Dodging Russia’s draft but fighting for Palestine at a UK uni

“I’m dodging the draft because this is a genocide,” says Dmitri*, a student at a UK university who recently avoided a call-up to serve in the Russian military, which is invading Ukraine.

He also opposes another ongoing war, the Israeli offensive in the devastated Gaza Strip, and is involved in pro-Palestinian activism at his university.

“I’m fighting against genocide on campus because I don’t want to be part of any genocide,” the Russian and British dual national tells The New Arab.

“They stood against tyranny once, why can’t they do it again?”


Dmitri learnt late last year, after the October start of Israel’s devastating war on Gaza, that he was being called up for Russian military enlistment.

He was immediately scared and anxious but eventually managed to prove he was enrolled at university, exempting him from service and avoiding the criminal case he believed he would face.

Although Dmitri, whose real name is being withheld, has resolved never to return to Russia until present circumstances change, he does not want his evading the draft to affect the livelihood of family and friends there.

Camp out: A pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Sheffield on 1 May 2024
[Nick McAlpin/The New Arab]

Dmitri’s university provided the evidence he needed, requested by Russian authorities in a format not typically offered. But while this process was ongoing, he felt fear over his involvement in pro-Palestinian activism efforts he says the institution was obstructing.

“It created this environment in my head where simultaneously, I need their help, but also, they’re working against me [on the pro-Palestinian activities],” he says.

“It was just very scary. It was so scary that I kind of blocked it out in my mind, but it happened and it made me feel that way. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Dmitri says his university took a “very brave stand” with Ukraine. “They stood against tyranny once, why can’t they do it again?” he asks, saying in his heart he wanted it to be true the institution would be principled on Palestine.

“But I think rationally I knew that would just never happen,” he says, adding the university wants a good image. “What looks good currently? It’s supporting Israel, because that’s what everyone is doing, supposedly.”

A tide of pro-Palestinian encampments and demonstrations has swept into universities around the globe amid Israel’s war on Gaza, reaching Cambridge and Sheffield in the UK, Columbia in the US, and Lebanon’s American University of Beirut. The Israeli military campaign has killed more than 36,500 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s health ministry.

As civilians in the Strip suffer hunger, mourn their loved ones, and are forcibly displaced, the diplomatic landscape is shifting. Ireland, Norway, Slovenia, and Spain all now recognise Palestine as a state and South Africa has accused Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice.


On university campuses, the term “decolonisation” has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Understood by many as a process of confronting historic and ongoing forms of colonialism and addressing their impacts on society, some fear the concept is being selectively applied and used to tick boxes.

“If we look at the situation in Israel-Palestine right now as a case of… violent, brutal, ongoing, escalating settler-colonialism… we can understand how it would obviously come under the purview of a decolonial movement,” says Nabeela Ahmed, a human geography lecturer at the University of Sheffield in northern England.

Protest: A demonstration at the University of Essex’s campus in Colchester on 20 May 2024
[Nicole Bowden]

However, there seems to be a “really strange exception” when it comes to Palestine among scholars and university bodies, she says, adding that decolonisation is a term rooted in scholarship and movements in regions including the Middle East but which has been “widely misunderstood and appropriated”.

Safiyyah Esat, 21, a final year undergraduate student in sociology with social psychology, says they have learnt a lot about colonialism from their studies at the University of Essex in eastern England.

“The fact that Palestine is completely kept out of the narrative, it doesn’t make much sense. And this is from academics who see themselves as progressive and who dedicate their life to deconstructing colonialism”

They discuss one of their modules this year, which focuses heavily on the topic. “Palestine was not mentioned at all, which is insane,” says Safiyyah, president of the Palestine Solidarity Society at their university.

“The fact that it’s completely kept out of the narrative, it doesn’t make much sense. And [this] is from academics who see themselves as progressive and who dedicate their life to deconstructing colonialism and narratives and being critical of journalism.”

‘Where change happens’

Students are calling on Essex to make a statement “condemning Israeli war crimes”. The university’s vice-chancellor said on October 16 that the “horrifying violence in Israel and Gaza arising from” the Hamas-led October 7 attacks in Israel was “causing unimaginable suffering for those caught up in this conflict”.

The students’ demands also include severing relations with arms firm BAE Systems, with which they want the university to end an apprenticeship partnership. Essex has yet to meet the demands, Safiyyah says, adding that a meeting with the university’s registrar, a senior official, was “unproductive”.

‘Intifada for Palestine’: An Arabic-language sign at a protest at the University of Essex’s campus in Colchester on 20 May 2024 [Nicole Bowden]

“The university [is]… very resistant to change, which is funny because… we were doing our protest and in the background, we could see ‘where change happens’ plastered everywhere,” Safiyyah says.

The University of Essex picked “Where Change Happens 1964–2024” as a slogan for its 60th anniversary campaign. The phrase greets you as you pull up the institution’s profiles on social media platforms Facebook and X.

Would-be undergraduate students reading a 2025 prospectus available online will find “Where change happens” displayed prominently on the document’s front page.

Safiyyah takes issue with Essex using the slogan. “I think it’s an insult to every person who has tried so hard to make change happen. It feels like a slap in the face – them completely rejecting our calls for justice and then still having this front of being so progressive.”

But fast or slow, it seems British students will keep fighting for Palestine. The campus intifada, or uprising, has begun.

The New Arab contacted the University of Essex for comment but none was received before publication.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Nick McAlpin is a staff journalist at The New Arab

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