The documents issued to Dmitry by the Russian military bear an ominous handwritten designation: “Category One. State of Health B”.
It means he has a clean bill of health and should be in Ukraine, fighting on the front lines of Moscow’s fierce and bloody year-long offensive.
But the Russian in his 20s – hooded and army papers in his hands – is nowhere near the battle for Ukraine’s industrial east.
Instead, he is hiding from the authorities, trapped in his own country and living in fear of being punished for his refusal to fight and his stance on the conflict.
“Participating in this disgrace marks you for life,” he said, describing Russia’s intervention in Ukraine as “barbaric” and “criminal”.
Dmitry, whose name has been changed for security reasons and who spoke to AFP at an undisclosed location in Russia, was among at least 300,000 reservists called up last year.
When President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization campaign on state television at the end of September, it led to a frantic exodus of military-aged men from the country.
Some, unwilling to leave the country or lacking the resources, demanded exemptions on medical or professional grounds.
Others like Dmitry — and no one knows the exact number — simply ignored orders.
In the months since, they have relied on luck, cunning or bureaucratic loopholes to avoid a raft of new criminal laws that could land them in jail for evading draft.
For Dmitry, who previously trained with elite Russian paratroopers as part of his mandatory military service, it may have been a combination of all three.
His mobilization order came in late September, days after Putin’s announcement.
But it was delivered to his old residence in a region where he no longer lives. He showed AFP the former address on his government-issued identity papers.
“A utility company tried to get me the papers. But… I hadn’t been there for over three months,” he told AFP.
He said local authorities should have removed him from the military register in that region. The fact that they didn’t make it easy for him.
“I just ignored it,” he said.
Among his social circle, eight have been mobilized, he said. Some secured last minute exemptions. Others went to fight.
Nearly five months ago, he’s on guard, careful not to accidentally reveal his whereabouts to authorities.
He only travels within the administrative boundaries of the region where he lives and works remotely for an IT company based abroad.
Dmitry also follows “strict digital hygiene” protocols and uses IT tools that mask the location of his phone and computer.
He also avoids his town’s surveillance cameras that he knows are equipped with facial recognition software and have been used by law enforcement to pick up other draft evaders.
“Either you stay in the wilderness – the country is big and there are many places – or you do the opposite and get lost in a big city,” explains Dmitry.
But whatever measures you take to avoid detection by police and military personnel, it is impossible to escape the fear of being caught.
Another young Russian, who went into hiding following a call-up, canceled an interview with AFP at the last minute, fearing that encounters with journalists would draw the attention of the police.
As time goes on, Dmitry’s fraught position looks more and more uncertain.
Dmitry chose to stay in Russia to be close to his loved ones, especially his partner and her child.
Leaving now seems much more dangerous, as Russian security services have drawn up lists of mobilized people for cross-checks at the country’s borders.
‘Better go to jail’
Adding to his concerns are the rumors of a possible second wave of calls and announcements that military recruiting agencies are digitizing.
With the political climate in Russia becoming increasingly suspicious of dissent, he is also afraid of being sued.
The stakes are high. If arrested, Dmitry could be jailed for insubordination.
But, said Dmitry, the choice is clear.
“If I can’t resist the state, I’d rather go to jail,” he said.
The outbreak of fighting that prompted Putin’s mobilization order was a double blow to Dmitry, causing both fear and regret.
That’s because he has extended family in Ukraine – including some who now live in Russian-controlled territory – whom he has never met.
“It’s a cliché, but I always dreamed of going to Kiev and Odessa to meet and talk to my family.”
“It was shattered by one person,” he said.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NewsMadura staff and is being published from a syndicated feed.)
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