- FELIX LIGHT
London, United Kingdom
As soon as Vladimir Putin announced his military call for the failing war in Ukraine, Timofey and Andrey, two brothers from Moscow, tried to book flights out of the country. But by the time they logged on, prices had already soared so fast they couldn’t afford the last remaining tickets.
Instead, they jumped into the car. Their father drove them around 700 kilometers overnight to Minsk in neighboring Belarus. There they took a flight the next morning to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
“We thought maybe we should cross the [Belarusian] illegally cross the forests if they don’t let us out of Russia,” said Andrey, 26, speaking from Tashkent. Both brothers asked that their surname be withheld to protect the family back home.
A Russian reservist bids farewell to relatives before departing for a base as part of a partial troop mobilization, aimed at supporting the country’s military campaign in Ukraine, in the town of Gatchina in the Leningrad region, Russia , October 1. PHOTO: Reuters/Igor Russak/File Photo.
Putin’s appeal order prompted tens of thousands of Russian men to flee the country, often through circuitous routes.
Kirill Ponomarev, a 24-year-old journalist from Voronezh near Ukraine, left to join Yerevan in Armenia. It took him a week to travel by car, train and plane over 10,000 kilometers.
Even before Putin made his announcement, Ponomarev was planning to leave: he had already booked a ticket to Yerevan but was not due to fly for six days.
The day after Putin’s speech, Ponomarev decided it was too risky to wait. The regional governor signed a decree prohibiting reservists from leaving the province. Ponomarev took barely an hour to pack his bags before jumping into a car for the 600 kilometer drive to Volgograd, near the border with Kazakhstan.
There he found a cheap ticket on a long-distance train to Tajikistan, which typically carries migrant workers from Central Asia to and from Russia.
“I felt like 90% of my team were Russian men of military age. Everyone looked at each other in silence, but we all understood what was going on,” he said.
“At the border, a guard got on the train and said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen so many men on this train, where are you all going?'” he added. “Everyone said he was going to see his relatives, his grandmother or his girlfriend.”
The train took 17 hours to reach the remote Kazakh oil town of Atyrau on the Caspian Sea. There, Ponomarev found a flight to Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, 2,000 kilometers to the east. From there he flew to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
He took advantage of an 11-hour layover to visit the beach and swim in the Gulf, before finally flying to Yerevan.
Tashkent and Yerevan, like other capitals of former Soviet states that let Russians in without visas, became havens, especially for members of Russia’s urban middle classes who were able to move quickly and had resources to escape. .
“We booked a room in a hostel for two weeks – and practically everyone here is Russian,” said Timofey, one of the Muscovite brothers in Tashkent. “If you walk around the city, you see a lot of Russians, a lot of IT people, sitting and working in cafes.”
Uzbekistan allows Russians to stay visa-free for 90 days and has said it will not deport Russians who come to avoid conscription. Andrey and Timofey plan to go to Turkey where Russians can get residency permits quite easily.
“I don’t expect to return to Russia in the next six months or a year,” Andrey said.
For journalist Ponomarev, the biggest culture shock of moving to Yerevan was Armenia’s noisy democracy and relatively free press, after leaving Russia where all independent media were shut down.
“You can feel a certain kind of freedom,” he said. “We feel that it is a democratic country.”