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“We are Russian when it suits them”: in a village in Kalmoukia, the fear of going to Ukraine

The void. Not a living soul. Only wooden houses with broken roofs. And, around this remote village of Ulan-Erge, lost in the Republic of Kalmoukia (north-west of the Caspian Sea), dry, yellow and uniform plains as far as the eye can see. No sign of life. Sometimes a shadow crosses the small central square where there is a World War II memorial, a Buddhist temple and a stele in memory of the deportation of the Kalmyks to Siberia in 1943.

In this nothingness, north of the Caucasus and on the shores of the Caspian Sea, death has not yet taken a child from the village. But the men mobilized for the “special operation”, that is to say half of the population, left on October 7, flower in hand, under the tears of the women and the compassion of the elders. On September 21, Vladimir Putin announced the “partial” mobilization to send 300,000 men to Ukraine. Discreet in Moscow, this mobilization is massive in remote non-Slavic regions, where almost all men are enrolled, regardless of their age and physical condition.

Who wants to go to war? Nobody

In the streets of the Russian village of Ulan-Erge, on the border with Ukraine, reigns an atmosphere of death.

In the streets of the Russian village of Ulan-Erge, on the border with Ukraine, reigns an atmosphere of death.

@Maria Semenova/L’Express

“Who wants to go to war? Nobody wants to go,” sighs Sergei*, a high school student. But what else to do? We can only hope to see them alive again… The thing is that no one wants to be thought of as a coward or a traitor.” To celebrate the villagers who died at the front, sports tournaments are organized every years: a handball tournament for Andreï Palovitch, veteran of Chechnya and a running race for Sergei Konstantivich, veteran of Afghanistan. 1814, we were the first to enter Paris!”

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“We are above all the first to serve as cannon fodder,” grumbles Sanal Ochir, founder of the Free Kalmykiya association, which helps those who want to flee the country. Indeed, the Kalmyks were among the first inhabitants of Russia to be mobilized. “In some Kalmyk villages, the majority of men received the summons. The situation is the same in other non-Slavic republics, such as Dagestan or Buryatia. If he had mobilized the same percentage of men in Moscow, the government would have already fulfilled its quota, denounces the activist. For us, this mobilization resembles a second genocide, as in 1943. We are Russians when it suits them, but the rest of the time, we are treated like undesirable foreigners.

“We are not considered as full human beings, adds Elena, activist of the Free Kalmikiya association. Putin sends our men to death, which will lead to the extinction of many indigenous peoples. This must stop!” The Kalmyks fear disappearing as a nation because, with only 200,000 inhabitants, many of whom live abroad, they are the smallest minority in the Russian Federation. Fleeing therefore represents a hope of preserving a little of their culture and their history.

Like thousands of others, Hongr made that choice when he learned that his two brothers had been called up to serve in their hometown of Lagan. “I quickly understood that they were not the exception, but the rule. In Lagan, in many families, all the men were mobilized, even the weakest, aged sixty or with failing eyesight. They take everyone, without distinction”, denounces the fugitive, who hastily left Moscow for Kazakhstan.


“When I arrived at the border with Kazakhstan, they asked me if I was Kalmyk, he says. They kept my passport for a long time while everyone else got it back very quickly” , adds this former employee of a state company with concern, recalling that discrimination between Slavs and non-Slavs is customary in Russia.

Gosha worked in Moscow for fifteen years before returning to his native land, where he works in a hotel. “I was tired of people seeing me through my almond eyes. the subway exit. Once, I spent 72 hours in police custody without the slightest reason”, he denounces. More than once Gosha dreamed of flying to New York. To escape humiliation.

But, like the majority, he remains in Kalmoukia, for lack of means and for love of his native land. Like many, he will join the front if called upon… but does not necessarily hope for victory. “If Russia loses, we will finally have a chance to gain independence. Moscow only brings us corruption, poverty and humiliation”, criticizes Sergei, taxi driver. This dream of independence, some have been nurturing for years, like Arman, member of the Neonomad association. “We hope that this mobilization will be the straw that will break the camel’s back and bring Russia down,” he explains.

* All first names have been changed.


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