By July 2022, four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it had become clear that Russian soldiers were refusing en masse to continue participating in the war. According to estimates from Verstka, almost 1,800 Russian soldiers refused to fight during this period. But whereas at the start of the war these soldiers were being subjected to moral pressure, called traitors, and threatened with criminal cases, several months later they were being transferred to so-called “objector camps” within the territory of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”), first to Brianka and then to Perevalsk. There the Russian servicemen found themselves being held captive by their own men: they were beaten, given death threats, subjected to recruitment pitches by PMC Wagner, and transferred back to the front line against their will.
Important Stories explains why Russian soldiers do not want to fight in Ukraine; how they are being forced back into service; and why many of them are afraid to talk about what they have been through in these “objector camps”.
For security reasons, we have changed the names of the people involved and will not reveal any details concerning their age, where they live, or their military units.
“From the very start of the war, I insisted on going there. For the Alley of Angels (a monument in Donetsk featuring the names of children who have died in Donbas since 2014—Ed.note) I managed to do this in June,” says Sergei, a contract soldier. “I went there to see the nazis for real. But when I arrived, my eyes started relaying [what was actually going on]: destroyed residential areas, civilians trying to stop the convoy. They were deprived of food. One old lady asked for something to eat. From what I saw, I immediately understood there was no reason for us to be there.
At first, the civilians were scared [to tell us the truth]; there were armed men standing in front of them. So they would only say what you wanted to hear. The first things I heard were: ‘Finally, Russia has arrived! Now there’ll be no more of these ‘Aidars’ and other nazis’ (Russian propaganda refers to the voluntary “Aidar” and “Azov” Battalions that were formed in 2014 as nazis. These battalions were later subsumed into the Ukrainian Armed Forces—Ed.note) But if you’re around these people for two weeks, sometimes talking to them for two or three hours at a time, then they come to understand who you are: they realize you’re not a ‘rashist’, as it were. People relax, they start to talk to you truthfully, and they talk about their lives. And they don’t just say things we want to hear: ‘Well done. We’ve been waiting for you for a long time.’ And that’s how I came to realize these people have never set eyes on a nazi. You ask, ‘Why, then, are we supposed to be liberating you?’ Some [civilians] weren’t even scared by the fact that the armed men could shoot them. They shouted, ‘Go away, this is our land!’. So ashamed, I have never been so deeply ashamed in my life. I was so embarrassed, I wanted the ground to swallow me up.
And after that, I could feel it all pricking at my skin. Just three hours after arriving at the front I decided to object [to fighting in the war]. I understood from the number of losses that our commander wasn’t particularly smart: the 5 to 6 losses I saw in three hours could probably be multiplied by 10 or 12. But I only got to write up my formal request three days later. There was no point explaining the real reasons to these people. When they asked why, I just said I didn’t want to and that was that. But I was told that in order to object to the special operation I needed a compelling argument. I asked what argument would be considered compelling enough. For example, they wouldn’t even release guys whose wives had just given birth or had suffered a miscarriage. The response: there weren’t any. They tasked me with security support: dragging something from one place to another; guarding something somewhere; standing at a checkpoint. I did these kinds of things for a month and the whole time I was asking to be released, but the commanders replied, ‘You’re not risking anything, so stay and earn some money at least.’ But I hadn’t gone there for the money. In the end, I was in Ukraine for a relatively long time, around two months, and the whole time I kept trying to object and go back to Russia.
I spent a month at the rear, helping civilians—with food, for example. You would ask, ‘Is anyone living in this house right now?’ ‘No.’ I would take the pickles and hand them out to the locals. They won’t take them out of the empty houses themselves. So be it, I’ll be the looter. I’m already a fascist. How much lower can I sink? One family was taken into custody, so to speak. They had a teenage daughter. And when lots of Russian soldiers came into the village, it was as if they had rolled up on holiday: they cracked open the wine and moonshine. The family could have run into some trouble if some drunken soldier had entered their house. Sometimes we even sat by their house and guarded it.
I had a friend who really wanted to go [to war], as I did. At that moment we were thinking the same thing. And the realization [when we arrived in Ukraine] hit us at the same time, give or take an hour. I said to him, ‘You do realize we’re the fascists?’ He said, ‘I was afraid of saying the same thing to you. I thought you’d shoot me. Yes, we’re the fascists, I’m aware of that. I’m ashamed that I’ve been blind to it this whole time. And that I needed to see it for myself before I realized.’ He also filed an objection request and now he is in Russia.
Many are objecting, not because they suddenly become aware of something, some are just exhausted. I know people who have spent three months fighting, starving, thirsty, and physically overloaded. And they refused to carry on because they don’t let them rest, not even just to go and wash somewhere at the rear, to get some proper sleep for three days or so, without the anxiety and the shelling. This is why people are just burning out, physically and mentally. When asked, they say, ‘Yes, I’ll come back.’ But nobody would come back, not for any kind of deal. You need to say this to convince them to let you go. I know many people who got released this way and who are now in Russia. When I called them they all said, ‘No, course I’m not going back, are you kidding? I’ve just got out of hell!’
Those who understood what was really happening were in the minority. Probably around a third were aware that this special operation was unnecessary to everyone except one person. But nobody wanted to share that openly. Until you’re there, it’s not worth trying to convince someone by saying, ‘We're the fascists, see. Open your eyes!’ They could still smear your forehead with green paint (shoot to kill—Ed.note) Many are just ignorant and incapable of analyzing the situation. As they say, the more blockheads there are in the army the stronger our defenses. But allegations are flying from almost every mouth that the commanders are bad people. Because everyone is complaining about losses; many have lost their close friends. One of our commanders, for example, just hates people. He sent us to the slaughter, maybe for the medals, or something else. You need to have some kind of goal to be able to bury so many guys.”
Human rights campaigners and lawyers who are now helping the objectors have told Important Stories that some of the servicemen are refusing to participate in the war for ideological reasons. “At first the objectors were refusing because they were not at all prepared to fight in the war—they really thought they were there on an exercise—whereas now many of the objectors are people who went to fight because they had other ideas [about what was happening in Ukraine] from the television. They were promised beautiful, victorious battles, but the reality was nothing like that presented by Igor Konashenkov (Chief Spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation who provides daily briefings on the war with Ukraine—Ed.note),” says Alexei Tabalov, director of the “School of the Conscript” human rights organization.
“People are objecting not because of pacifist ideologies but simply because they have been lying face down in the dirt with rockets flying over their heads for several months. They are already exhausted from the military action alone, from the constant physical and psychological pressure,” explains the coordinator of the “Movement of Conscientious Objectors to Military Service” Yelena Popova.
In this case, “servicemen can use article 59 point 3 of the Constitution and declare the emergence of anti-war convictions for whatever reason: their conscience has woken up and they no longer want to be cannon fodder,” notes the director of the advocacy group “Citizen. Army. Law.” Sergei Krivenko. Then the soldier has the right to swap military service for an alternate civil service. Once in Russia, they can notify their military unit of their resignation.
“I was against [my son going to war]. I campaigned against him in every way, tried to get through to him. But he wouldn’t listen; he piously believed in the might of the world’s second greatest army,” says Dmitry, the father of a Russian officer. “He has a bunch of relatives on his mother’s side in Ukraine. I said to him, ‘How can you even think about it?’ He replied, ‘Have to. It’s an order. I can’t dump my boys like that, my team.’ I show him some video, for example. He says, ‘That’s not possible; that’s not even a Russian soldier.’ ‘But what if it could happen?’ ‘No, it couldn’t.’ ‘Why not? Explain it to me, tell me, why not?’ He starts telling me precisely, listing all the points in order: firstly, secondly, thirdly. I wrote to him: ‘You’re being serious right now?’ ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘So this is bad, then.’ ‘Why?’ I write the letter ‘Z’ to him: ‘Because you’re a Zombie.’ I even told his mum that if he goes there, he’s dead to me. But afterwards, when I found out that he had gone anyway, of course, we talked regardless. At first, he said everything was fine, everything was fine. But then his mood started to change.
By June, he was exhausted, both mentally and physically. He rang me and asked what would happen if he objected. This was after they had entered Krasnopol’ye [Donetsk Region] and the defense there was so strong they couldn’t break through. He told me they had been sent there without any preparation. He dragged the wounded 700 meters by himself. It was a miracle he survived. And like the other guys told me later on, he was the only one left out of his platoon—around 500 men were left out in the field. The wounded weren't evacuated. ‘I don’t want to serve any more. Not once in my life did I think my country could throw me away like that,’ he told me back then. Then he found out his relatives from Ukraine were fighting. He filed an objection request because his relatives were fighting for Ukraine. But I said to him jokingly, ‘If you see your cousin, you don’t have to shoot at him. We’ll allow it.”
Like Sergei, Dmitry’s son was sent to an “objector camp” situated on the grounds of a former school in the city of Brianka in the “LPR”. According to Sergei, there were another 40 objectors from his unit with him. Human rights activists note that some relatively large groups have called on them for help: from 15 to 200 people from one unit. Neither Sergei nor Dmitry’s son believed they were being taken to this camp so they could be forcibly held there, much less so they could be beaten up.
“They took us to Brianka, lined us up, and said to us, ‘Relax, wash, do your laundry, eat as much as you want, tomorrow the psychologists will start working with you.’ So, the conditions were acceptable, but you weren’t allowed to leave,” Sergei recalls.
“In Brianka they told them at first that the guard posts had been set up because they were being protected from any sabotage and reconnaissance groups. But then they saw that every post was facing the inside of the camp. To put it bluntly, the kill zone was on the inside. And then he wrote to me saying there was something about this place that he didn’t like,” Dmitry says, speaking about his son. Some objectors told journalists that mercenaries from PMC Wagner were guarding the territory in Brianka. According to Sergei, there were military policemen from the Southern Military District standing at the guard posts. However, one of them hinted that they were from Wagner.
“When they had just brought me to Brianka, I was sure it was just one stage of the psychological rehabilitation process for servicemen so they could be sent back to the ranks. I started asking around those who had already been there for a week. They said they took you away and beat you up in the basements. Then, while I was doing rearwork (a soldier’s day-to-day work—Ed.note) I saw the guys who had been beaten up for myself, some of whom I also managed to speak to. I said to them, ‘You’re bullshitting me, guys, that doesn’t happen. We’re Russian soldiers, we’re being guarded by Russians.’ There were objectors who had been transferred there and no more had been heard about them. So, in the morning 20 people had been picked up for rearwork. In the afternoon some representatives from the unit arrived and sent some of them back [to the front], and at around 5 pm or 6 pm they took the most stubborn objectors to an unknown destination. They were the ones who had said straight away, ‘I’m not going back for anything; I just want to go home.’ So if you say that to them, in a week’s time you won’t be there anymore,” Sergei says.
“The PMCs (PMC Wagner mercenaries—Ed.note) will turn up and take you to an unknown destination. One of the first groups of five they took away in front of my son was the one who had been objecting the most stubbornly. Allegedly, as their relatives were then told, they had been killed during shelling on their way to the front. The PMCs there said to them, ‘You will work, you will bring up ammunition, and if your work is poor, I’ll be ready to start shooting; I’ll put a bullet through your knee. Nothing will happen to me if I do,” Dmitry tells us.
“Psychologists in epaulets turned up, young guys. They were of the understanding that they would spew up all this patriotic vomit on me, but it wouldn’t work. They asked, ‘Are there any moments you will not be able to forget?’ ‘If I start counting, we’ll be sitting here until the sun goes down.’ ‘So what happened there?’ ‘Have you been there, Comrade Captain?’ ‘I only arrived 5 days ago.’ ‘That means you haven’t seen anything yet,’ Sergei says. The psychologists pass these conversations on to Commissar Nechiporenko (Oleg Nechiporenko—deputy chief of the 51st Air Defense Division for military and political work—Ed.note) And then you are supposed to go to him for an interview. But I knew guys who had been avoiding this chat for about two weeks: either they went on duty, or did something else; basically, as they say in the army, they went ‘lights out’. Because after this conversation with Nechiporenko their fate would be decided. Once I realized this, I decided to be cunning. When I did end up in his office, I said I wasn’t an objector, I was just asking to be released to take a break. He said, ‘Go to Wagner.’ I asked, ‘What, are you from Wagner?’ He said, ‘No, I’m just authorized to send you there. There, you see, they’ve got gear, generals are flying the planes, they have everything. They’ve only lost 8% in this entire operation.’ But I refused, saying, ‘I have my guys in the unit, I’ll go back to them.’ He was required to call a representative from our unit. But he couldn’t come for a long time, and at this point, I was already planning my escape. So if you don’t choose Wagner, or another unit, or returning to your own, and you insist you will only go back to Russia, they write ‘detention center’ across from your surname in the record book.
And when these people are taken to an unknown destination, as far as I’ve been told, it’s Wagner who works with them after that. The guys there are genuinely beaten with bludgeons in basements. On top of this, you’re taken out for rearwork and you’re dragging boxes of ammunition for 12-14 hours, and at night you fend off the rubber with your body (beaten with rubber batons—Ed.note). They say, ‘We’re going to kill you, nothing will happen to us for it. Nobody knows you’re here.’ They’re even brought to the place in blindfolds with their hands tied. A guy told me they were left tied up in a basement for 24 hours when they arrived: four people in a one-square-meter area. And then they asked them, ‘Well, are you ready?’ If not, they started to work them a different way. They brought over their bludgeons, then they loaded their pistols: ‘Now, we’re going to shoot you right here and that’s that.’ The only way you could get out of there was either KIA or WIA (either dead or wounded—Ed.note).
“Just before we arrived at Brianka they took away our phones and documents, but the civilians bought us sim cards, phones, some food, socks, underpants. We got in touch with lawyers, human rights activists, and started making a fuss to the press. When the media wrote about Brianka, they started rounding us up, motivated by the fact that the Ukrainians now knew where the objectors were and could rush in,’ says Sergei. In the end they transferred us to the territory of a disused penal colony in Perevalsk (a city in the “LPR”—Ed.note). The wardens were happy there was a fence there; it was easier to guard us. They didn’t put us in the basements, which were actually designated as bomb shelters, but on the second floor. That night, HIMARS struck: if the Ukrainian military had taken another 100 meters, we would have all been buried there (there was no official announcement about this strike. The attack on Perevalsk was only reported a few days later—Ed.note).
We were fed there once a day. They either took us out to conduct rearwork, or they gave us some work to do inside. We installed a television for ourselves and watched the Russian news (he laughs). It’s funny, of course. Everyone who had been on the front, they were all spitting at the screen. That daily [Ministry of Defense] briefing, for example, it made my hairs stand on end. We had supposedly taken some residential areas, but we hadn’t even come close to that area yet.”
Dmitry’s son was also transferred from Brianka to Perevalsk. He told his father that the objectors were beaten there in a “pit”. “He said he saw guys after coming out of this pit looking ‘bright blue, like electrical tape’. When me and the other parents [of the objectors] arrived to find out what was happening with them and submit complaints about them being held in Luhansk, they were really pleased. My son told the other guys, ‘Alright, my dad has got involved, he’s going to get us out.’ While me and the parents were there, the boys stopped being taken out to the pit to be beaten.”
“I had a few ways of escaping: from the most peaceful plan—convince them that I needed to go on leave, that there were problems at home—to the more extreme—take my documents and run,’ Sergei continues. “The most radical plan was to take out the guards and get away. We got a bit of pipe; I found a big table knife. But that wasn’t necessary because the fuss on the internet started. They stopped taking people to an unknown destination. That’s how we found out that this place was called the ‘Center of Psychological Support for Servicemen’, but in reality, it was just a Wagner recruitment camp. At the end of July, they let myself and some other lucky souls out on leave. They lined us up and asked, ‘You don’t want to go and get yourself a criminal record, do you? Will you be coming back?’ ‘Of course, we’ll come back, what other choice is there!’ (laughing).”
At the beginning of August, there were reports that the camp for objectors in the “LPR” had been shut down. But they did not let everyone who had refused to continue fighting go back to Russia. One of those they continued to hold was Dmitry’s son. According to his father, he was taken to an undisclosed location where he was beaten and threatened with murder. “They took my son to be executed. They said, ‘Lay on the ground so your brain doesn’t splatter and count to ten.’ He didn’t start counting, just replied, ‘If you’re going to do it, shoot me. But I’m not going back there.’ As a result, he was hit on the back of the head with the butt of the gun; the blood poured out all over his face. And some time later they took him out to work,” Dmitry says. He thinks that they didn’t want to release an officer out of principle so as not to set a precedent. “The objector camp was deactivated but many were just forced to go back to the front. Their parents say that some of them have already been killed. So they [the military commanders] just reported that these psychological support centers had been closed after the furor that broke out. But unfortunately, this victory turned out to be an illusion,” says an Important Stories source from a community of soldiers’ mothers (we are not revealing the name for security reasons—Ed.note).
Dmitry’s son managed to get back to Russia several weeks after Sergei. Now they are both submitting complaints to the Main Military Investigations Department of the Investigative Committee of Russia regarding unlawful imprisonment. According to lawyer Maxim Grebenyuk, who runs the “Military Ombudsman” project, at this moment in time he only has 15 complainants: 7 soldiers and 8 parents or wives. Publicly available data shows that no fewer than several hundred objectors have suffered. Human rights activists note that the majority of soldiers refuse to file a complaint about the deprivation of their rights upon returning to Russia, either choosing not to get in touch or stating that they are continuing their service in Russia. “You understand that people are imprisoned there. A crime is being committed against them. This will continue as long as you are silent.” Yelena Popova tells us how she tried to get through to the servicemen and their relatives. “I even took the patriotic point of view: how can it be that a Russian serviceman has been held captive and threatened by some PMCs? There should be some feeling that their dignity has been wounded. But they say they’re ‘afraid of going against the Ministry of Defense, against the government.’ They weren’t scared of going to war, but they’re scared of complaining. Someone was even afraid of going to their unit to resign after they had been sent home: they were afraid they would be sent back to the front again. Of course, many have post-traumatic stress disorder, which has yet to manifest itself in all its glory.”
To the question of whether Sergei was afraid, he responded: “My friends have already told me they are destroying my unit’s deployment documents. But I endured all manner of things there. I have never experienced such fear and horror in my life, and I am not easily scared. I’m worried now not for myself but that they will take their revenge on my family.”
Now Sergei and Dmitry are helping objectors who are still in Ukrainian territory to get out. “I know the fates of 80% of those who have got out. I’m still in contact with them remotely. They say they are ready to go and complain with me. When they get to Russia, they vanish, they don’t pick up the phone. Either they say, ‘That’s it, I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere to complain; you don’t understand what that means, bro. It’s Putin. I’m leaving for the village, going into hiding.’ There’s panic in his eyes. I say, ‘But what about the other guys? We need to get them out.’ I could also have gone home and not helped them get out. I think many of them are even planning to keep serving, just in Russia. But I understand that in literally six months nobody will be asked if they are ready to take part in the war or not.”
Sergei notes that many soldiers who went through Brianka have changed their attitude to what is happening in the country. “For example, someone was there [in Ukraine] for three months without a break, and they are still put in prison. And they were patriots, they were fighting for the idea. When we spoke on the phone afterwards [in Russia], I asked, ‘What are you planning to do?’ ‘I probably need to leave the country.’ One of them told me bluntly: ‘I’m ashamed to be in this country.’” According to Dmitry, his son being imprisoned as a serviceman also completely demoralized him.
“My wife shared my thoughts on the war before I went there,” Sergei continues. “But then I told her over the phone what was happening and said, ‘You should mentally prepare yourself to leave the country.’ Then she also changed her opinion about the war. At the same time, to her mother Putin was the ruler of the world. Now she says, ‘Putin is a bastard.’ But my father didn’t understand me when I came back to Russia and called him. He didn’t understand the tragedy of it all, so to speak:
‘You’re a soldier, what do you want?’
‘I want to live to raise my children, your grandchildren.’
‘So what, you want them to just let you go?’
‘Yes! Well then, I probably won’t bother telling you what I saw there, you probably won’t get it.’
‘That we’re the fascists, would you believe it?’
‘What are you going on about, are you drunk?’
‘You can delete my number, you don’t have to call me any more. You really don’t believe me?’
‘Do you believe the TV?’
‘Well then, you do that.’