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'My whole world collapsed': Russians on fleeing home after Putin's speech

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By James Jackson
A group of Russians walk after crossing the border at Verkhny Lars between Georgia and Russia in Georgia, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.
A group of Russians walk after crossing the border at Verkhny Lars between Georgia and Russia in Georgia, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Zurab Tsertsvadze

Artur*, a 26-year-old Russian software developer, bought a one-way plane ticket to Armenia's capital Yerevan after hearing Vladimir Putin's announcement to bolster Russia's military forces.

In a speech last week, the Russian president ordered a partial mobilisation of reservists and Artur is one of thousands of Russians who has tried to flee with flights out of the country soaring in price.

He paid over €1200 for a flight leaving the following day, choosing Yerevan as it was the cheapest destination he could find.

"I feel really nervous to travel alone and under such conditions, but I have no other choice," he told Euronews via the messaging app Telegram.

Though Artur says he was written off of Russia's mandatory military service due to a heart condition, his official ID papers don't mention it, meaning he could still be eligible for conscription, he said.

Artur said his mother, ex-military father and younger brother tried to flee in a queue at the border with Georgia which stretched several kilometres.

They left behind their family-owned businesses and his brother abandoned his medical studies, fearing that he could be called up for service, with no plans for the future except to escape.

“I hate this government so much," Artur said. “Even people who supported the government for many years feel anxiety right now.”

On the social media app Telegram, many Russians have been looking for advice on how to leave the country and information on how long queues at border points are.

Some messages advertise taxi services from southern Russian cities to cross the mountainous Caucasus border. One post on the app said that everyone is allowed to enter Georgia, without military ID, certificates or PCR tests.

Georgia's interior ministry has said that around 10,000 Russians are arriving each day in the country, up from around 6,000 before Putin's latest mobilisation announcement. Thousands have also arrived in Armenia, located south of Georgia.

Sergei*, a 22-year-old from St Petersburg, arrived in Tbilisi a few days ago. He flew to the southern Russian town of Mineralnye Vody before getting a taxi to Vladikavkaz with a friend.

From there, the two of them spent more than 24 hours in traffic at the border, Sergei said, adding that they had to pay bribes along the way before reaching the border.

They spent about €560, Sergei alleges, adding he got off lightly. "The situation is changing rapidly. Now the prices are much higher," he said.

Though he had long opposed Putin’s politics, the war was still a shock.

"I was very angry and sad about Putin’s politics before," he said through the messaging app Telegram.

"But I never believed Putin could start a real big war. When he started this 'special war operation', my whole world absolutely collapsed. I could not do anything, only reading news from the resources blocked in Russia," he added.

He had wanted to leave Russia in January and even bought a plane ticket but he didn’t have the money and wanted to finish university first. But the recent mobilisation was the last straw.

For those who arrived before the recent announcement, it's not easy to determine the next steps.

Susanna* crossed the upper Lars border ahead of Putin's speech.

She had been arguing with her family back home and wanted a break from the stifling atmosphere in Russia, she said.

"Most of my family are racists and fascists despite having Ukrainian roots. I have to stay there to protect them from losing their jobs. It's traumatising. My mother spent most of her childhood in Kharkiv, but she doesn't care that it's being destroyed," she said.

"Leaving Russia means abandoning my family. Staying means living under Putin. I don’t know what to do."

All names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their safety.