“I like giving people the opportunity to be free”: The movement helping people escape Russia’s military service

Protesters with a banner stating “For Russia without militarism and imperial ambitions!”. May 1, 2017, when demonstrating on the streets of St. Petersburg was still relatively safe. (Credit: MCO)

Since 2014, the Movement of Conscientious Objectors to military service in Russia (MCO) has been helping people avoid military service. They state that this is done using legal means by providing information, consulting those in need, writing articles and promoting the idea of conscientious objection to military service. We decided to conduct an interview with the founder as well as a coordinator from this movement, Jelena Popova and Jevgeni Novikov. We wanted to ask them questions about their work and what has changed since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s partial mobilisation decree announced in September.

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed in the following interview belong solely to the interviewee and do not represent the views and opinions of the author, the editorial staff of The Perspective, or UPF Lund.

Please tell us in your own words what your movement does.

Jevgeni: MCO ​​provides methodological and legal advice in the field of conscription law, I would say so. In more simple terms, our organisation helps to avoid conscription… by legal means of course (smiles).

Jelena: We’re not just helping to avoid it by our consulting, by our articles, by our calls. We’re trying to promote the idea of conscious objection. We’re promoting it because before people actually contact us, they have to realise that they have some rights, that these rights are being violated, that they want to assert that right, they need to have the feeling in their head that they have that right.

Because, in my view, one of the essential things that hinder anti-militarist consciousness is the stereotypes that come from Soviet times and are successfully exploited in today’s society. That you have to defend, that you have to participate and that it is everyone’s duty. There are still some gender prejudices and stereotypes being played on. I mean this whole complex, a huge and very deep complex of stereotypes. I realised only now during the war how deep it is. And how much it disturbs me.

I like to help people get out of slavery. I like to help people become stronger and become freer and I feel happy when these cases take place.

In the eyes of the Russian government, is what you are doing considered legal?

Jelena: I honestly don’t know what they think of us, the government and I mean the authorities. But we’re still not in prison.

We are not isolated from other human rights defenders and human rights organisations. Initially, we branched off the organisation Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg, where we were volunteering for a long time, and then we became independent. Now we are in touch. I often come to the organisation [ed. Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg] and help conduct classes with people. And we are constantly in touch with other human rights defenders.

What do you love most about your work? Why are you passionate about this movement?

Jelena: I like to help people get out of slavery. I like to help people become stronger and become freer and I feel happy when these cases take place. And I feel kind of excited about what we are moving towards – when the situation is maybe hard, maybe dangerous—but we are still planning our activity, and at last, they [ed. who want to avoid conscription] win—I like it.

Jevgeni: I do it because I like giving people the opportunity to be free. So as I see it, my work and the work of my organisation are about giving people tools and instructions on how to be free. And they use these tools and instructions against (one of the main sources in Russia’s case that takes away this freedom) the state, the army and everything else. And it’s a very fulfilling feeling when people try to resist it and don’t follow obediently when they’re told to. But looking at the mobilisation, it was difficult, because there were those who just followed.

A lot of people whom I know are in prison but I’m still not in prison.

On your website stoparmy.org, you’re stating that you are “helping young people to legally exempt themselves from conscription to military service”. What are some ways of doing this legally?

Jelena: The first one is protection against forced conscription because it is very often used. The army is not a prison and a person cannot be taken and placed there by force—so we teach how to resist it. The second is the right to health. According to the law, there is a list of illnesses which prevent citizens from serving in the army. If we do not protect this right, the military enlistment office also grossly violates it. And the third one, the one I love the most, is the right to conscientious objection: “I think so, I’m against it, I’m not going to serve in the army”. We call it the ‘right to alternative civilian service.’

The public promise by Vladimir Putin not to use reservists in the “special military operation” did not hold water. (Credit: Anatolii Trofimov / Shutterstock.com)

How has your work changed since February 2022 when the Russian government decided to invade Ukraine? 

Jelena: Since February 24, a lot has changed. Firstly, there was an influx of appeals from people who had not contacted us before. These were relatives of contract soldiers, who suddenly realised that they did not want to be part of this either. Secondly, the flow of requests from the draftees has increased, because people have come to the realisation that to go to the army is not just to be drafted for a year, to do physical exercises and training and so on but that they can actually be sent to the war. And there were people who in peaceful times would have said, “OK, I’ll go and serve. But not now.” Now, this has changed very dramatically after February. That’s one part of it. 

And how has it changed since September 21, 2022, since the decree about the mobilisations of reservists?

Jevgeni: After the mobilisation was announced, we woke up like rock stars, so to speak. Jelena laughs but the consultants who worked on this topic did not laugh, because in the first days we had an insanely dramatic increase in the number of inquiries. It took us a long time to figure out how to process these inquiries. Luckily, at this point, since the beginning of February, our team has doubled in size.

We can say that we handled this challenge. As an example, we have different social media, we have a channel on Telegram. In one month it grew from one thousand to five or six thousand subscribers, which is an example of how we rapidly grew in terms of recognition and in terms of work.

Have any active service members contacted you since February 2022? Have they contacted you regarding what to do if they don’t want to be there?

Jelena: Yes, of course, they contacted us, contract servicemen who also didn’t want to take part in the war. And we were also in touch with Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg and other human rights activists, supporting them [ed. contract servicemen]. Until recently, their line of defence was to return to their military unit in Russia and terminate the contract, leaving the army. And since the beginning of the mobilisation, it was kind of suspended and it became almost impossible [ed. to terminate the contract with the army], but nevertheless, there is still a way that we offer people to protect their rights.

I have a more controversial question. In the Western media, there is often a notion that most Russian citizens were okay with this war in Ukraine until September. Now that they have been mobilised themselves, it’s a problem and lots of people are fleeing. What do you think of this notion that before September 2022 nobody cared but now that these people are personally affected, things have changed?

Jevgeni: I have the opinion that Western media won’t be able to fully understand the Russians, so to speak. We cannot really say Russians are OK with starting a war. But what became completely not OK for Russians is that all that is happening started to affect them and their families directly. Let’s say, since February for most people it [ed. the war] was a picture on TV. Since the beginning of mobilisation, the fear of meeting a police officer next to the shop who will take you and send you to those places that you saw on TV, became a reality. The degree can be measured by the number of people who try to resist being taken there [ed. to war]. 

Since the mobilisation of reservists, many more find themselves at recruiting offices (Credit: Dmitriy Kandinskiy / Shutterstock.com

Considering everything that is happening in Russia with this mobilisation, what do you think the future will look like in Russia? Do you think there will be any change in government power structures? What will happen to Vladimir Putin after this conflict is over?

Jevgeni: We are not political scientists to make such predictions, I would slightly rephrase the question and answer in a way what we are expecting as a movement. We are waiting for the second part of the mobilisation, we are waiting for changes in laws that will make it more difficult to help people avoid conscription. We are waiting for increased pressure. Any changes in the governance of the country are very difficult to predict, because it depends on many factors, including what is happening on the battlefield right now. As an example, the possibility of increasing conscription by two years is being considered at the moment.

Those who are already mobilised and have been sent to Ukraine yet do not want to participate in this military conflict – what sort of help or advice can you give them?

Jelena: We advise relatives of the mobilised, if their relatives are already in the action zone—they will return at some point—when they are there [ed. at home] to take them out of the army. And to file a report that their conscience contradicts the military service. It makes no sense to file a report there [ed. in the combat zone]. They are physically being locked in basements and put under pressure and there are already cases of such treatment. Also, they should see a psychiatrist because they all have gone through huge stress and presumably they all have psychiatric problems and they can get out of the army through medical treatment and beliefs.

There has been talking about the Wagner Group going to prisons and telling prisoners they can get out of their sentence by joining the military and fighting in Ukraine. Have you been contacted or been in communication with any prisoners regarding what is happening in the prisons?

Jelena: I have talked only once to a relative of one of these former prisoners who got into Wagner’s war group. She said that her brother went in the summer, I don’t remember when, and she doesn’t know where he is, she can’t find him. The Ministry of Defence says “We don’t know, he is not our soldier” and the prison says “We don’t know where he is”. The problem is that nobody responds and she can’t find [ed. him]. And I think that he’s not alive anymore. It’s really a great problem that prisoners are a less protected part of society. You know that the condition in Russian prisons is so that some of them maybe think that it is better to “try to set myself free” or something like this.

Are you also in communication with people that have been mobilised and have been sent to Ukraine? Can you somehow contact them? Because in Western media it has been said that quite often mobile phones of soldiers have been taken away. 

Jevgeni: ​​Usually, it is true that their phones and documents are taken away. We had one case when a group of 20 people was left with one push-button phone and they were threatened with something again. One person with one remaining phone was able to get in touch with his relatives and enabled other people to get in touch with their relatives and these relatives have already started contacting us. In general, it is very difficult for us to interact directly, so we communicate more with relatives, who will actually do most of the work on releasing [ed. soldiers who do not want to be there] from the army. We are not superheroes that go to the front for every person and it is more the work of relatives and friends.

History is rich with examples of pressure on various organisations in Russia.

Have you experienced any threats or any actions against you as the movement or individuals recently?

Jelena:  After March 5th I was very scared. To be honest, I was always waiting for a raid in my flat every morning and now I suddenly feel that I am a hero, that we are heroes because we can do a lot. Also because more volunteers came who have been with us and said that they can support people. Here it became easier in some way. At the moment, I do not see any threat to ourselves or to our community from the authorities. But it seems to me that the more openly we act, the more loudly we act, the less dangerous it is. 

Jevgeni: Yes, it has become more difficult to work. Jelena believes that the louder we are, the more open the better—I would not agree with her. I believe that the bigger and louder we become the more attention we draw, and as Jelena said we are preparing for something. History is rich with examples of pressure on various organisations in Russia. We have many examples of what can be done to us and based on this we have different protocols and instructions on what to do in case one of us is subject to such pressure.

Thank you very much! Do you have any remarks, comments or anything that I forgot to mention perhaps that you would like to mention?

Jevgeni: Our movement can be supported in different ways. The most trivial is to donate anything. Equally important is informational support, for example now when we’re conducting the interview.

 Joosep Raudsepp, Anna Fomina

(edited)

2022 © The Perspective – All Rights Reserved