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Escape from conscription: Russian draft evaders in Germany

Elya Novopashennaya
December 27, 2022

After the order of partial mobilization in Russia this September, hundreds of thousands of Russians decided to leave the country. Some have sought refuge in Germany.

Travelers walking on the road from Verkhni Lars customs checkpoint between Georgia and Russia
After Putin ordered the partial mobilization of troops, many Russians fled to bordering countries — including Georgia, to the southImage: Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images

Shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered partial military mobilization in his speech to the nation on September 21, long lines of Russians eager to leave the country formed at the borders. Exact numbers remain unclear, but some reports estimate that hundreds of thousands fled the draft that would force them to serve in the war in Ukraine.

For some of those who left, Germany has become their new home. DW spoke with a handful who made it to Germany, along with volunteers who have been helping these refugees. DW has only used their first names, to protect their identity.

Ilya: 'I didn't want to play with my fate'

Ilya lived in Yekaterinburg and worked in the car business. On September 21, he saw Putin's speech while at work. "Afterwards, I immediately packed my things and resigned because I am among those who are normally the first to be called up. I am a sniper, commander of a combat vehicle, and gunner of a grenade launcher. I am also required to report myself within 38 hours of being ordered to mobilize. It was clear to me what it means to live in Russia. I didn't want to play with my fate," he told DW.

A nuclear physicist by training, Ilya joined the Russian army to do his military service after graduating from university. "I thought the army was something powerful, strong, and great, but I met complete chaos there. In the army I realized a lot of things, including about our politics," he said. All of his responsibilities existed only on paper, and he said he was taught nothing in the army. As a soldier he would be absolutely useless now, he added.

From work, Ilya drove to his dacha to avoid going home where he is registered. He called his girlfriend, and she helped him find two other men with whom he could travel to Kazakhstan. By September 22, the men had left the Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains and were at the border by early morning. "There was already a huge traffic jam. We talked to people in line. Everyone was supporting each other," Ilya recalled.

A line of people waiting at the Kazakhstan border
Hundreds of people lined up at the Russia-Kazakhstan border soon after Putin's speechImage: DW

Around noon, they crossed the border. "The Kazakh official asked with a grin where we were going. We'd made up a story beforehand: we were going to the mountains to see the snow. The border guard started laughing and we laughed too," he said.

The three men spent a few more days in Kazakhstan. Then Ilya flew to Cologne, where he applied for asylum. "I have already been to Germany twice. I like the mentality of the Germans — their quiet lifestyle and friendliness. If I can stay in Germany and work or study, I will learn German. I would like to stay very much," he said.

Olga: 'I want nothing to do with state politics'

Olga fled from Russia to Germany on September 26, also unwilling to wait for the draft. She worked as an epidemiologist in Moscow and registered with the draft board after graduating from university in 2020 because doctors with certain specialties are subject to conscription in Russia. "But I decided not to pick up the draft card just in case there was a sudden war," she explained.

"I know from COVID times how our state treats its citizens — especially doctors. I was pregnant at the time. Even before we graduated from university, we were pressured to work for free in COVID-19 clinics under threat of not receiving our diplomas otherwise," she said.

Olga was born in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. Her mother is from Mariupol, Ukraine, which is currently under Russian control. Her father is Russian, with 30 years of experience in the military. Because of his age, however, he no longer faces the threat of being drafted. "He supports this war," Olga said, blaming 20 years of propaganda. Members of the police and military "live in a world of their own," she said. "When the war began, our family split. Almost all my relatives on my mother's side were affected. Their homes were destroyed."

On February 24, she spoke out against the war in a post on Instagram. Within 40 minutes, her ex-husband received a call from his company's security service, and an hour later Olga's father had also been informed. "Both were told to keep quiet if they wanted to avoid problems up to and including termination," Olga said.

While she had been thinking about leaving the country as early as March, a number of personal problems had prevented her from doing so. But on September 21, she realized she had to go immediately. "Commands were even given to doctors who should not have been mobilized at all," Olga said.

Cars wait at the Russia-Finland border in September 2022
Cars waited in long lines at the Russia-Finland border in late SeptemberImage: Sasu Mäkinen/Lehtikuva/dpa/picture alliance

Three days later, she packed her bags and drove from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The next day, she took a bus to the Finnish border. "There were many men on the bus, almost all of them because of the mobilization," she said. From Finland she flew to Stockholm and from there, thanks to a valid visa, to Berlin, where she was picked up by relatives.

When asked why she left Russia, Olga said: "I don't want people to suffer. I don't want families to be separated. I have relatives in Ukraine whom I have not seen for many years because of the political situation. How can I go to war there? If I express my opinion, I will go to prison for discrediting or extremism. I want nothing to do with state politics, which drives people into a corner."

Olga speaks German and wants to find work quickly, but her current visa won't allow it. "I'm ashamed to apply for asylum and live on welfare," she said, lamenting that no authority has been able to help her so far. "My visa is expiring and that's a problem."

Artyom: 'Everyone is ready to help each other'

Artyom volunteers at an agency that helps prepare documents for studying or a job search in Germany. On February 24, the team decided to provide free advice to Ukrainians. And since Putin's partial mobilization, they have also helped those who are threatened with conscription in Russia.

Artyom has counseled dozens of Russians since September 21. "In the beginning, we worked 16 hours a day, sometimes more. We listened to the stories of people who stood at the borders and described what hell it was," Artyom said. "The average age is 28 and a half. The youngest was 17. The oldest 54." About half are doctors. In Russia, doctors are called up regardless of their specialty, he added.

Russian ethnic minorities flee to Mongolia

"In Germany, there is a moratorium on deportation to Russia, which means if a person comes here and applies for political asylum, he or she will not be deported," Artyom said. "Those who want to apply for political asylum in Germany must either enter with a visa and apply for asylum here, or, if there is no visa, book a plane ticket with a change of planes in Germany."

He recommends Frankfurt Airport, where the transit zone is open around the clock. "A person can tell a police officer when transferring that they want to apply for political asylum. From Germany, one can only be sent on to another country if that country has issued a visa and is therefore responsible for that person," Artyom explained.

But he suspects that fewer people are now likely to seek advice, and makes the following suggestion: "Russians fleeing mobilization from Russia, who don't want to kill or be killed, should be allowed to enter even with only a Russian identity card and no visa or passport. People should be allowed to just get on the plane. Everyone is ready to help each other, you just have to let people in."

This article was originally published in Russian

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