Thousands of Russians continue to arrive in Turkey, fleeing conscription
ANTALYA, Turkey — Near Antalya’s Mediterranean Sea beach is a small park known as Matryoshka Park, for its large sculpture of traditional Russian nesting dolls. More than half the sculpture’s dolls are missing now, since vandals destroyed them after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Turkey is one of the countries where Russians are fleeing conscription, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to mobilize an additional 300,000 troops to bolster his war in Ukraine. The exodus can be felt acutely in Antalya, a large city on Turkey’s southwestern coast. It’s a longtime Russian tourist destination that’s now becoming a refuge for those who don’t want to fight in the war.
Anti-war Russians began moving here in March, shortly after their country’s invasion of Ukraine. The current influx is larger and known as “the second wave” among the local Russian community. Whole neighborhoods in the area near Matryoshka Park are mostly Russian now. It’s the language heard on the streets and seen on signs and restaurant menus.
Two young Russian men wander around the park, looking as though they have just stepped off the plane — carrying backpacks and dressed for much colder weather than Antalya’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Like many Russian men around the city nowadays, they are easily identifiable as having fled the draft, with their meager belongings, winter outfits and stunned expressions.
These two men are from Kazan, in the semi-autonomous region of Tatarstan in southwest Russia. They don’t want to reveal their names, fearing retribution from the Russian government.
“It’s dangerous for any male,” says one of the men, who is 25. “Doesn’t matter if you’re old, have more than three kids and no military experience. All men are in danger.”
As Tatars, they’ve heard that Russia’s new conscription falls heavily on ethnic minorities like them, more so than on Russians living in the big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. They say they know many friends who were rounded up despite being staunchly against the war.
“This is a war of the Russian government, not the Russian people. My issue is not just the mobilization, it’s the war. I have relatives in Ukraine and this is a disgusting situation for all of us,” says the other man, who is 26.
Life is getting more complicated for Russians in Turkey
The men have been in Antalya for two weeks — having left Russia immediately after Putin’s draft announcement — and still feel as lost in Turkey as others who’ve just arrived today. They’ve left their families behind and have no future plans. They’ve found no answers to their many questions.
“We need to solve a lot of problems, mainly about how to live in Antalya,” says the 25-year-old.
Things have gotten more complicated recently for Russians in Turkey. Residency laws are getting tighter in the city, making it harder to live and work here legally.
Another big issue is money. After facing pressure and threats of secondary sanctions from the West, Turkish banks suspended the Mir payment system – the Russian version of Mastercard and Visa – which makes it harder for Russians to get currency or even pay the tab at Turkish restaurants.
There is only one cash transfer that Russians can access in Antalya — Golden Crown, a Russian transfer system. It’s never without long lines of Russians in front, but the most they each can withdraw per day is $200.
Russian tourists are also opting to stay indefinitely in Turkey
Russians continue to come to Antalya in large numbers. According to the provincial governor, up to 19,000 Russians are arriving every day. Some are fleeing the draft and others are tourists who decide to stay.
Turkish tourism companies that work exclusively with Russians tell NPR they have seen a significant increase in single males booking long stays. But vacationers also are not boarding their planes back to Russia, and some flights are going back half empty.
One man who opted to stay is a 34-year-old from Moscow. He is afraid to reveal his name, but tells NPR that he bought a ticket to Turkey a few days after the draft, spending several thousand dollars and leaving in a rush. He didn’t even have time to notify his bosses, who have no idea he’s leaving the company.
“Tomorrow when I have a Skype call, I’m going to surprise them,” he says, laughing.
Like all the other men of fighting age who’ve tried to leave, he too faced questioning by authorities at the airport in Moscow.
“I saw some people who were diverted from the floor and taken to a separate room,” he says. “I couldn’t see what happened to them but I have a feeling they were not allowed to leave.”
He was among the lucky ones because he hadn’t been drafted by the time he left — and he’d bought his flight as a tourism package so he could claim to be a tourist when asked why he was leaving.
But unlike other men who’ve fled to Turkey and told NPR they would never go back to Russia, this man says he will go back if Russia loses the war — which he believes can happen, as long as Russia sticks to conventional weapons.
“I will go back then, because we have to rebuild,” he says. “We have to vote for new people who will choose a different way. And one day, maybe when I am old, people will visit Russia again, because it’s a beautiful place.”
The only choice he could make now, he says, was to leave and not be forced to kill people in a war he doesn’t believe in.