President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a “partial” military mobilization of Russian reservists for his war in Ukraine set off a frenzied dash for the country’s borders last week.
Tens of thousands of men were affected by the order — but the exodus included many who simply assumed that their government is so desperate for troops that it would conscript any man who could carry a gun.
The emerging scale of the exodus — more than 180,000 Russians have fled just to three neighboring countries, with the full tally likely much higher — has raised questions about the Kremlin’s ability to sustain its war effort.
As more Russians cross the border, escaping the restrictions imposed by Putin’s government, they are providing a glimpse of alienation and unease spreading back home.
The mobilization is a risky and unpopular decision, bringing home the grim reality of the war to many Russians who were previously apathetic supporters of the invasion, or quiet opponents.
Putin, normally cautious about stirring dissent, promised in March not to mobilize Russians to fight. But after major setbacks in Ukraine, including the humiliating Russian retreat in the Kharkiv region, he has broken that promise.
Many have 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-up on Sept. 21.
At least 10,000 have crossed into Georgia each day — double the amount before the mobilization, according to authorities there.
Thousands more have flown to Turkey, a popular tourist destination for Russians who now see it as a hub for its exiles, who have arrived on packed commercial flights over the past week and even on chartered planes, with some paying thousands of dollars to secure a seat, according to passengers.
The Russian men who did not relish waiting to receive a letter summoning them for military service share complaints that run deeper than Putin’s draft call.
“I do not support my government, but I cannot do anything to change the situation. If you have another view from them and if you protest or write about this, you go to jail,” said a 42-year-old Russian construction worker, who fled to escape fighting in Ukraine.
The man flew through two countries in four days, spending so much on tickets, so quickly, he lost track of it all. Finally, he ended up in Turkey, where it was safe. Like others interviewed, he spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for family members still in Russia.
“The main task is to save your life,” he said, as he picked at peanuts from a plastic dish. The avalanche of men fleeing Russia “don’t know what to do next,” he said.
Some Russians who fled after the mobilization announcement said they considered leaving earlier but decided to save up first, hoping the situation might improve. Others simply delayed a decision that would result in an indefinite separation from family and home.
A 33-year-old filmmaker said he and his wife had actually decided to get out before the war, as Russia’s economy worsened and the threat of conflict loomed. After Russia invaded Ukraine, their conviction hardened: The wife’s relatives lived near Kyiv, under Russian bombardment, and the couple recoiled at Moscow’s propaganda about routing what it called “Nazis” from Ukraine, he said.
In the spring, the couple started the process of applying 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 draft call-up came. The filmmaker was not among those slated to be called up, but “we understood they will take everyone who they can catch,” he said, referring to the government.
“We understood, me and all my guy friends, this is it, the moment. If you hoped to save your business or career in Russia, it’s all gone. Now you have to think about your life,” said the filmmaker.
His mother sent him a text message on Sept. 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 out of Russia. “It was a legendary process,” he said. “You enter the dates, you choose where to go, you push the button to buy and you can’t. At this moment another 20 people are trying to buy the same ticket.” He finally found a seat on Monday and flew to Istanbul.
“I am not sad at this moment,” he said. “Maybe I have some feelings — not for the country, for some places, for some people. For my family, for my grandparents — I will not see them again. I am not sad about the country. Now the country is in a horrible condition.”
On the day of the mobilization announcement, Sergei, a 26-year-old technician from Moscow, threw his passport and essential clothes into a bag, borrowed money from friends, bought a plane ticket and headed straight to the Moscow airport. He was on one of the first flights out.
“I was in complete shock,” he said, speaking in a telephone interview from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, where he was searching for work.
“Of course I knew our government is unpredictable, but I hoped that mobilization would not happen. I had a feeling of sadness and confusion. I was at a loss. 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, grandmother and family pets, he has no plans to return, and is trying to decide where he may eventually settle.
“The problem is that an old, weird generation is at the top in our country,” he said. “They think differently from us and we can’t do anything about them. We went to protest, but nothing happened, and now people are very afraid.”
Few of the men who are fleeing Russia now will ever go back, he predicted, and the exodus would affect the country for years to come.
“Of course, the best people are leaving,” he said.