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A line of cars at a checkpoint on the Russian border with Kazakhstan

‘The locals treat us like refugees — and they’re right’ In his own words, a Russian man recalls fleeing to Kazakhstan to evade the draft

Source: Meduza
A line of cars at a checkpoint on the Russian border with Kazakhstan
A line of cars at a checkpoint on the Russian border with Kazakhstan
Tyoploye Shagan border checkpoint car line Telegram channel

Interview by Dina Mingalieva. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

After Vladimir Putin’s mobilization announcement on September 21, thousands of Russians began fleeing the country. Almost 100,000 have already entered Kazakhstan — more than any other country except Georgia, according to preliminary data. Uralsk, the nearest major Kazakh city for Russians fleeing the European part of their country, ran out of affordable housing early on, but generous local residents have pitched in to help the new arrivals — including the owners of the city’s Cinema Park movie theater. Meduza spoke to one Russian who spent his first night in Kazakhstan in one of the theater's auditoriums. We're publishing an abridged translation of his story.

I decided to leave because I had no idea what would happen and no confidence in the future. I was scared. The chaos of the mobilization, the conscription. The complete disinformation [...] regarding the “partial mobilization.”

Plus I had a vacation coming up. I didn’t want to get stuck — especially if the worst case scenario, the announcement of a border closure, came to pass. I didn’t want to get stuck and be conscripted.

I made the decision fairly suddenly — literally just a few days before my departure. I was very nervous; I couldn’t get it out of my mind. For several days, I couldn't even work, so I took time off.

I planned my exit in a hurry. My family responded positively to the news. I mean, they obviously weren’t very happy about it, but they weren’t very upset about it either; they understand. [...]

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Me and my friends and colleagues from various fields would got together [to talk about our options]. Initially, nobody was seriously considering making an emergency departure. It all felt like a game or a TV show. We would have discussions, brainstorming sessions: how might we go about leaving, where would it be possible, and how could we do it most effectively. [...]

In the end, not everybody decided to go. It wasn’t easy to make such an urgent decision, and not everyone was able: some people have families, others just had other circumstances, and some people just couldn’t make themselves do it. It ended up just being two of us: me and my friend.

We took a bus from Kazan to Samara — about an eight-hour trip. You can get unlicensed cab drivers to take you anywhere from Samara for a set price, albeit an inflated one. We didn’t have any problems getting out.

We went from Samara to the nearest town, where there was a border checkpoint. On Yandex Maps, it said the line of cars was about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) long. It would have been pointless to stay there, and all of the local drivers were insistent that we should go to Tyoploye, another border checkpoint.

The line at the Tyoploye border checkpoint
Tyoploye Shagan border checkpoint car line Telegram channel
The Tyoploye border checkpoint. September 27, 2022
Tyoploye Shagan border checkpoint car line Telegram channel

Tyoploye turned out to be four hours from Samara. The line there was fairly long, too, and their processing capacity was low — the checkpoint wasn’t ready to take in so many people. When we reached it, we probably saw about 250 people [standing in line]. In the line, they gave us a marker and said, “Write down your number, you’re next, you’ll be number so-and-so, we’re all signing up for the line — write it on your wrist in permanent marker and then give it to the next person.” So the marker was always with whoever was last in line. Whenever people arrived, they would write down their numbers. That day began with number one hundred forty something, I think.

Things stayed fairly organized for the first half of the day — that was the morning [of September 25]. We probably waited there for about four hours like that — sitting, standing, walking around, chatting; everything was calm. For about four or five hours. But after lunch, the trouble began. People started arriving who hadn’t written their numbers down and who didn’t know we had a line. They started brazenly going up to the gates. By the evening, things had gotten to the point that there was just a crowd of people. People pressed against the gate so forcefully that it almost collapsed. The border officials, of course, yelled at us.

The author’s number in line at the Tyoploye border checkpoint. September 27, 2022
Tyoploye Shagan border checkpoint car line Telegram channel

The process went like this: about ten people were let in at a time. Processing them would take about 45 minutes to an hour. It all went fairly slowly, plus they had to let cars through. So about ten people passed through roughly each hour. Some people — families with children — were allowed to bypass the line. There were about eight in total.

The process was something like squeezing cat food out of a bag. Each time the gates opened, you would push yourself into the mass of people, hoping to advance further.

We ended up standing there, shifting our weight from one leg to the other, from 6:00 pm until 1:00 am — and we were literally only five meters (about 16 feet) from the gates, just in a huge crowd of people. Everybody stopped caring who had a number and who didn’t. Volunteers tried to help organize the crowd, but nobody listened to them.

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The border agents weren’t in a huge hurry; they worked pretty slowly. Their motto was, “Everybody will get through when it’s their time.” It’s a good thing our time finally came. On the Russian side, they didn’t ask us any questions at all; they just looked at our faces, cross-checked them with our passports, stamped them, searched through our things — completely objectively — and let us through.

Getting through the Kazakh side took between 45 minutes and an hour. Everyone was calm, polite, and genial; nobody was irritated. [...]

Basically everybody made it through on the Russian side — or at least we only saw one or two people who turned around. Evidently they were sent back, either because of a summons or for some other serious reason. The person didn’t explain what had happened. He just went in and then came out.

But overall, even people who belonged to category A [of the draft reserve] — men who served before and who are 20-35 years old — made it through. That, despite the fact that border officers had come out and said firmly that people who belong to category A wouldn’t be allowed through; “Don’t even wait in line,” they said. In line, when they were asked why they were crossing, they tried to evade the question. But in the end [...] nobody came back. So I assume they made it through.

There were drivers to take us from the border to the nearest city. Some raised the price, others offered more reasonable prices. We went to the nearest city: Uralsk. It took about an hour. Unfortunately, there were no accommodations left. Renting something was unrealistic. Everything had been bought up in advance, and it was hard searching at night for a place to stay. We were taken to the movie theater [Cinema Park]. Thanks to volunteers, you could stay the night in the movie theater, in any of the mosques, and in some other large place — I don’t remember what it was.

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At first, there were only a few people in the movie theater; before long, though, others started arriving. Here’s what it was like: there was a guard who stood there and asked people if they were from Russia or not. Only people from Russia could stay the night. After that, they’d take you to the next floor and show you where the bathroom was and where the auditorium itself was. “Make yourselves at home.” We weren’t allowed to leave the theater building to walk around. There were probably about 50 of us in the auditorium, maybe more. It’s hard to say. Everyone just came in, claimed a spot somewhere, and got comfortable. Some people had rugs or mats, while others just lay down on the carpet. It was warm and comfortable.

The conversations in the auditorium were about how we needed to join together; people formed into groups, rented taxis together, exchanged currency together, and relocated and rented apartments together. A lot of people weren’t just passing through; they were here to stay. They planned to register with the migration service so they could stay for up to 90 days.

A line of Russians who just arrived in Kazakhstan wait for their ID cards at a public services center in Almaty. September 27, 2022.
Vladimir Tretyakov / NUR.KZ / AP / Scanpix / LETA

We slept for about four hours before wondering what we should do next. They came in at about 11:00 am and told us that the [movie theater] was opening soon and to please gather our things and continue on our way. Everyone was polite; they gave us practical advice and told us we could get something to eat at the cafeteria there and drink some tea for free.

We’ve received full support from the locals. They’ve treated us like refugees — like people fleeing oppression in our own country. It sounds harsh, but that’s essentially what’s going on.

Interview by Dina Mingalieva

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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