Sitting across the table as he slurps on chicken soup, Yaroslav is unlike most 23-year-olds. Sure, he’s boyish, but he’s also nervous – like Vladimir Putin is still breathing down his neck.
Although he enjoyed a quiet life with his mum and sister in the Moscow suburbs, working at an antique bookshop, Yaroslav has had to carve out a new life for himself in Georgia – and it’s come at a cost.
Back in Russia, university students are being taken from classes and dormitories, while raids are carried out on vegetable warehouses, mosques and on the street, where any young men eligible for military service are dragged to enlistment offices.
With Putin’s war on Ukraine now well into its second winter, hundreds of thousands like Yaroslav have fled to avoid being called up to fight – and Georgia is a logical stop for Russians who do not need a visa to enter or work there.
Many take the decision to run abroad, crossing the border by plane, train, bus, or car in anticipation of being drafted to Putin’s sprawling army.
Finishing his soup in Tbilisi’s Shavi Lomi restaurant, Yaroslav tells Metro.co.uk of his daring escape from his homeland.
How Yaroslav escaped Russia
‘There were so many people who wanted to leave, there were huge queues on all of the borders,’ he recalls.
‘The queue of cars stretched about 10 miles long at the crossing with Kazakhstan where I was. The problem was that I could not cross by foot, or by bike, and I didn’t have a car.
‘After a long time, I found a family from Uzbekistan who allowed me to cross with them. But I had to pay them a huge amount – my entire salary. About ₽60,000 (£750). It took three days to cross.’
Yaroslav, who is half Ukrainian but has lived in Russia his whole life, was one of the ‘lucky’ ones as his boss at the bookstore helped organise his escape.
‘It was all planned by him and he paid for all the tickets. Because of all the delays at the border, I had missed my flight to Tbilisi., so when I finally got through I had to spend about two weeks in Kazakhstan,’ he adds.
Yaroslav fled Russia just after the first wave of the mobilisation, in early October 2022.
Living so close to the Kremlin, he witnessed the discontent in the capital after Putin announced his invasion.
Conversations with his dad, who is Ukrainian and had fought in the battle for the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast – one of the longest and bloodiest of the war – helped him align himself, politically and morally.
Filled with anger towards the Russian government, Yaroslav joined anti-war demonstrations to show his stance, but was arrested almost instantly.
A video of police dragging him away by his arms and legs circulated online, and was even broadcast on Russian state TV.
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Fearing prison or worse – being sent to the frontline – Yaroslav decided to leave his family behind in Moscow.
It has taken him months to stop looking over his shoulder for Putin’s long reach, but he struggles to articulate his feelings about leaving his old life and moving to Tbilisi.
‘Our house [in Moscow] is near the railway station and sometimes I could see soldiers getting on the train to be deployed to Ukraine,’ he explains.
‘It was the most frightening experience of my last few months living in Russia, it was insane.
‘I was aware they were heading to the frontline where they could kill my dad or my childhood friends from Kyiv.
‘Perhaps I could have put an explosive on the rail tracks, but then I would be sure to go to prison and the tracks would be repaired and the train will continue.’
Yaroslav adds: ‘Every day that I lived in Russia after the invasion started I wanted to scream. I was hiding my pain. But I could not do anything, say anything in public, or express my position in any way. It is madness.
‘People are afraid, so you can’t judge them. The first emotion I felt when I crossed the border was freedom. This is when I realised how much pressure I lived under.
‘I feel safe in Georgia. I am not afraid of police here. Back in Russia, the thought of being arrested occupied my mind every day.’
Life in Georgia
In the year that he has been living in Tbilisi, Yaroslav has longed for home and now even misses the winters in Moscow.
‘This may sound crazy because I always hated how cold it gets in Russia, but I recently realised that I miss it,’ he says. ‘It is almost funny what you end up missing.’
He fled at a time when border checks were not as rigorous and the administration was still catching up with the Kremlin’s orders.
Idite Lesom, an underground network created in the first wave of the mobilisation, assists people like Yaroslav to evade conscription, find asylum abroad, and escape the frontlines in Ukraine.
‘Our mission is to make sure that as few people as possible pull the trigger,’ the NGO stated on their website, adding that they have provided aid to 21,594 people and counting in the last 15 months.
For Idite Lesom – a play on words, literally meaning ‘Go by the forest’, but often used as ‘Go f**k yourself’ – those already shipped to the frontline are a ‘priority’.
Head of relief and evacuations Darya Berg, who left Russia and is now also based in Tbilisi, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘We provide those in the most danger with options, but do not pressure them on what to do.
‘For example, we are speaking with one man on the frontline, who wants to run away, but he does not know what to do or where to go.
‘Our job is to show him different opportunities, but to leave him to decide himself – whether that is surrendering to the Ukrainian military, or even injuring himself so that he is hospitalised and returned to Russia.
‘We are providing him with evacuation routes and helping him get an external passport as he does not have one.
‘The consequences are harsh if captured – just under 10 years in prison – and we tell people about them.’
Desertion cases are rarely brought to court and it is often that men are simply sent back to the front.
Desperate measures to escape the war
Darya says there are a lot of cases where soldiers – who she refers to as ‘military slaves’ – choose to injure themselves to escape the frontline.
‘One of the first cases I remember was an officer who called me from a hospital and told me that he had recruited his friend to shoot him,’ she recalls.
‘They both shot each other in the legs. I was shocked, but it has become common since then. He is in a safe place now in northern Russia.’
Military service summons in Russia
As Putin’s invasion faltered, forcing him to announce a larger-scale mobilisation in September, the NGO has been inundated with requests for help on their Telegram bot manned by volunteers.
Questions include ‘what to do if I have been sent a summons’, ‘how to prove unfit for health reasons’, and ‘how to apply for deferment.’
Darya says the Kremlin relies on Russians lack of education about legal rights and their fear of being sent to jail or fined.
But she admitted that in reality, going though the court system is ‘impossible’.
For people like Yaroslav who have not yet been drafted or have just received their summons, there are alternatives, like fleeing abroad and starting a new life there, or hiding deep inside Russia at secret locations, which Idite Lesom can help with.
Compulsory military service has long been a sensitive issue in Russia, where many men go to great lengths to avoid being handed conscription papers.
In July 2022, the Kremlin passed a law to raise the maximum age by three years, widening the pool of men that can be called up.
The legislation, which came into effect on January 1, means men will be required to carry out a year of military service between the ages of 18 and 30, rather than 18 and 27 as now.
Putin also banned men from leaving Russia from the day they are summoned to a conscription office and increased the fines for failure to appear at the enlistment office.
For men like Yaroslav, who have sought refuge abroad, there is no return to Russia, at least until the war is over.
‘People hope that the war will be soon over and everything will be back to normal, but this will destroy me,’ he says.
‘During the war, I became somewhat a pessimist, or a realist, I don’t know. But I no longer see a good future for me or my country.’
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