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Families of Russian troops fighting in Ukraine put out a manifesto to bring them home

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Russian history is littered with political manifestos from the czars to communist revolutionaries. Some shaped the country's future. Others turned out to be just paper. Well, now a new manifesto is making the rounds in Russia. Families of Russian troops fighting in Ukraine have issued their own call to the nation. Here to explain is NPR's Charles Maynes. He's in Moscow. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: OK, this new manifesto - what is it? Who's behind it?

MAYNES: Well, this manifesto comes from a channel on the popular social media platform Telegram. It's called Put Domoi, or The Way Home. And essentially, it's a rallying cry against, quote, "permanent mobilization." In other words, it claims to represent families of civilians conscripted to fight in Ukraine. And their message, at times vulgar or certainly angry, amounts to we're tired and fed up. It's time to bring our guys home.

KELLY: Yeah. Do we know how widespread those feelings are, how many people are behind this manifesto?

MAYNES: You know, we don't, but I think it's important to stress that whoever is behind the channel itself - it certainly has supporters, and they're real people. Yeah. This is a video that was posted on the channel earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

VITALY MILONOV: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MILONOV: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: And it shows a small group of women in Moscow at the ruling United Russia party office where they confronted a well-known nationalist lawmaker named Vitaly Milonov. In it, they demand to know when their family members will come home, and they clearly weren't all that happy with Milonov's answer - they'll come home when we win.

KELLY: OK, and just to be crystal clear, the people posting on this channel - they're family members or claim to be, and there are a lot of them because it was - what? - like, 300,000 Russian civilians who were conscripted by Vladimir Putin back in September of 2022.

MAYNES: That's right. And Putin's decision at the time was extremely unpopular. You remember, tens of thousands of young Russian men fled the country. The mobilization effort seemed poorly organized. The families of those called up often had to buy conscripts food and protective gear. Eventually, President Vladimir Putin even acknowledged the problems.

Now, many of those issues have since been resolved, but these families of the conscripted are now reminding Putin about his initial promise, the one he made when he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago. At the time, he said only professional soldiers would do the fighting, and that's clearly not the case.

KELLY: Charles, just step back, setting aside this group, this channel, this manifesto, where is public opinion overall in Russia on the war? Do we know?

MAYNES: Well, the government argues that society has consolidated around the war effort. That's the message presented by President Putin. It's by state media and backed by state polling. But others argue the picture is more complicated. I spoke with Alexey Minyaylo, an opposition politician still based in Russia who says government claims of mass support are mostly propaganda.

ALEXEY MINYAYLO: Propaganda will keep blowing that we are winning and la, la, la, la. But over the time, less and less people will speak up for the war.

MAYNES: Now, Minyaylo heads an independent polling project on the war called Chronicles, and he argues fear and repression dictate the public's response to state polls when they ask questions like - do you support the war? - because he says Russians know all too well that opposition to the war means potentially years in jail.

KELLY: OK, so he's critical of state polling, but he claims to have independent polling. What's he finding?

MAYNES: Well, his team finds that if you ask more nuanced questions like - would you support President Putin's decision to withdraw troops whether or not we achieved our goals? - those former hardcore supporters for the war winnow fast - just 12%. But that's not exactly an antiwar movement - in fact, hardly. What Minyaylo sees is war fatigue.

MINYAYLO: It's not that people consciously object to aggressive invasion - unfortunately not. It's because they're tired of it, mostly. They want this to end.

MAYNES: And so fatigue and apathy seem to be driving public opinion, and they cut in different ways, you know? So Russians may want to steer clear of politics when it comes to the war, but it also means they may be less willing to sacrifice themselves for it.

KELLY: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Charles Maynes