Hour after Vladimir Putin shocked Russia by announcing the first mobilization since World War II, Oleg received his draft papers in the mailbox and ordered him to come to the local recruitment center in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.
As a 29-year-old sergeant in the Russian reserves, Oleg said he always knew he would be first in line if a mobilization was declared, but had hoped he would not be forced to fight in the war in Ukraine.
“My heart sank when I got the call,” he said. “But I knew I had no time to despair.”
He quickly packed all his belongings and booked a one-way ticket to Orenburg, a southern Russian city close to the border with Kazakhstan.
“I’m driving across the border tonight,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday from the airport in Orenburg. “I have no idea when I will enter Russia again,” he added, referring to the prison sentence Russian men face for avoiding the draft.
Oleg said he will leave behind his wife, who is due to give birth next week. “I’m going to miss the most important day of my life. But I’m simply not going to let Putin turn me into a murderer in a war I don’t want to be a part of.”
The Kremlin’s decision to announce a partial mobilization has led to a rush among men of military age to leave the country, likely triggering a new, possibly unprecedented brain drain in the coming days and weeks.
The Guardian spoke to over a dozen men and women who had left Russia since Putin announced the so-called partial mobilization, or who plan to do so in the next few days.
The possibilities of escape are limited, they say. Earlier this week, four of the five EU countries that border Russia announced they would no longer allow Russians to enter on tourist visas.
Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan, Tashkent and Baku, the capitals of countries that allow Russians visa-free entry, were sold out for the next week, while the cheapest one-way flight from Moscow to Dubai cost around 370,000 rubles (£5,000) – a fee too high for most.
And so many, like Oleg, were forced to get creative and drive to some of the few country borders still open to Russians.
This was said by border guards in Finland, the last EU country that still allows entry for Russians with tourist visas they have noticed an “extraordinary number” of Russian nationals seeking to cross the border overnight, while eyewitnesses also said the Russian-Georgian and Russian-Mongolian borders were “collapsing” with overwhelming traffic.
“We are seeing an even greater exodus than when the war started,” said Ira Lobanovskaya, who started “Guide to the Free World” NGO which helps Russians against the war to leave the country.
She said her website had received over a million and a half visits since Putin’s speech on Wednesday. According to Lobanovkaya’s estimates, over 70,000 Russians who used the group’s services have already left or made concrete plans to leave.
“These are people who buy one-way tickets. They will not come back as long as the mobilization is going on,” she said.
Many of those still in Russia will feel that time is running out. At least three regions have already announced they will close their borders to draft-eligible men.
Border agents at Russian airports have also reportedly begun questioning departing male passengers about their military service status and checking return tickets.
After thousands of Russians rallied against the war and mobilization on Wednesday, some took to social media to criticize protesters for not speaking out earlier when their country’s troops committed human rights abuses in Bucha, Irpin and countless other cities across Ukraine.
“I understand people’s frustration,” said Igor, a 26-year-old IT professional from St. Petersburg, which plans to fly to Vladikavkaz and drive to Georgia, another popular escape route used by Russians, next week. “I attended the anti-war protest when Putin launched his invasion, but the authorities just imprison everyone.”
Some of the protesters detained in Moscow have subsequently been given draft messages while incarcerated, according to monitoring group OVD, further underlying the dangers average Russians face when walking the streets.
“I think the only way I can personally help Ukraine right now is by not fighting there,” Igor said.
There has also been that call that the EU supports Russians looking for a way out of the draft.
European Commission home affairs spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said the bloc would meet to discuss issuing humanitarian visas to Russians fleeing mobilization. The three Baltic states said Thursday they are not prepared to automatically offer asylum to Russians fleeing the draft, however.
Even those without military experience — men Putin promised not to call — are packing their bags.
They point to the ambiguity of Putin’s mobilization law and point to earlier broken promises that he would not call for one.
“Putin lied that there will be no mobilization,” said 23-year-old Anton, a student in Moscow. refers to to the president’s International Women’s Day speech on March 8, when he insisted that no reservists would be called up to fight in Ukraine. “Why wouldn’t he lie again about this partial mobilization?”
Fears have grown after the independent website Novaya Gazeta Europe reportedbased on its government sources, that the mobilization decrees allow the Defense Ministry to call up 1,000,000 people instead of the 300,000 that the country’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced on Wednesday.
For now, Lobanovskaya said, the majority of Russians traveling are men.
The Guardian also spoke to a number of women, mostly doctors, who similarly decided to leave the country after reports began to leak that Russia was conscripting health workers to the front.
“I know doctors are supposed to treat people, it’s our duty,” said Tatayana, a doctor from Irkutsk who bought a plane ticket to Baku for next week. “But I believe that the sooner this terrible war stops, the fewer people will die.”
The mobilization also appears to have frightened some of the people the regime depends on to sustain its war effort.
“For me, mobilization is the red line,” said Ilya, 29, a mid-level official who works for the Moscow government. “Tomorrow I will be in Kazakhstan.”
A man, the son of a Western-sanctioned oligarch, who was supposed to return to Russia after his studies abroad to work for his family business, said he no longer planned to do so.
“Well, one thing is clear,” he said in a brief interview via text message. “I’m not coming back to Russia anytime soon.”