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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Istanbul Became The Top Destination For Russians Fleeing Conscription

Hundreds of thousands of men have left Russia since partial mobilization was announced. Turkey, which still has air routes open with Moscow, is one of their top choices. But life is far from easy once they land.

Passenger on ferry

A passenger aboard a ferry docked at Kadikoy pier in Istanbul, Turkey.

Timour Ozturk

ISTANBUL — Sitting on a bench in front of the Sea of Marmara, Albert tries to roll a cigarette despite the wind blowing his blonde hair strands. This 31-year-old political philosophy doctor is staying at a friend’s place in Kadıköy, a trendy neighborhood on the Asian bank of Istanbul and popular amongst expats.

On Friday, Sept. 23, Albert left Moscow, where he was visiting his parents, with two shirts and two pairs of pants hastily shoved in a backpack. “When I heard about the annexation referendums in the new Ukrainian territories, I knew the situation would get worse. I thought I had a few more days. But when Putin announced the partial mobilization on the morning of Sept. 21, I booked my tickets right away.”

Albert had tried to stir up a student movement against the war in St. Petersburg. He was arrested with his partner on Feb. 27, spent a night in jail and was fined a few hundred euros. They persevered and took part in protests but in April, while he was going to a demonstration, he was arrested once again. His detention lasted five days.

Albert did not hesitate to take the road of exile, but he didn’t think he would manage to escape. “I was sure the police would hand me a mobilization order at the airport. I was mentally ready to resist them, to do everything to be sent to prison rather than in Ukraine. Going to the front means becoming a murderer, or being killed.”

Questioned by customs

Custom officers eventually questioned him and about 20 other men old enough to fight. They wanted to know when they got their tickets, why they were going to Turkey and if they had gone through military service. “That’s the problem. I did my military service when I was 20. I spent a year cleaning the barracks and I never held a weapon. On paper, I have the profile of a man who can be mobilized,” he said. And yet, the officers let him board his plane for Istanbul.

Going to the front means becoming a murderer, or being killed.

The young deserter worries about his financial situation: “I will start the paperwork to get a Turkish residence permit and maybe seek asylum in Germany,” he says.

The Mir credit card service used by Russians to pay in foreign countries has worked in Turkey so far, but because of pressure from the U.S., which see it as a way to get around economic sanctions against Moscow, two Turkish banks have now stopped accepting this payment method.“ I have a bit of cash, enough for a month. My partner is supposed to join me in two or three weeks. She’s trying to sell our books and all our furniture, but it won’t be enough for the long term.”

Fully booked flights

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Istanbul has been one of the rare exit points for Russians leaving their country. Ankara has not closed its airspace to Moscow and Russian people can enter Turkey without a visa. Between 100 and 120 commercial flights connect the two countries every day. All the planes bound for Istanbul from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan have been full since the partial mobilization announcement. On the Turkish Airlines website, bookings for flights between Moscow and Istanbul are not available before Oct. 3 and the cheapest one-way tickets sell for €1,350.

In Istanbul’s airport arrival hall, a relaxed Muscovite family makes their way towards cabs. The mother, all smiles, pulls a white suitcase branded Sotchi 2014. According to her, “there is no war in Russia” and she refuses to talk about the ongoing mobilization in her country. Far from fleeing their country, most travelers are just tourists. In 2021, about 4.7 million Russians spent their holidays in Turkey, more than any other nationality.

Each plane coming from Russia brings groups of young men or single ones landing in Turkey to escape enlistment. Piotr, a 29-year-old IT developer, confesses to having no place to stay or income here: “I will manage. My job allows me to work everywhere as long as there is an internet connection. I want to leave for good. I cannot stand to live in Russia anymore,” he says. In his haste, he did not even book a hotel, but doesn’t seem to worry about it, only too happy to have escaped the army.

Russian cafes in Pera

Istanbul has not known a Russian exodus like this for a century. In 1920, the Crimean debacle of General Wrangel caused the flight of more than 100,000 soldiers of the White Army to the Ottoman capital in a few months. At the time, the French security occupation corps, which actively surveilled these refugees, considered it a "shady" environment, at risk of “fomenting the troops”.

When the occidental troops left in 1923, countesses turned cabaret dancers and tsar officers were reduced to begging all over the world. A mark of the White Army's passage stayed: Restaurants and popular night establishments such as The Black Rose and the Petrograd Cafe, founded by Russians in the Pera district. Only the Régence, a tourist attraction with an outdated atmosphere, survived until the present day.

I cannot stand to live in Russia anymore.

A hundred years later, new Russian cafes pop up in Istanbul. In the gentrified bohemian district of Rasimpaşa, Igor, 33, opened the Garo. When the conflict in Ukraine began, the tall fully-tattooed blond sold a restaurant in Moscow and decided to start a business in Turkey. On the menu, coffees, cold-infused latte and refined-herb lemonades are the fuel of young independent Russian workers leaning on their computer screens. Most of the orders are made in Russian. “We also have a Turkish employee, but it’s his day off,” says Igor, almost apologetically.

Nothing about the place leads one to believe it’s the den of opponents and deserters, except for the old Turkish edition of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, in plain view on a shelf.

Istanbul International Airport

Russian conscripts fleeing mobilization arrive by the thousands at Istanbul International Airport.

Lev Radin/Pacific Press/ZUMA

Solidarity between refugees

However, in the last few days, the Garo has become a refuge for newly arrived young Russians. “Some come here straight from the airport because they’ve heard of the cafe. They get here with all in all $20 in their pocket and ask if we have a job for them. We do our best to help them. We tell them how to get a Turkish telephone plan, a residence permit. We also have a chat on the Telegram app where Russians who have been there several months offer to take them in for a night or two,” says Igor.

Igor is waiting for a group of friends who have taken refuge in Kazakhstan and now want to reach Turkey. “I think in the next week a lot more Russians will converge towards Istanbul if the borders stay open,” he says. It is the biggest fear of asylum seekers. On Monday 26, the Kremlin’s spokesperson announced that Russian authorities “had not yet made a decision.” According to the Novaya Gazeta Europe newspaper, Russian intelligence have reported that 261,000 men had left the country since the mobilization announcement.

On a Telegram channel dedicated to border inspections, more than 100,000 people communicate daily about the crossing points. Ilya, a historian leading a clandestine revolutionary group in Russia, reads it frequently to help his comrades still stuck in the country.

In the first days of the war, he followed in the footsteps of Russia’s most popular refugee in Istanbul, Leon Trotsky. Like the Red army founder between 1929 and 1933, Ilya lives in the Princes’ Island, on the coast of the Turkish megacity. Out of solidarity, far-left Turkish activists are lending him an apartment. For months, he has been trying to organize Russian mobilization in Turkey with his comrades. “It’s hard, they’re either demoralized or they prefer to fulfill themselves individually far from Russia. The depoliticization is very strong, very few join,” says the communist activist.

A middle-class exile

A new influx of refugees could change the profile of Russian exiles who have settled in Turkey. So far they usually only have one thing in common. Intellectuals, artists, independent workers, journalists, photographers: They have a degree, most of them speak English perfectly and had already come to Turkey for holidays. For IT workers, the companies that employ them have contributed to help them find a place to stay.

Sometimes, Russians who arrived right after the war left quickly, like Lili, a young executive for an American multinational corporation who we met in the spring in the resort town of Antalya. After a few weeks in Turkey, she flew to Bali, in Indonesia.

Istanbul is as much of a popular destination for deserters as it is for Russian oligarchs.

But a settlement trend is appearing. According to the Turkish daily Dünya, traffic from Russia on one of the main property advertisement websites in Turkey has grown by 94% in the few days after the publication of the mobilization order. Through the first six months of 2022, Russians have bought around 6,000 housings, more than all of 2021, becoming the top foreign real estate buyers.

The number has to be treated cautiously. Many of these buyers are trying to get Turkish nationality by investing more than $400,000 in bricks and mortar. Wealthy Russians who, far from being opponents to Putin, could be trying to get around Western sanctions thanks to Ankara’s permissiveness. Istanbul is as much of a popular destination for deserters as it is for Russian oligarchs.

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