BISHKEK: Russians Fleeing the Draft Find an Unlikely Haven

The influx has turned a country long scorned in Russia as a source of cheap labor and for its backward ways into an unlikely and, for the most part, welcoming haven for Russian men, some poor, many relatively affluent and highly educated — but all united by a desperate desire to escape being caught up in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Rents are skyrocketing, luxury hotels and grimy hostels do not have beds to spare. And on the dusty, sunny streets of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, bands of young migrants, nearly all men, wander aimlessly, dazed at their world turned upside down — and their hasty, self-imposed exile to a poor, remote country that few could previously place on a map.

The gathering Friday night, convened to celebrate the start of a new “Russian community,” was one small part of a vast exodus of Russians to Central Asia, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and a shrinking list of other places still willing take them in during what has become their country’s most concentrated burst of emigration since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

After leaving often well-paying jobs and families in Moscow and Vladivostok, Russia, and many places in between, tens of thousands of young Russians — terrified of being dragooned into fighting in Ukraine — are pouring into Central Asia by plane, car and bus.

“I look up at the clear sky every day and give thanks that I am here,” said Denis, an events organizer from Moscow who Friday joined scores of fellow Russians at a bar in Bishkek to rejoice at their escape and trade tips on places to sleep, getting Kyrgyz residency papers and finding work.

The outflow began in February, with hundreds of thousands of people leaving after Russia invaded Ukraine, but has accelerated since Sept. 21, when Putin declared a “partial mobilization” in response to battlefield defeats. In the subsequent four days, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported, 261,000 military-aged men were estimated to have left. Tens of thousands more have fled since.

The chaotic rush for the exit has inverted the usual shape of a wartime refugee crisis: Unlike the millions of Ukrainian women and children who have fled into Poland and other European countries, these Russian men are not running away from an invading army, but from serving in one. Nor do they fit the stereotype of migrants as destitute people trying to escape the developing world.

While Putin boasted Friday in the Kremlin that his war had given Russia millions of new citizens grabbed from Ukraine, the conflict is driving his real citizens to despair and flight.

“When it all started, we thought it would just affect professional soldiers and their families, but with mobilization, it has touched us all,” said Alexander, a 23-year-old university student from the Russian Far East. Staying in Russia, he added, would mean “either going to prison or into the army.”

At the bar in Bishkek, no one seemed to take seriously Putin’s latest announcement — that he was annexing four regions of Ukraine, vowing that Ukrainians living there would from now on be “forever” Russian.

“He just lies all the time,” said Yuri, a 36-year-old artist from Siberia. Before embarking on a three-day bus and train journey to Bishkek last week, Yuri ran a small business designing album covers for an American heavy metal band and doing artwork for other foreign clients. He now sleeps on the upper bunk in an overcrowded hostel room shared with 19 other people, many of them Russian.

“At least I feel safe here,” added Yuri, who like most of the Russians interviewed asked that only his first name be published, fearing retribution.

Eldar, 23, a math tutor from Russia’s Sakhalin Island in the Pacific, blamed many Russians for being too apathetic about the war.

“Most people just sit on their sofas and think that if Putin goes, things will get even worse,” he said. “I could not be part of this anymore and have to think about my own future,” he added.

That so many Russians took so long to start worrying about the war in Ukraine has infuriated Ukrainians, who have endured seven months of torment and bloodshed. Even now, Russians who fled rarely talk about the war, focusing on their own travails with housing, money and unfamiliar customs.

After decades of being treated as Russia’s poor and desperate country cousins, many Kyrgyz, including the country’s president, Sadyr Japarov, are happy to see the shoe on the other foot.

“This is a very new phenomenon for us,” Japarov said in an interview. Noting that more than 1 million Kyrgyz worked in Russia, he added that “their citizens can of course come here and work freely” and had no need to fear being extradited home.

He said he did not know how many Russian draft dodgers had arrived but added that the influx would help his country, even as it jacks up rents and leads some landlords to evict Kyrgyz tenants to make way for Russians willing to pay double, triple or more.

“We don’t see any harm and see lots of benefits,” he said.

In a contrast with Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, involving Syrians, Afghans and others, many of the Russians seeking sanctuary in Kyrgyzstan are highly educated and had good jobs back home, often in tech or culture.

Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries have long worried that refugees would pour in from nearby Afghanistan but, said Yan Matusevich, a Russian-born American scholar who is researching migration in Bishkek, “nobody in their wildest dreams ever expected a flood of Russian refugees.”

Fleeing Russians, he added, did not want to be regarded like refugees from developing countries, but there were so many of them that international organizations needed to “start thinking about providing a humanitarian response” like those in previous migrant crises.

Some of the migrants have lots of money, but others are not affluent or left in such a hurry that they have little more than the clothes on their backs and depend on the charity of locals.

In Osh, the country’s second-largest city, a Kyrgyz woman, Dinara, posted her telephone number online and offered to host penniless Russians at her home. “I will be happy to help you. No money needed, meals included,” she wrote, although such generosity is wearing thin as more Russians arrive.

The welcome has forced some Russian arrivals to reconsider their country’s self-image as a big-hearted, civilizing force superior to less developed parts of the former Soviet Union.

“It is a vaccination against imperialism to come here and be accepted by the Kyrgyz after the way they have been treated in Moscow, never mind other cities,” said Vasily Sonkin, a 32-year-old Muscovite, referring to the more than 10% of Kyrgyzstan’s population working in Russia, mostly in menial jobs, and often subject to prejudice.

What to call the arrivals is still in flux. If Russians do not see themselves as refugees, they also do not want to be called draft dodgers, and there is no sign of the anti-war fervor that gripped young Americans who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War.

A tiny minority support the war but do not want to die fighting it. Dmitry, a tech entrepreneur from Sochi, scoffed at protesters but said he had lost faith in Russia’s direction after the Kremlin agreed to a prisoner swap that set free more than 100 members of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment.

“Putin said the goal of this whole thing at the start was to denazify Ukraine, but then he freed all these Nazis,” he said, parroting Russia’s false propaganda line that Azov is composed of fanatical fascists.

He said he was reluctant to leave his wife and daughter behind but saw no point in staying in Russia and risking the draft after vital employees at his company started running away. He can operate his company virtually from Bishkek and, if the war continues, said he would relocate his family.

Many Russian exiles prefer to be seen as “relokanty,” a term that originated in Belarus, a brutal dictatorship whose once thriving tech sector offered employees hope of escape through “relocation” abroad with a foreign company.

Ermek Myrzabekov, the owner of a Bishkek travel agency and president of Kyrgyzstan’s tourism association, said he had received a flood of requests from companies looking for a place in Central Asia to park Russian male employees. The surge, he added, meant “super profits” for hospitality and airlines but also risked tensions if more Kyrgyz families with children were evicted to make way for Russians.

Hotels in Bishkek and Osh, Myrzabekov said, were all “100% fully booked,” a situation that he expected to continue after Putin’s bellicose speech Friday.

“Everyone can see that Putin has gone too far already and can’t step back. Russians will be staying here for a long time,” he predicted.