Hours after Vladimir Putin shocked Russia by announcing the first mobilization since the second world war, Oleg received his draft papers in the mailbox, ordering him to make his way to the local recruitment center in Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan republic.
As a 29-year-old sergeant in the Russian reserves, Oleg said he always knew that he would be the first in line if a mobilization was declared, but held out hope that he would not be forced to fight in the war in Ukraine.
“My heart sank when I got the call-up,” he said. “But I knew I had no time to despair.”
He quickly packed all his belongings and booked a one-way ticket to Orenburg, a southern Russian city close to the border with Kazakhstan.
“I will be driving across the border tonight,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday from the airport in Orenburg. “I have no idea when I’ll step foot in Russia again,” he added, referring to the jail sentence Russian men face for avoiding the draft.
Oleg said he will leave behind his wife, who is due to give birth next week. “I will miss the most important day of my life. But I am simply not letting Putin turn me into a killer in a war that I want no part in.”
The Kremlin’s decision to announce a partial mobilization has led to a rush among men of military age to leave the country, likely sparking a new, possibly unprecedented brain drain in the coming days and weeks.
The Guardian spoke to over a dozen men and women who had left Russia since Putin announced the so-called partial mobilization, or who are planning to do so in the next few days.
Options to flee are limited, they say. Earlier this week, four of the five EU countries bordering Russia announced they would no longer allow Russians to enter on tourist visas.
Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan, Tashkent and Baku, the capitals of countries allowing Russians visa-free entry, were sold out for the next week, while the cheapest one-way flight from Moscow to Dubai costs about 370,000 rubles (£5,000 ) – a fee too steep for most.
And so many, like Oleg, were forced to get creative and drive to some of the few land borders still open to Russians.
Border guards in Finland, the last EU country that still allows entry to Russians with tourist visas, said that they have noticed an “exceptional number” of Russian nationals seeking to cross the border overnight, while eyewitnesses also said the Russian-Georgian and Russian- Mongolian borders were “collapsing” with overwhelming traffic.
“We are seeing an even bigger exodus than when the war started,” said Ira Lobanovskaya, who started the “Guide to the free World” NGO, which helps Russians against the war leave the country.
She said her website had received over one and a half million visits since Putin’s speech on Wednesday. According to Lobanovkaya’s estimates, over 70,000 Russians who used the group’s services have already left or made concrete plans to leave.
“These are people who are buying one-way tickets. They won’t be coming back as long as mobilization is ongoing,” she said.
Many of those who are still in Russia will feel that time is running out. At least three regions have already announced they will close their borders to men eligible for the draft.
Border agents at Russian airports have also reportedly started interrogating departing male passengers about their military service status and checking return tickets.
After thousands of Russians rallied against the war and mobilization on Wednesday, some took to social media to criticize protesters for not speaking out earlier, when their country’s troops were committing human rights abuses in Bucha, Irpin and countless other towns across Ukraine.
“I understand people’s frustration,” said Igor, a 26-year-old IT professional from St Petersburg, who is planning to fly to Vladikavkaz and drive to Georgia, another popular fleeing route used by Russians, next week. “I attended the anti-war protest when Putin launched his invasion, but the authorities just jailed everyone.”
Some of the protesters detained in Moscow have subsequently been given draft notices while locked up, according to the monitoring group OVD, further underlying the dangers average Russians face when taking to the streets.
“I think the only way I can personally help Ukraine right now is by not fighting there,” Igor said.
There have also been calls for the EU to support Russians who are looking for a way out of the draft.
The EU Commission spokesperson on home affairs, Anitta Hipper, said that the bloc would meet to discuss the issuance of humanitarian visas to Russians fleeing mobilization. The three Baltic states said on Thursday, however, that they are not prepared to automatically offer asylum to Russians fleeing the draft.
Even those without any military experience – men who Putin vowed not to call up – are packing their bags.
They point to the ambiguity of Putin’s mobilization law and point to previous broken promises that he would not call for one.
“Putin lied that there will be no mobilization,” said 23-year-old Anton, a student in Moscow, referring to the president’s International Women’s Day address on March 8, when he insisted that no reservists would be called up to fight in Ukraine. “Why would he not lie again about this partial mobilization?”
Fears have grown after independent website Novaya Gazeta Europe reported, based on its government sources, that the mobilization decrees allow the Ministry of Defense to call up 1,000,000 people, instead of the 300,000 announced by the country’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, on Wednesday.
For now, Lobanovskaya said, the majority of Russians leaving are men.
The Guardian also spoke to a number of women, mostly medics, who similarly decided to leave the country after reports began to trickle out that Russia was calling up health professionals to the front.
“I know medics are supposed to treat people, that is our duty,” said Tatayana, a doctor from Irkutsk, who bought a plane ticket to Baku for next week. “But I believe the sooner this horrible war stops, the fewer people will die.”
The mobilization also appears to have spooked some of the very people on whom the regime relies to sustain its war efforts.
“For me, mobilization is the red line,” said Ilya, 29, a mid-level official working for the Moscow government. “Tomorrow I will be in Kazakhstan.”
One man, the son of a west-sanctioned oligarch due to come back to Russia after his studies abroad to work for his family business, said he no longer planned to do so.
“Well, one thing is clear,” he said, in a brief interview via text message. “I won’t be coming back to Russia anytime soon.”