Society
Three Buryats for the Price of One Muscovite
October 6, 2022
  • Anna Zueva
    Interviewer
    Journalist
  • Alexandra Garmazhapova
    Interviewee
    President of Free Buryatia Foundation
Free Buryatia is an antiwar foundation created by Buryats outside Russia. Anna Zueva spoke with Alexandra Garmazhapova, the foundation’s president, about its work and how and why the attitude of the people of Buryatia toward the military operation in Ukraine is changing.
Maria Vyushkova. Photo from the personal archive of A. Garmazhapova
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.
“In the region, they were scooping up everyone and anyone – draft notices came to fathers with multiple children, the elderly and even the dead. Sometimes they came at night."
On September 21-22, Buryatia went through what might have been one of the most terrible nights in its history. Since then we have stepped up our informational work even more. On our social networks, we explain what legal mechanisms are available to avoid the mobilization. We now work 24/7 and are here to help!

Why does the foundation consider Vladimir Putin's thesis about the denazification of Ukraine hypocritical?

Because here in Russia there are big problems with xenophobia and racism. For example, a non-Slavic appearance is often an obstacle when trying to rent an apartment in Moscow or St Petersburg. In addition, many face insults because of their nationality. A group of Asians can be turned away from a nightclub in Moscow. But most importantly, in 2018 – on the order of Vladimir Putin – the languages of Russia’s indigenous peoples became optional for study in schools. Why do we defend the Russian language in Ukraine, but not the Buryat language in Russia?

Moreover, what relation Buryats have to the “Russian world” is unclear to me. Only such that Russians deprived them of their history and language. Basically, the Buryats going to war want Ukrainians to forget their history, language and culture. To end up in the same situation as Buryats. I believe that Buryats will bring much more benefit to their people if they start learning their language and history.

You launched a drive to gather stories about racism in Russia. How many messages did you receive?

I still get messages where people share their experiences. Now there are about 4,000 stories from subscribers. People recall something from their childhood or student life or how they face racism currently. The Kremlin acted quite foolishly when it announced the objective of the special military operation as the denazification of Ukraine. People who write messages to me often add: just look what is going on in the country of denazifiers.
Yuzhnoye Cemetery. Where those killed in the war in Ukraine are buried. Photo from the personal archive of A. Garmazhapova
Buryatia ranks first among Russia’s regions in terms of servicemembers killed in Ukraine. Why?

Buryatia is home to many military units. Tanks look to have been thrown into battle first. We saw in the first days of the war that Buryat tankers took the biggest losses.

Foundation representatives were among the first to report that contracts could be terminated, but servicemen trying to do this are kept in prison and pretrial detention in harsh conditions. Lawyers of the Free Buryatia Foundation helped terminate the contracts of several hundred servicemen from the region. Do servicemen and their relatives from other regions contact you and where did the concept of “Сargo 500” come from?

We are against racism and xenophobia, so of course we help everyone. In Buryatia, we helped 500 servicemen terminate their contracts with the Ministry of Defense. Soldiers returning to the region began to be called "Cargo 500.” It's better to be “Cargo 500” than “Cargo 200.”

We get calls and emails every day. After those 500 servicemen returned to Buryatia in July, about 100 more turned to the foundation for advice on how to terminate their contracts.

The servicemen who want to terminate their contracts and their relatives aren’t ready to give interviews even anonymously. People turn to us and hope that we do everything and they remain in the shadows.

We hardly broke through this wall of silence. It was a difficult emotional moment: we asked the relatives of people whom we helped to anonymously confirm the termination of the contracts so others would [trust us] too. But they refused, saying it was too dangerous.

Still, a few courageous individuals were quoted directly in Mediazone.

Now, our position is the following: if you want to save your loved one, then do something for him, don’t hope that someone will do everything for you. And if you support the war but still want to terminate a contract, then go to the head of Buryatia.
Alexei Tsydenov, head of Buryatia. Source: Wiki Commons
Alexei Tsydenov, the head of Buryatia, enthusiastically supports the military operation. How has he influenced the attitude of the region’s inhabitants toward the foundation?

The Tsydenov government has created a whole network of controlled media in Buryatia. We thought that progovernment Telegram channels would say that the plane with refuseniks returning from Ukraine was a lie invented by our foundation. But, on the contrary, they reported that it wasn’t activists abroad who helped them return to Ulan-Ude, but the head of Buryatia. He took credit for our work. This likely means that the authorities took public opinion polls and saw that people don’t necessarily approve of sending servicemembers to Ukraine and support them returning home.

For Tsydenov, if he were to speak out against the war, he would instantaneously be sacked. Tsydenov isn’t a political figure – he’s a bureaucrat who doesn’t have his own opinion and does what he’s told. Over five years, he hasn’t learned the Buryat language, though he had promised to. I think that Tsydenov doesn’t respect the people or the region, which he is ruling for the second time.

A very illustrative example. Recently, Tsydenov announced on social media that the region would support the Starobeshevsky District of Donetsk Region. For most of the text, he was just justifying why the inhabitants of poor Buryatia should support the Donbas. The comments were of course negative.

What do you think about cash payments by regions for soldiers killed or wounded in Ukraine?

As practice shows if a serviceman from Moscow dies, then an additional R3,000,000 is allocated from the city budget on top of the federal payments. But if a resident of Buryatia dies, R1,000,000 is allocated.
“Thus, it’s cheaper to send Buryats to Ukraine, because three Buryats cost as much as one Muscovite."
Alexandra Garmazhapova on a Ukrainian TV channel. Photo from the personal archive of A. Garmazhapova
By the way, this argument is starting to work on people. They ask themselves: why isn’t Moscow fighting? Why are there such different payments?

You and your associates often speak to foreign media, including Ukrainian media. Why is it important for you to speak to the Ukrainian audience?

I believe that the mission of Vladimir Putin is to sow discord. My colleagues and I see our mission as finding common ground. Thus, I consider it important to pronounce at least stock phrases in the Ukrainian language during interviews with Ukrainian media. That’s how I show my respect for them. I want Buryats to learn more about Ukrainians and Ukrainians to learn more about us. I was born in Buryatia and grew up in St Petersburg, and I love Ukraine very much. As a child, I loved Ukrainian songs by Tina Karol, Ruslana and Okean Elzy. In 2008, I went to Kyiv for the first time and fell in love with the city.

While studying at the Journalism Faculty, in the Department of International Journalism, I chose Ukraine and Moldova for my thesis. It was called The Influence of the Mass Media of Ukraine and Moldova on the Course of Revolutionary Events in 2004-05 and 2009. I wrote that Kremlin propaganda in Ukraine was too aggressive, that it alienates Ukrainians. It’s important for me to discuss, debunk myths, listen to Ukrainians. I’ll never condemn them, even for some harsh statements that we find unpleasant. We’re uncomfortable, they’re being bombed. You can’t compare these things at all. I’m outraged when liberal Russian oppositionists try to absolve themselves of responsibility.

What other ethnic antiwar foundations emerged after Free Buryatia?

Tuva Against War for Tuvans, Sakha Against War for Yakuts, Kalmykia Against War in Kalmykia, the Bashkirs have Akbuzat; there is Chuvashia Against War, Dagestan Against War. There’s also the Asians of Russia foundation. I believe that now is the perfect time for national minorities to speak up about their rights. In Russia, the languages of indigenous peoples aren’t protected and their history is being rewritten, while the Kremlin is pumping resources out of their regions. Like Ukrainians, we – the representatives of the small nations of Russia – emerged from the Soviet Union. Buryats and Ukrainians have much more in common than we think.
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