The men fleeing Putin's war

We only felt the impact once we'd circled back around for our second stay in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital. We arrived at our hostel, dusty from our six hour drive, to claim, according to the internet, the last two beds in the whole of Bishkek. It's Friday 30th Sept, just over a week since Putin announced his plans for mobilisation.


As we enter, the reception area seems unusually crowded, there are shoes scattered across the hall and I can see some legs poking out round a corner as people slump across sofas in communal areas. It's got a youth hostel feel to it, posters with wifi codes and the next 'making traditional dumplings together' meet-up group pinned on notice boards. Except that the atmosphere doesn't match - it feels heavy and everyone looks tired.


The lady on reception asks if we're 'Jonathan Hodge', and in hindsight, I should have said yes. We were quickly informed there was, unfortunately, no room for Michael Sheridan and that it's Booking.com's error. The system can't keep up with the demand across Kyrgyzstan's big cities because of the thousands of men arriving from Russia.


Having turned down the offer to sleep on two mattresses in the shared bathroom, we did find a place to stay. A room a few km out of town in a hotel that wasn't finished and hadn't officially opened and despite inflated prices, we were grateful.


The first few weeks of our trip in Kyrgyzstan, we were meeting French, Germans and Spanish people on similar trips to us. From the day Putin announced mobilisation, the demographic shifted and over 60-70% of the people we started meeting were Russian men between the ages of 18-40.


The men we meet are not a homogenous group by any stretch but if I had to summarise, it might look like this. All oppose the war, in some way or another. That's why they're here. Some have always opposed Putin and this war is against everything they believe in. Others were more apathetic until the war came knocking for them.


Most are young men in their early twenties, but we also met those in their 40s worried that they'll be called up next. Some are students, some had jobs and all had loved ones that they've left behind. They had plans for their futures and many of them don't know what's next.


Many are from Moscow, where there’s a greater concentration of young people, with varying views on politics and access to more information. In the last few weeks, we’ve also met some couples looking to immigrate and some with young babies as families reunite and relocate outside of Russia. Everyone we’ve met has the means to travel, many seem extremely well off and well educated.


Many believe nuclear war is a possibility. We spoke to a or more dozen Russians during our time in Central Asia, but here is what two of those men told us.


Vlad:


We met Vlad at the panoramic viewing point, looking over Osh city as the sun was setting. His English was fluent and he was so open and warm, we learnt a lot and an hour passed quickly in his company.


"It's not my war. I don't agree with this war or anything that is happening."


It is not the first time we have heard this from the men we're meeting. He's from a town in Central Russia and before leaving, he was a student in physics. He has a mum back at home, who is very worried about him and two sisters and two brothers.


His middle brother, who is 31, feels the same about the war as him, he tells us. It was this brother and his wife who he confided in when making the decision to leave.


"My brother who is 31, doesn't agree with the war but he will not leave Russia. He is more strong willed than me and he says he will never fight in this war. He says he would rather kill a man and go to prison than fight in this war."


How bad does your situation have to be, when they're your only two options left. Vlad has another brother who is 36, who is in prison so, according to Vlad, won't be called up to the army but who believes in Putin's war and supports it.


In Russia, if you're serving time you will not have to do military service although, we've read otherwise. The same for students although Vlad says he believes nothing Putin says. Putin promised there would be no mobilisation, so why would he not go back on his word about students.


Vlad tells us that his mum does not agree with his decision to leave but since he's gone and he has called her, she has felt better hearing he's okay.


"I told my mum, would she rather have me gone and that I might die if I fight in this war, or gone but still safe. Either way, I'm going."


Before Putin changed his mind on mobilisation, I already didn't agree with the war but I felt it wasn't to do with me, it wasn't my business."


We ask about the general feeling in Vlad's hometown and he says it's mixed. According to Vlad, younger people are more sceptical about the war and broadly speaking, older people are more likely to believe the propaganda. He says in his family and every other in Russia, there are arguments. The war is polarising opinions, and creating deeper cracks along the divides already present before the war started.


"The older people are drunk. Drunk on the propaganda and just actually, drunk."


Vlad doesn't know what he will do next. He has money to survive for now and has met a group of Russias who may go to Vietnam. We ask what they'll do there and it sounds like it will be to travel and to have fun more than anything. It's good to hear and I hope Vlad makes it over there.


Vlad is waiting for his international passport. With a domestic passport, Russians can travel to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan which is why so many are fleeing here. Apparently, it's very difficult to get an appointment at the consulate in Osh to apply for an international passport so he can travel further. So, for now Vlad is waiting.


It's dark by the time we stop chatting and it's getting cold. As Vlad heads down from our viewpoint above the city, he turns and asks if we've seen any other Russians up here, collecting rubbish. We had actually and we asked what that was about. Apparently, all over Kyrgyzstan, groups of young Russians are coming together to help clean up the public spaces as a gesture of thanks to the communities that have helped them and opened their homes and hearts to them.


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Alexi, 31, Moscow


We're in the historic town of Samarkand on the silk road route in Uzbekistan. Our hostel is colourful - full of cushions and carpets and a huge courtyard with grapevines weaving up the winding stairs. We meet Alexi at breakfast which is a chaotic and colourful as the rest of the hostel. Again, he has perfect English and we end up spending the day with him, getting coffee and cake and mooching around Samarkhand together.





He is part of Moscow's young, wealthy, liberal and educated elite. An elite who have the means to leave Russia behind. He has friends who are DJs and human rights activists.


Unlike others we've met, his network of friends have all been able to leave. They're scattered across the globe right now. Portugal, Israel, Thailand, Georgia, Berlin and Budapest. Lisbon comes up as a potential city he might go to as it's easier to find a job there for Russians, he tells us. He also mentions Tbilisi a lot. It sounds a bit like the Berlin of Eastern Europe. A modern, livable city with green space where educated, liberal leaning Russians move. We've heard so many great things about Georgia, it's now firmly on our list of countries to visit. Also, Georgia is home of the khachapuri - the chessy eggy bread boat that we're obsessed with.


Many Russians have moved to Israel too and Alexi already knows people in Tel Aviv. so this could also be an option. One I'm sure Alexi would love if given the opportunity.


Alexi and Vlad (above) speak with similar terminology. In fact, a few times they use the same phrases word for word. Perhaps a sign that they're accessing similar sources for their news and information. Alexi also describes people as 'drunk with propaganda' and how this war ‘is not his war’.


He too has family members who think differently to him.


We like Alexi a lot even though we clearly lead very different lives in our prospective hometowns. Alexi tells us about huge parties he throws with famous DJs in his five bedroom apartment in the centre of Moscow. I laugh and tell him that we've met the right Russian. I also invite him to sleep on our sofa in London if he ever needs. He looks confused, obviously, about why he'd ever need to consider that.


And yet, in this situation, money relieves some stress, of course, but ultimately he is still alone here, in a new city and scared about what will happen.


"I can't sleep well. It's like every time I try, it all comes back. It's like living in a box and war is all around you. I am trying to reset my mindset. To think of it as travelling but it's very difficult."


Alexi is well travelled and has his international passport ready to go. His favourite country is Nepal and a love of the people and hiking bonds us as we wander through Samarkard's leafy parks.


He has been at the hostel for nine days already, mostly reading and trying to look for a job and think about what's next. We hope he will join a friend somewhere but he needs to find a job first. So, for now Alexi is waiting too.


As we pack our bags, bid our new friends goodbye and think about home - where the news story of the day is whether the current PM is going to outlast a lettuce - it's a reminder to not take the UK or this trip for granted.


NB: In the lag between writing and actually posting this, we've been in touch with Vlad and Alexi. Vlad got an appointment at the consulate to get his international passport so he can join his friends in Vietnam. Alexi has decided to rent a flat in Samarkhand and look for remote work.