Escape to Uncertainty

When Russia looks for troops to sustain its war on Ukraine, it is more likely to turn to regions that are home to ethnic minorities. Thousands looking to avoid that fate have fled to neighbouring countries — but relocation comes with its own challenges

By Ania Bessonov, CBC News, November 26, 2023

Russians line up at a service centre in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to get Kazakh ID documents. More than a million Russians have fled for neighbouring countries such as Kazakhstan since the war on Ukraine began. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ/The Associated Press)
Sitting in a park in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on a recent fall afternoon, Nurgun Antonov thought back to the moment he found out Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had begun — a moment that ultimately led him here, 7,000 kilometres from his home.

On a late February morning in 2022, he woke up in his home in northeastern Russia to some notifications on his phone. Among them was a text message from a friend. He unlocked his phone to open the message.

It read: “The war has started.”

“The first week of the war was like a nightmare, as if we were in a thick fog,” said Antonov, 28. “I remember the feeling that we had lost something very dear, as if the ground was taken out from under us.”

But the nightmare would soon become much scarier for people like Antonov, leading him to become one of more than a million Russians who have left the country since the Russian army invaded Ukraine.

Antonov is ethnically Yakut — one of the almost 200 different ethnic minorities scattered throughout Russia.

The Yakut are one of several ethnic groups that have their own region — specifically known as a “national republic.” Antonov’s hometown, Yakutsk, is the capital of the Republic of Sakha.

Nurgun Antonov, an ethnic Yakut from eastern Russia, moved to Kazakhstan along with his wife and some friends shortly before the partial mobilization was announced. (Ania Bessonov/CBC)

There are other types regions across the country, some of which include oblasts, krais and okrugs. For example, Irkutsk is an oblast that is home to many members of the Buryat minority.

Many of the areas where ethnic communities are concentrated are located thousands of kilometres away from the major cities, in Russia’s vast Siberian and Far East regions, which stretch from the Arctic in the north to the borders with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China in the south.

(Sandra Peppler CBC News)

Although they are Russian citizens, members of ethnic minorities are often treated worse than other populations in Russia — especially compared to those in the country’s metropolises, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been an uptick in both racism and discrimination faced by [ethnic minorities], especially in these peripheral regions in Russia,” said Oleksa Drachewych, assistant professor of Russian history at Western University in Ontario.

That trend has been largely reflected in this war.

More likely to be mobilized, less likely to survive

Last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists — typically, men who had previously gone through the country’s mandatory conscription.

The country’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, stated that slightly more than one per cent of the country’s reservists would be called up for active duty. But a report from Important Stories, an investigative journalism website, and the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent investigative organization, showed that proportion varied greatly between regions, with some of the ethnic regions seeing the most recruitment.

Specifically, St. Petersburg and Moscow saw only about 0.85 per cent and 0.76 per cent of their reservists mobilized, respectively, whereas more than three times that many (3.66 per cent) were called up from the Republic of Buryatia, home to the Buryat ethnicity. That’s one of the highest rates, according to the limited data that has been made available.

Krasnoyarskiy Krai, another Siberian region, had more than 4.5 times the target mobilization rate, with 5.47 per cent of its reservists mobilized.

While the initial number of reservists to be called up for the partial mobilization was 300,000, the total number may have exceeded it. Independent Russian news agency Mediazona found about 527,000 Russians were called up just in the months of September and October 2022.

Man wearing glasses in military uniform speaks into two microphones
Russia's defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced in September 2022 that slightly more than one per cent of the country’s reservists would be called up for active duty. But independent research showed that proportion varied greatly between regions, with some remote and ethnic regions seeing mobilization rates between 3.5 and 5.5 per cent. (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

The variation in death rates between regions has also been staggering.

Since the war began in February 2022, the overall mortality rate for young men has reportedly surged in minority regions such as Dagestan (increasing by 105 per cent) and Buryatia (93 per cent), while remaining fairly stable in St. Petersburg (3 per cent) and Moscow (0 per cent).

More than 37,000 Russian casualties have been confirmed by publicly available data as of Nov. 21 (the actual number is estimated to be a lot higher). According to a daily updated tally from the Baikal Journal, an independent news magazine operating out of Russia’s Baikal region, around 1,900 of the soldiers who have been killed have been from the regions of Buryatia and Irkutsk.

For these regions, which have relatively small populations — Buryatia’s is less than one million and Irkutsk’s is a little over 600,000 — the losses are substantial.

The study also found that soldiers fighting in Ukraine who hail from Buryatia and the Tuva Republic — another ethnic minority region that sits on the northeastern border of Mongolia — have a death rate four times higher than the general Russian population.

Percentage of mobilized reservists per region

Source: Conflict Intelligence Team (CBC)

Shortly after the mobilization was announced, word began to spread of mobilization raids targeting communities in the national republics.

“It became immediately clear that they weren’t mobilizing proportionately,” Antonov said. “It was disproportionately targeting people from national republics more than the [metropolitan] regions.”

Compared to the big cities, mobilizing recruits “from the northern regions and the regions close to the Arctic is much easier,” he said.

Drachewych offers three reasons for this, the first being proximity to Moscow.

“[The government] has tended to focus on these regions that are often in the periphery,” he said.

“They’re far from the major cities, so this allows them to either recruit more, or forcibly conscript more, without necessarily ruffling feathers or causing problems in many of the major cities.”

"You’re seeing a lot of Russian propaganda focusing on the male breadwinner … and using the military as a way to do that."

Oleksa Drachewych, Western University

Racism and discrimination toward non-Slavic Russians, as well as the socio-economic status of these regions, also play a factor.

Drachewych says some of the national republics are among the poorest in Russia. Career paths in those regions are so limited, there are only a few professions in which families can make a decent living — joining the army being one of the more viable options.

“You’re seeing a lot of Russian propaganda focusing on the male breadwinner … and using the military as a way to do that,” said Drachewych. “So generally speaking, it is a better salary than most other jobs.”

Waves of mass migration

When Antonov saw how soldiers were being mobilized, he was sure that many people would be fleeing from the national republics.

He was right: Putin’s mobilization announcement prompted a mass exodus, one of the largest in Russia’s recent history.

Though there are no official figures from Russia on how many citizens left, research by Prague Process, an organization focused on migration research and process, estimated that 700,000 to 1.2 million Russians left in the first year of the conflict.

In a recent report on the impact of this exodus on Russia’s workforce, Russian researcher and economist Vladislav Inozemtsev arrived at a similar figure, saying at least 1.3 million Russians have left.

Russians arriving in Kazakhstan at the Syrym border crossing in September 2022 are helped by a volunteer. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

“There were three different waves of migration, each of [which] has its specific features,” said Inozemtsev.

The first two waves were in February 2022, when the war first broke out, and in September 2022, when the partial mobilization was announced.

“Both waves in February and in September were very, very chaotic,” he said. “The September wave of immigration had a very powerful aftertaste, I would say, because many people understood that the situation was only going to be worse and they started to prepare for an organized departure.”

That has led to the ongoing third wave of 2023, which he says is a consistent trickle of 30,000-40,000 people each month that continues to this day.
It’s not clear how many of those that left Russia did so out of fear of being called up, but here in Almaty, the streets, cafes and buses are full of young men like Antonov and his compatriot, Erdem Uch, who fled to avoid being drafted and worry about going back.

“There were perspectives that all things would become worse,” said Uch, 27, who is Buryat, hailing from the Transbaikal region that borders Buryatia.

Until recently, he had been studying in a specialized program that allowed him to defer his mandatory military service. But without that protection, he was at risk of conscription.

Erdem Uch, 27, was not planning to stay in Kazakhstan for a long time, but after Russia raised the conscription age to 30 this summer, he decided it wasn't safe to return.

When the partial mobilization was announced, Uch packed his things, headed to the airport, and took a flight to Almaty. He thought he’d only need to leave Russia for a short period of time because he was almost 27 — the maximum age for conscription.

But then, Russia raised the conscription age to 30 this summer, meaning he was now at risk of conscription for at least three more years.

He came to the sobering realization that he shouldn’t go home because “Russia is not safe.”

Russia's neighbours feel the pressure

At the end of August 2022, Antonov, his wife and some of their friends hastily packed their things, said goodbye to their families, and got on a plane to Almaty. They arrived with little information on the local situation.

Finding accommodations proved to be one of the bigger obstacles, Antonov recalls. Prices were high and availability was scarce.

A couple of weeks later, when the mobilization was announced, hundreds of thousands of people fled Russia. Many people in the national republics don’t have international passports, severely limiting their options for destinations. It’s one of the reasons Kazakhstan became a popular destination — not only is it geographically close, but Russian citizens can enter with their domestic IDs.
The flight of hundreds of thousands of Russians to former Soviet states such as Kazakhstan reversed a decades-old trend of citizens migrating from these poorer Central Asian countries to find work in Russia.

“For the first time in the last 30 years, with the war in Ukraine, we saw a number of people migrating from Russia to Central Asia. This is a brand new trend that has never been seen before,” said Temur Umarov, an expert on Central Asia and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The governments of these countries were not prepared to deal with the influx, he added.

“Central Asian countries have to reinvent their own migration policies and understand how they are going to be dealing with all of the problems of the surplus of migrants in their territories.”

Many sectors in these destination countries came under pressure, Umarov said, including strains on administrative systems and some tensions between ethnic groups.
By far, the overwhelming obstacle for refugees was finding housing. According to the Kazakh Ministry of the Interior, more than 400,000 people crossed the border between Russia and Kazakhstan in September 2022, most of whom arrived in the last week of the month following the partial mobilization announcement.

This jolted a housing market that had already been strained when Antonov arrived a few weeks earlier. Prices skyrocketed and accommodations became scarce, posing a large hurdle for the refugees, especially because many arrived with very little.

It prompted a large humanitarian effort from locals to provide alternative shelter — some opening the doors of their cinemas to provide a roof over the refugees’ heads. Others dedicated their hostels or hotels to help.

Aleksandr Khaptareev is the local representative for the Free Buryatia Foundation, an advocacy and anti-war organization. Since the mobilization, he has helped thousands of Buryat and other Russian citizens flee to Kazakhstan and settle there.

“I want to say a big thank you to the Kazakh people for their support,” he said. “There were so many times they gave food, opened their doors, didn’t charge.”

Russians crossing the border into Georgia describe why they chose to leave, after Vladimir Putin's order to mobilize hundreds of thousands of reservists for the war in Ukraine.
Antonov was able to find a landlord who was willing to rent out her two large houses for a significantly reduced rate.

“The landlord had the option to rent them out as a commercial property like a hostel, or to help us,” he said. “She decided that it would be better to help us.”

He and his friends took on the financial burden of renting the houses and offered the shelter for free to those escaping the dire situation back home. At any one point, there were about 80 people staying in the two houses, and in total, Antonov says they were able to help more than 300 people with accommodation.

'I would be jailed for at least 10 years'

As a woman, Ayuna was not at risk of being conscripted. However, the Buryat woman, who was born and raised in St. Petersburg, was in danger for another reason.

The 27-year-old photographer had gone to a village in Buryatia in March 2023 after learning a distant relative of hers had died in the war. She wanted to document life in the village following his death and burial.

After two days of photographing and recording conversations with relatives, she went to her father’s village nearby, where she was unexpectedly met by two police officers and an official from the FSB, Russia’s federal security service.

“They told me that someone had reported me,” said Ayuna, who asked that her last name not be used out of fear for her safety.

She suspected the head of the relative’s village filed the report because it looked like she was working as a journalist, which in some cases can be enough to send you to jail in Russia.

People’s money is running out. There’s not many options for work here.

Ayuna, Buryat living in Mongolia

She was taken to the police station, where the police looked through her phone, including her photos and audio recordings. “I was worried since there were some recordings that could have really harmed some of the people I spoke with,” she said.

Fortunately for Ayuna, the officers’ patience ran thin and they stopped listening after 10 minutes. Four hours later, she was released, but she still didn’t feel safe, thinking that police might find another reason to arrest her.

“I was afraid that if I stayed in Russia, I could be painted as an extremist, which means I would be jailed for at least 10 years. That’s not something I need,” Ayuna said. “A jail in Buryatia is not quite the place of my dreams.”

She left her father’s village for Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, early the next morning. Twenty-four hours later, she found herself in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where she has been since April.

To stay or to return?

Ayuna says living in Mongolia has been difficult.

“People’s money is running out,” she said. “There’s not many options for work here.”

She highlights the different levels of work experience between those from the country’s big cities and those from the republics.

“Fleeing from Buryatia is not like fleeing from Moscow. We don’t have that many high-tech workers or people who work remotely,” she explained. “The people who left were simple people who genuinely didn’t want to be mobilized.”

Despite being born and raised in a big city, Ayuna, too, is facing economic challenges. When she first arrived in Ulaanbaatar in April, she was working remotely part-time for her previous employer in St. Petersburg. But the work hasn’t been consistent and her visa restricts her from working in any Mongolian workplaces.

Other obstacles for the new migrants include integrating culturally and socially.

“It’s the ties to the homeland. Yearning, nostalgia,” said Khaptareev. “When a person falls into depression, many want to return home.”

In fact, despite talk of another mobilization on the way, many have gone back to Russia.

Some of those who have returned told him they didn’t face questioning or run into any other issues at the border. Many of them are still afraid of being “targeted for mobilization,” but they’re willing to take their chances, he said, approaching it with an attitude of “fatalism.”

For Erdem Uch, that’s not a chance he’s willing to take. But he says the most difficult part of continuing to live in Kazakhstan is the feeling of guilt — about his ability to get out of Russia, and about the trajectory he sees his home country headed in.

“[A country] is strong not when it is huge or threatens everyone with their weapons … but when other countries want to be similar and when there is something to learn from it,” said Uch. “What can you learn or take from Russia now? A broken management system? Or having to use outdoor washrooms in -20 degree winters?”