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Russian men flee the country. Many are showing up in Istanbul

Passengers walk in the new hall of Istanbul Airport on the first day after moving from Ataturk International airport on April 6, 2019, in Istanbul. Many Russian men (not pictured) have been buying up tickets for Turkey since their government issued a draft to fight in Ukraine.
Ozan Kose
AFP via Getty Images
Passengers walk in the new hall of Istanbul Airport on the first day after moving from Ataturk International airport on April 6, 2019, in Istanbul. Many Russian men (not pictured) have been buying up tickets for Turkey since their government issued a draft to fight in Ukraine.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Russian men continue to flee the country, by land or air, days after President Vladimir Putin's announcement to mobilize additional forces to bolster his flailing war in Ukraine.

At Istanbul's main airport, a constant stream of Russian men came through the arrivals terminal. Istanbul is a destination of choice because it is one of few places where Russians can travel to without visas, with a long history of Russian tourism.

Turkey, a member of NATO, has sought to cast itself as a neutral power broker between Moscow and Kyiv, and refused to join Western countries in economic sanctions on Russia. Since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, many anti-war Russians have settled here, along with refugees from Ukraine.

Flights from Russia to Turkey are sold out for the next several weeks, despite skyrocketing prices. But that hasn't stopped people from finding ways to get out, not only from Russian cities like Moscow, Sochi, Makhachkala and Yekaterinburg but also through neighboring countries Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Georgia.

Those who spoke to NPR, at Istanbul Airport, didn't want to reveal their names out of fear of the Russian government. Just last week, Putin signed a law that sentenced those who refused to serve, or evaded service, to 10 years in prison. The men NPR spoke to described long lines at airports and border crossings because of the sheer number of crowds and because of interrogation by Russian authorities.

One 32-year-old man who flew from St. Petersburg, Russia, told NPR that his flight was "completely full of men, from 20 and then till 50."

"And all men stopped and — we were interrogated by police," he said.

"There was questions about, for example, when did you buy this ticket? What's the purpose? And the second line, they asked, did you [serve] in the military? When? And did you receive the post that you need to go serve?" alluding to the conscription notices being served.

A hurried dash to the border, and packed light

Nearly all the men said they had packed very light, trying to convince Russian authorities that they were leaving for short trips, and not to evade fighting in the war.

Most said they have no future plans, and limited money. Those with families said their priority was to get settled and then try to bring their families out of Russia as well.

A 35-year-old man, who left his family behind in Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal in Siberia, drove first to the Mongolian border, where he waited six hours to cross. In Mongolia, he said, he ran into several of his friends who were also fleeing, before he caught a flight to Istanbul.

Some men said they decided to leave the country as soon as they heard the conscription announcement last Wednesday. The man from Irkutsk said he waited a few days to see what would happen, but once his friends started getting rounded up at night, he made the decision to go.

"They aren't just taking the reservists, but also men who have no military history and even those with more than three children," he said.

Russian authorities, including Putin, had assured the public that only those with prior military service, no illnesses and fewer than three children would be called upon to serve.

Several men told NPR that those who speak up against the war and mobilization are being arrested, beaten in custody and then sent to be drafted in the war — which is why women have been overwhelmingly taking part in the recent public protests in Russia.

It's about to get worse

Nearly everyone who spoke to NPR said they believed the situation is going to get worse, that a full mobilization is imminent.

Russia is now conducting what it claims are referendums — considered illegal under international law — in occupied Ukrainian territories on whether to formally join Russia. The 32-year-old man from St. Petersburg told NPR many in Russia see it as the first step for Putin to annex those areas as part of Russia.

"Then of course the Ukrainians will attack those areas because actually it's their territory. Then after that, I think [Putin will] decide 'OK, they attacked our territory,' and he'll make the full mobilization," he said.

Another man, in a hurry to leave the airport, only said, "everything is worse than you know and Russian men are going anywhere they can now."

One 36-year-old man from Moscow told NPR that his reason to leave was not just because he didn't want to fight, but that it was his way of not supporting the military campaign.

"If you are against the war, the best thing to do is try to get out from there and don't support it as we can, not pay taxes or don't work in Russian companies, etc.," he said.

Just a few said they were hopeful that there would be a peace agreement to end the war, and hoped to wait it out before eventually returning home.

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