‘Your husbands belong to the Defence Ministry’

This is how women of Saint Petersburg are trying to bring their mobilised husbands back home

‘Your husbands belong to the Defence Ministry’

Photo: Getty Images

Since Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilisation”, Russian women have been trying to rescue their husbands from illegal attempts to send them to the war zone. Most of these stories sound the same: a draft notice arrives, a man who is too afraid or does not know how to fight for his rights goes to a draft office from where he is instantly taken to a military unit for training before being sent to the front line. Senior citizens, men with severe illnesses, fathers of several children all end up in military units. Behind a lot of them, there are women who are trying to bring them back home by all possible means. We previously covered one of these stories: in the Yekaterinburg region, a 59-year-old hard of hearing surgeon with one blind eye and skin cancer was returned home only after his daughter Polina had raised hell in the local draft office and made the case public.

This time, Novaya Gazeta. Europe talked to several women from Saint Petersburg whose husbands had been taken to a military unit near the village Privetninskoe despite them having serious health issues.

A 39-year-old engineer Denis Zhernovoy suffers from varicose veins of third degree on one leg and second degree on the other, with trophic ulcers. According to his wife Marina, draft notices started getting thrown into their mail back in August, however, Denis did not react to them until one had been brought to their door on 20 September, the day before mobilisation was announced.

“He received a notice that stated he needed to clarify certain information. I told him to take all the paperwork with him, if they’re saying that information needs to be clarified, let them, let them recheck whether he’s fit for military service — it’s been about 20 years since he served. A lot changes in life in 20 years. On 22 September, he went to the draft office with the paperwork,” Marina says.

No one at the draft office clarified any information: according to Denis, he was neither asked any questions about the state of his health nor examined by a doctor, he was just handed another notice, a mobilisation one, and told to come back with his bags on 24 September. Which is what Denis did.

“My husband did not dodge mobilisation, he returned [to the draft office] with the same paperwork. Two old ladies were sitting there, they just gave him a signed notice stating he can be sent to a military unit. As in, he went to the unit with the same medical paperwork and without getting examined by a doctor.”

Suffering from varicose veins should have guaranteed Zhernovoy an exemption. According to the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, if a conscript suffers from varicose veins with chronic venous insufficiency of second or third degree, they should be granted the fourth category of fitness — “temporarily unfit for military service” and exemption from serving for 6-12 months. In the committee’s practice, there have been cases when conscripts were granted a year to get their health in order.

“Our legislature lists the diseases that establish the level of fitness and according to the list, he’s unfit for military service. A surgeon also told him that he was unfit due to this illness. Before the mobilisation notice, we were collecting the paperwork needed for a surgery, seeing as his illness is only treated surgically. But unfortunately, we did not make it in time,” Marina laments.

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Furthermore, Denis and Marina have three underage children: a two-year old, an eight-year-old, and a twelve-year old. Marina is on maternity leave, Denis is the only breadwinner in the family. On 13 October, head of the State Duma Defence Committee Andrey Kartapolov declared that men would be able to get an exemption if they had three or more dependent children. Afterwards, chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin also said that fathers of three and more children would not be drafted under partial mobilisation, that draft offices annulled over 9,500 decisions on mobilised fathers, and that “they have been recalled from military units and returned to their families.” However, Marina gets told by a representative of the draft office that this decision has not been adopted legislatively, so her husband will not be brought back.

“He does not go to training, because when they were brought to the military unit and sent out to train on the first day, his legs gave out almost at once, he couldn’t walk, it hurt him to use them. He tells me: ‘Everything hurts, everything’s swollen.’ He couldn’t put on his shoes. He is not allowed to perform any physical activity, all his doctors told him so. He wrote reports addressed to the commander of the unit, he also wrote to the unit’s lead doctor asking for that stupid medical commission. He’s on his fourth report [asking to be released from service]. But once again, they’re not told whether their reports are even seen by commanders or not. He wrote that the first group of guys had been deployed [to the front] on 13-14 October. As I understand it, they were the ones with no medical issues. He’s on the list of people with diseases, they don’t know what to do with him for now. And that’s it. That’s all the information I have. But what if tomorrow someone comes in and tells them that they’re all being deployed. They’re all in a state of limbo there. I’ve already contacted the administration of our district, we’ve made everyone aware of this situation. I don’t know who else to call or write. I went to the draft office chief, he told me the same as always: ‘This is all for the military unit to respond to.’ Meanwhile at the military unit, I’m told that the draft office has to recall him. And this continues over and over. I went to the draft office chief, he started telling me: ‘What medical commission? We do not do commissions, we only have one doctor who examines people visually.’ I tell him: ‘But there wasn’t even a visual examination, he had the paperwork with him.’ He responds: ‘What can I do now? He’s in the unit now, so he belongs to the Ministry of Defence. So they should be the ones to send him to a medical commission,’” Denis’ wife explains.

According to Denis, there are about 1,700 draftees at the military unit near the village Privetninskoe. Among them, there are husbands of Lubov, Galina, and Yulia — all of them, just like Marina, are trying to bring their husbands back home. They have a group chat where they share advice on what other actions they can take.

Lubov’s husband Maxim Rogachev worked as an electrician in a construction company. They have two underage kids. According to Lubov, Maxim used to suffer from intervertebral hernia, for which he had a surgery. Afterwards, there were several recurrences of the disease, so he was prohibited by the doctors from lifting things and standing or sitting for long. On the evening of 21 September, a policeman came to their home with a notice, which also stated that he needed to visit the draft office to “clarify information”.

“On the day mobilisation was announced, a boy came by in the evening to hand my husband a notice. We even laughed about it, because he is not fit for military service. Without a second thought that this is how everything would turn out, [he signed the notice]. If only I knew…,” Lubov recalls.

Same as Marina, when talking to Novaya Gazeta. Europe, Lubov emphasises that her husband did not try to evade the draft. On 24 September, he went to the draft office with all the paperwork proving that he was unfit for service.

“When he arrived, a bus was brought around to the draft office, and he and other men were taken. He came with the paperwork about his spinal surgery, and [yet] he was taken to the military unit. In the draft office, he was told that the medical commission would take place at the military unit, but ultimately we were lied to: there was no commission, and now my husband is a hostage of the situation,” the woman says.

Maxim served in the army 25 years ago, he has no combat experience.

“He had a civilian job, how could he remember [how to serve]. We consult him over the phone, what he should do and how to write a report. I started raising hell, because if his spine gets overstrained… I even told the draft office chief: ‘What do you want, corpses? Or do you want people to not even make it to your special military operation? What’s your goal? Who will bear the responsibility? Do you need soldiers like this?’ They all hide behind various instructions, their criteria.”

Maxim has been at the military unit for almost a month, the military-medical commission has not been organised neither for him nor for the other draftees with serious health conditions. When Lubov goes to the draft office, she is told to go to the military unit, as if it is on the unit to organise a medical commission and to release the people unfit for service; at the unit, she is told that it is on the draft office to recall the mobilised men.

“I have nothing to lose. I’m a reasonable person, I know that my husband won’t be of any help over there. Not because I want him to dodge the draft, it’s that he has spinal problems, he won’t be able to even put on a bulletproof vest, defend himself or protect the [soldier] next to him. They’ll wreck him and bring him back in a vegetative state. I have two kids, and then I’ll have an unresponsive husband. Who will compensate me for any of this? For all the mental stress? When he received the notice, we didn’t have any idea about the mess we’d end up in. He went there to clarify information. And what did they do? Just kidnapped him,” Lubov laments.

Dmitry Nechayev is 46, he is a submarine serviceman; he is bringing up his 14-year-old daughter together with his wife Yulia. Unlike the others, he went to the draft office voluntarily, without waiting for a notice to arrive. He told his wife that he had done so to be the one to go to war instead of young boys.

“He knew for a long time that there’d be a war, that everyone would begin to get [drafted] sooner or later. He is a second class starshina (a rank used by Russia’s Navy, equivalent to petty officereditor’s note), he is in the first category of fitness for military service, he falls under the mobilisation criteria. We had discussions about him going once the notice arrives, because there’s no other choice. When mobilisation was announced, he went and received the notice himself, so as not to wait. But he didn’t tell me at first. On 24 September, he was taken to Privetninskoe. This is how he explained it to me: ‘The guys are young, it’s better I go and young men stay here.’ They’re currently mobilising young men from the age of 21. Since June, my husband has been having problems with his back: he was treating them, did two courses of IV drips, used acupuncture. But there were a lot of physical activities at the military unit, they were being trained for real. His back couldn’t handle it, he strained it on 29 September. He was taken to a hospital. A doctor examined him and confirmed that he could have a hernia but he needed to be checked by a neurologist, so the doctor gave him a note stating he needed to go through a military-medical examination. On the same day that he was brought back to the military unit, he was taken to the sick bay. He stayed there until 2 October. On the evening of 2 October, he called me and said that he was being discharged from the sick bay and sent to the company, because there were no places in the sick bay, there were a lot of patients, and they could do nothing to help him, no one would prescribe him treatment. They don’t have the means, they can’t treat him there. So from 2 October, he’s been lying [in his bed] in the company, a dead weight, and that’s it,” Yulia says.

The woman’s appeals to the draft office and the military unit have been of no help.

“I went to the draft office again recently, talked to the chief, and he told me: ‘Come on Saturday, I will confer with the senior [officers], and we will solve this problem.’ I came on Saturday, and he told them not to let me in, that I should come on Monday. I knew that on that day there would be another transfer of people from the draft office to the military unit, knew that it was planned for 11AM. I knew that he would escort them personally, read out their names, so I sat there and waited for him, catching him by surprise in a corridor. We had a conversation, but I couldn’t handle any more stress, I went livid. I kept asking him what he wants, does he want my husband’s legs to stop working?”

Galina’s husband is 42-year-old Denis Gorbachev, he has combat experience: 20 years ago, as a conscript, he was deployed to the Chechen War. There, he got a head injury that still has not healed. Furthermore, his leg ligaments are torn, so he has trouble walking. According to Galina, she and her husband, having received the notice, went to the draft office at 8AM on 23 September. By the afternoon of that day, he had been taken to the military unit.

“When we arrived at the draft office, we asked for a medical commission, he is 42 years old. Yes, his military ticket states his fitness category as the first one, that he is fit for military service and is healthy, but that was 22 years ago. In response, we were told that there were currently no doctors at the draft office, and that a medical commission would be organised at the military unit, once they arrived there. At the military unit, they say that the commission has to be organised by the draft office,” Galina recalls. “When I point out these contradictions, they don’t react at all. I filed complaints to all places: to the Saint Petersburg Administration, to the Saint Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office. I get responses saying that as citizens they are no longer under the jurisdiction of the Saint Petersburg Administration, that now our husbands belong to the Defence Ministry. I wrote to the Military Prosecutor's Office, but [according to law] they have 30 days to respond. I do not have that kind of time.”

Galina called the Defence Ministry hotline to ask whether Denis could be sent into a war zone without a medical examination being done. In response, she was told yes, he could be.

“I don’t know how legal this is, but I propose he writes two reports: one asking to have a military-medical commission and the second that we are prepared to grant the state our vehicle if they bring him back home after that,” Galina says.

Representatives of neither draft offices nor the Privetninskoe military unit responded to the inquiries of the Novaya Gazeta. Europe correspondent on why the men with health issues unfit for service had been mobilised. In the meantime, for a month now, Galina, Yulia, Lubov, and Marina have only been able to see their husbands on Sundays; Sunday is the so-called “parent day” at the military unit, and the draftees are allowed to see their relatives.

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