According to the authorities, between 1,000 and 1,500 Russians sign up to serve in the country’s military every day. While some genuinely believe that in doing so they are defending the motherland, others see going to war as well-paid temporary work. Many never return.
To understand why Russians are still volunteering to go to war, Novaya-Europe selected 675 names from the list of Russia’s war dead maintained jointly by Mediazona and the BBC and analysed their profiles on social media platform VK in an attempt to establish what a typical volunteer’s profile looked like.
While the following three Russian men didn’t know each other, they all made the same decision to enlist in the military to fight in Ukraine. None of them returned.
Nikita, 26, from the Rostov region, had wanted to go to technical college, but when that didn’t work out he did his military service instead. After that, he worked for a time at an oil and gas field, as well as in construction and furniture production.
Sergey, 33, from the Orenburg region, started doing odd jobs in the eighth grade. After school, he worked in security and as a cash collector. He devoted most of his free time to the gym, running and martial arts.
Dmitry, 23, from the Irkutsk region in Siberia, played team sports at school and went to technical college.
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, at least 34,000 Russian soldiers have been killed. At least 3,000 of them volunteered to go to war, having enlisted in the military since the invasion began on 24 February last year.
Profile of a volunteer
The thousands of volunteer fighters all have different motivations. Some sincerely believe they are going to defend the motherland and state propaganda normally focuses on these ideological supporters of the war. Some make the decision for financial reasons. Our calculations show that going to war is the only way for many Russian men to escape poverty.
We usually discover volunteers’ motivations from individual stories. But there is another, more systematic, way to look into them too. At present, 86% of Russian internet users use the VK social networking site and volunteers are no exception. We analysed the pages of 751 Russian military volunteers who died in Ukraine, and compared them to a control group of Russian men of the same age from the same places, and to others who actively expressed a pro-war position. We took the names of the casualties from the list maintained by Mediazona and the BBC.
The conclusions we draw are based on composite results. Not all volunteers fully correspond to the profile that comes from our analysis. You can always find examples of people to whom the general statistics do not apply, but there are more to whom they do.
The temporary worker
Nikita’s life path tallies almost perfectly with that of the average volunteer. He was born and raised in a small town and did his mandatory military service after school. Our analysis of VK profiles shows that men who served in the army are more than twice as likely to be volunteers as those in the control group. Nikita didn’t go on to higher education: volunteers do so only half as often on average. Only his age is atypical: the average volunteer is 40 while Nikita was 26.
A young man in the Russian provinces will have a hard time finding a job locally and an even harder time moving to another city without good qualifications, which is where temporary work comes in. This is exactly what Nikita did: two months before Russia invaded Ukraine, he was working at an oil and gas field in Tengiz, on the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan. Our analysis of VK profiles showed that volunteers are almost three times as likely to have been looking for temporary work as other men. Perhaps Nikita saw the war as just another short-term gig.
This profile correlates very well with survey results, says Andrey Tkachenko of the Chronicles research project, which studies the attitude of Russians to the war in Ukraine. “As part of our research, we ask men aged 18–59 whether they would be willing to take part in the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Those who say yes are less likely to have a higher education or permanent jobs, and are more likely to live in rural areas and/or regions where they earn a low income,” he explains.
If we compare the profile of a volunteer with that of someone who actively supports the war on VK, but doesn’t go to fight, we see they have almost nothing in common. Unlike volunteers, active supporters of the war are most often state employees whose active pro-war stance on VK is likely a requirement from above.
Friends from the Donbas
Judging from their VK subscriptions, the hobbies of military volunteers are similar to those of the general population. For example, Sergey from the Orenburg region liked sport and Dmitry from the Irkutsk region repaired cars. The average volunteer has absolutely standard Russian male interests: cars, films, music, sports, as well as a bit of history and science.
Volunteers, in fact, have a greater overlap with the general population in terms of hobbies than those who actively support the war, the latter being much less interested in both cars and fishing, but more interested in history. Both volunteers and active supporters of the war had significantly more friends from eastern Ukraine than the average Russian. Nikita did too.
According to Tkachenko, respondents with relatives in eastern Ukraine are much more likely to support the “special military operation,” are more willing to fight, and are more likely to have relatives at the front. Having friends or relatives in eastern Ukraine triggers volunteers’ sense of justice, Tkachenko believes, and allows them to feel they’re fighting for a noble cause.
Even before he enlisted in the army, Nikita actively supported the Russian army and took part in drives to collect medicine and provisions for the military.
Our analysis also shows that volunteers rarely get their information from official sources or popular pro-military analysts — these being more typically behaviours of armchair supporters of the war rather than those who volunteer to fight themselves.
Volunteers often choose anonymous forums with simpler content, such as photos and videos from the front.
Sasha Kappinen, from the Public Social Laboratory (PS Lab), an independent research group focusing on Russian politics and society, believes that the wariness of official sources demonstrated by volunteers related to their time at the front themselves. Their experience is usually at odds with how pro-government media depict what is happening.
“In small towns, almost everyone has a friend or relative who is either at war now or has been in the past,” says Kappinen. “So many residents get information on the fighting from eyewitnesses. When they recount stories from people they know who have been at the front, the most common reaction is, ‘That’s not what you see on TV’.”
Volunteers tended not to change their views and continued to consider the war a just cause even after hearing first-hand accounts of the lack of supplies, of people being blown to pieces by landmines, and the general carnage of the front, says Kappinen.
Disappointment with the Russian army doesn’t necessarily lead to an anti-war stance. The level of support for the war among volunteers is far higher than among the wider male population, or at least, it was before volunteers arrived at the front — whether or not volunteers’ views changed after serving is impossible to say.
We put this to the test with a machine learning model: by comparing the VK groups both supporters and opponents of the war were members of from a previous study, our algorithm learned to determine a user’s attitude to the war based on their group memberships. For each user, the model calculated a value from 0 to 1, 1 reflecting a pro-war attitude based on the proportion of pro-war forums the user is subscribed to. A random sample of men had an average “pro-war” value of 0.49. Among volunteers, that figure was 0.56. For comparison, active supporters of the war on VK had a value of 0.58. For opponents of the war, it was 0.35.
A volunteer’s willingness to go to the front isn’t based solely on blind faith in propaganda or financial gain, however. Before making such a decision, you need an inner sense that it is the right thing to do. How that comes about and what fuels it is a question with no obvious answer, but we have attempted to answer it here.
Novaya Gazeta Europe thanks Mediazona and the BBC for allowing the use of their data on Russian military casualties.
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