Russians who fled to avoid fighting in Ukraine reflect on their new lives

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared martial law Wednesday in parts of occupied Ukraine. Putin has said his military mobilization is nearing completion, but hundreds of thousands of Russians have already fled rather than be drafted. In Istanbul, we found Russians who escaped a war they don’t believe in. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As part of Vladimir Putin's martial law declaration today, he allowed for the restriction of Russians' movements in and out of areas bordering Ukraine. He's also said his military mobilization, calling up additional soldiers to fight in Ukraine, is nearing completion.

    But hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country, rather than be drafted.

    As Nick Schifrin reports many have gone to Istanbul,, to escape a war they don't believe in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Victor is trying his best to make his new house feel like home. He has maintained his morning routine. Squanchy the cat, who fled with him, gets her breakfast.

    And he gets his coffee, surrounded by his children's cups and their prized possessions. But he is 1,000 miles from his Russian hometown.

  • Victor, Fled Russia (through translator):

    In Russia, in America or anywhere else, no one wants to fight, no one wants to kill, no one wants to die.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He arrived in Turkey in what is now called the first wave, Russians who fled right after Putin invaded Ukraine in February.

  • Victor (through translator):

    There was not panic, but nervousness. People were leaving. People were running away with their animals. They were flying one way. When I arrived here, I felt a little bit calmer again. And then life just started. We started to get settled.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He works in fintech and helps Russians abroad with financial transactions. He hopes Russians back home follow in his footsteps.

  • Victor (through translator):

    One thing that I want is that people who still haven't woken up and who have been told, go and kill, that they will ask themselves a question: Why? What have people done to me that I need to kill them?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Maxim is 33.

  • Maxim, Fled Russia (through translator):

    I left because I'm at the point where I need to trust only myself. In fact, all men of Russia have got to the point where our president decides whether you will live or will you die at the front.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He was part of the recent exodus. On September 27, he took a one-way flight for $1,400. That was five days after Putin launched Russia's largest mobilization since World War II.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    Only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces, will be called up. I have already signed the executive order on partial mobilization.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, in Istanbul, a city of 15 million, Maxim does not doubt his decision. He is a TV graphics designer with no military experience, and even he could have been drafted.

  • Maxim (through translator):

    The last four or five days, when I was in Russia, I felt panic and shock. I slept for four hours. Many who stayed there were still very nervous, because you are a hostage of the situation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Maxim lives as a nomad. He is still searching for an apartment and spends nights in a local hostel, missing the girlfriend he left behind.

  • Maxim (through translator):

    It is hard to leave family, your children, but, as we say now in Moscow, a father who is far away is better than a dead father.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's the fate that befell Yevgeny Bizyaev. He deployed to Ukraine in late September. Today, they held his funeral in Eastern Russia, 1,100 miles from where he died on the front lines.

    He voluntarily mobilized and ended up making a sacrifice that will last forever. And so other recruits have rushed to volunteer a different kind of forever. In St. Petersburg, they are holding fast-track marriages, vows of love, before being sworn into Putin's war.

    Some of those fighting that war post videos saying they are being left to suffer biting cold, with nowhere to sleep. Others complain of deploying with Potemkin equipment, a bulletproof vest without a bulletproof plate.

    "I hope the Ukrainians are firing rubber bullets," he says.

    Back in Istanbul, 42-year-old Kostya is relieved he is not the one fighting or dying. He'd rather walk to an uncertain future.

  • Kostya, Fled Russia (through translator):

    When I'm reading about news about what's going on there now, I worry about friends, about everyone who has been touched by it. But I feel relief that I am reading about it from here, where I am safe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Back in February, he joined thousands of Russians who protested the war and, alongside hundreds of others, was detained. He left for Istanbul the very day that Putin declared the mobilization.

  • Kostya (through translator):

    I don't want to fight against Ukrainians, because, for me, Russia is the aggressor. I don't like to feel like I'm on the evil side, on the side who began this war. Maybe in other cases, we will need to protect our country, but not like this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tens of thousands of Russians have mobilized themselves from their homeland to avoid being mobilized into a war that has no end in sight.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Remarkable statements from these men.

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