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Fugitive Russians follow the 1917 refugees’ route to Istanbul

Fugitive Russians follow the 1917 refugees' route to Istanbul

ISTANBUL (Associated Press) – Vladimir Putin’s military draft 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 new arrivals in Istanbul.

Nikki Prochin, 28, left Saint Petersburg last week, as part of a torrent of Russian men who fled their homeland after Putin’s September 21 announcement of a “partial mobilization” for the war in Ukraine. The call-up of the Russian army came as some Russian forces were forced to retreat amid a Ukrainian counter-offensive.

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

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

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

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

The NATO member state, which relies on Russia for its energy and tourism needs, has not joined US and EU sanctions against Moscow. It has tried to balance its relations with both Russia and Ukraine, positioning itself as a mediator between the two.

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

“Currently, when the Russian army is having some problems and the Ukrainian army is expelling them from their lands, the people who were supporting this war say they don’t understand why this war started,” he said.

“They do not want this war and they do not want to lose their friends, spouses, brothers or themselves in this useless war.”

Prochin said his family is “very relieved” that he left Russia and now plans to wait for his girlfriend to join him before she leaves for another country.

Eva Rapoport, Istanbul coordinator for The Ark, a group that helps Russians fleeing their country, said there has been a significant increase in arrivals in Turkey since Putin’s mobilization announcement.

While those who left Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine in February were a “global educated, Western-oriented crowd”, her organization now sees “everyone who can escape the country”.

“Many of these people used to support Putin, they were chanting for war,” she said. “When it came to the safety of their homes and there was nothing at stake for them, 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 and fight and die in this war.”

However, it called the decision of the Baltic states and Poland to prevent entry of such Russians as “unfair”.

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“It’s literally a life-or-death situation for them, it’s a human issue,” Rapoport said.

She said many Russians who arrived in Turkey after the start of the war were suffering from the trauma of the invasion, as well as difficulties finding a place to live or ways to pay for goods due to sanctions on the Russian financial sector.

Everyone was discussing the symptoms of the psychological disorder. “They can’t eat, sleep and concentrate,” she said.

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

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

Comparing the situation to what followed the 1917 revolution in Russia, when hundreds of thousands of “white Russians” took refuge in Istanbul while fleeing the Bolsheviks, Rapoport said the fleeing felt they had no future in their homeland.

Maxim Bocharov, 38, is one of those disappointed in Putin’s Russia. Speaking at an anti-war demonstration near the Russian consulate in Istanbul, he said he participated in the protests against the invasion of Ukraine when he was still in Moscow.

“This mobilization was the last step for me,” said the former sales manager. “I want to tell 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 declaration, is a blessing.

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

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Follow all the Associated Press stories about the war in Ukraine on https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.

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