Still, the young men’s fathers each felt their son had a manly duty to serve. One son returned home. The other came back severely beaten and died of his wounds soon after, leaving his father, Nikolai Lazhiev, with unanswered, heartbreaking questions.
Lazhiev, who lives in an industrial town in the northern Karelia region, never opposed the war. He just thought other people should fight it — not his only son, Andrei, 19, who was supposed to be shielded from active combat.
Despite Putin’s promise, Andrei was deployed to occupied Crimea, near the front, and died after severe beatings, apparently by members of his unit, in what his father suspects was a case of violent military hazing.
Askhabali Alibekov, a former paratrooper and father of four who lives far south, in the port city of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea near Ukraine, could not be more different from the soft-spoken Lazhiev. Alibekov is a brash, fast-talking anti-Putin activist and videoblogger who always opposed the war and went to jail for his antiwar posts.
Alibekov’s son, Mikhail, 21, was also doing his mandatory service and, like Andrei, was not supposed to be sent to Ukraine. Alibekov thinks his son is alive today mainly because he refused to sign a contract — even though soldiers who don’t sign often face humiliation or beatings, activists say.
“I knew that they would take him hostage because of my activity,” Alibekov said, referring to his video posts against Putin and the war. “And I told him, ‘You are not going there. It’s better you go to jail.’ And he listened to me.”
Lazhiev also persuaded his son not to sign. But rather than relief, he has only questions now. How was his son killed — not fighting, but by Russians? Who is responsible? And how did he come to be so betrayed by Russian power?
Lazhiev, a steam turbine operator in Pitkyaranta, an industrial town on Lake Ladoga near Finland, is patriotic, loath to challenge authority and proud that Andrei graduated from the local technical college as an open-pit mining operator, driving tractors and bulldozers.
Andrei was a quiet, introverted “average guy” who did not excel at exams and disliked sports, preferring books and history, his father said. Andrei meekly began his compulsory military service on June 26. Unlike many others, particularly the sons of the wealthy elite, he did not flee to dodge his service.
“We were never going to violate this law,” Lazhiev said in an interview. “His attitude to it was absolutely normal. He expected it. It was routine.”
On Aug. 26, two months after he was drafted, Andrei told his parents of pressure to sign a contract.
“I told him, ‘Son, you don’t need this. You are too young. You do not have a family. You do not have children,’” Lazhiev said. “I believe that those who are mature, who have families, who have served, could sign contracts, but not him.”
Putin last month ordered an increase in the size of the military by 170,000, amid immense casualties in Ukraine estimated by U.S. intelligence to be about 300,000 wounded or dead. Last year, he signed a law enabling the military to sign up conscripts, including teenagers, as contract soldiers.
Days before the regular October conscription round, prominent Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov extolled the official upside-down logic that war “is life.”
“The truth is that man was born for war, not peace,” Solovyov said on the state television program “Nashi,” or “Ours,” where one of the guests wore a black balaclava. “War reveals so much about people that you can see who’s who,” he continued. “Men always live in war.”
But families of mobilized soldiers or conscripts pressured to sign contracts see it differently. Wives, parents and groups struggling to save men from the war are attacked as traitors, designated as foreign agents and put on wanted lists.
A week after Andrei spoke of pressure to sign a contract, his unit moved into Crimea in occupied Ukraine and he stopped calling. Three weeks later, a fellow conscript told his father that Andrei was in the hospital. A week later, the unit moved to Armyansk, near the occupied Kherson region.
On Oct. 15, a fellow soldier contacted Nikolai Lazhiev from Military Marine Hospital 1472 in Sevastopol to say that Andrei was in a severe condition. He sent photos of Andrei in a wheelchair and looking unfocused.
The father contacted military prosecutors and regional Russian officials in vain. The unit commander refused to disclose Andrei’s location. Doctors “couldn’t diagnose him or probably they just did not disclose the diagnosis,” Lazhiev said. “But the guys who were with him said that they saw traces of beatings on his body.”
“The doctors kept saying that he was fine,” Lazhiev said, but they refused his requests to visit. He eventually managed to speak to Andrei by phone and was shocked by his thick, halting voice. “By this time, he couldn’t see,” the father said. “He lost his eyesight. And he could barely walk. And he had lost 40 kilograms.”
On Oct. 23, Andrei was transferred to a secure psychiatric unit. Lazhiev spoke to a doctor there who did not give his name but described signs of numerous beatings Andrei had suffered. “Probably he was beaten on his head,” Lazhiev said. The commander and officers “were probably trying to cover up their crime,” he added.
Andrei’s condition sharply deteriorated at the end of October, so his parents bought tickets to Sevastopol. Lazhiev called the hospital from the airport early on Nov. 2, and learned that Andrei had died. He was told to go home.
The pathologist’s report found that Andrei died of swelling and hemorrhaging in the brain, but his parents got no answers about what happened. “We got no information from the military commanders, from the military unit or anyone,” Lazhiev said.
Alibekov was in jail for his antiwar activism while his son was in the military. But as a patriotic ex-commander who fought for Russia against Chechen separatists, the elder Alibekov viewed compulsory service as “the duty of all men.”
‘Huge psychological pressure’
Still, he was sure officers would try to terrify conscripts into signing up. Mikhail was put “under huge psychological pressure” to sign, Alibekov said.
“There were many conscripts and nearly all of them were forced to sign contracts,” Alibekov said. “And out of his unit, only he and three other guys refused to sign up. They were humiliated terribly. The commanders said, ‘Look at the cowards! They do not want to die for the Motherland!’”
Alibekov was still in prison when his son returned from the army, but he sang and danced in his solitary cell. When he was released in November after more than a year in prison, his son was waiting at the gate, with a huge smile on his face.
Alibekov went straight back to his YouTube blog, condemning the war. To avoid arrest, he is on the run in an undisclosed location, desperate to escape Russia with his family.
Sergei Krivenko, who is part of the rights organization Citizen, Army, Law, which advocates for conscripts and soldiers, said Russia’s military was pressing teenage conscripts into signing contracts, aiming to use them as cannon fodder.
“They’re deceived,” Krivenko said. “They’re told, ‘Sign a contract and you’ll be paid right away.’ But they’re not told that it will be impossible to withdraw from the contract or finish their military service. They find themselves in this military environment surrounded by their commanders with no clear idea of what to do.”
Lazhiev buried his son at the end of November, but his questions and anger remain.
“Only God knows what happened,” he said. “But as long as I am alive, I’ll devote my entire life to trying to solve this case.”