One day after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "partial" mobilization limited to reservists with prior military experience to go fight in the Kremlin's war in Ukraine, Viktor Dyachok, a 59-year-old surgeon, and Artyom Skutin, a 21-year-old university student, each received a draft summons to report for duty.
The notices delivered on September 22 came as a shock to both men.
Skutin should have been exempt from the mobilization order due to his status as a full-time student and he had spent the night following Putin's September 21 announcement reading through the fine print of the order with his girlfriend to reassure himself that he would not be drafted.
Dyachok, meanwhile, had just completed a late shift at the hospital and believed that his advanced age and poor health -- he has Stage 1 skin cancer and is blind in one eye -- would prevent him from being called up.
Yet, the summons still came, and when both men went to the local recruitment office to show their records and report that an error had been made, both were told that they would still be sent to Ukraine and were ordered to report for training the next day or face criminal charges.
"Any adequate medical examiner would not have approved my dad for military service," Polina Dyachok, Viktor's daughter, told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "Once he was sent to training, there was only one military commander and [he] did not give any explanations, and there was no [health exam]."
Eventually, both Skutin and Dyachok were returned from training and released from their summonses, but only after full-throated petition campaigns launched by Dyachok's daughter and Skutin's longtime girlfriend that involved writing letters, enlisting the legal aid of local civil society groups, showing up in person to meet with recruitment officers, and speaking to local media.
Fleeing The Call-Up
The two men's experiences are far from isolated cases and have come to represent the chaotic and haphazard mobilization process under way inside Russia, which is fueling speculation that the Kremlin is aiming to activate far more than the 300,000 soldiers initially stated for the call-up drive by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Panic triggered by the broader mobilization effort, coupled with growing reports of men who qualified for exemptions nonetheless receiving summonses, has led to scenes of men being chased down by recruiters and loaded onto buses and planes to be sent to military training and deployment to Ukraine.
Fear of conscription has also led hundreds of thousands of Russians and counting fleeing across the country’s borders by land and air to Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and to others like Finland, Georgia, Mongolia, Turkey, and Serbia.
"[Until now], many people lived calmly and thought that the [the war in Ukraine] didn't concern us," Polina Artamonova, Skutin's girlfriend, told Current Time. "But now things have become very tense and although Artyom is now at home, there is a fear that he can be pulled at any moment and will go back if they announce a full-scale mobilization."
A Chaotic Mobilization
Not all of those who believed themselves to be exempt from the September 21 mobilization order have been sent back home like Skutin and Dyachok.
Andrei Grishkovits, 37, from Vsevolzhsk, a town outside of St. Petersburg, was sent off to training after trying to resolve what he thought was a clerical error over his status after his sister found out that a summons had been sent for him to an apartment he lived in 10 years ago.
Grishkovits, who was deferred from compulsory military service when he was younger because of chronic health problems, did not expect to be conscripted, but after showing up at a local recruitment office he had his passport and ID confiscated and was then sent to a military facility in Luga, south of St. Petersburg.
Irina, Grishkovits's partner, told North.Realities that despite her attempts to raise his case, she had so far been unsuccessful and that Grishkovits was still at a training camp, where he is grappling with health issues amid what he describes as tough conditions and may be deployed soon to Ukraine.
Cases like Grishkovits's are fueling opposition to the draft across Russia as hundreds of thousands of civilians fear being pressed into military service in the wake of major Russian battlefield losses in Ukraine.
More than 2,000 anti-war protesters have been arrested since the announcement, according to OVD-Info, a rights group that monitors police activity in Russia, and some recruitment centers have been attacked, including one incident where a gunman opened fire on a draft office in Siberia.
Polls also show Russians becoming increasingly anxious of the war effort following the mobilization order.
The Levada Center, long considered Russia's most reliable pollster, said in a September 29 survey that the number of Russians believing that the Kremlin's so-called "special military operation" in Ukraine is going "according to plan" decreased from 73 percent in May to 53 percent in September. Moreover, 47 percent of the respondents said they were anxious, scared, or horrified by the government's decision to decree the partial mobilization, while 23 percent said they were shocked by the move.
The mobilization effort could also be looking to target young men who will be finishing the regular fall conscription process in Russia. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said on October 1 that this year’s regular conscription will be delayed until November 1 due to enlistment centers being overloaded amid the mobilization.
Rising concerns have also sparked an exodus of Russian males of military age to neighboring countries hoping to avoid conscription. Kazakhstan, which has a 7,644-kilometer border with Russia, says that more than 100,000 Russian citizens have entered the country since the mobilization announcement.
While many of those who fled Russia in the immediate aftermath of the February 24 invasion relied on family connections or work arrangements to help with the relocation process, the current wave of those fleeing Russia have few concrete plans. Some are using Kazakhstan and other neighboring countries as a transit hub to go to other destinations, but others are looking to settle in the region.
Sergei, who asked for his last name to remain anonymous to protect his family still inside Russia, fled to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, where he told Current Time that the Kremlin’s mobilization efforts were largely falling on deaf ears at home.
“There is no specific aggression towards [Russia] and on the contrary there is aggression from our country towards another,” he said. “Most people simply do not understand what they are fighting for and what they would be dying for.”
Throughout Russia's seven-month war in Ukraine, the Russian military has relied on units of soldiers from ethnic minority regions, including in Siberia and the Muslim-majority provinces of the North Caucasus, with those regions suffering a disproportionate number of casualties from the war.
Those same minority populations have also been disproportionately targeted amid the recent mobilization process, sparking sustained protests, mostly involving women who oppose the drafting of husbands or sons, as they've blocked roads, scuffled with police, and demonstrated against the war.
The Kremlin has not released official data for draft papers broken down by ethnicity and according to analysts, many of Russia's ethnic minority republics may have a disproportionate number of reservists to be called up. Still, the move has helped reinforce a sense that Russia has been relying on ethnic minorities to provide its main fighting force for its invasion.
Russia has also called up Tatars in large numbers, including Crimean Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula, which was occupied and forcibly annexed by Moscow from Ukraine in 2014.
One Crimean Tatar, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his relatives in Crimea from being targeted by the Russian authorities there, told Crimea.Realities that he fled through mainland Russia to Kazakhstan by car after his sister learned through an acqaintance that his name had been added to the draft list and he does not know if he will ever return.
Kyiv has also sought to speak directly to Russia’s ethnic minority population recently. In a September 29 video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged minority groups across Russia to resist the Kremlin's mobilization drive.
"You don't have to die in Ukraine. Your sons don't have to die in Ukraine," Zelenskiy said, standing next to a monument in Kyiv to an imam from the Caucasus.