Society
The exodus of Russian men.
A report on the ground at the Russian-Georgian Border
October 12, 2022
  • Aleksei Medved

    Russia.Post

Aleksei Medved tells how Russians fled to Georgia to dodge the mobilization, describing the days-long lines, chaos, extortion by officials and help from volunteers.
The queue to the checkpoint "Upper Lars". Archives.
Immediately after Vladimir Putin signed the decree on partial mobilization, scores of young men – many with families or girlfriends – rushed for airports, train stations and border crossings hoping to escape the draft. The most dramatic scene was the “exodus” at the Upper Lars checkpoint along the Russian-Georgian border. We’ve collected several stories of young people (all just over 30) who were crossing the border at the time.

Dodging the mobilization through the Caucasus

Already in the first days after the mobilization measures were put into effect, throngs had emerged at the border crossings with Georgia and Kazakhstan. Giant lines – mostly made up of men – appeared at airports in Moscow and other major Russian cities: tickets to Turkey, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and even Belarus sold out instantaneously.

Thirty-three-year-old industrial climber Oleg (name changed) shared his experience: “Around the 21st things looked dicey, and I saw that in one Telegram chat a friend was going to buy tickets for her boyfriend and his friend. I decided to get tickets [too] while they were still available. There weren’t any left for Vladikavkaz – only incredibly expensive ones. We started looking at tickets to Mineralnye Vody. The guys couldn’t fly out immediately because of work, so we decided to take a flight for September 25th.”

A similar situation happened to Mikhail (name changed), a 30-year-old worker in a workshop that makes mock-ups: “It all started when I came home after work and I realized that I couldn’t put up with what was happening and I had to act. That same evening, I bought a ticket to Vladikavkaz. It was my first time doing something like that – I usually plan all my trips in advance. The next day I set off. Having visited all my relatives and friends, having received moral support from them, I went to the airport. Initially, I intended to cross the border on a bicycle, since even then there was information about big traffic jams at the entrance to the checkpoint.”

Thirty-three-year-old advertising specialist Dmitri describes the circumstances of his departure: “I bought a ticket to Mineralnye Vody pretty quickly. The next day I had a flight in the morning. My wife accompanied me and was crying, my little son was crying. But the decision had been made, and I had to act quickly.”

According to Oleg, his fellow travelers were completely unprepared to cross the border: “It was a band, and they just had a bunch of things: several guitars, a suitcase with video equipment, sound equipment and then backpacks with their things.”

Thirty-two-year-old IT specialist Vasily (name changed) went by car from St Petersburg to Vladikavkaz on the night of September 22. His journey to the border took two days, followed by three more days in the traffic jam at the Upper Lars checkpoint.

Pedal harder

On the Russian internet – Telegram channels, chats, etc. – reports about the situation at the checkpoint continuously came in. Cars near the border got stuck in a traffic jam that stretched for more than 17 km. The situation became more and more tense. It was extremely difficult to move forward.
“Those arriving in Vladikavkaz quickly realized that the easiest way to cross the border was by bicycle."
Young people with bicycles at the front of line. Archives.
As the line consisted of cars, bikes could more easily get to the checkpoint. Mikhail took that tack:

“En route I checked with a person from Vladikavkaz about purchasing a bike. The demand was very high. We had reached an agreement previously, but during the call the seller said that he had sold the reserved bike and offered me another one – triple the cost of the other. I continued searching on Avito. A friend who had already crossed the Russian-Georgian road by bike helped me find one. It was located 120 km from Vladikavkaz, where the people agreed to bring the bike to the airport for prepayment. I also talked them into taking me to the nearest traffic jam at the checkpoint. For everything I paid about R15,000. Looking back, the deal was very good.”

Dmitri and his friend, a 30-year-old translator Yaroslav (name changed), also decided to cross the border by bicycle. Mikhail shares his experience:

“I reached the traffic jam at the border, where I put the bike together and prepared it for the trip. It was for a girl, painted purple. People in the traffic jam shouted after me: ‘what, you couldn’t get another color?’ I pedaled even harder. Eventually, I realized that the traffic jam was the fault of local businessmen who were offering their services to transport people waiting closer to the checkpoint.”

According to Dmitri and Yaroslav, in the neutral zone on the border many abandoned their purchased bicycles, and it became a whole junkyard. Some enterprising runaways and local residents quickly organized the resale of the bikes.
Russian military and North Ossetian drivers. Archives.
Law enforcement and local businessmen: Corruption and speculation

All the young people we talked to noted the surge in local drivers near the border, who took money to take people to the Russian checkpoint. Cunning "middlemen" offered to drive past the traffic police posts and get around the traffic jam. Others "reserved" (held) places in the line. A few days after the start of the exodus, the North Ossetian authorities decided not to let cars with license plates from other regions pass, and the “middlemen” could earn up to R500,000 a day by offering their services.

Oleg: “When we landed at the Vladikavkaz airport, my fellow traveler said that his father had found a local contact who promised to take him to the city and bypass the traffic police posts. Even then there were rumors that both at the entrance to the city and in the city itself there were a lot of traffic police who let people into the city only for huge bribes. The man took us to Vladikavkaz, and by some miracle we passed the main posts, where the police were demanding R20,000 to R100,000 per person – just to enter the city!

Dmitri ran into other “controllers” of the road even before he got to the traffic jam: “A white Lada Priora blocked the car I was driving. Number 05 is Dagestan. A man in a black leather jacket got out, knocked on the window of our car with a pistol and said: ‘The road is closed for you. If you want to pass this stretch, pay R5,000.’ But it wasn’t clear how many stretches there were to the border with Georgia. We had to turn around and go the other way.”

Oleg and his comrades were able to stay in the city until the next day. However, the next day the middleman who had earlier agreed to take them to the border changed his mind: “He said that there is a PAZ-type city bus that goes to Upper Lars. The problem was that people had been standing at the bus stop since five in the morning. There were way more people than seats, and it was completely packed.”

When he arrived at the border, Oleg saw with his own eyes what a mess it was: “Cars were arguing with taxis, someone said that there had even been a stabbing. The traffic police turned a blind eye to the taxis and did nothing. In fact, they had help create the traffic jam. It became clear that the taxi drivers were in on it with the traffic police and border guards, trying to make money on transporting men across the border. Then the price tag was already about R40,000 per person. A couple of acquaintances and I found a place in a car for R20,000 per person, about 1.5 kilometers from the checkpoint.”

On September 26, a detachment of the Stavropol National Guard and armored personnel carriers with soldiers appeared near the Upper Lars checkpoint to beef up control over the border. Their arrival in no way helped restore order – rather it was the opposite. Vasily stood in the traffic jam for almost two full days: “The cars stood in five rows at the checkpoint. The entrance was blocked by drivers who wanted to make money on travelers. Local traffic police couldn’t sort out the traffic. Higherups from the North Ossetian patrol service were called in; they made a scandal and somehow discharged the traffic. The border guards at the checkpoint couldn’t leave because their shifts couldn’t get there because of the traffic jam.
“The National Guard also didn’t waste time and took people to the checkpoint along the oncoming lane for money."
In the traffic jam, there were constant rumors about the border being closed. There was also a rumor about the opening of a pedestrian crossing. Later, a line of several thousand people formed who were going to cross the border on foot. Someone even abandoned their car to get across the border faster. However, the line moved at a snail’s pace: from midnight until morning, people didn’t move a single meter. The nerves of the travelers couldn’t stand it:

“During that time, I saw absolutely crazy things outside the window: some trucker had an argument with another driver and started chasing him with a baseball bat. The driver responded with pepper spray. One woman shouting ‘I won’t let you pass’ threw herself under the wheels of a Mercedes that was bypassing the traffic jam in the oncoming lane. At the time, she had been standing at the border for three days, ” Oleg said.

On September 27, after several days spent in the atmosphere of total chaos, people noticed volunteers from Vladikavkaz who distributed food and drinking water.
Waiting at Georgian border. Archives.
Beyond the neutral zone

In front of the Russian checkpoint, there were taxis and reserved tour buses. Usually, the buses belonged to carrier companies from Vladikavkaz; they picked up people on the Russian side of the border and took them to Tbilisi.

Almost all young people managed to pass the Russian border without problems. Yaroslav describes his interaction with the border guards: “He took my documents and started asking questions with a bit of irony. ‘So you’re going on a planned vacation, right?’ ‘And definitely to see friends?’ I calmly answered all the questions, and the officer gave me a stamp and returned my passport.” Oleg’s crossing also went quite smoothly: “At the border, a tired guard with red eyes quietly stamped everyone’s passports without asking questions. But one guy was taken off our bus. They said that he is on the lists [of those who had received a draft notice].”

In the neutral zone on the border, Yaroslav struck up a conversation with two Russian truckers. One of them – in a T-shirt with the USSR emblem – behaved quite aggressively: “He started pestering me with questions. ‘What, are you running from the mobilization? You’re scared? You don’t want to defend your homeland?’ Then he said that once he returned from his trip he would go to the front as a volunteer.”

At the Georgian checkpoint, the situation was relatively calm. We waited in line for less than three hours. The police at the border didn’t ask questions and let people pass quickly enough. The road to Tbilisi was open. According to the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, on September 21-27 about 80,000 Russian citizens entered the country.
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