Hours after Vladimir Putin announced hundreds of thousands of Russian men would be mobilised to fight in his ailing war in Ukraine, one man bought a one-way ticket to Uzbekistan.
The entrepreneur from Moscow had never been to the former Soviet Republic before, but as a man in his 30s who had completed military service, he knew he would be among the first to be conscripted into the Russian army.
“I wasn’t going to fight in this monstrous war. We’re not defending our motherland, but attacking another country,” the young Russian man, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, told VICE World News. The remaining options were being put in jail for defying conscription orders or to flee – immediately.
He is among hundreds of thousands of Russians who have fled the country since last month and poured into the Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
They follow compatriots who left Russia at the start of the war in February, and mostly travelled to Europe, Turkey, and the Caucasus nations of Georgia and Armenia.
While most have been welcomed in Central Asia, and volunteers set up networks to welcome the new arrivals, some have faced hostility from locals, including protests.
Their arrival has sent rents and prices soaring – more than doubling in some areas, and up a reported 30 per cent nationwide in Kazakhstan – while some residents fear for the impact on the local jobs market.
Others complain of a “colonial mentality” among Russians, a hangover from Moscow’s decades as the imperial centre of the Soviet Union. Within Russia, conscription appears to be targeting non-Slavic ethnic groups, and there are even reports that citizens of former Soviet republics are being coerced or forcibly brought into the Russian army.
The Central Asian states have traditionally been the junior partner in their relations with Moscow, though some are using the war in Ukraine to distance themselves from Russia.
The Kazakh government has refused to recognise the “independence” of separatist regions in Ukraine. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev last month said that Russian draft dodgers were fleeing a “hopeless situation” and that Kazakhstan had “to take care of them and secure their safety”.
Millions of migrant workers from Uzbekistan and elsewhere come to Russia to take on often poorly paid, menial jobs, where they frequently face racism.
The young Russian VICE World News spoke to, who flew into the Silk Road city of Bukhara before travelling on to meet friends in capital Tashkent, thinks of these attitudes with a sense of shame when compared to the welcome he received from the Uzbek population.
“After speaking with local people, you remember how awfully we treat migrant workers from Central Asia in Russia – what arrogant shit we aim at them, not just in the media but in everyday life.”
Some who fled Russia were able to get plane tickets out immediately after the mobilisation announcement on the 21st of September. Others made car journeys of thousands of miles, with some cycling the final stretch or walking across borders.
Along Russia’s frontier with Kazakhstan, the world’s longest land border after Canada’s with the United States, queues stretched back for days.
One 33-year-old photographer from Moscow, whose name is being withheld, made the crossing near Tasqala, south of Russia’s Saratov region, after a wait of one-and-a-half days in his car.
He said he had “little choice” when it came to his destination – he did not have an international passport, just an internal Russian travel document, which allowed him to enter a limited number of countries in the region. Russian is widely spoken in Kazakhstan and there is a sizeable ethnic Russian community, mainly in the north of the country.
“One of my friends almost got into a fight with two Kazakhs on a bus… they were drunk, they approached [my friend] and started asking angry questions about his nationality, what he was doing in the country and so on.” The photographer said another friend was told “to get the fuck out of the country” by a local person of Slavic appearance as they were shopping in a supermarket. But such altercations “were the exception rather than the rule” he added.
Russian arrivals have been advised to avoid certain areas in the south of Kazakhstan, he said where hostility towards newcomers is reportedly higher.
In the Kazakh border town of Uralsk, locals opened their homes to the new arrivals and a local cinema even stayed open all night to give people without other accommodation somewhere to sleep.
But elsewhere, Kazakhs have been picketing the government to close the border. A woman was arrested this month after filming a queue of Russians setting up an account at a local bank, telling them that they were “saboteurs who ran away from mobilisation… What are you doing here? Nobody is happy to see you.”
One Kazakh told local media: “They are visitors, not refugees. It’s not their war, it’s not their houses being bombed, it’s not them who are forced to leave their destroyed homes.”
“Even ‘liberal’ Russians often treat us as second-class people,” another said in Kyrgyzstan, though others expressed pride that their countries were welcoming people with “kindness and mutual assistance”.
Others, online, have reacted to the irony that many Russians now find themselves dependent on their neighbours.
One widely shared TikTok reversed attitudes that many Central Asian migrants experience when they come to Russia, where apartments are frequently advertised to “people of Slavic appearance only” and immigrants can be mocked for their accented Russian.
“We only hire people with knowledge of the Kyrgyz language,” an apparently unimpressed young woman says in the clip. “No – the apartment’s only available for people of an Asian appearance.”
While the entrepreneur from Moscow we spoke to plans to stay in Uzbekistan only for a few weeks before travelling onto Asia, the photographer is planning to make Kazakhstan his home for the time being, though hopes one day to be able to return to Russia.
He points to the large number of educated professionals, particularly in the IT and creative sectors, who have left Russia to move elsewhere since mobilisation. “This departure will hit Russian culture very hard and enrich the areas in which they settle,” but he admitted there is the risk of “potential tensions” in Central Asia.
“My plan’s to find stable housing, find a remote or local job, and possibly get a residence permit from Kazakhstan,” he said. The Kazakh government says it will not extradite draft dodgers to Russia, but has suggested it will need permission from Moscow before it grants them permanent residency.
“In general the situation is very unstable, I haven’t even unpacked my bags because it’s not clear what’s going to happen tomorrow.”