The Free Buryatia Foundation is the first antiwar initiative created by an ethnic group in Russia. How and why was the decision made to come together?
At first, we were all speaking out against the war on social media. Then Maria Vyushkova from the US approached me and asked what we could do to express our pacifist position. Maria now heads up the foundation’s key analytical section. A few days after the start of the war, she suggested having a call. The conversation included about 10 natives of Buryatia, ethnic Buryats who now live abroad. I was depressed and thought that I would just listen in and if something needed to be done then I would join in. We decided to make a joint video showing that Buryats oppose the war, as unfortunately a few years ago there was this awful video of “Putin’s Fighting Buryats
” addressing the “frightened” people of Ukraine.
No one on the call had media experience. I had worked for years in journalism and for that reason produced the first video
. It now has over 100,000 views.
We received tremendous support from ordinary people uninterested in politics. They wrote to us: well, finally someone said this, otherwise I would have thought I was alone against the war. It turned out that many people are against the war, but they don’t see each other because of the military censorship in Russia. I had a private Instagram account with about 1,000 followers. But after the video, Buryats began to request to follow me, about 300 came knocking in the first week.
We thought we’d release the video and that would be it. There were no far-reaching plans. There was no talk of establishing a foundation. It was just a movement of Buryats against war. It was important for us to simply identify ourselves as Buryats and voice our position so that people understand that Buryats aren’t Vladimir Putin's serfs. We wanted to give moral support to people who oppose the military actions so they don’t lose heart.
And then people began to write to us asking: how do you terminate a contract with the Ministry of Defense? We started looking for lawyers. And we found Alexei Tabolov of the Conscript School legal aid organization. In parallel, we continued to go to antimilitarist rallies in the countries where we lived with the Buryat flag with the inscription "Buryats against war." Others who attended these rallies began to approach us and ask what organization we were from. After these actions, it would’ve been very infantile to turn around and say “thanks everyone, you’re free to go,” so we decided to create a foundation.What are the objectives of the foundation? What does it do?
The first focus is information. We explain why we can’t support this war. And we also talk about Buryat culture. Unfortunately, Buryats themselves often don’t know their own history. In addition, there is an impression that we are savages from the outskirts of the country who can’t put two words together. We explained and continue to explain that Buryats have a long history and that attempts to portray them as savages are inappropriate. And I see the fruits of our work: many have begun to discover who the Buryats are.
The second focus is analysis. The analytical section counts the number of dead soldiers. It’s a general count of people associated with Buryatia – those who were born, lived and/or served in Buryatia. So the list could include men from other regions sent to serve in the region.
We also count ethnic Buryats who died in Ukraine. We keep two lists: Buryats from Buryatia and Buryats from Zabaykalsky Region, Irkutsk Region and others. Evgeni Shukhonov and Maria Vyushkova do the counting. They also work on exposing fakes about Buryats, as some label as Buryats everyone with Eastern facial features fighting in Ukraine.
For example, on May 4 Ukrainian Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova reported that two servicemen from Buryatia were suspected of looting in Kyiv Region in March. Photographs of the suspects were published and their names given: Bayaskhalan Shultumov and Pavel Angaev. However, a foundation investigation
showed that neither of the people is Bayaskhalan, while the photograph of Pavel was 12 years old and it was impossible to confirm whether he serves in the army at all.
Then the story with Zorikto Zhigzhitov happened: the Ukrainian authorities published the list of the 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, in which Zorikto served. But it was four years out of date, and Zorikto had terminated his contract with the Ministry of Defense three years ago. The false information about Zhigzhitov was picked up in particular by Ukrainian blogger Anatoly Anatolich. We invited him for a live show
on our YouTube channel, during which he admitted that his video was disinformation, though he never deleted it from his channel.
Our third focus is legal. We help servicemembers terminate their contracts and those facing discrimination and racism.
After the mobilization announced by Vladimir Putin, we’ve been evacuating men from Buryatia to neighboring Mongolia, 230 kilometers away. We organize buses and rush people to Ulaanbaatar. At least 3,000 men have left. Putin's decision on “mogilization” (a play on the Russian word for grave – RP), as everyone called it, found me in Kazakhstan. I dreamed about going there for 10 years. In the end, I spent all five days of my stay in Almaty in a hotel room, giving interviews to journalists and advising residents of Buryatia.