Russian men flee Putin’s partial mobilization order for war in Ukraine


ISTANBUL — To escape the fighting in Ukraine, the 42-year-old Russian construction worker crossed two countries in four days, spending so much on tickets, so fast, that he lost sight of everything. Eventually he ended up in Turkey, where he was safe. As he paused for breath on Tuesday, on plastic seats in the airport’s arrival hall, he admitted he had no idea what to do next.

But maybe that didn’t matter. “The main task is to save your life,” he said, picking peanuts from a plastic dish. The avalanche of men fleeing Russia “don’t know what to do next”, he said.

President Vladimir Putin’s announcement last week of a ‘partial’ military mobilization of Russian reservists for his war in Ukraine sparked a frantic race to the country’s borders by tens of thousands of men affected by the order – but also many who simply assumed that their government, desperate to find troops, would enlist any man capable of carrying a gun.

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Mobilization is a risky and unpopular move, reminding many Russians of the grim reality of war who were previously apathetic supporters of the invasion or quiet opponents. Putin, normally cautious about stirring up dissent, promised in March not to mobilize Russians to fight. But after major setbacks in Ukraine, including the humiliating Russian retreat to the Kharkiv region, he broke that promise.

The emerging scale of the exodus has raised questions about Russia’s ability to sustain its war effort. And as Russian men venture beyond its borders, and the restrictions imposed by Putin’s government, they provide a glimpse of the alienation and unease that is spreading at home.

Many fled to Kazakhstan, according to the country’s interior ministry, which said nearly 100,000 Russians had entered the country since Putin announced the call on September 21. At least 10,000 people have entered Georgia every day – double the amount before the mobilization, according to local authorities.

And thousands of people have flown to Turkey, still a popular tourist destination for Russians and now a hub for its exiles, who have arrived on packed commercial flights over the past week and even on charter planes, some paying thousands of dollars for a seat, according to passengers.

The construction worker, who like other interviewees spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for family members still in Russia, has come a long way. He flew from the Russian city of Sochi to Tajikistan on September 23, then to Uzbekistan. Early Tuesday morning, he flew to Istanbul, from where he planned to travel to the southern Turkish resort of Antalya, long a favorite of Russian visitors.

Back home, he hadn’t waited to receive a letter summoning him to military service. And, in any case, his complaints went further than mobilization.

“I don’t support my government, but I can’t do anything to change the situation. If you have another point of view from them and protest or write about it, you go to jail,” he said.

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Like other men who had fled, he worried about his family members left behind. His mother, he says, “is nervous and stressed for me”. His visa in Turkey only allows him to stay for two months, but that was a problem for later.

A 32-year-old man who arrived in Istanbul on Tuesday said he left behind his wife and one-year-old son. “Of course it was a very difficult decision,” said the man, an ethnic Ukrainian who said he was born and lived his whole life in Russia.

The government, he said, was conscripting men “en masse”. Neighbors and friends had been called. “I had no choice. I can’t go to war and kill people in Ukraine. And if I stayed, there was no other option. He and his wife decided he had to leave the day Putin announced the mobilization.

“In one day, I quit my job, took the money from the bank, took my wife and baby to my parents. My whole life is falling apart,” he said.

For most Russians traveling to Kazakhstan, the first stop is the Kazakh town of Oral, 260 km south of Samara, the nearest Russian city with an airport. Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a local investigative journalist, said he took a Russian woman and her 19-year-old son to his apartment, with full hotels and rental apartments.

The city is full of thousands of young Russian men of military age walking around with cellphones in their hands, dragging or carrying their bags, he said. “They all look very confused and lost. They look like a person who has done something very unexpected for himself and he doesn’t know what to do next. They don’t look happy. And they are very, very quiet.

Volunteers have set up a reception tent near Central Station, he said, offering newly arrived Russians free SIM cards, meals, water and hot drinks. Several local cafes, now open all night, allow Russians to stay if they have nowhere to go.

The city’s cinema did the same, and 200 people sleep there every night, Akhmedyarov said. Others sleep at the local mosque, he added.

Many new arrivals had to spend three days in a line of cars at the border, compared to only a few hours the first two days after the mobilization was announced. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Tuesday his country would welcome fleeing Russians, calling their situation “hopeless” and saying they were “forced to leave”.

“It’s a political and humanitarian issue,” he said.

Photos show 10-mile line on Russian border as many flee mobilization

Some Russians who fled after the mobilization announcement said they considered leaving early but decided to save first, hoping the situation might improve. Others simply delayed a decision that would lead to an indefinite separation from family and home.

A 33-year-old filmmaker said he and his wife actually decided to leave before the war, as Russia’s economy deteriorated and the threat of conflict loomed. After Russia invaded Ukraine, their beliefs hardened: the woman’s relatives lived near Kyiv, under Russian bombardment, and the couple backed down in the face of Moscow’s propaganda about the expulsion of what she called the “Nazis” of Ukraine, he said.

In the spring, the couple began the application process to travel to the United States on a talent visa for artists, but still hoped they could take their time leaving Moscow, he said.

Then the announcement of the mobilization came. The filmmaker was not among those to be called, but “we understood that they would take anyone they could catch,” he said, referring to the government.

“We got it, me and all my fellow guys, this is it, the moment. If you were hoping to save your business or your career in Russia, it’s all gone. Now you have to think about your life.

His mother texted him on September 21, he said. “You have to go now,” she wrote. “You can’t wait.”

He and his wife discussed what to do for about half an hour and then he started trying to book his ticket. outside of Russia. “It was a legendary process,” he said. “You enter the dates, you choose where to go, you press the button to buy and you can’t. Right now there are 20 other people trying to buy the same ticket. He finally found a seat on Monday and flew to Istanbul.

“I’m not sad right now,” he said. “Maybe I have feelings – not for the country, for some places, for some people. For my family, for my grandparents, I won’t see them again. I’m not sad for the country. Now , the country is in a horrible state.

On the day the mobilization was announced, Sergei, a 26-year-old technician from Moscow, threw his passport and his basic clothes in a bag, borrowed money from friends, bought a plane ticket and headed straight for Moscow airport. He was on one of the first flights.

“I was completely in shock,” he said in a phone interview from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, where he was looking for work.

“Of course, I knew that our government was unpredictable, but I hoped that there would be no mobilization. I had a feeling of sadness and confusion. I was lost. Now I hope that none of my friends who are still in Russia will be drafted. I’m really scared for them,” he said.

Although he left behind his parents, his grandmother and his pets, he has no intention of returning and is trying to decide where he could possibly settle down.

“The problem is that a weird old generation is at the top in our country,” he said. “They think differently from us and we can’t do anything against them. We went to protest, but nothing happened, and now people are very scared.

Few of the men fleeing Russia now will return, he predicted, and the exodus would affect the country for years to come.

“Of course the best people leave,” he said.

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. Natalia Abbakumova contributed reporting from Riga.


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