Russian men take the long road out to escape mobilisation


  • World
  • Tuesday, 04 Oct 2022

FILE PHOTO: A Russian reservist bids farewell to relatives before his departure for a base in the course of partial mobilisation of troops, aimed to support the country's military campaign in Ukraine, in the town of Gatchina in Leningrad Region, Russia October 1, 2022. REUTERS/Igor Russak/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - As soon as Vladimir Putin announced his military call-up for the faltering war in Ukraine, Timofey and Andrey, two brothers from Moscow, tried to book flights out of the country. But by the time they had logged on, prices had already shot up so fast that they couldn't afford the last remaining tickets out.

Instead, they jumped in the car. Their father drove them through the night some 700 km (450 miles) to Minsk in neighbouring Belarus. There, they got a flight the next morning to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

"We thought we might have to cross the [Belarusian] border illegally through the forests if they didn't let us out of Russia," said Andrey, 26, speaking from Tashkent. Both brothers asked that their surname be withheld to protect family back home.

Putin's call-up order has prompted tens of thousands of Russian men to flee the country, often by circuitous routes.

Kirill Ponomarev, a 24-year-old journalist from Voronezh close to Ukraine, set out to reach Yerevan in Armenia. It took him a week on a journey by car, train and plane spanning more than 10,000 km (6,000 miles).

Even before Putin made his announcement, Ponomarev was planning to leave: he already had a ticket booked for Yerevan but was not due to fly for another six days.

The day after Putin's speech, Ponomarev decided it was too risky to wait. The regional governor signed a decree banning reservists from leaving the province. Ponomarev took barely an hour to pack before hopping in a car for 600 km (370 mile) drive to Volgograd, close to the border with Kazakhstan.

There, he found a cheap ticket on a long-distance train bound for Tajikistan, which typically carries Central Asian migrant workers to and from Russia.

"My sense was that 90% of my carriage 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 they were going to see their relatives, their grandmother or their girlfriend."

The train took 17 hours to reach the remote Kazakh oil city of Atyrau on the Caspian Sea. There, Ponomarev found a flight to Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty, another 2,000 km (1,200 miles) east. From there, he caught a flight to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

He made the most of an 11-hour stopover to visit the beach and swim in the Gulf, before finally flying on to Yerevan.

HAVENS

Tashkent and Yerevan, like other capitals of former Soviet states that let in Russians without visas, have become havens, especially for members of the Russian 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 virtually everyone here is Russian," said Timofey, one of the Moscow brothers in Tashkent. "If you walk around the city, you see a lot of Russians, a lot of IT workers, sitting and working in cafes."

Uzbekistan allows Russians to stay without a visa for 90 days, and has said it will not deport Russians who come to avoid conscription. Andrey and Timofey plan to move on to Turkey where Russians can obtain residency permits relatively easily.

"I don’t expect to return to Russia in the next six months or a year," Andrey said.

For Ponomarev the journalist, the biggest culture shock of moving to Yerevan was Armenia's raucous democracy and comparatively free press, after leaving Russia where all independent media have been shut.

"You can feel a certain kind of freedom," he said. "You feel that it’s a democratic country."

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Peter Graff)

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