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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Why I Fled: Meet The Russian Men Choosing Exile Over Putin's War

After Vladimir Putin announced a national military draft, thousands of men are fleeing the country. Independent Russian news platform Important Stories spoke to three men at risk of conscription who've already fled.

Why I Fled: Meet The Russian Men Choosing Exile Over Putin's War

A mobilized man says goodbye to his daughter in Yekaterinburg.

A mix of panic, violence and soul-searching has followed Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a partial mobilization of 300,000 men to fight the increasingly difficult “special operation” in Ukraine.

Soon after the announcement, protests were reported in Moscow and around the country, with at least 2,000 people being detained during the past several days. It is still unclear how successful these protests will be.

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More notably, the mobilization decree also prompted more than 260,000 men of conscription age to leave left the country. Observers believe that number will continue to grow, especially as long as the borders stay open. Almost all men aged 18-65 are eligible, but some professions, including banking and the media, are exempt.

Vazhnye Istorii, an independent Russian investigative news platform based in Latvia, spoke to three of the many thousands who have chosen to flee the country.

Here are their testimonies, gathered in Georgia and Uzbekistan:

​Igor, 44, office worker: "I'm not going to join the ranks of this nightmare"

I served in the 1990s. They called me up, I didn't run away. Nothing that terrible happened to me, but, of course, I don’t have any happy memories of the army. After demobilization, I made a vow to myself that I would never wear a uniform again. Our army is a complete degradation without any constructiveness.

Two years of life are gone, and our brains are completely fried. It then took me about five years to recover and become a sane person — to start thinking and stop acting like an idiot. I would rather not repeat this again.

If I get to the front, I'll just shoot myself in the head.

In 2000, I was given a mobilization order, which I happily forgot about. Now, when all this horror began, I found my military ID and realized that I was at risk of criminal or administrative punishment. But it seems like lawyers said that so far, this is just an administrative punishment.

Normal people cannot possibly support war, no matter who fights with whom. If I can, I will leave our homeland... I’m not going to join the ranks of this nightmare... I am ready to go to the woods, figuratively speaking. The country is big; I will try to hide somewhere. I am an office worker, shifting papers. That is, I will lose my job if I leave. I will find myself butt-naked and broke.

I can actually imagine being called up. When the war started, I immediately thought about mobilization. And I realized: if I get to the front, I'll just shoot myself in the head. I don't want to shoot other people. I don't want to shoot myself either, but especially others.

I am now completely bewildered: I do not understand how to continue. Fortunately, I have friends who can somehow help in the beginning. I can't say that I'll find a normal job right away. After all, in Ukraine, people were left with nothing at all

Police officers clash with protesters during an anti-mobilization rally in St Petersburg.

Alexander Demianchuk/TASS via ZUMA

Nikolai, 35, graphic designer: "I have two kids. I love them so much."

I found out about the mobilization from Telegram channels, but so far no one has written or called me [to inform me that I need to come to the military enlistment office]. At the beginning of the week, we discussed emigration, my wife wanted to leave, I resisted to the last. I love my home, my country. In Russia, we have friends, parents, grandparents who need care, my daughter goes to school and classes.

Giving up everything and leaving was not an easy decision. But when the news about the mobilization appeared, it seems we had no other way out. To live in a country, to hide, to be afraid — it is unbearably difficult. I had no intention of going to war. I’d rather go to prison than to war.

Even if they put you in jail, it won't be long. The end of this regime is near.

We chose to go to Georgia because we have many friends there and this is really the closest option. We packed everything in one evening, flew to Mineralnye Vody [an airport in south Russia, close to Georgia]. There we found someone who will take us to Vladikavkaz [a city in southern Russia]. The airline lost our luggage. I was ready to sit for a day, wait for it, but my wife was determined.

When we got to Vladikavkaz, the line at the checkpoint was already about seven kilometers, people stood for 10 hours. If on the morning of the first day of mobilization the drivers charged 3,000-4,000 rubles per person, then by the evening of September 21 the prices jumped to 40,000 rubles [per person].

We found an option for 10,000 rubles. The driver was already at the front of the queue, but we had to somehow get there. It was 10-11 p.m. And we went on foot: we have two kids, one of whom is a baby in a stroller. The fact that one suitcase was lost was for the best — we would not have been able to walk. Our daughter was carrying her suitcase, I was carrying mine, my wife was carrying a stroller with a baby. But we were lucky. After about 20 minutes of this difficult road, the customs officers who were going to their shift pulled over. They took us and drove on the opposite lane with flashing lights. We were very lucky to meet good people.

You can’t cross the border on foot, so everyone is looking for a driver. But there were also more sophisticated ways. Someone was selling scooters, bicycles. At the border, they hardly asked me anything. I was holding the baby in my arms. By 8 a.m. [September 22] we were already in Tbilisi.

I do not understand who needs this war or why our country is fighting for the territories that belong to another state. Any war is depersonalization, dehumanization. And most importantly — the goal is not clear. To die for what? No one attacked us. I don't know what has to happen for me to think about the possibility of going to war. I have two kids. I love them so much. I never thought they would grow up without me… I think it's better to go to prison than to go to war. Even if they put you in jail, it won't be long. The end of this regime is near.

Mobilized men gather in a military commissariat in Irkutsk.

Alexei Kushnirenko/TASS via ZUMA

​Gennady, 30, international lawyer: "I think this is a death sentence for the Russian Federation"

I came to Tashkent (Uzbekistan). It's over 30 degrees here, flowers are blooming, I feel safe. I am registered at the military enlistment office... I was trained at the military department at the university and have the rank of lieutenant. Yesterday [Sept. 22] I got a call at 5 p.m. from a cell phone:

“Hello, we are calling from the military enlistment office. Do you have time to visit us within an hour?”

“What for?”

“Don’t you watch the news?”

“I do, but people come to the military enlistment office after receiving a summons in their hands.”

“Well, let's do it with the summons then. Where do you live now?”

I hung up and found the only ticket for right now. I bought it for 600,000 rubles with a credit card. I didn't give a fuck how much it cost, I had to get out. While riding in a taxi, I made up a story for myself. I made a fake travel pass. I thought very carefully what to say: I'm going on business; this meeting was planned a long time ago. I bought a return ticket for Sept. 29.

In Vnukovo [Moscow airport], the border guards took all the men for some kind of check. They asked questions for five minutes and let them let go. At the same time, they were mocking: “Don’t you have four children? Then, they definitely wouldn’t take you!” Everyone understood what was going on.

I was as focused as possible, but when I passed the border control, I wanted to fall to the floor and burst into tears. Mentally it was hard. During the inspection, a guy passed through the gates with me: he had a whole range of emotions on his face. It’s when you try to pretend that everything is OK, but you are not fucking OK. I say: “One way?” He says: “Yes, to Yerevan.” We wished each other good luck.

I flew to Tashkent, turned on my phone and saw a message from my relatives: these people came to my house in Rostov-on-Don around 9 p.m. The concierge said that she did not know such a man and that he did not live there.

I initially understood that there would be no delays for anyone when mobilization was announced. But I consoled myself with the hope that they would first take people who have more relevant specialties than mine. When they called me on my cell phone, I was triggered: it meant that they absolutely do not care who did what, who had what experience.

Maybe I overreacted and they just wanted to clarify who I am and where I am. But I realized: if I delay now, they will send my data to the border service and I simply will not leave Russia… Before leaving, I called my grandfather. He said: “Don't do stupid things, don't leave. First, they will take a lower class. You belong to the highest caste.” We talked on the phone for the first time since February, he is already over 80.

I say: “Grandfather, why do you think that I am in the highest caste?” He believes that all this is due to NATO. I say: “And who will be to blame that you may never see your great-granddaughter again? Also NATO?"

I think this is a death sentence for the Russian Federation.

I would like to spit in the face of those who say that the Russians began to resent what was happening only when the mobilization began. We all have our own lives and they carried on. The people who write this do not understand that for the Russians it was not a war, but a movie with popcorn. Now there is no popcorn left.

The Russian authorities have created everything so that people do not worry about this. But I was worried: my wife's grandparents live in Poltava, my uncle lives in Kyiv, my cousin lives in Izmail. I used this time to prepare for the move, to find a new job. When the war started, I realized that it was impossible to raise a child in such a country. My daughter is a year old. It’s very convenient to criticize us when you yourself are safe.

I think that now there will be an increase in violence. There will be arson, some local actions, until the first death notices begin to arrive. Then a very violent explosion is possible. I think this is a death sentence for the Russian Federation. I give half a year or a year to this state.

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First It Was Poland's Farmers — Now Truckers Are Protesting Ukraine's Special Status

For the past month, Poland has been blocking off its border checkpoints to Ukrainian trucks, leaving many in days-long lines. It's a commercial and economic showdown, but it's about much more.

Photogrqph of a line of trucks queued in the  Korczowa - border crossing​

November 27, 2023, Medyka: Trucks stand in a queue to cross the border in Korczowa as Polish farmers strike and block truck transport in Korczowa - border crossing

Dominika Zarzycka/ZUMA
Katarzyna Skiba

Since November 6, Polish truckers have blocked border crossing points with Ukraine, citing unfair advantages given to the Ukrainian market, and demanding greater support from the European Union.

With lines that now stretch for up to 40 kilometers (25 miles), thousands of Ukrainian truckers must now wait an average of about four days in ever colder weather to cross the border, sometimes with the help of the Polish police. At least two Ukrainian truck drivers have died while waiting for passage into Poland.

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The round-the-clock blockade is being manned by Polish trucking unions who claim that Ukrainian trucking companies, which offer a cheaper rate, have been transporting goods across Europe, rather than between Poland and Ukraine. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian truckers have been exempt from the permits once required to cross the border.

Now, Polish truckers are demanding that their government reintroduce entry permits for Ukrainian lorries, with exceptions for military and humanitarian aid from Europe. For the moment, those trucks are being let through the blockade, which currently affects four out of Ukraine’s eight border crossings with Poland.

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