Putin's Draft Order Has Inspired a Russian Exodus

Putin’s Draft Order Has Inspired a Russian Exodus


“I see two tickets from Moscow to Istanbul for Saturday.”

“Anyone know someone who is at the Verkhny Lars border crossing in a car? A friend’s son has been on foot for thirty hours—he is looking for a place to rest.”

“T. is raising money to send her son, S., out of the country. Any amount helps.”

“They are putting a mobile draft office at the Astrakhan border crossing with Kazakhstan.”

Since Vladimir Putin announced, on September 21st, that Russia would be instituting a draft, these and hundreds of other similar messages have flashed across my phone screen, in group chats suddenly repurposed for coordinating an exodus. The Russian government claimed that the draft would be “partial,” at assembling some three hundred thousand men to fight in Ukraine. But Novaya Gazeta Europe, an independent Russian-language newspaper in exile, recently reported that the actual goal is a million conscripts. Tens of thousands of people—possibly more—have left Russia since the draft began, crossing the border in the west, south, and east of the country, by plane, train, bus, private car, bicycle, and scooter, and also on feet. They are staying in hotels and hostels, in hastily rented rooms, on the couches of friends and acquaintances. About a thousand people have found shelter in a movie theater in the city of Uralsk, in Kazakhstan.

Ivan Fayt, a twenty-one-year-old furniture refinisher from Moscow, felt desperate when he heard about the draft order. For months, he had been helping people whom the Russian government refers to as refugees—Ukrainians who have been forcibly transferred to Russia—and, he told me, “that taught me that there is no law. Even if they say that they are not going to draft college students, that means nothing.” Fayt had no idea 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 city of Izyum, in 1896, and died in Seattle seventy years later. And then a miracle happened: two childhood friends, Kirill and Anastasia, told Ivan that they were driving to Georgia and there was a seat for him in the car. On the morning of Saturday, September 24th—three days after the draft began—the three of them set out from Moscow.

“We kept hearing that the border was about to close,” Ivan said. Telegram chats and channels were rebroadcasting this rumor, as were the many traffic-police officers who stopped the car along the way. So far, Russian officials do not appear to have closed any border crossings, but they have opened temporary draft offices at many of them. The young people drove all day and spent Saturday night in Rostov, a bit more than halfway to the border with Georgia—and a couple of hours from the Ukrainian border. Authorities had set up checkpoints along the road, and every 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 large city of Vladikavkaz. Later, they paid a young man a hundred dollars to get 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 saluted him,” Ivan said.

By six on Monday morning, Ivan and his friends were moving toward a queue to the border. Cars were lined up four or five across on a two-lane road. Still, cars and bicycles kept passing on the side. It seemed that some people were ditching their cars, buying used bicycles, which were going for upward of nine hundred dollars, and riding to the border. The line wasn’t moving. 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 lone cafe near the crossing was selling half-litre 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 bike were waiting to cross. Border guards were letting people through in groups of five. Conflicts broke out when people tried to cut the line. A border guard kept threatening to call special forces to detain people and turn them over to the draft office.

Around seven in the evening—more than nine hours since they ditched their car—Ivan and Anastasia were allowed to cross. Kirill was taken in for questioning. After about twenty minutes, he rejoined them and they started walking again: another forty minutes to the Georgian side of the border. They had no water. Their phones were dead. There was a long queue to cross into Georgia on foot; people in line said that they had been standing there for twelve hours. Ivan, Kirill, and Anastasia found someone with a car who agreed to drive them about a hundred yards into Georgia, for ten thousand rubles, or about a hundred and seventy dollars. They finally got to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, on Wednesday, September 28th, four days after they left Moscow and exactly a week after Putin announced the draft.

“You can tell the people who just got here,” Grigory Sverdlin, a native of St. Petersburg, told me. Sverdlin left Russia for Georgia weeks after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, in February. “The people who left half a year ago look reasonably comfortable,” he said. “But the ones who just left have post-traumatic stress written on their faces.” Some quarter million people may have left Russia back in late February and early March. The current wave of escapees may prove even bigger.

Sverdlin, who used to run the oldest and largest organization for the homeless in Russia, has launched a nongovernmental organization at helping people hide from the draft inside Russia, escape the draft by leaving Russia, or, if they have been drafted, to escape the military by surrendering to the Ukrainian side. Sverdlin, who now lives in Tbilisi, used his social media to announce the plan on Monday, September 26th. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told me when we spoke three days later. “We already have a team of six people and money to pay them salaries. We hadn’t even started a fund-raising campaign, and we are already hearing from people who want to make donations. On Thursday morning, we had a hundred volunteers. In the evening, we had three hundred volunteers, and by next week we’ll have fifteen hundred or even three thousand volunteers.”

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