Photo Essay: Russians protest against Putin’s mobilization orders
Russian ethnic minority groups from the Republics of Kalmykia and Buryatia gather outside the Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza at the entrance of the United Nations Headquarters - ahead of Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov's speech - to protest against Vladimir Putin's mobilization orders, in New York City, on Friday, September 23, 2022. (Photo: Priyanka Rajput)
On 24 February 2022, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine - the second largest European country - and the two states have been at war since. However, earlier this month, Ukrainian soldiers successfully reclaimed parts of the northeastern region from Russia. (Institute for the Study of War) In retaliation, on 21 September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that up to 300,000 soldiers would be called upon to serve in the war, imposing "partial mobilization" in the country.
While the war has received backlash from several world leaders, closer home, Russia's minority communities, such as the Kalmyks and Buryatias, have actively condemned the war through posts on social media and organized protests. According to the Kalmyks at the protest, they've been dragged into a fight they never wanted to be a part of and have been disproportionately drafted in the war as compared to others in Moscow. According to BBC's Russian service, 256 people (identified) from the Buryatia region have lost their lives so far, in comparison to only 15 deaths from Moscow, even though the residents of the capital make up almost 9% of the Russian population.
Elta B, a 28-year-old resident of Kalmykia, claimed she could not bear the thought of losing yet another family member to war. "In early May 2022, the Russian authorities took away my brother against his will to fight in Ukraine," says Elta B."It's been four months since we heard back any news on him. Kalmykia is a small republic with a population of about 100,000 people at the most, and to have our fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands taken away from us for a war that none of us want in the first place, is terrible. Before the war, we did not even exist for the Russian people at the center, but any time there is military distress, we're the first to be called on." Elta left her home and family behind to protect her husband from the same fate as her brother. The couple arrived in the US with their 6-year-old daughter two weeks ago.
According to Gerenzel Ochir, she had the "perfect life in Moscow" up until February 2022, when everything changed in a split second. Previously a design consultant at a fashion firm in Moscow, Gerenzel said she now spends her days in New York organizing protests and raising awareness for Kalmyks. Her husband's activism forced the couple to leave Russia to protect themselves and their two young kids from threats. In New York, the pair work on raising funds through Instagram and Telegram to help others like themselves - stuck back home - escape to neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan. "We have to give back to our community and be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves," says Gerenzel.
Marina, 32, a Kalmykia native, discusses the flow of events at the protest with Gerenzel Ochir. Together, the two women guide the larger crowd on which slogans to chant and what issues to highlight through each saying. Marina arrived in the US three months ago with her husband and baby boy for the same reasons as Elta - she feared for her family. However, now that she is in the US, her mind is "filled with thoughts and worry for my two brothers back home...every morning I wake up and pray that my brothers are not the chosen ones that day. This is Putin's war, and he is killing us all in the process. None of us want to fight with Ukrainians; they've been our neighbors for so many years now; why should we attack them when they have not wronged us?"
Miles away from home in America, as opposed to her hometown, Marina experiences freedom in a manner that is novel to her. "I am hopeful that our collective efforts in New York will help amplify our voices and bring the world's attention to the Kalmyk people." In the meantime, she is happy that her son "will be raised (even if temporarily) in a free country. I am worried about my family back home, but with my son safely by my side, I feel a sense of strength that I hope for Russia and my people to experience too." (Photos by: Priyanka Rajput)