In March, President Vladimir Putin honoured Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov with the Hero of Russia award posthumously and used the opportunity to celebrate Russia’s ethnic diversity.
Gadzhimagomedov, a senior lieutenant from Dagestan, had served in Russia’s airborne troops and died in combat in the first days of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“I am a Russian man,” said Putin, as he announced the top honorary title. “But when I see examples of heroism like this young man, Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov – a native of Dagestan, a Lak by ethnicity, our other soldiers, I want to say: ‘I am a Lak, I am a Dagestani, I am a Chechen, Ingush, Russian, Tatar, Jew, Mordvin, Ossetian’.”
He praised Gadzhimagomedov for fighting against Ukrainian “neo-Nazis”, adding: “I am proud of being part of this world, part of the powerful, strong, multiethnic people of Russia.”
Minority rights are, according to the Kremlin, at the heart of Russia’s officially termed “special operation” in Ukraine.
Putin and his administration constantly point to the alleged ill-treatment of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority as a reason for the invasion.
Meanwhile, at home, about 80 percent of the population identify as ethnic Russians, or Slavs, but the country is also home to more than 160 other ethnicities – and tensions are simmering between minority groups and the state, especially as the Ukraine war grinds on.
According to open source researchers, soldiers with roots in poorer regions such as Buryatia and Dagestan are disproportionately represented among Russian casualties in Ukraine.
“Most of the soldiers and officers of the ground forces and the airborne forces come from poor Russian towns and villages,” military specialist Pavel Luzin told Al Jazeera.
“This social-economic stratification has a long-term tradition in the Russian armed forces because young men from the cities with relatively good education serve in other military branches … but the infantry consists of badly-educated soldiers from poor families and regions.”
Buryatia, in Siberia, was once a part of Mongolia that was conquered by Cossacks in the 17th century.
“We can’t determine our own politics – if we had a real federation, the head of our republic could say no, Buryats won’t fight in this criminal war. But he keeps providing cannon fodder for Putin,” Victoria Maladaeva, of the Free Buryatia Foundation, told Al Jazeera.
“Buryatia, like the other ethnic republics, is governed by the colonial policies of Moscow,” Maladaeva continued.
“Our languages and history are disappearing off the face of the Earth, while Moscow sucks all the money and resources out of the provinces. Moscow is a beautiful city but it’s such a facade of all of Russia, because if you go just a little further, the houses are falling apart, there are no roads, there’s no work.”
Shortly after the start of the war, Maladaeva, who now lives in San Francisco, connected with other members of the Buryat diaspora to form the Free Buryatia Foundation, the first peace movement run by ethnic minority leaders.
As well as calling for greater autonomy from Moscow, the group films anti-war videos, researches Russian losses in Ukraine, provides a community for like-minded Buryats, and helps would-be soldiers escape deployment to the front.
In July, the foundation reported that it helped 150 Buryat soldiers find loopholes to refuse participation in the war, allowing them to return home.
“Contractors [soldiers] and their families are always writing to us, saying that they don’t want to fight, but there are many obstacles along the way. Some of them are being held back on occupied territories [of Ukraine], and they’re pressured, threatened, afraid they’ll be sent to the front line to be killed,” Maladaeva said.
“When they submit their refusal, they’re asked ‘Who will defend the motherland?’ They reply if someone attacks their motherland they’ll defend it, but they see no motherland in Ukraine.
“We know we can’t influence Vladimir Putin directly, but the less cannon fodder he has at his disposal, the sooner this war will end.”
‘I call it the Racist Federation’
Even bloodier than the Mongolia conquest was that of Caucasus in the 19th century, the area which includes Chechnya, Dagestan and what is now Sochi.
The entire Circassian nation was expelled to Turkey and those who remained to fight for their land were slaughtered.
Then, under Josef Stalin in the 20th century, almost the entire Chechen population was exiled at gunpoint to the steppes of Kazakhstan when they were suspected of disloyalty during World War II. Tens of thousands perished en route, and the survivors were only allowed to return after Stalin’s death.
“In Russia, the level of chauvinism is very high,” Chechen lawyer and human rights defender Abubakar Yangulbaev told Al Jazeera. “I even call it the ‘Racist Federation’, as it perfectly reflects the inner essence of the state both among the Russian people and among the officials.”
In the 2000s, racist attacks by violent neo-Nazi skinhead gangs became daily occurrences; in 2008, the peak, they committed 110 murders, according to Sova, a Moscow-based hate crimes watchdog organisation.
Since then, the ultranationalist movement has weakened, but less deadly, everyday racism persists.
As late as last year, landlords were still able to list their lettings online as “for Slavs only”, an investigation by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty found.
“I think every non-Russian has come across this; we’re always experiencing discrimination,” said Maladaeva. “Once my mother forgot her passport and the cops held her for five hours since they wouldn’t believe she was a Russian citizen.
“We lived in St Petersburg where I took part in a beauty contest, and on social media, they kept writing I should have my head stuck down the toilet, and, ‘Why is a Buryat representing Peter anyway?’”
Chechens loyal to Putin ‘are a minority’
Chechnya briefly won independence after a bloody war in the 1990s, only to be retaken by Russian troops who enlisted former rebel Akhmad Kadyrov to crush the remaining armed uprising.
His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, now rules the republic, and under him, there are regular reports of torture, disappearances and wrongful imprisonment.
“Yes, there are Chechens who are loyal to Putin and Kadyrov, the Kadyrovites, but they are a minority who do not enjoy respect among the people as they are considered privileged traitors to their country,” said Yangulbaev.
“These men are armed and use torture, executions and kidnappings to crush popular unrest with the permission or tacit consent of Putin, as well as on the orders of Kadyrov. For this, they are rewarded, but are never brought to justice for the crimes they committed.”
Kadyrov is a close ally of Putin, and is supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine with thousands of fierce Chechen fighters.
But in a sign of Chechnya’s divided society, there are also two battalions of Chechens fighting on behalf of Ukraine, among them veterans of previous wars eager to have another shot at the Russians.
Yangulbaev said in Chechnya, “The memory of two bloody wars with Russia is still fresh, and people are often against going to die for such a country, which the numbers prove: there are only 1,340 volunteers from Chechnya at the moment.”
So reluctant are some Chechens to enlist that according to opposition activists and bloggers, authorities are reportedly rounding up manpower for Ukraine through threats, blackmail, and intimidation.
“I know several examples of people recruited through blackmail, but such cases are few,” Yangulbaev said.
“But positive blackmail, when someone is promised to have their criminal record wiped clean for taking part in the war, is widespread. Which is proven by the numbers I’ve collected: almost 30 percent of all volunteers have an outstanding criminal record.”
Elsewhere, army recruiters are now reportedly promising cash bonuses for short tours of duty, a tempting offer in deprived towns and provinces with few opportunities outside of military service, such as Dagestan, where the unemployment rate is three times the national average.