As soon as the march “The Slavic Woman’s Farewell” began to play, my mother would cry. She was eleven years old when the Great Patriotic War began. In the small Buryat village of Khandagai, in the Irkutsk Region, all men between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five went to the front. They were sent off to the strains of “The Slavic Woman’s Farewell.” Few of them came back alive from the war.
Siberian divisions played a key role in the great turning point of 1941, when the enemy was halted outside Moscow. Pride in the deeds of our forebears is a significant part of the Siberian identity, but until recently this pride was suffused with the bitterness of loss. My mother always remembered the price of that victory: she saw them in her mind’s eye, the young handsome lads and men who left forever to the sound of trumpets and timpani. I was told how, in the early 2000s, members of the Buryat diaspora in Moscow were invited to a meeting of battlefield searchers in the Moscow Region to receive a list of dead soldiers whose remains had finally been found, identified, and properly buried. One of the searchers came up to the delegation and said with undisguised respect, “So this is what you are like, Buryats!” It turned out that all the fields near Podolsk, where his search party had worked, were simply littered with the remains of my countrymen.
Someone witty once very aptly called Putin a reverse Midas. The Phrygian king Midas turned everything into gold with a single touch. Putin turns everything he touches into a foul-smelling brown substance. The regime’s appropriation of the May 9th Victory Day is just one example. The celebration of Victory Day in Russia for me is now associated exclusively with pobedobesie [“victory frenzy”], with vulgarity, and with the slogan “We can do it again!”, whose true meaning dawns on us only today, after the invasion of Ukraine and the horrors of Bucha.
The irony of the current situation, in which members of my nation, the Buryats, are involved in this shameful war for Russia, is that images of Russian occupiers with Asian faces are now being injected into the public’s mind, while in the Great Patriotic War the role of the warrior-liberator was reserved exclusively for ethnic Russian soldiers.
Soon after Bucha, fake reportsw spread online that it was Buryats who committed the atrocities there, and these posts were illustrated by photos of Yakut soldiers holding the flag of the Sakha Republic, taken in 2018 in the military garrison in the Russian Far East where they served. Why would anyone want to shift the blame for the massacres to Buryats? My Ukrainian Facebook friend Dmytro Kanibolotskyy answered this question best of all: “Russia’s attempts to declare ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ guilty or to pass off the footage from the Bucha district as ‘staged’ have failed. Satellite images clearly showed that the bodies of the dead were lying in the same places when Russian troops were still in Bucha. The involvement of ethnic Russians in the mass murders is also evidenced by their intercepted conversations and the testimony of local residents. But now Russian propaganda is trying to tell a different story, to Ukrainian readers at least: the Russian Federation’s ethnic minorities, who got drunk and disobeyed orders, are allegedly to blame for the whole thing. It is convenient to encourage Ukrainians to think that their enemies are not ethnic Russians, but Buryats (as well as Yakuts, Chechens, Dagestanis, and other peoples of the Russian Federation), that they must fight not against Russia or ethnic Russians, but against the nations that Russian has colonized.”
The investigation of the war crimes in Bucha and other towns and villages is already underway. Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych has spoken unequivocally about the preliminary results: the atrocities in Bucha were committed by “burly Slavic guys,” and not by Buryats, “as they like to say.” I am sure there will be a new Nuremberg trial after the war, and if it transpires that there were Buryats among the war criminals, they will have to be punished. But I hope that there will also be room in the dock for warmongering propagandists, and for the Kremlin’s disinformation agents in Ukraine.
Recently, I have often been asked why so many Buryats are fighting in the “special operation.” There are really a lot of Buryat soldiers fighting in this war. The Telegram channel Mongolian Knot reported that “according to various estimates, there are about ten thousand Buryats at the front.” Other sources report that there are five or six thousand Buryats in combat. Most likely, as a percentage per capita among all the peoples of Russia, the Buryats fighting in Ukraine are in the lead.
I have been told that there is not a single Buryat village that does not have at least a dozen or two dozen contract soldiers at the front. The situation is particularly difficult in the Agin-Buryat District of the Transbaikal Territory. The absence of young Buryat men in public places is striking. There are places where Buryat families go in full force — the so-called countryside and the datsan. There are generally few Buryat men between the age of twenty and forty years in the datsans. According to my relatives, none of the ten Buryat families who came to services at the temple had fathers. In the countryside vacation spots, there were at best two men among every three or four families with children.
Buryats make up only 0.3% of Russia’s population, but they make up 2.8% of the official war dead. In terms of numbers of war dead, Dagestan is ahead of Buryatia, but Dagestan’s population is three times larger. The moderators of the Telegram channel Demography by Raksha looked at the stats for Buryats whose age was known at the time of their deaths in the war, and calculated how many men in Buryatia died on average over the same (fifty-three-day) period during “peacetime” (in 2019-2020). On top of this, they sorted those who have perished in the war in Ukraine into the appropriate age groups.
Thus, only the confirmed cases of combat deaths of men from Buryatia in the war in Ukraine increased the mortality of Buryat men aged 18-45 years by 70%, and the mortality of young men under the age of thirty by 270%. Think about those numbers! There are approximately 462 thousand Buryats in the Russian Federation. What will happen to this nation if it loses so many young healthy men of reproductive age all at once — a tenth of the strong young men who could have raised twenty to thirty thousand children?
The causes of this catastrophic situation can be discussed endlessly. The Buryat territories, consisting of the Republic of Buryatia proper, as well as parts of the Irkutsk Region, the Ust-Orda Buryat District, the Transbaikal Territory, and the Agin-Buryat District, are a large economically depressed region. High unemployment, meager salaries, and the indebtedness of the population have led to the fact that almost the only choice a young man faces in finding a way out of economic impasse is either illegal migration or contract military service.
The traditional upbringing in Buryat families also plays a big role in the conscious choice of a military career. Boys are taught from an early age to be independent, work hard, stand up for themselves, and protect loved ones. Traditional sports are very popular in Buryatia, especially the national form of wrestling, buhe barildaan.
A young guy from a small Buryat village, accustomed to harsh living conditions, hard work, getting up early, and discipline, adapts easily to military life, and after signing a contract, receives a preferential military mortgage (which is almost the most important factor for young families) and a guaranteed salary that is decent by the region’s standards.
Buryat tank crewmen were involved in battles on Ukrainian territory long before February 24 of this year. One of them, Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, who suffered severe burns in the Battle of Debaltseve in 2015, gave an interview to Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Kostyuchenko in which he called Putin “cunning” and admitted that he and his comrades had painted over the numbers of their tanks and removed the chevrons and stripes from their uniforms to “disguise” them before being sent to Donbas.
Dmitry Sapozhnikov, a Russian national and the commander of the DPR’s special forces, told the BBC Russian Service that the role of Buryat tank crews in the battle for the Debaltseve bridgehead had been decisive. Even then, the Buryats were the most combat-ready segment of the Russian army. It was not for nothing that a Buryat crew won the international tank biathlon shortly before our contractor soldiers were deployed to Donbas.
Thus, their professionalism, a respect for elders laid down by their upbringing, their strict adherence to orders, and the way they perform in combat, including their willingness to sacrifice themselves, all make the Buryats excellent soldiers. In 2010, news came of the heroic deed of Aldar Tsydenzhapov, a 19-year-old sailor from the Agin-Buryat District. On September 24, 2010, the crew of the destroyer Bystry was on board and preparing to sail on a combat mission to Kamchatka. Aldar and four of his mates took over the watch. When a fire broke out in the destroyer’s engine room, Aldar rushed to its epicenter and shut a red-hot valve with his bare hands.
The ship and more than 300 crew members were saved, but Aldar was fatally burned and died in a military hospital. The then President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev considered Aldar unworthy of the title of Hero of Russia. Initially, the authorities planned to award him only the Order of Courage. Only after public outrage, a petition campaign on Change.org, and appeals from parliamentarians and party officials, was he posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Russia.
I understand perfectly well that many readers will now accuse me of trying to whitewash my own people. There is most likely some truth to this. I will repeat once again that if it transpires that there are war criminals among Buryats, I will be the first to demand that they be punished. In the meantime, I will give some first-hand evidence of the behavior of Buryat soldiers in occupied Ukrainian territory.
In the first days of the war, in the comments under a post in the Facebook group Buryatia Is Our Home, someone mentioned that the Buryat tank crews were not marauding, but instead were going house to house and trying to buy food from local residents. They said that they were going on maneuvers and had not known about HQ’s plans to cross the border with Ukraine. One Buryat contract soldier said the same thing in a telephone conversation with his family on the eve of the invasion: he had been looking forward to coming home soon, but instead he ended up at war.
A woman from Ukraine, whose brother and niece had spoken with the tank crews, wrote on the Buryat group page that they were hungry since they had been issued dry rations for only one day; they were not aggressive, and wanted to go home. Many of them were conscripts, eighteen- and nineteen-year-old lads who had urgently been “made” contract soldiers. A resident of Chernihiv region wrote about an incident in Mykhailo-Kotsiubynske: “Belarusians, who are stationed there as occupiers along with Buryats and Muscovites, took a horse from a villager, slaughtered it, and ate it. Like in the First World War… And what to do if the Muscovites simply confiscate food? Buryats are the most cultured among the occupiers, they buy [food] for money, while the Belarusians say they are ‘peaceful people.'” (My translation.) There was the testimony from a resident of Bucha that Buryats had tried to warn her to be careful when “they” (probably Pskov paratroopers or Wagner Group mercenaries) came. And in Borodyanka, people said, “The Buryats did not shoot.”
Subsequently, videos with blaring titles like “The Buryats are worse than the Kadyrovites,” etc., were dumped on the web. When you watch the videos, however, it transpires that the most terrible crime of the alleged Buryats (soldiers of Asian appearance, whom the interviewee called “flat–faced”) was shattering a door with an axe, which is not a good thing, of course, but not remotely as bad as torture, rape, and summary execution.
Outright fakes and “crucified boys” have now come into play, like the video featuring a volunteer who allegedly survived Bucha, which was thoroughly and expertly demolished by Dmitro Kanibolotskyy. Such sleaze is manufactured in an attempt to “save face” for ethnic Russian soldiers. This is the point of the image of the savage Buryat, who allegedly slices flesh from live dogs in order to “chow down.” A post containing such outlandish content actually has been making the rounds on social media.
Unfortunately, involvement in an unjust war of conquest eventually hardens and corrupts even the most steadfast and moral people. In such a war, there are no soldiers in clean white jackets, if HQ encourages looting and violence against civilians. The Russian army and the people of Russia are guilty of the aggression unleashed by Putin. The blood of thousands of Ukrainians will remain on our conscience forever. The war has brought shame on Russia. But this inglorious coin has another side. The Russian leadership is responsible not only for criminal aggression against the people of Ukraine, but also for the death of thousands of its own soldiers, especially non-ethnic Russian soldiers whom the Kremlin obviously feels less sorry for, regarding them as cannon fodder that can be dumped on the front line.
It is possible to understand on a personal level the Ukrainians who believe that the majority of war crimes have been committed by Buryats. They are under stress, they are distraught and grief-stricken, they are not up to rational arguments now. Some Russians comport themselves much worse in this situation, and I’m not talking about Putinists and my completely brainwashed fellow citizens. I mean the so-called “cultured” liberal crowd.
Many people today are wondering why so many Buryats are fighting in Ukraine. Video blogger Karen Shainyan even bothered to go to Ulan-Ude to get an answer, where he shot a video that has racked up almost 300 thousand views on YouTube. Shainyan sought out a wide spectrum of experts, only Buryats themselves were not invited to his intellectual symposium. However, we Buryats were still shown in the form of visual aids, as illustrations to the expert opinions of the sahibs. It is simply impossible to imagine a whole ethnic group, outside of Russia, being so unabashedly deprived of its subjectivity.
A few days ago, the Buryat political exile Dorjo Dugarov and I had a chance to speak on the same topic – “Why are Buryats going off to fight for the Russian army?” – on the Ukrainian TV channel FreeDom. I saw Shainyan’s show literally the next day after our broadcast, and I couldn’t help but notice a parallel: Shainyan denies the subjectivity of Buryats in about the same fashion as Putin denies the subjectivity of Ukraine! That is why it is not surprising that Ukrainian TV journalists bothered to invite Buryats to talk about Buryatia, while a Moscow blogger could not or did not want to find a single Buryat in Ulan-Ude! It is the same imperial rationale, the same disrespect for “inferior” nations as Putin’s. And until Russians rid themselves of imperial thinking, Russia will keep stepping on the same bloody rake over and over again.
Alexander Nevzorov, Russian imperialist and erstwhile champion of Russian armed force in Chechnya, but now an idol of the Russian opposition crowd, has since the beginning of the war repeatedly allowed himself statements suggesting that “the Buryats don’t care who they rape.” The views of the flip-flopping hybrid democrat are especially congenial to those who, wrapped in the redesigned flag of “the other Russia, the good Russia,” want to shift the collective blame for all crimes onto the country’s minorities. But no, the shame of this war will have to be shared equally by our whole country, which has gone off the rails.
Source: Radjana Dugar-DePonte, “Buryats and the ‘Russian world’: ‘The shame of this war will have to be shared equally,'” Sibir.Realii (Radio Svoboda), 12 May 2022, and the slightly different version of this article published on the Radio Svoboda website on 17 May 2022. Radjana Dugar-DePonte is a historian and exiled Buryat political activist. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader