Ever since Russia announced a “partial mobilization” of hundreds of thousands of new recruits, we’ve seen plenty of coverage of those evading the draft. But the real story is how many untrained and under-equipped citizens will blindly follow the Kremlin’s orders.
From the first days of mobilization in Russia, we have followed reports of the thousands of Russian men of conscription age rushing abroad to flee the draft: buying a one-way plane ticket, driving to the border, even trekking by foot to the safety of a neighboring country.
But this stream of thousands are negligible in the ocean of a nation of 140 million. What we haven’t read about this past week are the masses obediently receiving their summons and marching down to distribution centers.
Some are already now sleeping on a bare floor or in the forest in a tent, waiting to be sent to a war zone with little or no training, equipment or supplies. These tens and soon hundreds of thousands will head to parts southward and westward as part of a senseless and flailing attempt to try to hold back the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
They are, in other words, marching off to the slaughter. And they know it well.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former Russian oligarch who was jailed for a decade by Putin, noted this week how hard it was to comprehend so many young people choosing possible death for an uninspiring war. "Apparently the habit is strong enough," he said. "It's time to stop hoping this government can be removed without violence ... (But) if most people, instead of going to the recruiting stations would agree to force the authorities to bring criminal cases … this government wouldn't have the power to put everyone in jail."
Why so few resist
Meanwhile, Russian independent media have published multiple articles and videos with appeals to the male population of Russia to refuse to go to the military registration and enlistment offices: run, hide, don't go to the front!
So why do so few resist? Why are arrests, fines, and dismissals more frightening than death? Lev Gudkov, scientific director of the Russian sociological center Levada, explains that Russians have developed a strong association with the state due to the experience of living so long under an authoritarian regime.
This is Stockholm syndrome at scale, what makes Russians subservient to their ruler. And as history shows, only the death of one of the two parties — the leader or society — can break the cycle in such a relationship.
"The reaction of Russians is a habitual behavior toward the state, a feeling of helplessness,” Gudkov explains. “It is also an identification with the state. It is considered impossible to oppose the state; this creates a powerful internal conflict that causes people to behave like the doomed, convincing themselves that this is important, that this is necessary, repeating all the clichés that propaganda gives to do your duty for the state, go defend your own in the Donbas."
Conscripts in a bus at a recruitment center leaving the city of Kineshma for war
Russia orphaned by Soviet collapse
For 70 years, Russia was the heart and brain of the USSR. When the republics gained independence in 1991, each returned to its history, language, and culture and chose its new center and new leaders.
Russia had no such opportunity. Its language, culture, and center were one and the same with the USSR. For the republics, the union's collapse was freedom; for Russia, it was tragedy.
This is Stockholm syndrome at scale.
Vladimir Putin sees it exactly that way: His is the last generation with memories of a grand nation, feared and respected by all.
For 70 years, Russians lived in a totalitarian regime. It was replaced by a dashing but short decade of the 1990s, riding on lawlessness and chaos. Then suddenly, without giving Russians any time to absorb the collapse of the empire, a new leader came onto the scene, appearing at first to be both loyal and democratic. Quickly, though, he began to morph into the dictator Russians are used to.
Death changes all
Unlike many dictatorships of the 20th century, the Soviet Union did not know the overthrow of its leaders, the last revolution that blew the head off the ruler was back in 1917.
Russia's current leader is no fool. He knows full well that his nation is made up of a docile mass of subjects who have long since forgotten how to fight for their rights — used to living in poverty, giving their last penny to the state, entranced by those who run the government. Having spent the last 22 years soaking up television propaganda about the glory of their homeland, few refuse to accept the call to head to the trenches. It’s an order to follow, without thinking about one’s fate.
This is both the means and ends of the cult of Putin, the embodiment of the nation as the effacement of individual free will.
Yet the formula risks unraveling with the launch of an all-out war like we’ve seen Russia carrying out in Ukraine — and finally openly declaring with the mobilization of new conscripts. For war brings death, and death leaves survivors, whose vacuum among the populace no propaganda can cover.
How many deaths will it take, we cannot know. It could be one at the top, or tens of thousands more at the front.