How did the call to arms become the call to leave the country? What happened at the border during the mass exodus of Russians fleeing "partial mobilization"? Activist Konstantin Kharitonov shares his story and observations
I never planned on leaving Russia. Throughout 20 long years of political activism, no matter how difficult things became, I always held out hope for change — for democracy. I hoped that opportunities would arise for the creation of a fairer Russia, of a country made up of people, not bureaucrats, oligarchs, and siloviki.
Despite all the worrying news preceding the invasion of Ukraine, up until the very last moment on February 24 I could not believe — I did not want to believe — that Putin wasn’t bluffing, that he really would start this war. In those first few days there was only one thought on everyone’s mind: if Putin does not win a swift victory, then surely the Russians will say “enough,” will demand the end of the war. After all, almost every Russian has friends, relatives, and loved ones in Ukraine. Those first images of rocket launches and battles in the streets were made especially frightening because of how familiar everything looked: here the Stalinist architecture, there the Khrushchevki, and in the distance, the shining new constructions of the elite.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the passivity of the Russian people was at first a matter of distance – of the fact that, for the majority of Russians, the war existed only on television. In addition, the only people fighting at this point were contract fighters and volunteers, meaning that everybody for whom the war was something worth killing and dying for was already at the front. Given this fact, as well as the fact that recent Russian army successes were limited to the capture of one or two villages a month, it again seemed that Putin would soon, very soon, be forced to compromise and enter peace negotiations. And yes, in traditional military terms, this would be a defeat, which would mean that a political crisis would break out, which would mean that finally, finally, there would be opportunities for change in this country.
21 September 2022 shattered all of these hopes. The “partial” mobilization of the Russian public was generally accepted. Neighbors, grown men, said that they were unlikely to be called to the front, but if they were, they would go. They wouldn’t like to, of course, but what’s the big deal? The brazen annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts (over which fighting still continues, no less) was, in the eyes of the general public, apparently not worth a shred of condemnation. That historical construct of the “Gathering of Russian Lands” via the incremental accretion of territories, a myth that has been poisoning Russian minds since grade school, turned out to be an unshakeable bastion of irrational general knowledge.
It was at that very moment I understood, under pressure from relatives and with the support of friends, that it was time to leave. It was impossible to stay in the country – to tremble with fear of receiving a summons (and what then, to hide in the woods?), to be afraid to write openly about the catastrophe towards which Russia races with each passing day at war, to be afraid to speak, to be afraid of one’s neighbors, to be silent, to hide, to keep secrets. To forget all about dignity and continue working as if nothing is happening, spending time with friends as if nothing is happening, making love as if, after all, nothing is happening.
From the day I made my decision and booked a plane ticket to that southern border town, my wife and I had two days left together. Two very difficult days. We tried to do everything like normal, cooking in silence but hardly eating, washing dishes, cleaning, walking the dog and packing my bags. It was as if, in those two days together, after ten years by each other’s side, our love was born again– this time not from joy, but from sorrow, verging on despair. We kept convincing each other that we made the right decision, that the time had come to throw away our old life and try to start anew.
A friend and I flew to the southern border town by night and, calling a taxi, headed to the border of Kazakhstan. We had made an agreement with the driver that he would carry us across the border checkpoint, but the situation had changed: traffic at the border had grown by 15 kilometers – or several days of waiting. The taxi would only take us across the steppe to the start of the traffic jam. Three kilometers remained before the checkpoint. The mood was melancholy, and a line by Velimir Khlebnikov rattled around my head: “The steppe will sing a eulogy…” From where we stood, it was clear that finding a free or affordable spot in a car would be impossible. Prices had soared to astronomical proportions: a seat in a passing car or with a private carrier cost 70,000 rubles or higher per person. It seemed we were all in the same position, all fleeing the war, but everyone wanted to do it by themselves. Private carriers played a not-insignificant role in all this, idling in their empty trucks and deciding to profit off the general misfortune by charging the highest possible prices to drive refugees directly to the border. Eventually, three of us men managed to secure a more-or-less acceptable option: passage with an elderly woman taking her children away from the war. She had sent her sons ahead of her so that they (again, for a price) could cross the border as soon as possible; she was waiting in line with their belongings and was not averse to compensating for unforeseen expenses with our help.
During the first, agonizing day spent waiting to cross the border, we advanced only 500 meters. The border was closed for entry several times as the convoy belonging to the local “mafia” wedged its way to the front. As a result, the rest of the cars in line practically did not move at all. Several times, groups of men banded together and went to “sort it out,” and as a result we would come to a new arrangement: for example, one car from the “mafia” convoy would be allowed in for every ten cars out of traffic. Finally, a giant man, a (now former) resident of the Caucasus, quietly and peacefully explained to the “mafia” representative: “You have business here, and your business is not going anywhere. The people here are scared, they want to leave. I’m leaving here forever. You have your business, but everyone here has their own problems. So you’ll have to leave and stop bothering us now.”
Yet the speed of traffic did not pick up, as there were always those who used the oncoming lane to overtake the line of cars and wedge in up front. This happened most often at night, when one driver would fall asleep and a gap would form. On the second day, activists organized a committee of men who stood along the highway and made sure there was no empty space between the cars. As one guy from the North Caucasus aptly put it: “Brother, we are creating our own jamaat here. Ingush, Chechens, Russians, together we will get everything under control.” After that, the line started moving faster and faster, and we covered the remaining 2.5 kilometers in a single day.
Amidst the tedious waiting and tortoise-like movement, many people got out of their cars, conversed, inspected each other. In our section of the line, most of those fleeing the war were from Moscow, Krasnodar, Belgorod, the North Caucasus, and Crimea. There were a lot of young people, but there were also plenty of middle-aged people as well. They fled as families or on their own, leaving behind everything they could not take with them or quickly sell. Everywhere, you heard the same dialogue.
— Where are you from?
— From Ukraine.
— Slava Ukraini!
— Heroyam Slava… To tell the truth, we’re actually from Krasnodar…
— We’re from Crimea.
— And here we are, united. A bitter irony, of course…
— Yes, nobody asked us if we wanted to join Russia. We lived a normal life in Ukraine. Nobody really supported the unification. The elderly, maybe, and these “children of the USSR.” Life didn’t become any better– well, except that they built roads. And the Russians took over all the tourist infrastructure anyway, so there was nothing special left for the locals.
— Uh-huh, there was something strange going around Russia then, “Crimea is ours,” all of that. And whose “ours,” anyway? And was it worth the trouble? We never had any problems traveling there to relax. I tried my first hot dog in Crimea back when I was a child, and I remember it very fondly. When the “little green men” arrived, we went to a protest in St. Petersburg, but there were only two-thousand of us, so we couldn’t do much, of course. I’m very sorry you had to flee.
— Who knew it would turn out this way. Refugees, fugitives – I thought you only see this sort of thing in films.
— You can say that again. We were living normally, not worrying about anything, and all of a sudden everything’s like this.
— How can I put it… this has all been a long time coming. I’ve been speaking out against the regime for many years, but there was nothing we could do to stop this madness.
— We also went to a few different protests, but does protesting ever really change anything in Russia? Is there anywhere where protesting changes things?
— In “normal” countries, protests accomplish some things, but not everything, and not right away. And there are other opportunities for political participation. After the protests in Chile, they elected a young president, a 35-year-old with tattoos, who’s now fighting to adopt a progressive constitution.
— Really? A president with tattoos? Oh, God bless the Chileans, they’re so cool.
Young people played guitars and sang songs they remembered from their childhood in the 90s. These were songs so unexceptional that I didn’t even want to remember them. But, given the challenges we faced at the border, Shevchuk’s pronouncement that “this life is not sugar, and death is not tea” and Chizh’s promise that “my love is not a major, but a political prisoner” brought tears to my eyes.
That night, armed FSB agents and policemen roamed through the traffic. Several times, they opened a car door and rudely questioned those inside: “What, you don’t want to fight? How about we send you to the front right now? You think you can run away with the Yedinovertsy? You think they want to help you? They already hate us over there, you know. How do you think they’ll greet you?”
But the border guards were calm and polite. They didn’t even give the car a thorough inspection. They examined every person in our car separately. They asked the driver the purpose of her trip and her nationality. One of the men was not asked anything at all. Two more were sent to a second border guard in another room. One of these men was eventually let through, while the other received a travel ban (“for clarification, contact the military enlistment office”) and was escorted outside.
As we passed the final Russian military post, a wave of relief washed over us. People started smiling, speaking more freely about their hopes and experiences. Friendly Kazakh border guards patrolled the line of cars, calming the crowd (“everything will be fine”), assuring us we would be well taken care of. Local Muslim volunteers distributed bags of food and water to each car. We continued on. The nearest town was not too far away, but the road was extremely bad. Come nightfall, we clambered into a coffeehouse by the side of the road to drink coffee and cheer ourselves up. We were joined by Kazakh laborers and road workers: “You’re fleeing the war, huh? You don’t want to fight? In Russia, you know, they call us “churka.” We don’t like it very much.” But there was no fighting. We agreed nobody should be treated like that, of course. We are all people, we all just want to live peacefully and without danger. They wished us luck.
All along the roads and trains of Kazakhstan, we were shown kindness and warmth. Kazakhs supported us, gave us advice and reassurance, wished us good luck. Once, I encountered some problems while activating a local SIM card and asked the girl behind the counter to help me clarify a few key phrases in Kazakh. She was happy to clear things up:
— You don’t learn any other languages in Russia?
— English, mostly, sometimes German, French… the big European languages.
— And here in Kazakhstan, we study Russian in school. If we didn’t, what would you do now?
You can’t argue with that.
Another time we met some “Z” Kazakhs, two adult men: “So you don’t care that Ukraine is full of nazis? Swastikas, torchlight marches, Russian prisoners being crucified?” After a short conversation, we nonetheless departed peacefully: “I’m sorry, my brother, but we have different viewpoints. We don’t understand each other. No offense.”
Now we all, hundreds of thousands of us refugees, are left hoping for a new life, for a long and happy life for each of us. Hoping that the war will come to an end, and a gentle, peaceful rain will sweep the earth. That this severe military and economic defeat will make Russians realize where Putin’s blind ambitions and primitive ideology have led our country. That together, despite the difficulties, we can rebuild Russia as a country that poses no threat to its neighbors or to its own citizens – that poses no threat to anyone. We all live in one big, shared world, and each of us deserves security and justice.