“I see two tickets from Moscow to Istanbul for Saturday.”
“Does anyone know anyone who is at the Verkhny Lars border crossing by car? A friend’s son has been on foot for thirty hours, looking for a place to rest.
“T. is raising funds to send his son, S., out of the country. Any amount helps.
“They are setting up a mobile recruitment office at the Astrakhan border crossing with Kazakhstan.”
Since Vladimir Putin announced on September 21 that Russia would institute a draft, these messages and hundreds of others like them have flashed across my phone screen, in group chats suddenly repurposed to coordinate an exodus. The Russian government has claimed that the project will be “partial”, aiming to muster some three hundred thousand men to fight in Ukraine. But Novaya Gazeta Europe, an independent Russian language newspaper in exile, recently reported that the real target was one million conscripts. Tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, have left Russia since conscription began, crossing the border to the west, south and east of the country, by plane, train, bus, private car , bicycle and scooter, and also on foot. They stay in hotels and hostels, in hastily rented rooms, on the sofas of friends and acquaintances. About a thousand people took refuge in a cinema hall in the city of Uralsk, Kazakhstan.
Ivan Fayt, a 21-year-old furniture restorer from Moscow, felt desperate when he heard about the commissioning project. For months he had been helping people whom the Russian government calls refugees – Ukrainians who were forcibly transferred to Russia – and, he told me, “it taught me that he doesn’t there is no law. Even if they say they won’t recruit students, that doesn’t mean anything. Fayt didn’t know what to do, so he prayed to his patron saint, John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who was born in a village outside the Ukrainian town of Izyum in 1896 and died in Seattle aged seventy. later. And then a miracle happened: two childhood friends, Kirill and Anastasia, told Ivan that they were going to Georgia and there was a place for him in the car. On the morning of Saturday, September 24, three days after conscription began, the three of them set out from Moscow.
“We kept hearing that the border was about to close,” Ivan said. Chats and telegram channels relayed this rumor, as did the many traffic police officers who stopped the car along the way. So far, the Russian authorities do not appear to have closed any border crossings, but they have opened temporary offices at many of them. The youngsters drove all day and spent Saturday evening in Rostov, just over halfway to the border with Georgia and a few hours from the Ukrainian border. The authorities had set up checkpoints along the road, and each time the young people stopped, they were approached by locals who offered to show them a shortcut to the border. They paid fifteen thousand rubles (about two hundred and fifty dollars) to follow a car through a field, bypassing the big city of Vladikavkaz. They later paid a young man a hundred dollars to ride in the car with them as they passed through some checkpoints – the temporary passenger apparently had the connections to get them through. “The police even waved at him,” Ivan said.
At six o’clock in the morning on Monday, Ivan and his friends were heading into a queue at the border. The cars were lined up in fours or fives on a two-lane road. Yet cars and bicycles continued to pass to the side. It seemed that some people were abandoning their cars, buying second-hand bicycles, which cost over nine hundred dollars, and driving to the border. The line did not move. Ivan and his friends decided to leave the car and start walking. They walked for two hours and arrived at the border at noon. The only cafe near the crossing sold half-liter bottles of water for the equivalent of nine dollars. Ivan estimated that about two thousand people who had come to the border on foot or by bicycle were waiting to cross. Border guards let people through in groups of five. Conflicts erupted when people tried to cut the line. A border guard constantly threatened to call the special forces to arrest people and hand them over to the recruitment office.
Around seven o’clock in the evening – more than nine hours since they abandoned their car – Ivan and Anastasia were allowed to cross. Kirill was taken in for questioning. After about twenty minutes, he joined them and they started walking again: another forty minutes on the Georgian side of the border. They had no water. Their phones were dead. There was a long line to walk across Georgia; people in line said they had been there for twelve hours. Ivan, Kirill and Anastasia found someone with a car who agreed to drive them a hundred yards to Georgia, for ten thousand rubles, or about one hundred and seventy dollars. They finally arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, on Wednesday September 28, four days after leaving Moscow and exactly one week after Putin announced the plan.
“You can tell people who have just arrived here,” Grigory Sverdlin, originally from St. Petersburg, told me. Sverdlin left Russia for Georgia weeks after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February. “People who left six months ago seem reasonably comfortable,” he said. “But those who have just left have post-traumatic stress written all over their faces.” Some 250,000 people may have left Russia in late February and early March. The current wave of escapees could prove to be even larger.
Sverdlin, who headed the oldest and largest homeless organization in Russia, started a non-governmental organization aimed at helping people hide from conscription inside Russia, escape conscription leaving Russia or, if they were drafted, to escape the army by going to the Ukrainian side. Sverdlin, who now lives in Tbilisi, took to his social media to announce the plan on Monday, September 26. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he told me during our conversation three days later. “We already have a team of six people and money to pay them salaries. We hadn’t even started a fundraising campaign, and we are already hearing from people who want to donate. On Thursday morning, we had a hundred volunteers. In the evening, we had three hundred volunteers, and next week we will have fifteen hundred or even three thousand volunteers.