On both sides of the conflict, ordinary people from Ukraine and Russia are suffering, with Russian men and boys conscripted against their will to kill for their government. Many Russians have also become refugees, in precarious situations as they do their best to avoid being drafted.
Aleksandr is a father and a Christian leader who fled Russia last year with his 17-year-old son following their call-up for military service.
I was privileged to interview him recently in a country outside Russia, but for security reasons relating to both him and his family, I am unable to disclose his full name or his current country of residence.
People in the West are generally familiar with the ongoing details surrounding the Ukraine-Russia conflict which began on February 24 last year when Russian forces, in a totally unprovoked action, invaded Ukraine. Since then, there’s been almost daily coverage of the war in Ukraine on Australian TV screens.
Russia, under the dictatorial command of its president, Vladimir Putin, is the perpetrator of a war that has killed an estimated 100,000 Ukraine soldiers and many thousands of civilians, including women and children, and has caused tens of billions of dollars in damage to the economy. Western intelligence agencies estimate that as many as 200,000 Russian soldiers may have been killed or wounded.
There is a steadily growing number of verifiable reports of rape, torture and execution being carried out by Russian troops.
Is it possible then to have any sympathy for Russia or its people in this brutal war?
Can one reasonably distinguish between the Russian government and its military command, and the families and their confused, fearful and poorly trained young men being conscripted into its army?
“In Russia, the people are going through a particular kind of stress,” says Aleksandr.
“Imagine waking up one morning and the first thing you hear is a government announcement to the effect that ‘whoever is against the following law will be prosecuted’, but you haven’t even heard what that law is yet. Then about an hour later, the government releases a conscription law. And an hour after that, you receive a letter of notification that you and your son have been summoned to military service.
“Just yesterday, life was all normal — you’re making plans and living your life; now it’s all turned upside down.
“We had to act immediately, and this is why the first thing most people think of is to flee. People understand that their voices don’t matter, the decision has been made for them and they have to swallow it. It’s not the individual’s decision; it’s unjust.
“Our country wasn’t even attacked. It’s one thing if your country is attacked and you need to defend it, but this is the other way around. People in Russia can’t understand what’s going on and they have a lot of pain.
“We watched men start drinking when they received their summons. On their way to the reporting centre they get drunk, so drunk that they can barely walk. But there’s nothing they can do; they have no power. Many young men attending university have been summoned. We know of situations where students have fainted on the spot when they received their summons.”
Aleksandr and his wife knew what they had to do, and time was of the essence. Like many others, they gathered their few things together and fled to a neighbouring country, one that didn’t require a visa.
“We’ve become refugees, forced to move,” he said.
“Up until this time, my son had been living a normal and steady life at home with the family, but that suddenly changed completely. He’s only 17 but he was summoned too, and now we are separated from our family, living in another country.
“I can see the huge stress it has had on my son. I’m watching how he is processing this, and right now I feel it’s important for him and others to be heard. Young people, barely children, feel that they have no right to a voice in this matter. Their life is about doing what they are told by the government.
“As he gathered his things to leave, I noticed he packed his Lego; it was at that moment I realised that he was just a boy — his Lego had been a symbol of stability for him. Serving in ministry in our country is difficult enough as it is. We have immense pressure, and we as Christians don’t let ourselves get down and defeated. We keep on serving, but his situation has done much damage and as a family we are trying to work through it.”
He pauses and then says slowly: “I don’t know how we can stop and work through it…”
Aleksandr recalled the thousands of homeless and destitute men, both young and old, who lined the streets of the city to which they’d fled. Many were sitting on their suitcases with their heads in their hands, despair on their faces and with a complete sense of lostness.
“If we had stayed in Russia, we would have gone to a military training centre. But the reality is that the men are not trained there, just dumped on the war lines. About one million men left Russia within two weeks of the conscription law notification.
“When we got across the border, we saw scores of men. These men were lost and didn’t know where to go. We were told that they’d just picked any country to flee to where they could go without a visa.
“Many weren’t familiar with Russia’s neighbouring countries, the culture and people, so when they fled across the border, some thought they were in Afghanistan. But even though they thought they were in Afghanistan, they believed it wouldn’t be as bad as what they were experiencing at home. As to money, we had to bring whatever we could get because Russian credit cards don’t work outside Russia.”
Aleksandr explained that it was the wives and mothers who made their men leave. I asked him if he personally knew anyone who had gone to the war and how this was affecting them.
“There were a lot of people that we knew who were taken to war. Our son-in-law received the summons; he’s in training right now. Also, one of our students — he’s been taken there too. I have a friend who is a pastor and he’s a father of five kids and he’s been taken.
“Any war brings a huge amount of pain. Anyone who has fled the country is now considered an enemy of the country. Even where we live right now, that country is very closely aligned with Russia. Russia may request this country to bring every Russian person back, and they might just do that, and this is why I feel that we aren’t safe.”
What do Russian people generally feel about the war?
“There are two categories of people. First, the educated people. They understood the situation right away and they fled the country because they couldn’t speak out.
“The second category is the uninformed. We’re talking about people who live under Russian propaganda who just do what they’re told and believe what the government media says.
“They’ve been told that there are fascists in Ukraine and that’s why they’re going to war.
“When they actually get to Ukraine, they don’t see any fascists; they only see old men and children and women, people like themselves. And they’re just ordered to shoot because behind them there is a squad that will not let you retreat. And they will fire on retreating troops, but their hearts break as they do that.
“I think there’s physical pain in that, but the psychological damage is much worse. Many of the men who do return will probably try to end their own lives because it’s almost impossible to live with it. It’s that voice that they hear…”
In the West, we hear on the news that Putin and the Russians are the bad people in this war. What would you say to that?
“There’s politics and there’s Russian people and these are two separate things. For what I’m saying right now, they would give me 16 years in a Russian prison.
“But Russian people? They are not the Russian government; they are prisoners. They can’t say anything or speak out. Some of them go out in protest, but they are incarcerated.
“On the inside, the people are very broken. Now it is almost shameful to tell people you are from Russia. The war is destroying our reputation because people are conscious of what nation people are from. It is very important to look at the Russian people. They are prisoners. They are regular people just like the regular people of Ukraine.”
Aleksandr recalled an incident at one of the universities in Russia:
“At the university, there was a female student. She stood up in class and started screaming. She was having a panic attack. She was yelling: ‘My father has been taken away from me, and we’re all going to die.’” This happened in the middle of the class.
“Then another person stood up and started screaming the same thing. It seemed that they couldn’t contain all this pain that’s inside of them. The professor, an elderly woman, sat down and kept quiet while this was happening, and she began to weep. After the commotion died down, she told them, ‘We’re probably just not going to have a class today.’ Everyone was crying. And this happened in a top university in Russia. I know this because my daughter studies there.
“The people know that they don’t belong to themselves, that they belong to the government, to the state. Whatever they tell us, we must do. They can say today that you are blue and tomorrow you are red, and you have to say amen! The government controls your money, they control your thoughts and opinions, they control your movements. This isn’t just a one-time thing; it has been systematically approached from all sides. People don’t have a right to their voice, their finances, their families or any decision they want to make.”
How has this hard-line Russian government control returned following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism in 1991?
“This feels like it’s been planned all along. It’s been a long time in coming. In Russia, they say there are no ex-KGB agents. Our President is ex-KGB. A friend of the President once said about Putin: ‘All his life he’s been taught to search for the enemy. But he should have searched for a friend. This is why we see enemies everywhere. We don’t see friends.’ And this is why that system has been a long time in the making.
“Even this war I believe was planned all along and the restrictions that have come with it… but the important thing is not to lose God’s vision in all of this.”
Pray for the lost boys of the Ukraine-Russian war.
Photo by Dijanynni Kiratza.