘older brother’."
Furthermore, as Elbegdorj’s address shows, people are distinguishing between Russians and refugees from minorities ethnically similar to Mongolians.

Elbegdorj’s reference to the minority draftees as ‘cannon fodder’ intentionally recalled the history of colonial relations within multi-ethnic Russia. Poor, largely rural and de-industrialised Buryatia is a case in point. Men have been disproportionately recruited from such remote and disadvantaged regions and furthermore they have been unfairly depicted in the Russian and Ukrainian media as ‘Asian’ savage fighters. ‘The Buryats’ have come to stand for any minority soldiers in the Russian army of non-Slavic eastern appearance.
The queue of cars waiting to get through at the border. October 2022. Courtesy of author.
Buryats and Mongolia: Cross-border ties over the generations

The Buryats are a Mongolian people made up of several distinct groups that found themselves on the Russian side of the Siberian border when it was ratified in the 18th century. Their several dialects are easily understandable in Mongolia. But Stalin was suspicious of close relations of his subjects with foreign countries. He closed the border, moved Buryats away from it, supressed the native language, script, religion, and culture, and flooded the region with industrial workers and farmers from the west of the USSR. Later, under Khrushchev, the Buryat-Mongol ASSR was renamed Buryat ASSR. Subdued by such colonial policies, the Buryats were to a large degree Russified and many accepted willingly their designation as ‘Rossiyanye’ (non-ethnically Russian citizens of Russia). Such identification with the Russian state went back to the earlier colonialist policy of incorporating of Buryats into Siberian Cossack regiments, which formed border-guard units as part of the Tsarist imperial army. However, the Russification is far from total. In other respects, the Buryats have retained a culture and religious ethics that are highly distinct from those of the local Russians. This is where we return to Bayar’s successful escape mentioned at the beginning. The key to Bayar’s story lies with his ‘relatives in Mongolia’ and the way that the Buryats’ elaborate kinship system has been able to maintain such relationships at distance and over many generations.

The current exodus of Buryats from Russia is by no means the first. Colonial politics at the beginning of the 20th century, when local Buryat self-rule was changed to a system advantaging Russian peasant settlers, drove many to emigrate when their land was taken over. Then a drive to recruit Buryats into the Russian army during the First World War triggered a second large wave of emigration; although they were sent to hard labour on infrastructural construction rather than the front line, large numbers of these men died subjected to inhuman and freezing conditions. The Civil War 1920-1 caused a further exodus into Mongolia and China, as did the chaos of collectivisation and hunger in the early 1930s.
The consequence of all these waves of emigration is that at least forty-five thousand Buryats now live in Mongolia, with a lesser number, around ten thousand, still living in China."
What is remarkable is that these groups have kept in touch with cross-border relatives over the generations. Buryats cling to their history. They do not forget the relatives who died in the World Wars, the civil war, or the purges of the 1930s. An aid to this devoted ‘keeping track of relatives’ is the fact that many Buryats trace their kinship links far further back to mediaeval times. Through chronicles, written genealogies, and the memories of elders, they ascribe themselves to ancient clans and lineages – and these exist on both sides of the border. Today, omnipresent mobile phones and social media enable such groups to keep in touch. This why Buryat families like Bayar’s can call on distant relatives, let’s say a 4th cousin twice removed, someone they have never met, and expect a kindly response. The Buryat kinsfolk in Mongolia are willing to help, for they do not forget the sufferings of their own ancestors and grandparents fleeing from Russia.

One should not exaggerate. Far from all Buryats (and almost no Russians) have relatives in Mongolia. Not all the escapees have met a warm welcome there and many find it difficult to survive in a country that is itself struggling economically. In recent days, the recruitment campaign being officially declared over in Buryatia or the time being, a few have decided it is safe to return home to Russia. Nevertheless, the efficacy of the Buryat cultural practice of mutual help through widespread kinship networks is remarkable and may prove needed again in the future.
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