Valera arrived in Istanbul two hours ago from Moscow, head over heels. Now, Saturday afternoon 3 o’clock, he is sitting behind a glass of Turkish tea in the pleasant courtyard of the cultural center Nazim Hikmet, named after the famous communist Turkish poet who died in Moscow in 1963 after thirteen years of exile in Russia.
And, how does he feel? “Pretty good,” says the 25-year-old Russian laconically. He yawns. ‘A little sleepy. I hardly slept last night.’
Possibly that stoicism is hereditary, because when he informed his parents that he was on his way to Turkey to escape mobilization for the Russian army, they said: ‘It’s your choice. Good luck. And have fun.’
While the circumstances are dramatic enough. The mobilization of 300,000 men for the fight in Ukraine, announced on Wednesday by President Vladimir Putin, is causing great unrest in Russia. Many do not think about risking their lives in a senseless war. Thousands of young men are trying to leave the country. They flee by car across the border to Georgia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Mongolia. Or by plane to Turkey, one of the few countries that is accessible to Russians without a visa.
Ticket prices are flying up
It’s not cheap. Valera paid 1,500 euros for his ticket. That was not so bad, because prices have skyrocketed since the mobilization. Sometimes you have to pay 30 thousand euros for a single Moscow-Istanbul ticket.
And that is also too expensive for many members of what is called the ‘golden layer’ in Russia. All four of them belong here, the men here having tea in Nazim Hikmet’s garden. Not because they are rich, but because the ‘golden layer’ is mainly about social and cultural capital. They are people who have received a good education, speak English, work in IT or have a sought-after technical profession.
This often results in a good salary, but at the moment it is much more important that it makes the trip abroad easier. “I estimate that 10 percent of the gold layer has left the country this week,” says 46-year-old Reitor, a doctor who has lived in Istanbul for a year. ‘In some sectors maybe 50 percent. That is very harmful to the economy.’
Reitor himself contributes to that big wave by remotely helping a befriended couple get away from Russia. He was in contact with them all night, he too hardly slept, and ‘my wife cried all the time’. The route of the two: with a domestic flight for 1,500 euros from St. Petersburg to Omsk in Siberia. From there by bus to Petropavlovsk, just across the border in Kazakhstan.
“They just spent a few hours there sleeping on a park bench,” Reitor says. Now the couple – both 35 years old, also golden layer – move on to Astana and try to catch a flight to Istanbul. That should be considerably cheaper than flying from Moscow.
Flights to Istanbul are full of almost only men
Reitor shows films of the huge queues of cars on their way to the outer borders of Russia, towards Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Georgia, especially, currently the most popular (because simplest) transit route.
‘Border Control’ plays a major role in this, a chat group set up spontaneously last week by and for Russians who want to leave their country or have already done so. When Reitor joined on Thursday, the group had 13,000 members. “And now look,” he says, pointing to his phone: 342 thousand.
Also important is Kovchek (the Ark), a website launched from London after the invasion of Ukraine in February by human rights lawyer Anastasia Burakova, with the help of businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Kovchek helps Russians who have left their country because they are against the war in Ukraine. The name refers to Noah’s Ark.
‘Only Noah’s Ark had a gender balance, one male and one female for each species,’ says 23-year-old Ivan with a laugh. ‘Since Wednesday, it is mainly men who leave Russia, afraid of being drafted into the army. My flight was packed, but there were only three women on the plane.’
Ivan himself is one of those men. The day before Putin announced his decision this week, he read about a change in the mobilization law. He smelled danger and immediately decided to buy a ticket to Istanbul, for 1,200 euros. After Putin gave his TV speech on Wednesday, his mother called him. “Take the plane to Turkey as soon as possible!” she told her son. Ivan was able to reassure her: “I already have a ticket, Mom.”
He landed in Istanbul on Thursday. There he was received by his friend Dima (27), who has been in the city for a month and rents a spacious flat there. On Saturday, Valera, also a friend from Moscow, joined them.
For many young men, a jump abroad is too uncertain
All three young men work in ICT, for companies in the US or Europe, speak good English and have a good salary in dollars or euros – all the advantages of the golden layer. Many of their peers in Moscow, like them, absolutely do not want to fight in Ukraine, but the jump abroad is too uncertain for them. ‘They don’t speak English and have a Russian employer,’ says Dima. “They don’t know how to survive in another country.”
Incidentally, many members of the golden layer do not know that either. Since February, Reitor and his wife have acted as a kind of youth hostel parents for young compatriots who have fled. On arrival, they were given shelter in their flat, six at a time. Since then he has assisted them in word and deed, about thirty men. He fondly refers to ‘our kindergarten class’. Laughing: ‘If it’s not online, they can’t do anything at all. How do you go to a bank? How do you get food if you can’t order a pizza online? They are helpless.’
Also in the first wave of departures, shortly after the invasion, it was mainly young ICT workers who settled in Turkey as digital nomads. Sub-offices and places like Espresso Lab in Istanbul and Antalya have been full of Russians for months.
The elder Reitor almost rebukes the trio – whom he meets for the first time today – because they did not leave immediately after February. Their defense: they had already bought tickets to Georgia in March, but they were declared invalid. After that they were ‘tired of being afraid all the time’. Moreover, everyone has their own reasons, depending on the circumstances.
“Is it true that Europeans think all Russians are bad?”
Dima left a month ago because his British employer could no longer do business with Russia. He had to leave to keep his job. As a digital nomad, Valera recently spent four weeks in Amsterdam (‘had a great time’), returning to Moscow the day before Putin’s call for mobilization. He didn’t hesitate for a moment: get out.
Ivan has a girlfriend who was hesitant and kept pushing for delay. He left alone this week, but now his girlfriend has also left: she has a flight to Istanbul on Wednesday.
Whether the couple will stay there or perhaps move on to Europe, they will see. Somewhat anxiously, Ivan asks, ‘Is it really true that Europeans think all Russians are bad, as our media claims?’ Valera, who has just spent four weeks in the Netherlands, reassures him. And that Turks are also okay, Dima can confidently confirm. “Such nice people here!”
Meanwhile, other friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg (bulwarks of the golden layer) are also preparing to leave. As Reitor says, “The big wave is yet to come.”
The mobilization has brought the war home to the Russians
Hopefully it’s still in time, because the friends have heard that the border is closing soon. Perhaps as early as this week, when Russia annexes the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces after the referenda. Although only rumours, the young men call the closing of the borders ‘certain’: because after the annexation there will be fighting on ‘Russian territory’, things really get tense.
The mobilization ‘has brought the war home to the people’, as Reitor says. He wonders where that will lead. He does not believe in a revolution. ‘The elderly are homesick for the Soviet Union. Even the ice creams were better then, they think.’
So Putin’s opponents vote with their feet. On a call from de Volkskrant Russian chat groups in Turkey continue to receive reactions from young people who do want to talk. For example, one Katerina reports that she has started an anti-war site. To quote the youth hostel father: those kids can do anything online.
The befriended couple meanwhile is still in Kazakhstan on Sunday afternoon. They have not yet been able to find an affordable flight to Istanbul. Hopefully, Reitor says, they will get help from civilians on the spot and won’t have to sleep on a bench outside again tonight. He shows his telephone again: in Oral, another border town, the CinemaPark cinema has made its room available for guests.