CHISINAU, Moldova – It took three days for two 24-year-old friends, photographer Mikhail and tech worker Dmitriy, to make the arduous journey across the 16 kilometer traffic line between Russia and Georgia.
The two men, who only wanted their first names to be revealed for fear of reprisals, were among the 261,000 who fled the country after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “partial” war mobilization Last week – a decree to send hundreds of thousands of young Russians to Fighting in Ukraine.
Mikhail and Dmitry bought plane tickets from Moscow to the city of mineral waters in Russia’s Caucasus region on Thursday, just hours after the mobilization was announced. Then they drove to the city of Vladikavkaz, where they said that they were forced to leave their car behind after being stopped by a police officer. From there, they walked and made their way across the Russian border into Georgia.
Mikhail told the Daily Beast that their mass exodus was “the most terrible time in my life.” He said it included multiple interrogations by Russian police, as well as threats of imprisonment and extortion. But the two friends were determined to escape – because they knew exactly what would happen to them if they stayed.
It felt like they were fleeing the “most hostile countries” in the world, Mikhail told The Daily Beast. “During one of the interrogations by the traffic police, I had to show my unusual mother-in-law and lie to them that I had cancer. They believed me and let us go but only to the next checkpoint, where we were interrogated again.”
Rumors that the Federal Security Service is about to close Russia’s borders as thousands continue to flee the country have fueled panic among citizens desperate to evade conscription. Rows of traffic on Russia’s borders with Georgia and Kazakhstan now stretch dozens of miles, with fleeing citizens often leaving their bags and vehicles behind in the chaos.
“We were treated as enemies in our country,” said Mikhail. “I can’t blame them, they are our enemies, and we can’t even think of killing people in Ukraine!”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Telegram users in the Russian group chat “Border Control” have documented their experiences trying to flee Russia.
“It seems [border authorities] Now we have lists of people banned from leaving, they asked me about the purpose of my travel and checked some databases,” wrote a user from Domodedovo Airport on Tuesday, who was leaving Moscow for Yerevan in Armenia. The price of a plane ticket skyrocketed from $300 on Thursday to nearly $1,000 on Monday.
Those who fled Russia leave behind some horrific scenes in their cities. Russian law enforcement authorities have been accused of beating and detaining thousands of anti-war protesters who took to the streets to protest the mobilization. The police were accused of raping the activist, poet Artem Kamardin, with a dumbbell. Videos of inexperienced men sent to the combat zones of Ukraine have spread on Russian social media channels.
“The defense lawyer told me that if Putin decided to charge us with a crime because of his defection from the mobilization, Kazakhstan might send me back to Russia,” said Alexander, the 38-year-old business manager, who fled to Kazakhstan this week. Daily beast. There were people crying, arguing and screaming in line at the border. I crossed the border last night on foot with only my backpack. I have no future plans but I am still terrified that the Kazakhs might expel me.”
Photographer Mikhail had four heavy cameras in his backpack and a laptop. His friend Dmitry was also carrying heavy luggage. After hiking several miles across the border line, the two were lucky to find someone they knew traveling by car.
“There was no room for us but at least some space for our luggage, so we walked in and our friends kept waiting in that line,” said Mikhail. “But after waiting for three days, the people began to fight over a spot in the line, and at last our friends turned around and went back to Moscow with our luggage.”
Another Russian fugitive, 38-year-old Konstantin, brought no luggage with him, only a motorbike. Before the war, he was a tour guide leading expeditions in some remote regions of Russia. But even for Konstantin, the trip was “nervously nerve-wracking,” he told The Daily Beast.
Photographer Oksana Yushko also traveled 18 km across the Georgian border on Monday. She had water, but no food. “They do not let the citizens of the Caucasus go, or at least interrogate them for a long time in a separate room,” she told The Daily Beast.
For 31-year-old planner Alexei Lisin, the journey from his hometown of Kazan to the Georgian border took nearly four days. “I spent 15 hours in the border traffic, with no movement, so I decided to take a walk in the pouring rain all the way to the border,” Lisin told The Daily Beast. “The whole trip cost me $1,500. That’s a lot of money for me but it was worth it – even though I have absolutely no plan for my future life in Georgia.”
In his recent comments to The Daily Beast, Mikhail said he believed “100 percent” he would have died had he been sent to Ukraine. “Now I feel completely naked without any of my belongings,” he said. “But I’m really breathing free here in Georgia.”
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