How Russia is rounding up reluctant army recruits for Ukraine
Police accused of raiding hostels, homeless shelters and student dormitories in desperate attempt to boost the military.
Marcel and his friends had travelled about 900km (560 miles) from the Volga Region to the Russian capital for short-term work.
But at around midnight last Thursday, they were awoken by police officers at their Moscow hostel.
“They asked to check our documents – there were lads from Central Asia staying there, as well, so we thought it was an immigration raid and handed over our passports,” said Marcel, a 29-year-old from the Bashkir minority group.
“We were told to get dressed, since it was cold outside. We stepped out to the corridor where the recruitment officers were already issuing papers, one for each passport. They told us we’re all going to the enlistment office. Only one of us signed, the rest refused because we know our rights. But they said we all have to go to the office anyway, just to check if anyone’s an evader,” he told Al Jazeera, now back at home in Bashkortostan.
“Once we got there, four of us were taken aside and told, ‘That’s it, now, you’re mobilised.’”
Marcel, who asked to be identified only by his first name, provided Al Jazeera with his complaint letter and footage filmed on his phone of the night in question, as evidence of his experience.
“Our passports were confiscated, supposedly for checks. Later, we went back to the hostel for our things, the four of us accompanied by four policemen – under guard, you could say – and back to the draft office.”
A few young men whose criminal records made them ineligible for duty were released, as other would-be draftees arrived from another hostel.
While the overall experience felt hostile, the policemen who transported them were sympathetic and advised them to contact their lawyers, Marcel said.
“We were held there for a day. During that time they only fed us twice, and we had to sleep on the chairs in the main hall while the policemen were sitting downstairs, not letting anyone leave.
“They were pressing us really hard, telling us we’d be arrested if we refused and then mobilised anyway. [On Saturday morning,] we were released because we refused to sign anything and started to write formal complaints to the prosecutor’s office. Of the 12 of us there, seven were taken away to be mobilised.”
After Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a partial mobilisation for the war in Ukraine a month ago, thousands of military-age men left the country to evade conscription, while the process itself has been fraught with complications.
Marcel’s story is an example of the underhanded tactics authorities have been accused of in rounding up reluctant recruits.
Along with hostels hosting migrant workers, police have been accused of raiding students’ dormitories and homeless shelters.
In St Petersburg, officials admitted that police officers and representatives of the military commissariat had staked out apartment buildings, looking for the men who had received their draft notice but failed to report for enlistment.
Meanwhile, police have reportedly handed out draft papers to young men at subway stations in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Moscow military commissar Maxim Loktev denied the reports of operations being carried out in subways, but acknowledged police were performing their usual tasks of catching criminals – including draft dodgers.
The legality of questionable practices has even been called into question at the Duma (Parliament) by Putin’s allies.
“These actions do more harm than Ukrainian propaganda … it is hard to even imagine the moral and socio-political consequences of such actions,” Kirill Kabanov, a member of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council, wrote on his Telegram feed.
Among the public, anger is seething as large swaths of Russians, so far largely unaffected by the war, now face the real possibility of being sent to the battlefield.
The announcement of mobilisation prompted fierce reactions, with protests breaking out in several cities.
Since the start of the draft, more than 30 military recruitment offices have gone up in flames, the most common cause being a Molotov cocktail.
But the order has not upended life for everyone.
“I’m in the heart of Moscow right now and they’re not catching anyone near the metro,” 33-year-old Andrey told Al Jazeera.
“It’s peaceful and quiet. There was some strange behaviour by the military registration and enlistment offices in the early days, when summonses were sent to everyone in a row, but this was because they wanted to quickly fulfil the plan without thinking about the quality of its execution. The higher-ups hit them on the head and now everything is going as it should.”
Nevertheless, there are still signs of chaos.
Last week, SOTA, one of the last independent news outlets in Russia, reported that a wheelchair-bound man suffering from spinal muscular atrophy received a summons.
The recruitment office later released a statement via Telegram saying the man was indeed ineligible for conscription, blaming the mix-up on him moving addresses.
Additionally, the Russian army is reportedly ill-prepared to deal with a new influx.
Conscripts have complained about not being paid and a lack of equipment.
One clip circulating on social media shows an officer telling conscripts that there are “not enough tourniquets for you all”.
In early October, SOTA reported that more than a hundred conscripts from the Bryansk region refused to deploy to Ukraine, regardless of orders from high command.
But if the Kremlin is to be believed, the conscription drive might soon end.
Putin this past weekend declared that mobilisation would be over in two weeks, saying 220,000 men had already been drafted, which was enough to hold the 1,100km (683-mile) front line in Ukraine.
This was followed by Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s statement that the city’s quota had been fulfilled.
Back in the Volga Region, Marcel hoped that with the end of mobilisation, he would not get called up.
For now, his lawyers advise him to stay at home and avoid the enlistment office.
But 24-year-old Alexey from Moscow, who fled to Georgia when the draft was announced in September, does not trust official pronouncements.
“The draft notice arrived at my place last week,” he told Al Jazeera from Tbilisi. “I had a tear in my eye when I heard the news. Even though I haven’t received [the notice] in person yet, they’re looking for me and they can hand it to me when I cross the border. I know I can’t go back to my motherland.”