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Anti-war Russians endure cold uncertainty in Kyrgyzstan

Those who fled conscription have few places to go

A participant waves Ukrainian flag during an anti-war rally in Gorky Park in Bishkek. Getty Images/Photo by Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP

Anti-war Russians endure cold uncertainty in Kyrgyzstan

Editor’s note: WORLD agreed not use the last names of sources in this story due to security concerns.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan—Rain drizzles down on the capital city and the temperature hovers around freezing. In a hostel in the city center, young men from Russia gather in the common hall. Nikita sinks his tall frame into an oversized sofa and takes a sip of a tea before telling his story.

Nikita, 25, was against Russia’s war in Ukraine from the beginning. He spent years living and studying in Western Europe and had a good job in finance. In May, he heard the first rumors of conscription, but he didn’t really believe it would happen. By September, with the war going badly for Vladimir Putin, he believed it. According to the first announcements, he wouldn’t be eligible for the draft because he never served in the army. But after the chaos of the first days, Nikita decided to flee. He’d planned to leave Sept. 28 and bought an $800 ticket. When he heard rumors the borders would close to Russians trying to leave on Sept. 27, he bought a new ticket for Sept. 26 for $4,000.

Kyrgyzstan seemed like a good option: inexpensive, welcoming, and most importantly, Russians don’t need a visa for a long-term stay. Now Nikita is one of approximately 20,000 Russians, mostly men, who are stuck in limbo in Bishkek. They wait out the war with little work, little money, and little certainty.

Nearly 200,000 Russians left the country following Putin’s mobilization order, fleeing largely to Central Asian countries that don’t have the same entry restrictions as Europe: Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. Though these nations have been welcoming, they do not have many economic opportunities for foreigners. The influx of refugees to Bishkek has sent housing prices skyrocketing. Rent there is now more expensive than in Moscow. That has made some locals resentful. The political climate is also troubling: Kyrgystanis still dream of the Soviet Union, and most support Putin and his war. Some call Nikita a deserter.

Many Christians also left Russia. Andrey and Lyuba are a young Christian couple from Kaluga, Russia, who ended up in Istanbul, Turkey. Andrey previously worked as an air traffic controller in Moscow. Because of that, he feared he was at higher risk for conscription.

“I’ve never been a political activist, but seeing how the government tried for years to close our church made my position against the government very strong,” Andrey said. “Our pastor took a strong anti-war position and has been attacked for it.” He said he is saddened and frustrated at how many Russian Christians blindly believe all government power is from God and should be supported no matter what: “I would rather go to prison than serve in Putin’s army, helping him kill people.” Andrey and Lyuba hope eventually to get to the United States to ask for refugee status as persecuted Protestant Christians. For now, they are staying in Istanbul.

Back in Bishkek, Nikita waits for the war to end. In the weeks after his arrival, he spent his days reading news about the war and walking around Bishkek. Now he has started taking online IT classes. Programming seems like a safe choice, since he could use it to work remotely. One day he hopes he can settle back in the West, but he knows that for now it’s hard for Russians to get to Europe.

“Our bank cards don’t work abroad, it’s hard to get visas, it’s hard to get jobs in Western companies,” Nikita says.

He’s saddened by cases of what he calls “Russophobia” in western countries: “It’s a mistake. We’re middle-class, educated people who can work for the economy of the countries where we’d like to go. We didn’t choose Putin. We tried to fight him in the ways we could without giving up our lives or freedom.”

David-Viktor Ratkin

David-Viktor Ratkin is a foreign correspondent for WORLD.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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