Turkey, a popular destination for Russians fleeing country

Vladimir Putin’s conscription has “changed everything” for the tens of thousands of Russians who have fled their country since the Russian leader’s mobilization was announced last month, according to recent arrivals in Istanbul.

Niki Proshin, 28, left St. Petersburg last week as part of a stream of Russian men fleeing their homes after Putin announced on September 21 a “partial mobilization” for the war in Ukraine. The Russian military was called up as some Russian troops were forced to retreat in the face of a Ukrainian counter-offensive.

“Last week changed everything for hundreds of thousands of other people who decided to leave Russia,” he said. “The main reason is the risk of being drafted into the Russian army.”

Turkey, which has maintained air links with Russia while other countries have blocked flights and does not impose visa restrictions on Russian visitors, has been a popular destination for those heading “anywhere” they can.

Turkish officials have not released data on how many Russians may have arrived in Turkey to flee conscription, but Russia tops the list of countries sending tourists to Turkey, after Germany. About 3 million Russians have visited the country so far this year.

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Turkish media have also reported an increase in the number of Russians buying or renting houses in Turkey.

The NATO member country, which depends on Russia for its energy needs and tourism, has not joined US and EU sanctions against Moscow. It has sought to balance its ties with both Russia and Ukraine, positioning itself as an intermediary between the two.

Proshin, a YouTube vlogger originally from the Siberian city of Omsk, said battlefield setbacks in Ukraine have eroded Russian support for the war, even among “patriotic” Russians.

“Right now, when the Russian army is struggling and the Ukrainian army is pushing them out of their country, people who supported this war say they don’t understand why this war is happening,” he said.

“They don’t want this war and they don’t want to lose their friends, husbands, brothers or themselves in this useless war.”

Proshin said his family was “very relieved” that he left Russia and now plans to wait for his girlfriend before leaving for another country.

Eva Rapoport, the Istanbul coordinator of The Ark, a group that helps Russians flee their country, said there has been a significant increase in the number of people arriving in Turkey since Putin’s mobilization statement.

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While those who left Russia immediately after its February invasion of Ukraine were a “well-educated, Western-leaning, cosmopolitan crowd,” her organization now saw “just about anyone who can flee the country.”

“Many of these people used to support Putin, they cheered the war,” she said. “If it was about the security of their homes and they didn’t have anything at stake, then it was fine. But now they don’t want to support this with their actions.

“They don’t want to support it with their lives. They don’t want to go into this war and fight and die.”

Nevertheless, she called the decision of the Baltic states and Poland to refuse entry to such Russians as “unfair”.

“It’s literally a life and death situation for them, it’s a humanitarian issue,” Rapoport said.

Many Russians who came to Turkey after the war began suffered the shock of the invasion, she said, as well as difficulties finding housing or ways to pay for goods due to sanctions on Russia’s financial sector.

“Everyone was discussing symptoms of mental distress. They couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t concentrate,” she said.

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Newcomers to Istanbul described the situation in Russia as “rapidly deteriorating” and many feared being trapped.

“If you stay, you might never be able to leave, and if you want to (leave), you better act fast,” she explained.

Rapoport compared the situation to the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, when hundreds of thousands of “white Russians” fleeing the Bolsheviks found refuge in Istanbul, and said the refugees felt they had no future in their homeland.

Maxim Bocharov, 38, is one of those disillusioned with Putin’s Russia. At an anti-war demonstration near the Russian consulate in Istanbul, he said he took part in protests against the invasion of Ukraine when he was in Moscow.

“This mobilization was the last step for me,” said the former sales manager. “I want to say to the Ukrainian people that not every Russian is like a brainwashed zombie.”

His new life in Istanbul, where he landed two days after the draft was announced, is a blessing.

“It’s the first time in my life that I feel truly free,” he said.