LONDON (Reuters) – Shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a partial mobilization order over the invasion of Ukraine, brothers Timofey and Andrei from Moscow tried to buy tickets to leave Russia. But by the time they logged on to the purchase site, the prices had already skyrocketed and the few remaining tickets were out of reach.
Instead, they jumped in the car. His father drove the distance of about 700 kilometers overnight and arrived in Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus. The next morning, I took a flight to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
“I thought that if they didn’t let me out of Russia, I would have to go through the forest and illegally cross the border with Belarus,” said Andrei, 26, from Tashkent. To protect the family he left behind in his home country, the brothers did not disclose their surnames.
Tens of thousands of Russian men rushed to leave the country following Putin’s mobilization order. Many of them choose the roundabout route.
Kirill Ponomarev, 24, a journalist from Voronezh, which borders Ukraine, left for Yerevan, Armenia. He has traveled over 10,000 kilometers by car, train, and plane. It took him a week to arrive.
Ponomarev had been considering leaving Russia even before Putin’s order. I had already purchased a ticket to Yerevan, but the departure was scheduled for six days later.
But the day after Putin’s speech, Ponomarev decided the risks were too great to wait in the country. The local mayor signed an order barring reservists from leaving the state. In less than an hour, Ponomarev packed up, jumped in his car and drove 600 kilometers away to Volgograd, near the border with Kazakhstan.
There I found a cheap ticket for a long-distance train to Tajikistan. This is the route that migrant workers from Central Asia often use to travel to and from Russia.
“I think 90 percent of the passengers in my vehicle were Russians of military age.
“The officer who boarded at the border said, ‘I have never seen so many men on this train before. Where are they all going?’ They said they would go see each other,” Ponomarev recalled.
The train took 17 hours to reach Atyrau in Kazakhstan on the Caspian Sea. Ponomarev found a flight to Almaty, the commercial city of the country, and flew 2,000 kilometers further east. From there, I took a flight to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
While waiting for his flight to Yerevan, he spent most of his 11-hour layover swimming in the Persian Gulf.
Former Soviet capitals, such as Tashkent and Yerevan, where Russians can enter without a visa, are particularly suitable refuges for urban middle-class Russians who have enough money and were able to start evacuating early. It’s becoming “I booked a room in a hostel for two weeks. In fact, everyone here is Russian,” said Timofei, one of the brothers who fled from Russia to Tashkent.
“Walking around the city, I see many Russians, many IT workers, sitting in cafes and working.”
Uzbekistan allows Russians to stay for 90 days without a visa. It has announced that it will not deport Russians who enter the country to avoid conscription. Andrei and Timofei are planning to move to Turkey, where it is relatively easy for Russians to obtain residence permits.
“I’m not thinking about returning to Russia until six months or a year from now,” said Andrei.
For journalist Ponomarev, the biggest culture shock of moving to Yerevan was Armenia’s controversial democracy and relatively free press. All independent media are closed in Russia.
“I feel a certain freedom. I thought, this is a democracy,” Ponomarev added.