How Istanbul became the top destination for Russians fleeing conscription

ISTANBUL — Sitting on a bench facing the Sea of ​​Marmara, Albert tries to roll a cigarette despite the wind blowing on his locks of blond hair. This 31-year-old doctor of political philosophy is staying with a friend in Kadıköy, a trendy district on the Asian side of Istanbul and popular with expatriates.

On Friday, September 23, Albert left Moscow, where he was visiting his parents, with two shirts and two pants hastily stuffed into a backpack. “When I heard about the annexation referendums in the new Ukrainian territories, I knew the situation was going to get worse. I thought I had a few more days. But when Putin announced the partial mobilization on the morning of September 21, I immediately booked my tickets.

Albert had tried to stir up a student movement against the war in Saint Petersburg. He was arrested with his partner on February 27, spent a night in prison and was fined a few hundred euros. They persevered and took part in demonstrations but in April, when he was on his way to a demonstration, he was arrested again. His detention lasted five days.

Albert did not hesitate to take the path of exile, but he did not think he would succeed in escaping. “I was sure that the police would give me a mobilization order at the airport. I was mentally ready to resist them, to do anything to be sent to prison rather than to Ukraine. To go to the front is to become a murderer, or to be killed.

Questioned by customs

Customs officers eventually questioned him and about 20 other men of fighting age. They wanted to know when they got their tickets, why they were going to Turkey and if they had done their military service. “That’s the problem. I did my military service at 20. I spent a year cleaning the barracks and I never carried a weapon. On paper, I have the profile of a man who can be mobilized,” he declared, and yet the officers let him board his plane for Istanbul.

To go to the front means to become a murderer, or to be killed.

The young deserter is worried about his financial situation: “I will start the process to obtain a Turkish residence permit and perhaps seek asylum in Germany,” he said.

The Mir credit card service used by Russians to pay abroad has worked in Turkey so far, but due to pressure from the United States, which sees it as a way around economic sanctions against Moscow, two Turkish banks have now stopped accepting this service. method of payment.“ I have some money, enough for a month. My partner is supposed to join me in two or three weeks. She’s trying to sell our books and all of our furniture, but it won’t be enough in the long run.

Complete flights

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Istanbul has been one of the few exit points for Russians leaving their country. Ankara has not closed its airspace in Moscow and Russians can enter Turkey without a visa. Between 100 and 120 commercial flights connect the two countries every day. All planes to Istanbul from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan are full since the announcement of the partial mobilization. On the Turkish Airlines website, reservations for flights between Moscow and Istanbul are not available until October 3, and the cheapest one-way tickets sell for €1,350.

In the arrival hall of Istanbul airport, a laid-back Muscovite family walks towards taxis. The mother, all smiles, takes out a white suitcase branded Sochi 2014. According to her, “there is no war in Russia” and she refuses to talk about the mobilization underway in her country. Far from fleeing their country, most travelers are only tourists. In 2021, around 4.7 million Russians vacationed in Turkey, more than any other nationality.

Every plane from Russia brings groups of young men or bachelors landing in Turkey to escape enlistment. Piotr, a 29-year-old IT developer, admits to having neither housing nor income here: “I’ll manage. My job allows me to work anywhere as long as there is an internet connection. I want to leave for good. I can’t stand living in Russia anymore,” he says. In his haste, he hasn’t even booked a hotel, but doesn’t seem to care, only happy to have escaped the army.

Russian cafes in Pera

Istanbul has not seen such a Russian exodus for a century. In 1920, General Wrangel’s Crimean debacle caused more than 100,000 soldiers of the White Army to flee to the Ottoman capital in a few months. At the time, the French security occupation corps, which actively monitored these refugees, considered it a “shady” environment, risking “fomenting the troops”.

When Western troops left in 1923, the countesses were transformed into cabaret dancers and the Tsar’s officers were reduced to begging all over the world. A mark of the passage of the White Army remained: popular restaurants and nightspots such as The Black Rose and the Petrograd Cafe, founded by Russians in the Pera district. Only the Régence, a tourist attraction with an old-fashioned atmosphere, has survived to the present day.

I can’t stand living in Russia anymore.

One hundred years later, new Russian cafes are appearing in Istanbul. In the gentrified bohemian neighborhood of Rasimpaşa, 33-year-old Igor opened Garo. When the conflict in Ukraine broke out, the tall, fully tattooed blond sold a restaurant in Moscow and decided to start a business in Turkey. On the menu, coffees, cold-brewed lattes and lemonades with refined herbs are the fuel for young self-employed Russians leaning on their computer screens. Most orders are placed in Russian. “We also have a Turkish employee, but it’s his day off,” Igor said, almost apologetically.

Nothing in the place suggests that it is the den of opponents and deserters, except for the old Turkish edition of Solzhenitsyn The Gulag Archipelago, prominently displayed on a shelf.

Solidarity between refugees

However, for a few days, the Garo has become a refuge for newly arrived young Russians. “Some come straight from the airport because they heard about coffee. They come here with a total of $20 in their pocket and ask us if we have a job for them. We do our best to help them. We tell them how to get a Turkish phone plan, residence permit. We also have a chat on the Telegram app where Russians who have been there for several months offer to host them for a night or two,” says Igor.

Igor is waiting for a group of friends who have taken refuge in Kazakhstan and who now want to go to Turkey. “I think next week many more Russians will converge on Istanbul if the borders remain open,” he says. This is the greatest fear of asylum seekers. Monday 26, the spokesman of the Kremlin announced that the Russian authorities “had not yet taken a decision”. According to Novaya Gazeta Europe newspaper, Russian intelligence reported that 261,000 men had left the country since the mobilization was announced.

On a Telegram channel dedicated to border controls, more than 100,000 people communicate daily about crossing points. Ilya, a historian at the head of an underground revolutionary group in Russia, reads it frequently to help his comrades still stuck in the country.

In the early days of the war, he followed in the footsteps of Russia’s most popular refugee in Istanbul, Leon Trotsky. As the founder of the Red Army between 1929 and 1933, Ilya lives on Princes’ Island, on the coast of the Turkish megalopolis. Out of solidarity, far-left Turkish activists lend him an apartment. For months, he has been trying to organize with his comrades the Russian mobilization in Turkey. “It’s hard, either they are demoralized or they prefer to flourish individually away from Russia. Depoliticization is very strong, very few adhere to it, ”explains the communist activist.

A bourgeois exile

A new influx of refugees could change the profile of Russian exiles settled in Turkey. So far, they usually only have one thing in common. Intellectuals, artists, freelancers, journalists, photographers: they are graduates, most speak perfect English and had already come to Turkey for the holidays. For computer scientists, the companies that employ them have helped them find housing.

Sometimes Russians who arrived just after the war leave quickly, like Lili, a young executive from an American multinational that we met in the spring in the seaside resort of Antalya. After a few weeks in Turkey, she flew to Bali, Indonesia.

Istanbul is as much a popular destination for deserters as it is for Russian oligarchs.

But a tendency towards colonization appears. According to the Turkish daily Dunya, traffic from Russia to one of Turkey’s leading real estate listing sites increased by 94% in the days following the publication of the mobilization order. In the first six months of 2022, Russians bought around 6,000 homes, more than in the whole of 2021, becoming the main foreign buyers of real estate.

The number should be treated with caution. Many of these buyers attempt to obtain Turkish citizenship by investing over $400,000 in bricks and mortar. Rich Russians who, far from being opponents of Putin, could try to circumvent Western sanctions thanks to the permissiveness of Ankara. Istanbul is as much a popular destination for deserters as it is for Russian oligarchs.

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