oDR: Feature

Fearful of a call-up to fight, Russians flee to Kazakhstan

Russians are leaving their country in droves to avoid being called-up to fight in Ukraine, heading for neighbouring states like Kazakhstan

Evgenia Bodrova
27 September 2022, 10.09am

Russian citizens queueing up at border crossings to Kazakhstan

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Credit: Mgorod.kz

“A week ago you could have called it relocating, but now the whole situation is like a stampede,” Oleg* wrote to openDemocracy on Telegram.

In the week since Vladimir Putin announced a mobilisation of Russian citizens to fight in Ukraine, thousands of men – reservists and otherwise – have fled the country.

Images of cars queuing at border crossings to Kazakhstan, Georgia and Finland soon emerged, alongside fights, protests and tearful scenes at mobilisation points in Russian towns.

Nearly 100,000 Russian citizens have crossed into Kazakhstan alone since last week, the country’s interior ministry said on 27 September.

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Oleg didn’t wait for the summons. As a person fit for military service, he immediately began to look for options to travel abroad – knowing he must leave his family and child behind in Russia.

And although he hadn’t yet been called up, Oleg told openDemocracy that every minute he had “fewer doubts” that a summons was on its way.

He had no escape plan, and though he had been planning to travel to Kazakhstan when he went to the train station, he ended up in Uzbekistan with a friend instead.

“I decided to leave because I have a family and a small child. And I believe that any scenario is better than obeying criminal orders now,” Oleg said.

“I’m trying not to think far ahead. It’s actually a very stressful state of uncertainty and fear, and this fear is paralysing.”

Making the escape

The Russian government’s move to mobilise what could potentially be between 300,000 and one million personnel for its continued invasion of Ukraine immediately affected neighbouring countries to which Russian citizens can travel with few or no restrictions: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in particular.

In the hours after Putin's mobilisation speech on 21 September, tickets for all visa-free destinations sold out. On social networks, the channels that not so long ago helped citizens of Central Asian states travel to Russia for work immediately repositioned themselves as ‘help points’ for Russians fleeing mobilisation.

With its 30 Russian road border crossings, Kazakhstan is a particularly popular destination. Kazakhstan’s State Revenue Committee noted that since 21 September there has been a 20% increase in light vehicles from the Russian Federation crossing to Kazakhstan, although some areas, such as Pavlodar and northern Kazakhstan, remain quiet as normal.

“We had to hurry: if you receive a summons, then you wouldn’t be allowed to cross the border”

Andrey*

Excitement on relocation chats remains high. Some users ask for help, others offer it. Many people fleeing mobilisation are reluctant to give comments to journalists, and those who agree refuse to have their full names published. One user asked the author to prove they were not from the Russian security services.

One Russian citizen I found in an online chat, Andrey*, is an aviation technician who immediately travelled to Kazakhstan with his wife and dog when Putin ordered mobilisation. His profession is now in great demand in the Russian military, and he said he had had little doubt that his call-up would come.

“We had to hurry: if you receive a summons, then you wouldn’t be allowed to cross the border,” he said, adding that he had been mentally preparing to leave since June, when the first rumours of mobilisation began to spread.

At Aktau airport in western Kazakhstan, I met another Russian citizen fleeing mobilisation: Yegor*, from the Moscow suburb town of Balashikha. He had rushed to buy tickets to Kazakhstan, but in the end had to fly first to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, then to Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, via Aktau.

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From the beginning, the crackdown on Russia's fledgling anti-war movement was determined

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(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Yegor told openDemocracy he was worried that when the ‘referendums’ conclude in south-eastern Ukraine this week, Putin will declare martial law, meaning that Russian citizens would be forced to join the army – and not be allowed to leave the country.

He said that his mother, a former law enforcement officer, had encouraged him to leave Russia, even though he was only ‘partially fit’ for service and would not have been called up in the first wave of mobilisation.

“I decided not to risk [things] any further,” Yegor said. “Kazakhstan is quite close to Russia, there is no language barrier, plus it suits me – someone who is against the war – here.”

“I hear that people are being let through [the border], but I have the feeling that as soon as I start making my way – and that could be a day or two – anything could happen”

Alexey*

But not everyone who is afraid of being called up has decided to leave Russia. Alexey* from St Petersburg told me his mother lives in Kazakhstan – and so he has somewhere to run to – but he has rejected the idea. He believes that travel is too dangerous and that it’s easier to hide from mobilisation in Russia itself.

“I hear that people are being let through [the border], but I have the feeling that as soon as I start making my way – and that could be a day or two – anything could happen,” he said.

“You could end up handing yourself over on the border to those people, and then it’s either prison or war.

“I have a feeling of constant anxiety,” Alexey added.

Meanwhile, there are already cases of Russian citizens crossing the Kazakhstan-Russia border illegally. On 25 September, in Kazakhstan’s Kostanay region, a border patrol detained three Russian citizens who had crossed bypassing the border checkpoint. They explained that they had wanted to avoid mobilisation.

Kazakhstan’s State Security Committee said it would interrogate the men, and then hand them over to Russia.

Kazakhstan: new arrivals cause pressure

Due to the sharp influx of Russians, housing prices have skyrocketed in Kazakhstan. There’s not enough housing and rental apartments are hard to find.

The sudden situation has led to some temporary measures. In Uralsk, in northwestern Kazakhstan, Russian citizens were offered lodging for the night in a cinema.

“The prices for apartments are crazy now, so we, as a cinema, want to provide a space. We ask everyone to come, don’t be shy,” said the cinema’s director on Instagram on 24 September.

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Russian citizens sleep inside the Cinemapark cinema in Uralsk, Kazakhstan

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Image: BBC Russian Service

Kazakhstani financial analyst Rasul Rysmambetov notes that while there is some price gouging going on by landlords in the country, most people coming from Russia are staying with “partners, friends, classmates”.

The new arrivals, Rysmambetov said, should “first think about why [they] came and where they want to move to, and then make decisions”.

Kazakhstani political scientist Islam Kuraev says it’s noticeable that large numbers of Russians have arrived.

“Now there is a process of adaptation and perhaps prices for some things will rise. Most likely for transport and food. A very difficult period awaits us,” he said.

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President Qassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks at the UN on 20 September

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(c) UPI / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Kuraev speculated that media reports on numbers of incoming Russians could lead to Kazakhstani citizens “protesting, organising flash mobs on social media in support of closing the border with Russia”.

Speaking on 27 September, Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov said that the interests of Kazakhstani citizens would remain the state’s “priority” – and that the country’s businesses should take this into account.

Maulen Ashimbaev, speaker of Kazakhstan’s Senate, stated on 22 September that the country was not planning to close its border with Russia, citing its obligations under international treaties with its northern neighbour. That said, he downplayed the option of residency and work permits for Russian citizens.

Kazakhstan has generally taken a neutral stand on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with signs that the dominant popular mood is not in favour of the war. On 26 September, the country stated it would not recognise the Russia-orchestrated ‘referendums’ held on occupied territory in Ukraine.

Names have been changed to protect identities.

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