“I feel very sad, because, actually, I love Russia,” a 25-year-old Muscovite told NBC News in the biggest city in Kazakhstan, Almaty, a prime destination for Russians avoiding conscription. “Maybe I stay here two or three months. I don’t know.”
Like the other wary exiles NBC News spoke with, the young Muscovite asked not to be identified by name because he fears the consequences of defying President Vladimir Putin’s order to report for duty.
The young man, who was a juggler and a street performer before he left three weeks ago, said he already feels homesick for Mother Russia.
“I don’t want to be a part of it.”
“I can tell you nothing about my future, because I see, like, only in two weeks, two weeks further,” he said in halting English.
Putin’s announcement of a military mobilization last month to buttress his forces in Ukraine sparked an exodus of military-age men not just to Kazakhstan but also to Mongolia and the country of Georgia. On Wednesday, Putin declared Russia would impose martial law in the four regions in Ukraine he illegally annexed last month, as his military struggles to maintain its grip on territory amid Ukrainian advances.
Asked what drove him into exile, the Muscovite said: “Well, firstly, because of this conscription stuff happening now in Russia. But mostly because it started to be, like, alarmingly anxious in Russia. … It’s very hard to be creative.”
So the choice came down to “always be anxious or to leave.”
The Muscovite said that he took part in protests against the military action but that many of his countrymen still support the conflict in Ukraine.
Another man, who asked to be identified as Dmitry, arrived in Almaty with all his possessions stuffed into an enormous backpack.
“I don’t want to be a part of it,” he said. He said his parents “wanted me to go.”
Dmitry said he has already hitchhiked around much of the world and learned that “if you speak with the people you don’t need loads of money.”
But he would never leave Russia for good. And he thinks the “critical situation” Russia finds itself in now will end soon, although he declined to speculate about what might happen.
“I think maybe two months or three months, I will go home,” he said.
Putin has promised his people that the draft will soon be over once the military enlists 300,000 more men. Russia’s remaining independent pollster said that support for Putin remains strong but that the partial mobilization has affected public support.
“More than half the population feels anxious about it,” the Levada-Center pollster said. Their primary concern is “that their husbands, their sons might be recruited,” he said.
There’s no guarantee that those who have left will be welcomed back with open arms, said psychologist Nikita Rakhimov, who set up a Telegram site for the growing community of Russians avoiding conscription.
Many who have left have already been branded “traitors for Russia” by their loved ones, Rakhimov said, sipping coffee at an Almaty park.
The debate over the conflict has fractured many Russian families, he said, with younger members more likely to oppose the military action in Ukraine while their parents remain loyal to Putin.
“This is what [they] hear from their family,” Rakhimov said. “A lot of people love Putin.”
It has also broken up marriages, he said, recalling a Russian who fled his country after he was caught between his Ukrainian wife, who demanded that he “hate all Russians,” and his parents, who called him a traitor for not supporting the conflict.
“His mind is going to explode,” he said.
Some of those who have left, he said, intend to stay in Kazakhstan, while others see the country as a “trampoline” to somewhere else in Europe. But most aren’t thinking more than two or three weeks ahead, he said.
“They don’t know what to do,” Rakhimov said. “They want to get back to Russia, but of course they can’t do it right now.”