huhours after Vladimir Putin shocked Russia by announcing the first mobilization since World War II, Oleg received his draft papers in the letterbox and ordered him to make his way to the local recruitment center in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.
A 29-year-old sergeant on the Russian reserves, Oleg said he always knew he would be first in line if a mobilization was called, but he hoped he would not be forced to fight in the war in Ukraine.
“My heart sank when I got the call,” he said. “But I knew I had no time to despair.”
He quickly packed his things and booked a one-way ticket to Orenburg, a southern Russian city near the border with Kazakhstan.
“Tonight I will drive across the border,” he said in a telephone interview from the airport in Orenburg on Thursday.
“I have no idea when I will set foot in Russia again,” he added, referring to the jail term Russian men risk for avoiding conscription.
Oleg said he will leave his wife behind, who is due to give birth next week.
“I will miss the most important day of my life. But I just won’t let Putin turn me into a murderer in a war I don’t want to play a part in.”
The Kremlin’s decision to announce a partial mobilization has sparked a stampede among military-aged men to leave the country, likely triggering another, possibly unprecedented, brain drain in the days and weeks to come.
The Guardian spoke with more than a dozen men and women who had left Russia since Putin announced, or plan to do so in the coming days, the so-called partial mobilization.
The options for fleeing are limited, they say. Earlier this week, four of the five EU countries bordering Russia announced that they will no longer allow Russians on tourist visas.
Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan, Tashkent and Baku, the capitals of countries where Russians enter visa-free, sold out the following week, while the cheapest one-way flight from Moscow to Dubai cost about 370,000 rubles (£5,000) – for most a compensation too high.
And so many, like Oleg, were forced to get creative and drive to some of the few land borders still open to Russians.
Border guards in Finland, the last EU country to still allow Russians with tourist visas, said they have noticed an “exceptional number” of Russian nationals trying to cross the border at night, while eyewitnesses also said that Russian-Georgian and Russian-born The Mongolian borders are “collapsing” with overwhelming traffic.
“We’re seeing an even bigger exodus than when the war started,” said Ira Lobanovskaya, who founded the NGO “Guide to the free World” that helps Russians leave the country against the war.
She said her website had received more than 1.5 million visits since Putin’s speech on Wednesday. Lobanovkaya estimates that more than 70,000 Russians who have used the group’s services have already left or have made concrete plans to leave.
“These are people who buy a one-way ticket. They will not come back as long as the mobilization is ongoing.”
Many of those still in Russia will feel that time is running out. At least three regions have already announced that they will close their borders to men eligible for conscription.
Border agents at Russian airports have also reportedly started questioning departing male passengers about their military service status and checking return tickets.
After thousands of Russians rose up against the war and mobilization on Wednesday, some took to social media to criticize protesters for failing to speak out before their country’s troops committed human rights abuses in Bucha, Irpin and countless other cities in Ukraine.
“I understand people’s frustration,” said Igor, a 26-year-old IT professional from St. Petersburg, who plans to fly to Vladikavkaz next week and drive to Georgia, another popular flight route used by Russians. . “I attended the anti-war protest when Putin launched his invasion, but the authorities just jailed everyone.”
Some of the protesters detained in Moscow have subsequently received draft notices while incarcerated, according to the monitoring group OVD, further underpinning the dangers Russians face when they take to the streets.
“I think the only way I can personally help Ukraine is not to fight there,” he said.
There have also been calling for the EU to support Russians looking for a way out of the draft.
European Commission Home Affairs spokesman Anitta Hipper said the bloc would meet to discuss issuing humanitarian visas to Russians fleeing mobilization. However, the three Baltic states said Thursday they were not prepared to automatically offer asylum to Russians fleeing conscription.
Even those without any military experience—men Putin promised not to call—pack their bags.
They point to the ambiguity of Putin’s mobilization law and point to previous broken promises that he would not advocate for it.
“Putin lied that there will be no mobilization,” 23-year-old Anton, a student in Moscow, said. referring to the president’s speech on International Women’s Day on March 8, when he insisted that no reservists be called up to fight in Ukraine. “Why wouldn’t he lie one more time about this partial mobilization?”
Fears have increased after the independent website Novaya Gazeta Europe reported, citing its government sources, that the mobilization decrees will allow the Defense Ministry to call up 1,000,000 people, instead of the 300,000 that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered on Wednesday. had announced.
For now, Lobanovskaya said, most of the Russians leaving are men.
The Guardian also spoke to a number of women, mostly medics, who similarly decided to leave the country after reports began to trickle in that Russia was calling health workers to the front.
“I know that doctors have to treat people, that’s our duty,” said Tatayana, an Irkutsk doctor who bought a plane ticket to Baku for next week.
“But I believe that the sooner this terrible war ends, the fewer people will die.”
The mobilization also appears to have deterred some of the people the regime relies on to support its war effort.
“For me, mobilization is the red line,” said Ilya, 29, a middle official who works for the Moscow government. “I’ll be in Kazakhstan tomorrow.”
One man, the son of a Western-sanctioned oligarch who was due to return to Russia after studying abroad to work for his family business, said he no longer intended to.
“Well, one thing is clear,” he said in a short interview via text message. “I will not come back to Russia anytime soon.”