CHISINAU, Moldova—It took three days for two 24-year-old friends, photographer Mikhail and tech worker Dmitry, to make the grueling journey across a 16-kilometer-long traffic lineup between Russia and Georgia.
The two men, who only wanted to be identified by their first names for fear of retribution, are among the 261,000 who fled the country after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “partial” war mobilization last week—a decree that is set to send hundreds of thousands of young Russian men to fight in Ukraine.
Mikhail and Dmitry bought plane tickets from Moscow to the city of Mineral Waters in Russia’s Caucasus region on Thursday, just hours after the mobilization announcement. They then drove to the city of Vladikavkaz, where they said they were forced to leave their car behind after being stopped by a police officer. From there, they walked and hitchhiked their way across the Russian border to Georgia.
Their exodus was the “most horrific time of life,” Mikhail told The Daily Beast. He said it involved multiple interrogations by the Russian police, as well as threats of imprisonment and extortion. But the two friends were determined to make their getaway—because they knew exactly what would happen to them if they stayed.
It felt like they were fleeing “the most hostile” country in the world, Mikhail told The Daily Beast. “During one of the interrogations by the traffic police, I had to show my unusual birthmark and lie to them that I had cancer. They believed me and let us go but only to the next checkpoint, where we were interrogated once again.”
Rumors that the FSB is set to close Russian borders as thousands continue to flee the country have only fueled the panic among citizens desperate to evade conscription. The traffic lineups at Russia’s border with Georgia and Kazakhstan now stretches dozens of miles, with fleeing citizens often leaving behind their suitcases and vehicles in the midst of the chaos.
“We were treated as enemies in our own country,” Mikhail said. “I cannot blame them, they are enemies to us, we could not even think of killing people in Ukraine!”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Telegram users on the Russian “Border Control” group chat have been documenting their experiences trying to flee Russia.
“It looks like [border authorities] now have lists of names banned from leaving, they asked me about the purpose of my travel and checked with some database,” wrote one user from the Domodedovo airport on Tuesday, who was leaving Moscow for Yerevan in Armenia. The price of that plane ticket skyrocketed from $300 on Thursday to almost $1,000 on Monday.
Those who’ve fled Russia are leaving behind some terrifying scenes in their own cities. Russian law enforcement has been accused of beating and detaining thousands of anti-war demonstrators who have taken to the streets to protest the mobilization. Police have been accused of raping one activist, poet Artem Kamardin, with a dumbbell. Videos of inexperienced men being sent to combat zones in Ukraine have flooded Russian social media channels.
“My defense lawyer told me that if Putin decides to accuse us of a crime for running away from his mobilization, then Kazakhstan might extradite me back to Russia,” 38-year-old business manager Alexander, who fled to Kazakhstan this week, told The Daily Beast. “There were people crying and arguing and screaming in line on the border. I crossed the border last night on foot with just my backpack. I have no future plans but I am still panicking that Kazakhs might kick me out.”
Photographer Mikhail had four heavy cameras in his backpack and a laptop. His friend Dmitry was also carrying a heavy luggage. After hiking for several miles across the border lineup, the two were lucky to find somebody they knew traveling by car.
“There was no space for us but at least some space for our luggage, so we walked on and our friends continued to wait in that line,” Mikhail said. “But after waiting for three days, people started to fight over a spot in line and eventually our friends turned around and went back to Moscow with our luggage.”
Another Russian escapee, 38-year-old Konstantin, did not bring any luggage with him, just a scooter. Before the war, he was a tour guide who would lead expeditions in some of Russia’s most remote regions. But even for Konstantin, the journey was “nerve wracking,” he told The Daily Beast.
Photographer Oksana Yushko also hiked 18 kilometers across the Georgian border on Monday. She had water with her, but no food. “They are not letting Caucasus nationals out, or at least they are interrogating them for a long time in some separate room,” she told The Daily Beast.
For 31-year-old event planner Alexey Lesin, the trip from his hometown of Kazan to the Georgian border took almost four days. “I spent 15 hours in the traffic jam on the border, with no movement, so I decided to walk under heavy rain all the way to the border,” Lesin told The Daily Beast. “The entire trip cost me $1,500. This is a lot of money for me but it was worth it—although I have absolutely no plan for my future life in Georgia.”
In his final comments to The Daily Beast, Mikhail said he “100 percent” believes he would have died had he been sent to Ukraine. “Now I feel like I am completely naked without any of my belongings,” he said. “But I am already breathing freely here in Georgia.”