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When news broke in late February 2022 that Russian military convoys were rolling towards Kyiv, Greg Petrov expected an uproar on the streets of Moscow. A resident of the Russian capital himself, he thought that Putin’s war would be met with outcry from his fellow countrymen and women – and that there would be sizeable resistance from within.
“I was sure that Russians would not agree, and at some point, civil protests would begin,” Greg told Byline Times. The streets of Moscow saw some demonstrations in the days following the invasion, but they were met with rapid hostility by Russian authorities. Russian human rights organisation OVD-Info estimated that more than 14,000 protestors were arrested within a month of the invasion.
“I alone was not ready to protest, because I knew that they would immediately put me in prison for this. It was necessary to wait for total civil anger,” Greg explained. In the following months, Greg became depressed at the lack of action. But it wasn’t until September that he decided to leave his homeland behind.
On 21 September 2022, Putin announced a partial mobilisation of Russian reserve forces – with defence minister Sergei Shoigu anticipating that some 300,000 men would be called up. By this point, Ukrainian forces were making major gains in recapturing territory – especially around the major city of Kharkiv. Although he was not of draft age himself, Greg called around relatives and friends to try to understand the mood on the ground.
Once again, protests broke out across Russia. Once again, they were quickly supressed – with some anti-war protestors even reportedly drafted into the military. But once again, Greg was dismayed at the lack of scale to the resistance. This was the moment he knew he needed to leave the country.
“I was sure that the women, the wives of the mobilised should start protests,” he told Byline Times. “It is impossible to live among these people, constantly being afraid of the police, that they will detain and call, that they will call your friends and colleagues. It makes no sense to be in such a society – it is impossible to work, ignoring it. There is no point in sitting and waiting for things to change.”
The widespread suppression of protests and use of intimidation tactics by the Russian authorities has made it difficult for civilians to demonstrate any level of opposition to the war.
Tyler Kustra, assistant professor of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham, said: “The protests at the beginning of the war have mostly stopped,” Kustra told Byline Times. “The level of repression right now in Russia is quite severe and Putin hit on the Machiavellian scheme of sentencing protesters to involuntary service in the Russia military. These have put a serious damper on protests.”
When he made up his mind to leave, Greg packed basic supplies and drove to the border with Kazakhstan. By this point, there were queues of cars for miles trying to get through to safety. Many men of draft age wouldn’t be permitted to leave.
It took Greg four days waiting at the border before he was able to make it through and start a new life in Kazakhstan. One of Russia’s largest neighbouring countries, it has been one of the most common destinations for Russians fleeing the draft. Tens of thousands have reportedly crossed in search of safety in the central Asian post-Soviet state.
Greg’s journey out of Russia was not an unusual one, as many Russians were forced to flee on land due to a surge in plane ticket prices out of the country. The scramble to leave the country saw plane tickets reportedly rise to as much as $5,000 as scores of Russians, many of them young men, sought to leave to avoid being sent to fight in Ukraine.
Mikhail* was among those forced to escape by road due to the cost of flights. As someone within the military service age bracket, he fled Russia when the draft was announced. He and a friend got into a car and headed straight to the Kazakh border. To him, upping roots and leaving his home country was a protest against the invasion.
“I believe that this is the only way to express opposition to this war,” Mikhail told Byline Times. “I believe I can come back one day,” he added. “Because I love my country. Unfortunately, a lot has to happen for that to happen. First of all, an end to the war between Russia and Ukraine.”
But when Mikhail reached the border by car, he realised that crossing into Kazakhstan might not be so simple. He feared that Russian border guards would block exit by road for anyone eligible for military service. In the end, he and his friend were forced to abandon their car and flee across the border on foot.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has himself repeatedly called on Russians to refuse the draft order. In a speech from September 2022, he said: “It is better not to take a conscription letter than to die in a foreign land as a war criminal. It is better to run away from criminal mobilisation than to be crippled and then bear responsibility in the court for participating in the war of aggression.”
While some Russians have built whole new lives for themselves abroad, others have met more difficulty. Viacheslav, who also moved to Kazakhstan after the draft was announced, was forced to return to Russia as he was unable to obtain a residency permit required for him to work there.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he told Byline Times . “I heard that there were some issues with customs. They were interrogating some men at the border, and I was worried about this.” When he arrived at Moscow airport, he saw the customs officers take away five men from their Almaty flight into side rooms – presumably for interrogation.
“They asked me why I spent so much time in Kazakhstan and what I had been doing,” Viacheslav explained. “I don’t feel so safe here as I did in Kazakhstan, such as with the contents of my phone and the safety of my conversations with others. A couple might have a conversation in a restaurant, and someone might call the police because they talked about the war in Ukraine.”
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While Viacheslav hopes to be exempted from the draft due to his work as an IT specialist, he nonetheless remains concerned he may have to leave the country again. He was also among the many Russians reluctant to protest in the early days of the war out of fear of police reprisal.
“I saw my friends being detained by police,” he told Byline Times. “After some time, all protests were completely repressed. Protests went into a hidden phase, people tried to make signs on walls or print papers with anti-war messages. It’s a very depressing situation here in Russia. It’s hard to feel like you can do anything in terms of protest.”
*some names have been changed to protect anonymity