Maxim is a former Russian conscript who was mobilised to fight in Ukraine in the autumn of 2022. He managed to flee to Armenia, and is now facing up to 10 years behind bars in Russia. Novaya Gazeta Europe spoke to the deserter about his life, war, and escape from Russia.
Maxim’s life before the war
I was born in Russia’s Far East. I went to a vocational school to become a computer programmer but never finished it. I tried to avoid it but still ended up in the army for regular conscription service.
I served in the Khabarovsk region, in an artillery brigade. We had combat training there, but I only fired a machine gun three times during my service. We never fired artillery guns. We mowed lawns, collected rubbish, painted pavements, pipes, and barracks. There was bullying as well. They took away personal things sent from home, some even took away money.
I first thought about doing contract service when the Crimea thing began. But I discarded this idea because I first wanted to see what the army is, get some training, and not rush into fighting. The army is simple: you don’t need to be a very smart person to serve. Just follow orders and get paid.
I was never into politics. I never voted either. I was first neutral towards the authorities, then I got slightly opposed to them. But later I completely forgot about them altogether and started thinking about myself and the wellbeing of my family. And then my dream came true, I managed to get a job in a theatre, where I worked for the past few years.
I was honestly shocked by what happened on 24 February [2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine]. People in the Russian Far East, where I was born and raised, still are not really concerned about it. I tried to stay neutral, I could see that it was a war rather than a “special military operation”. I thought it would not affect me.
The next day after the mobilisation was announced, I was called to see the theatre director’s secretary. They summoned me to the military draft office “to clarify information”, so I was hoping that I would not be drafted. I went there with this summons and was given another one, with “mobilisation” written on it. I was told to arrive at the office in two hours. My father was trying to convince me not to go there, to look for some kind of certificate to avoid going to the military draft office. Being the first batch of draftees, we were given full sets of uniform and sent to the testing range in the morning. Contract soldiers were our firing instructors and each was saying that we might not even need to take up rifles. The first 400 mobilised men were sent to the frontline a week later after the testing range.
I don’t know what our positions were called exactly, but I definitely knew that we were in Donbas. The majority of our regiment lived in trenches along the engagement line. We sometimes even had to sleep almost in the open air. The army did not supply us with food very well, therefore, we had to buy it ourselves when we managed to travel somewhere. Naturally, some hit the bottle every day, some were drinking sometimes, others were never sober at all.
I served as a communications officer in a motorised rifle regiment. The communication line sometimes would tear right near the trenches and we had nothing else to do but to inspect the whole line under shelling and drone attacks. The war looked like a game of battleship: whoever noticed someone first shot at them with artillery or tanks.
There were people among my comrades-in-arms who were against the war. Some supported it, but there were also those who were ardently supporting it and six months later no longer understood what this conflict was for in the first place. I knew that I still was wrong for being there. I still felt like a murderer.
When I got my long-awaited leave, I was doing everything possible to stay home longer and avoid returning to the frontline. I had no other choice but to try and sign a contract with a different military base away from the war, in the rear somewhere. I was told that a transfer is impossible because my unit suffered huge losses while I was away. I was summoned and told to pack my things. That night I realised that I would simply be sent back to the frontline. I left the base early in the morning.
No one stopped me. The conscripts at the checkpoint thought I was a contract soldier and let me go to the shops. I got in a car and travelled to a different region. Then I boarded a plane and flew west.
I’d have been forced to hide in a basement in Russia, but I wanted to live. My father received calls from the military base, they told him that I am now wanted in the region, and a criminal case would be opened in a few days’ time. I was terrified of going through passport control. I was scared that I’d be stopped when crossing the border, even by train, for document inspection. Thankfully, I was told about an escape route to Armenia.
When I arrived here, I started feeling better, but I am still anxious. You just don’t know how they will search for you and how the new place will treat you.
When I was getting ready to go to the warzone, I told my father that I wanted to see the truth. I did see this truth, and I am completely unhappy with it. Someone decided to write their name in history as a great ruler. Of course, you have an idea of who I mean. But I don’t want to mention this name.
Despite all of this, I miss home a lot. I love my small hometown. I’d like to go back there at some point.
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