ISTANBUL – In just over 12 hours after hearing that Russian civilians could be pressured into military service in Ukraine, the young tour guide bought a plane ticket, changed money, bought a laptop, finished his work, kissed his mother crying goodbye and boarded the plane . A plane to leave his country, with no idea when he will return.
On Thursday morning, he walked into the sunken arrivals hall at Istanbul International Airport with only a backpack and the address of his friend who promised him to put it down while he figured out what to do with his life.
“I was sitting and thinking what I could die for, and I saw no reason to die for the country,” said the tour guide, 23, who, like others interviewed for this article, declined to be named. Fear of retaliation.
Since President Vladimir Putin announced a new call-up on Wednesday, waves of Russian men who previously thought they were safe from being forced to join the front lines have realized they can’t count on staying out of their country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Some have left the country in a hurry, paying increasing prices to catch flights to countries like Armenia, Georgia, Montenegro and Turkey that allow them entry without visas.
Alexander, the 37-year-old CEO from Moscow, did not finish listening to Mr. Putin’s announcement on Wednesday. Instead, he started packing. Minutes later, he left his apartment and headed to the airport, looking for tickets available on the way.
There wasn’t really anything available for his favorite destinations, like Istanbul, so he chose Namangan, Uzbekistan, a city he’d never heard of. He spent the afternoon at the airport near Moscow, hoping to pass through passport control as quickly as possible, fearing that the border would be closed to reservists at any time.
“I realized that the stakes were very high,” Alexander said in a phone interview from Namangan. “I was already prepared for everything, and they would push me to the border.” He said the plane was full of people like him – “bending young men with laptops”. The neighbor’s passenger had never heard of Namangan before.
Returning to Moscow, Alexander’s wife was in shock. Suddenly, she was left alone with her three children. “I am terrified; my hopes that things will still be somewhat alright today have collapsed.”
Some Russian men arrived in Istanbul with huge bags stuffed with clothes and other personal items which they hoped would make it easier for them to establish a new life elsewhere. Others left hurriedly with small bags containing some changes of clothes.
Many said they would not return home while the threat of conscription loomed. But the surprise of their departure means that few have specific plans for what they will do next.
The tour guide, a reservist soldier, said he had already arranged a temporary place to stay in Istanbul and that he hoped to improve his English and possibly work as a tour guide in Turkey.
A merchant navigator, named only as Dmitriy, 26, said he would wait in Turkey until he found a new ship to work on. Once he heard the news, he said, “I decided I needed to leave now.”
Over the past 24 hours, his friends have been messaging and calling each other to explore their options and consult Telegram channels where people exchange information about conditions at Russian airports and border crossings. With airline tickets sold out, some Russian men were looking forward to driving to Georgia and Finland, according to several chats on Telegram.
The navigator said that most of his friends stayed in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, and they felt that the war would not affect them much. But now, most of them were rushing out.
“A lot of people want to leave Russia now because they don’t want to fight for one person’s opinion,” he said, dismissing the invasion as a personal project of Mr. Putin.