Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Reuters
ANTALYA, Turkey – Near the Mediterranean Sea beach of Antalya is a small park known as Matryoshka Park, for its large sculpture of traditional Russian dolls. More than half of the dolls in the sculpture have been missing since vandals destroyed them after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Turkey is one of the countries where Russians are fleeing conscription, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to mobilize 300,000 more troops to bolster his war in Ukraine. The exodus is keenly felt in Antalya, a large city on the southwest coast of Turkey. It is a long-time Russian tourist destination that is now becoming a haven for those who don’t want to fight in the war.
Anti-war Russians began settling here in March, shortly after their country invaded Ukraine. The current influx is larger and known as the “second wave” within the local Russian community. Whole neighborhoods in the area near Matryoshka Park are now predominantly Russian. It’s the language heard on the streets and seen on restaurant signs and menus.
Two young Russian men stroll through the park, looking like they got off the plane, carrying backpacks and dressed for weather much colder than the 90 degrees Fahrenheit of Antalya. Like many Russian men in the city these days, they are easily identifiable as having fled conscription, with their meager belongings, winter outfits and stunned expressions.
These two men are from Kazan, in the semi-autonomous region of Tatarstan in southwestern Russia. They do not want to reveal their names, fearing reprisals from the Russian government.
“It’s dangerous for any man,” said one of the men, 25. “It doesn’t matter that you are old, have more than three children and have no military experience. All men are in danger.”
As Tatars, they have heard that the new Russian conscription falls heavily on ethnic minorities like them, more than on Russians living in big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. They say they know many friends who were arrested when they strongly opposed the war.
“It’s a war of the Russian government, not of the Russian people. My problem is not just mobilization, it’s war. I have relatives in Ukraine and it’s a disgusting situation for all of us,” says the other man, who is 26 years old.
Life gets complicated for Russians in Turkey
The men have been in Antalya for two weeks – having left Russia immediately after Putin’s plan was announced – and still feel as lost in Turkey as others who have just arrived today. They left their families behind and have no plans for the future. They found no answers to their many questions.
“We have to solve a lot of problems, mainly about how to live in Antalya,” says the 25-year-old.
Things have gotten complicated recently for the Russians in Turkey. Residency laws are becoming stricter in the city, making it more difficult to live and work here legally.
Another big issue is money. After facing pressure and threats of secondary sanctions from the West, Turkish banks have suspended the Mir payment system – Russia’s version of Mastercard and Visa – making it harder for Russians to get foreign currency or even pay the bill in Turkish restaurants.
There is only one cash transfer that Russians can access in Antalya – Golden Crown, a Russian transfer system. It’s never without long lines of Russians out front, but the maximum they can each withdraw per day is $200.
Russian tourists also choose to stay in Turkey indefinitely
Russians continue to come in large numbers to Antalya. According to the governor of the province, up to 19,000 Russians arrive every day. Some are fleeing trafficking and others are tourists who decide to stay.
Turkish tourism companies that work exclusively with Russians told NPR they have seen a significant increase in the number of single men booking long stays. But vacationers aren’t boarding their planes back to Russia either, and some flights are returning half-empty.
One man who chose to stay is a 34-year-old man from Moscow. He’s afraid to reveal his name, but tells NPR he bought a ticket to Turkey days after the draft, spending several thousand dollars and rushing off. He hasn’t even had time to tell his bosses, who have no idea he’s leaving the company.
“Tomorrow when I have a Skype call, I’m going to surprise them,” he laughs.
Like all the other men of fighting age who tried to leave, he too was questioned by the authorities at Moscow airport.
“I saw people who were turned away from the floor and taken to a separate room,” he says. “I couldn’t see what happened to them but I feel like they weren’t allowed to leave.”
He was one of the lucky ones because he hadn’t been recruited when he left – and he had bought his flight as a tourist package so he could pretend to be a tourist when asked why he was leaving.
But unlike other men who fled to Turkey and told NPR they would never return to Russia, this man says he will return if Russia loses the war – which he says can happen, as long as that Russia sticks to conventional weapons.
“I will go back then, because we have to rebuild,” he said. “We have to vote for new people who will choose a different path. And one day, maybe when I’m old, people will visit Russia again, because it’s a beautiful place.”
The only choice he could make now, he said, was to leave and not be forced to kill people in a war he didn’t believe in.