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Artur and Vsevolod fled to Istanbul, Turkey from their hometown of Moscow fearing that they might face conscription into the Russian military as the country’s brutal but botched invasion of Ukraine continues.
“The atmosphere of fear in Russia is unprecedented,” said Vsevolod, whose name was changed to protect his identity, in an interview with the Guardian. “There’s no draft right now but there’s activity. The military networks are active. Whether this is intimidation or preparation for a draft I don’t know.”
The two men are among numerous Russians who have fled their country for the Turkish city. Recently, reported Forbes, high-ranking Russian official Anatoly Chubais fled to Istanbul with his family in protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Chubais, who oversaw Russia’s post-Soviet reforms, was his country’s climate change envoy.
Such defections show how life within Russia could be souring some Russians’ image of Putin. As many as 200,000 Russians have left their country since the start of the war. Around 25,000 Russians have traveled to the former Soviet republic of Georgia (which Russia invaded in 2008.) “Many can be seen wandering around the capital, Tbilisi, with their suitcases and often even their pets,” wrote the BBC.
Many of these travelers don’t want to be associated with a regime that indiscriminately bombs a neighbor’s cities. Others said that life in Russia was becoming materially worse due to severe Western sanctions while civil society was coarsening due to Putin’s crackdown on human rights.
“The country faces a shortage of medicine and other basic supplies, laws against freedom of speech have been introduced and numerous social networks have been blocked,” reported Spanish news agency EFE.
On the other end of the scale, main shopping streets in Moscow and elsewhere often with luxury brands such as Dior are almost deserted as hundreds of Western brands pulled out of the country and closed their stores.
Western tech companies have pulled out of Russia, too, undercutting its digital infrastructure, while Putin has erected barriers to keep Russians from accessing websites outside the country. Human Rights Watch warned that Russians were in danger of being isolated without any legitimate or useful news or information. This week, the last independent newspaper in Russia, Novaya Gazeta, suspended operations after getting a second warning from Russian communications regulators. Even so, US-funded RFE/RL recently reported a surge of traffic from Russians using VPNs after it mostly suspended operations because of Russian government pressure.
Still, the propaganda goes on. Putin recently attended a concert, for example, in Luzhniki stadium to mark the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Behind him appeared a flag that said “For a world without Nazism,” perpetuating the falsehood that fascists run the Ukrainian government, noted CNN. No dissent from the pro-war spectacle was allowed, of course.
Putin has a large swathe of supporters regardless of what is being said on the country’s broadcast media or online. But fed a steady diet of propaganda, many Russians within Russia are more worried about their daily lives than the government even as they don’t know the full scope of the tragedy that has unfurled in Ukraine, Vox added.
They only know that something feels very wrong.
Putin felt that, too, eight years ago, when he spoke of the concept of the “divided” Russian world (Russkiy Mir) as justification for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea. He said it’s a civilization that has to be protected from external forces such as the West, the German Council on Foreign Relations noted.
With thousands of Russians contributing to a growing “brain drain,” it’s clear this isn’t a world many want to live in.