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Ukraine war: The wives left behind by Russian deserters

Katerina Shmeleva
October 31, 2022

Since Russia began its partial mobilization in September, thousands of men of military age have fled abroad to avoid being called up for the war in Ukraine. How are their wives coping?

Large advertising poster outrdoors showing a soldier, fmales in the background, and the letter "z"
A call to arms ad in Moscow Image: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu publicly informed President Vladimir Putin last week that Russia's partial mobilization, which began on September 21, had been completed. 

Shoigu said that 300,000 citizens had been drafted, 82,000 of whom had already been sent to Ukraine. As of Monday, October 31, Putin had not signed the decree required to officially end mobilization.

Many men who went into hiding to avoid conscription have since left Russia, some leaving behind their wives. Three women told DW the stories of how they've been coping. To keep them safe, their names have been changed.

Daria, 25: A feeling that 'everything is going up in flames'

Until recently Daria, a copywriter from Chelyabinsk in the southeastern Urals, had no interest in politics at all. "I couldn't bring myself to figure out what was fake and what was real," she said. She felt the war was a disaster and tried not to think about it, simply blocking out the problem. But when the partial mobilization began, Daria became afraid for her husband Alexei. She studied the laws and the couple decided he needed to leave the country.

Since he does not own a passport, the plan was to go to Kazakhstan, where he could live without travel documents. For nights before his departure, Daria could not sleep. She took care of all the preparations, including his papers, looked for an apartment for her husband and found out the best border crossing to take.

Alexei followed his wife's plan and crossed the border without a hitch. He settled in an apartment in the Kazakh capital Astana, where he has found work as a photographer. "In terms of work, contacts and prospects, things are even better there than in Chelyabinsk," said Daria.

A line of cars, and people standing in lione at night
At the border between Russia and Kazakhstan after partial mobilization was announcedImage: DW

She continues to help her husband from afar. She ordered pillows, a blanket, bedding and a kettle online for his new home and sent a box of warm clothes. The internet does not function well at Alexei's place in Kazakhstan, so there are no regular video calls.

Meanwhile Daria has applied for a passport and plans to join her husband soon. She fears the Russian authorities might close the borders because of the imposition of martial law in Donbas. "I don't even want to think about the fact that I'm here and he's there. It's very hard and sad. We have a great relationship, we've been together since 2017," she said, adding that the way things are at the moment, she is glad they don't have children yet.

The young woman worries about her parents, who live in Chelyabinsk. "They are patriotic, I can't change their minds because they still have to live here," she said, adding that all the problems her husband faces can be solved in Kazakhstan. "Here, there is a feeling that everything is going up in flames."

Olga, 32: 'Our son does not yet understand where his daddy is'

When Putin ordered a partial mobilization, Olga, from Murmask in the far north, immediately thought the authorities would call up everyone who was able-bodied. She and her husband Artyom decided he should leave the country. His family was not happy about the decision, but did not interfere. Artyom's mother has a house in the Donetsk region, which she wants to become Russian, but with minimal losses. Artyom's father thinks his son should have gone to war.

Olga helped her husband take care of everything that needed to be taken care of in Murmansk. "We had to talk to the family and raise money for the trip. We looked for tickets, but there were none," she said. "Artyom packed his own bag, he knows a lot about travel — he took a backpack, a sleeping bag, warm underwear, a first aid kit and food."

Long line of people in a parking lot
Russians standing in line in Almaty to be registered as refugeesImage: Madija Torebaewa/DW

Artyom left Murmansk on September 27 for Kazakhstan, which he reached after two days. At the time he did not know whether Russia would close its borders. "It's good that he's gone, at least now I'm not worried about them catching him and drafting him," Olga said. Her husband now has a residence permit in Kazakhstan. He and other men he traveled with share an apartment in Almaty. For now, Artyom is looking for opportunities to start his own company.

The couple have a four-year-old son and it is the first time the family has been apart for such a long time. The parents still make important decisions together — via Messenger. Due to the poor internet connection, video calls are rarely possible, so they record videos for each other. "Our son doesn't understand where his dad is yet. When he sees him in videos, he cries and then he wants to talk to him," Olga said. "He misses his dad."

Can Russians who flee partial mobilization come to Germany?

Olga, a kindergarten teacher, continues her daily routine at work. "Despite all the terrible news, you're in a daily rut," she said. She wants to join her husband, but she finds it hard to give up her life. "My husband and I talked about selling the apartment, but I'm not ready to do that. I don't know what would have to happen for me to give up everything and leave. Probably a rocket would have to hit here first, then I would probably run away immediately," Olga said.

Elena, 41: 'Women can't stop the war'

Elena, a psychologist, lives in Arkhangelsk in the north of Russia. When news of the partial mobilization hit, she and her husband decided that he and their son should flee to Armenia. The couple's son was discharged from the Russian army in summer after completing his military service, and is a student at a university. "When mobilization comes, he will be among the first. I don't want to risk my son's life and health," Elena said.

When the war started, the company Elena's husband does remote work for moved to the Armenian capital, Yerevan. So it was clear where he and their son would head — they just had to make it there somehow. Elena was afraid they might not be able to leave Russia before the borders were closed, so they set out for the Georgian border on September 24.

long line of people walking along a road
These people made it to Georgia in late SeptemberImage: Shakh Aivazov/AP/picture alliance

At the time, Elena was a kind of "logistics center" for her son and husband. "Before that, I was depressed, but when solutions presented themselves, that gave me a boost of energy," she recalled. Her husband and son managed to cross the border in just one day, which Elena says has become a family legend.

Now her husband and son are settling in Yerevan, getting used to Armenian cuisine. Money transfers can be difficult, and it is unclear how her son will continue his studies at the Russian university. Despite the separation, Elena feels better. "They are safe now. Bad things are not happening to our family, but to our country," she said, adding that the family is adjusting and these challenges will not break them but instead make them stronger.

At the end of October, Elena plans to visit her husband and son and bring them warm clothes. She is not yet planning to move to Yerevan herself, because she is active in Arkhangelsk society and would like to continue to remain there as long as possible.

Concerning the women who send their men to war, Elena says they think "this war is something like the Great Patriotic War." Women in Russia are less at risk than men, she said. "We can take the place of men and make decisions that can affect a change in the country's policy. But women cannot stop the war."

This article has been updated to reflect recent events.