Mikhail still can’t believe his luck. And since he doesn’t quite believe it, he is afraid. Right now he should be on his way to the front or to a military base where he will receive a short training before being deployed to Ukraine, but in reality he is in Turkey. It was a matter of hours. The same day he landed in Istanbul, a military officer came to his home in Moscow to order his induction into the Russian Armed Forces.
“I love my country, very much, although not this government. But when I heard on the news that you can be sentenced to 10 years in prison if you refuse to go kill people in another country, I understood that it was time to leave,” explains Mijaíl over the phone, who, for security reasons, asks not to publish his real name and hide some of the details he has shared with EL PAÍS. As in many other Russian homes, the hours that followed the decree of “partial mobilization” signed by Vladimir Putin on September 21, were frantic and agonizing. He knew that he could be one of the first mobilized. He is a young man of 26 years, athletic and during his mandatory military service he went through a special forces unit. He had all the ballots to receive the call up.
“We were three people – my mother, my girlfriend and I – trying to buy a ticket for me, no matter what country it was. We tried about 40 times and it always gave an error, ”she says. “I even bought a flight to Yekaterinburg to go from there to Kazakhstan by bus. Although finally I was able to buy a ticket to Istanbul”, continues Mijaíl. In the early hours of September 22 he landed in the Turkish metropolis. “I felt free,” he exclaims.
With air connections to European Union countries from Russia suspended, Turkey has become one of the main destinations for fleeing Russians – to stay or as an intermediate stage to another country – since they do not require a visa. entry. More than 120 flights arrive in Turkey every day from various Russian cities, but the demand has skyrocketed so much that Turkish Airlines has changed the planes it uses for others with greater capacity, according to company sources explained to the local press. During the last two weeks, it was practically impossible to get a ticket and those that currently exist exceed 1,000 euros each way. The situation is similar on the website of the Russian company Aeroflot, where there are less than four free seats per route for next week’s flights.
“If they send you to Ukraine, you will die”
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Alexander Dobromislov was somewhat more farsighted. He had long wanted to leave his country. “But at the beginning of the war the ruble lost so much value that I couldn’t afford to buy a plane ticket,” he laments, sitting on the terrace of a café in Istanbul. He made various plans and began to save. On the 20th, when pseudo-referendums were announced in the occupied territories of Ukraine aimed at justifying its annexation to Russia, this young doctoral student in Political Science at Moscow University smelled that the mobilization – a constant rumor in Russia for months – was about to happen. arrive, and got a seat on a plane to Istanbul. “My studies officially ended on September 30, so from then on he could be mobilized. My skills as an expert in Political Science are not something that interests this Government, which only needs propagandists. I only serve as cannon fodder for them to die at the front. Anyone who has a chance to escape does so, because he knows that if they send you to Ukraine you are going to die.”
Most of the flights arriving in Turkey are still full of tourists – two thirds of the planes coming from Russia are destined for the cities of the Mediterranean coast – but among the passengers there are more and more young men who escape the mobilization and don’t believe Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s promise that it will be limited to 300,000 reservists. “Basically, any man over the age of 18 feels in danger. Because, as much as they have called it partial mobilization, they are recruiting completely randomly. To people who died two years ago, to people over 50, to people who have five children. They try to recruit everyone they can,” explains Eva Rapoport, a Russian resident in Istanbul who participates in the Kovcheg (The Ark) project, financed by businessman and opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky to support Russians fleeing their country.
“We have had thousands of queries and requests for legal assistance in recent days,” he details. Their Telegram group, in which they share advice on how to leave Russia, has grown by 65,000 members since the levy was announced. And they have also received hundreds of requests for shelter in the apartments that this organization maintains in Istanbul and in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and in which it allows temporary accommodation until those affected find something more permanent.
Also many of the Russians who left for other countries at the beginning of the conflict because of their opposition to the war have opened their homes and lend mattresses and sofas to their recently fled compatriots. Since the beginning of the year, the number of Russians with a residence permit in Turkey has almost doubled, up to the 109,349 notified by the Migration Department of the Turkish Ministry of the Interior on September 29. And they are not all included there, because those who have a Russian passport can stay 90 days in Turkey without registering.
No chance of return
The most stressful moment that political science doctoral student Alexander Dobromislov experienced during his flight was when, after passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetievo airport, he was ordered, along with many other men, to go to a room to check his military status. “It was the most tense, but they treated us well and, in fact, told us that we could all continue,” he says. “I think hardly anyone is having a problem getting out. It’s probably because, statistically speaking, not many of us have left [aunque cientos de miles de personas han abandonado ya el territorio ruso] as they still have a lot of people to recruit in a country of 140 million people. Or maybe Putin prefers that those of us who oppose him leave so we don’t cause trouble. But there are also rumors that they could ban all men of military age from leaving, and who knows how long that ban will last, ”he muses.
Of those arriving in Istanbul now, most are unclear on how they will survive: they have simply packed their essentials, grabbed their bags and fled. They also know that they may not be able to return to their country for a long time, especially if they have been called up, since desertion carries penalties of 10 years in prison, more than the minimum sentence for murder (about six years). “I think I will never see my country again. For me it is very painful: I leave a son there”, laments Mijaíl: “I have nothing more than 1,000 euros, and no plan. But at least I’m free and I’m alive.”
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