Andrei Alekseev, a 27-year-old engineer from the city of Yekaterinburg, was among many men queuing up to flee Russia in response to President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization orders.
The cars had to go through border controls in Russia and Kazakhstan, both of which took about two hours.
On Saturday, Putin signed a law on military service, making it punishable by up to 10 years in prison for evading military service due to mobilization, and 15 years in prison for desertion during wartime.
The legal amendments also introduce the concepts of “mobilization, martial law and wartime” into the Russian Criminal Code. Putin also signed a decree granting university students a reprieve from mobilization.
“At the border, they asked all the men if they served in the army and what is their military service category,” Alekseyev told CNN.
“I felt the border guards were very understanding, however, at another checkpoint I had friends who crossed the border into Kazakhstan and were asked harsh questions, it took them seven hours to cross,” he told CNN.
The decree signed by Putin appears to allow a wider mobilization than he suggested in a speech released on Wednesday. According to the address, 300,000 reservists would gather at the front, breaking the word that there was no mobilization earlier in the war. However, the decree itself does not put a limit on how many people can be mobilized.
“The mobilization is called ‘partial’, but no parameters of this partiality are defined, either geographically or in terms of criteria,” wrote Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann on her social network page.
“According to that text, anyone can be written, except the workers of the military-industrial complex.”
Across Russia, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are now facing mobilization as reserves to fight Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine.
Once Alekseev and his wife crossed into Kazakhstan, they found that all the hotels in the border towns were full, so the couple moved to Astana, the country’s capital, where they are now looking for an apartment.
“Three days ago, I didn’t think I would be in Kazakhstan and here looking for an apartment. We plan to stay for two months, then maybe we will go to Uzbekistan to renew our stay, I will go to look for international work. companies,” he told CNN.
Kirill Ponomarev, 23, who also escaped from Russia through a border crossing into Kazakhstan, said he struggled to book a ticket. He was looking for tickets outside of Russia the night before Putin’s address.
“For some reason, I couldn’t buy a ticket the day before, while I was waiting for Putin’s speech. And then I fell asleep without buying a ticket, when I woke up, the price of tickets jumped,” Ponomarev told CNN.
Men went to the limits of exchanging advice on Telegram channels and among friends. Outbound flights from Russia sold out within hours of the announcement of the mobilization.
Four of the five EU countries bordering Russia have banned Russians from entering on tourist visas, and it takes more than 24 hours to cross land borders from Russia to the former Soviet countries of Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia.
The Kremlin has scoffed at the Russians’ reactions, calling it an “over-emotional and hysterical reaction”.
Meanwhile, protests broke out across Russia on Wednesday and brutal arrests continued as reports of arrested protesters handed over draft letters to police stations. According to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info, authorities arrested more than 1,300 people in at least 43 Russian cities.
While all men under the age of 60 in Russia today share the fear of being drafted, Putin’s mobilization disproportionately affects Russia’s poorer and more ethnically diverse regions, Alexandra Garmazhapova, president of the Free Buryatia Foundation, told CNN.
“In Buriat, the mobilization is not partial, everyone mobilizes. The calls reach students, pensioners, fathers of many children, people with disabilities,” he told CNN.
Garmazhapova, whose organization provides legal aid to mobilized men and their families, says she hears stories every day regardless of age, military history or health conditions.
“Yesterday afternoon, a taxi driver went to fill up his car, and when he was at a gas station, a bus drove by with recruits,” he told CNN.
“The bus stopped suddenly when they saw him and they put him on this bus. They didn’t give him anything to carry, nothing. They left his car at this gas station, then his relatives took him away,” he said.
Those men who were left behind in Russia, now take great care when leaving home. Kirill, a 27-year-old IT professional from St. Petersburg who declined to give his last name, said he has started thinking about moving after most of his friends received draft letters.
“I love St. Petersburg, but I’m starting to have thoughts about moving. Today, I lived another day and tomorrow it might not be safe for me to get into a taxi without the risk of being drafted,” Kirill told CNN.
“For now, I’m looking at the situation and how it develops. For me, going to war or going to prison are bad options, so hopefully I can avoid both,” he said.
Kirill, who is half Ukrainian, said he cannot imagine going to war and killing Ukrainians. “I won’t be able to explain my actions to my relatives in Ukraine. We talk every day,” he said.
Some men were lucky enough to learn of mobilization orders from outside. Ilya, 35, was on holiday with his family in Turkey when his office received a draft letter from colleagues in Kurgan, a city in Russia’s Ural region.
His wife and child returned to Russia while he remained in Turkey. “I don’t want war, I don’t want to die for someone else’s intentions, I don’t want to prove anything to anyone, it was a difficult decision not to return to Russia, very difficult, I don’t know when I can see my family, my loved ones now,” Ilya told CNN.
Ilya served in the Russian army years ago, so he is considered to be in reserve. “I am lost and I don’t know what to do, how to give my family for being so far away from them. I am in debt for such sudden forced decisions, and I am morally exhausted,” he said. .
Since Moscow started the war in Ukraine, the economic sanctions on Russia made all international transactions almost impossible. Ilya said he wants to be reunited with his family.