Since Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s first mobilisation since the second world war last Wednesday, povestka, or draft papers, have been delivered to people across the country.
As husbands, brothers and sons bade emotional farewells to families before they left to fight in Ukraine, others were scrambling to find a way to leave Russia, spurred by reports that some conscripts were being sent directly to the frontlines without training.
Options for routes out of Russia are dwindling, with plane tickets sold out and some neighbouring countries preparing to close their borders to Russian tourists and asylum seekers.
Here, three Russians share how the Kremlin’s partial mobilisation has affected them, and what they are planning next.
‘I made it to Kazakhstan on a train full of men’
Kirill, an English teacher from the south of Russia, was “shocked and dumbfounded” when news of the mobilisation broke.
By Wednesday evening, the 28-year-old had come to the conclusion that he had to flee. “By then, plane tickets had surged in price and were completely unattainable. However, there was a train to Kazakhstan from my city. I got on that train on Friday, with a lot of other people like me. I’d say 80% of the people onboard were Russian guys aged 20-45.
“I am now in a short-term rental apartment in Atyrau, until Friday, so I can figure out my next move. I’m doing the paperwork for a 90-day permit to stay, and for getting a local bank account. The local housing market is already very squeezed, and there are more people coming every day.”
Going back to Russia before the war is over, Kirill says, is probably not an option, while reactions of Kazakh locals to trains full of new arrivals like him have been mixed.
“While there are some people who are annoyed by our presence, the response has been mostly one of understanding and sympathy. My landlord showed such kindness that it almost made me cry, and won’t charge me the extortionate price others are asking for because he doesn’t want to profit off my situation.
“My mum was so relieved when I got to Kazakhstan. She has been following independent news, and understands what it means to be sent to the frontline.”
‘We are trying to run, but don’t know if we can’
Vladimir, 20, and two friends of the same age, had dreamed of moving to the Czech Republic to study for natural science degrees in 2024. But last week, the future the three young men had been working towards collapsed.
“We are very scared. We want to run,” he says. “We are so young, we have so many plans, but the state thinks otherwise. We were promised that there would be no mobilisation. We feel betrayed. The Kremlin lies, all the time. They look at us like toys.”
Vladimir says he and his friends are determined to escape, and have begun studying English and pooling their money.
Plane tickets out, he says, are extortionate, but they hope to find a country in Asia they can afford to travel to.
“The world is changing very quickly. Sanctions have made it difficult to get into eastern Europe, the energy crisis has made living in Europe too expensive. We are considering Georgia, Malaysia, Thailand. Each of us has about 300,000 rubles [£4,800]. Can we make it out with that?
“We cannot write in English, but we use a translation app, watch YouTube videos in English now, and read a British article about the Russian economy the other day. We don’t care what happens next. Our decision is final.”
‘I can’t get out, and might become cannon fodder’
Konstantin, 25, from Moscow, says he cannot leave. He and his wife had been planning to leave the country when the war began, but, he says, “It’s too late now.”
“The plan was for me to get into data science, get a remote job and go to Turkey or Georgia. But I might get conscripted any moment, the borders may close soon, and we don’t have enough money to buy tickets, let alone rent an apartment and live abroad. My wife also has a daughter from a previous marriage, and we can’t take her with us without her father’s legal permission.”
Konstantin has, as things stand now, only one option, he says.
“I’m going to avoid getting conscripted at all costs. If I have to break my arm, I’ll do it, if I have to break a policeman’s jaw and go to jail, so be it. But I will not become an invader, I will not kill innocent people because a murderous lunatic wants me to.
“My wife is very scared and anxious; she cries pretty much every day. I tell her everything is going to be OK.”
Konstantin says his parents worry too, but can’t help him financially with his escape as their business was destroyed by sanctions after the annexation of Crimea.
Even if he could find the money to get out on his own, he has doubts whether he would be able to do so for much longer. “A young healthy man leaving the country now? That’s a red flag. News comes every few hours that people may be forbidden to leave Russia by border security, or may be denied entry to countries such as Georgia, for example.
“I feel as if I’m being boiled, slowly. I come from a poor family from the North Caucasus. Through hard work, I made my way to Moscow, and finished medical school. And now, I’m supposed to leave my beautiful family – not to defend my home, but to become cannon fodder?
“I am full of rage.”
*All names have been changed