Russians have long viewed making direct appeals to their supreme leader as their last chance to achieve justice. Today, when ordinary political representation is blocked and participation in most protests remains dangerous, Russian citizens are increasingly writing letters to President Vladimir Putin discussing their personal problems and how Moscow’s war against Ukraine has adversely affected their lives. The conflict in Ukraine has led to a dramatic increase in the number of these letters. Before the full-scale invasion, the Kremlin received a few tens of thousands of letters each month, mostly about problems with pay or housing. Now, the Presidential Administration receives more than 100,000 letters a month. According to a new investigation by the Russian outlet Important Stories on November 29, these letters continue to complain about the same issues that animated them earlier, but, their content increasingly touches on the impact of the war in Ukraine, especially the treatment of those serving in the Russian military. As a result, these letters represent an important barometer on how the war is affecting the everyday lives of ordinary Russians and their feelings about Putin’s war more generally (Istories.media, November 29).
The Kremlin continues to publish monthly reports on the letters being sent to Putin (Letters.kremlin.ru, accessed December 7). These reports detail how many have come in and how these complaints have been distributed to various government ministries. This is rather striking, given that the Putin regime has blocked reporting on so many other sources of information about Russian attitudes on the war. Those complaints sent to the Defense Ministry, an indication of concern about military issues among the population, have exploded from 2,300 letters during all of 2018 to more than 80,000 in 2022 (Istories.media, June 9, 2022). The Important Stories investigative report adds that the total number of such complaints has reached 180,000 since the start of Putin’s expanded invasion in February 2022, a figure that suggests the number of such letters will continue to rise and at a rate greater than the increase in the number of Russian soldiers being sent to Ukraine.
According to Important Stories, complaints about insufficient and stalled payments to those serving under contract in Ukraine are the most prevalent subject of these letters (Istories.media, November 29). The first of these complaints appeared in April 2022, less than two months after the full-scale invasion began. By last fall, their number had increased by 25 times, with such grievances now totaling more than 25,000 since the start of the war. The second-largest group of letters covers problems and concerns with mass mobilization. Most arrived in October 2022—when they were coming in at a rate of about 400 a day—and have since continued. The third-largest category involves complaints about the treatment of those serving under contract rather than drafted soldiers. These letters protest poor treatment and pay and have been coming in at the rate of approximately 1,000 a month. A large share focuses on the military’s failure to allow for vacation and the regular rotation of contracted soldiers out of the combat zone, which they were promised when signing their service contracts (see EDM, November 27).
The Russian High Command’s failure to grant leave to contracted soldiers is a particularly sore point. The first written complaints about this appeared at the end of 2022. By April 2023, Important Stories reports, letters on this issue outnumbered all others. This likely reflects the reality that the Russian military leadership says it will grant leave to these soldiers and that Putin himself has talked publicly about that right. The Russian army, however, often fails to deliver on these promises. Last fall, when women at home took to the streets to demand that their sons, husbands, and fathers return home, the number of letters complaining about this issue declined (Svoboda, November 16; T.me/svobodnieslova, November 22). That pattern supports two important conclusions that the Kremlin may already be monitoring. First, letters to the president, even if they are about individual cases, express broader and more political concerns with Putin’s war against Ukraine. Second, if Moscow fails to address the concerns in these letters, it may face other and more politically significant modes of protest.
Another sensitive subject deals with the fate of those commanders listed as missing in action (MIA) in Ukraine. As the war rages on, this list has grown dramatically. In October, for example, 827 letters were written to Putin on this issue, 13 times more than in April 2022. In most cases, some Russian experts say, those listed as MIA have in fact died. Listing commanders in this category allows Russian military leaders to reduce the number of deaths they have to report to the Kremlin (Current Time TV, November 3, 2022).
A third issue agitating those writing to Putin about the war concerns inadequate medical treatment for those wounded in battle. Since the start of the war, more than 12,000 letters on this subject have been sent to the Kremlin, according to the Important Stories report (Istories.media, November 29). These letters include reports of mishandling of wounds on the front and delays in sending those needing treatment to medical facilities behind the frontlines (RIA Novosti, April 27). They also focus on the difficulties amputees face in receiving the necessary prosthetic devices and on an increasing number of cases in which soldiers who are seriously wounded are forced to return to combat before they fully recover (Istories.media, October 9; T.me/istories_media, October 17).
The Russians writing to Putin on all these grievances hope that he will address their problems in an effective and timely fashion. Nevertheless, Russian commentator Abbas Gallyamov—who earlier worked as one of Putin’s speechwriters and has an insider’s perspective on what takes place with such letters—suggests these Russians are almost certainly deceiving themselves. He tells Important Stories that, within the Presidential Administration, work with incoming mail is considered relatively unimportant. The powers that be take action on fewer than 2 percent of the letters, as Kremlin aides believe those who write letters do not create serious problems for the regime and can be safely ignored. For the time being, they may be right, but the growing protests of the mothers, wives, and daughters of Russian soldiers in Ukraine suggest that such a view may prove shortsighted (see EDM, November 27).