Assistance to mobilization dodgers.

A conversation with Idite Lesom founder Grigori Sverdlin

November 10, 2022
  • Mack Tubridy
  • Grigori Sverdlin
    Civic activist, founder of Idite Lesom 
Mack Tubridy talks with civic activist Grigori Sverdlin about how his new project helps Russians dodge the mobilization and how civil resistance against the Kremlin can take on forms other than street protests.
Grigori Sverdlin. Source: Facebook
In the days following Vladimir Putin’s mobilization announcement, Grigori Sverdlin and a team of volunteers launched Idite Lesom (“take a hike”), an online project that helps Russians dodge the mobilization. Sverdlin is best known as director of Nochlezhka (“shelter”), a nonprofit organization in St Petersburg and Moscow that helps homeless people. Back in March, he stepped down and left Russia because of his public opposition to the war. Now living in Tbilisi, Georgia, he spends his days managing Idite Lesom.

As Sverdlin says, the aim of the project is to help as many people as possible avoid being sent to fight in Ukraine. Volunteers at Idite Lesom offer individual online consultations on how to hide from stalking military officials, leave Russia and even surrender on the front line. Just three days after the project was launched in early October, volunteers had already received more than a thousand inquiries, ranging from questions about both legal and illegal border crossing to requests for psychological support and questions about how to safely hand oneself over to the Ukrainian army. Mack Tubridy talked with Sverdlin on October 26 about how he organized Idite Lesom and what has changed for the project since the mobilization began more than a month ago.

Mack Tubridy: When did you get the idea for Idite Lesom? Was it something you thought of immediately when Putin announced the mobilization?

Grigori Sverdlin: For the first few days after the mobilization, I was in a pretty depressed mood and drank. Around September 24 or 25, I realized what I could and needed to do. I even knew where to find the start-up money. Still, after so many years of working on various nonprofit projects, I didn't expect this one to blow up so quickly. By September 26, we had already announced Idite Lesom. In just five days, we started working in a test mode. At the same time, we had already managed to recruit around 300 volunteers, come up with a design for the project and set up social media pages. Overall, everything was ready to go. This was all thanks to the fact that so many people wanted to do something. And only thanks to that everything came together so quickly.

MT: Could you talk a little about the practical side of launching and organizing the project? Especially since you live in Tbilisi and, from what I understand, volunteers are scattered across different countries.

GS: There's a lot that can be said about that. I started by finding some key people who could do all of the so-called “direct help.” In other words, they recruited volunteers. A few days later, we found volunteer coordinators. Separately, we found someone to focus on difficult cases, such as illegal border crossings or surrendering on the front line. We also did research on existing projects to understand what people were already doing. [editor’s note: The organization Kovcheg(“ark”), which helps emigrants who left Russia because of the war, assembled a list of several organizations helping people avoid the mobilization, such as Prizyv k sovesti (“appeal to conscience”) and Agora.] In the process, we found a programmer to do all the IT work. He said that we needed to make a chat bot in Telegram where people can contact us, as well as a help desk system for volunteers that processes inquiries and tracks statistics. We next found people to manage communications and our social media pages. And that's our team. Throughout this process we continued to recruit volunteers. At the start, we had about 150 first-line volunteers, who process inquiries and provide information, none of whom are in Russia. Now, we have more than 250 of these volunteers. At first, someone from our team spent around six hours each day training volunteers, and then after a few days, we made the most competent and responsible individuals supervisors. Now we have two-hour shifts during which five volunteers and one supervisor are on duty.

MT: How would you say your project differs from others that are also helping Russians avoid the mobilization?

GS: I may be wrong, but it seems that there are few organizations like us openly saying, “yes, we’re ready to break the law, to help people desert the military, surrender and illegally cross the border.” There are other projects that do these things, but they’re not ready to talk about it openly, and for obvious reasons – they don’t want to bring harm to their team members. But we decided from the very start that Idite Lesom is not just a social project but also a kind of civil resistance. We think the Russian government is criminal, and so we are ready to break the law.

MT: But volunteers never tell someone what exactly to do, correct? They just provide information, talk about the options available for avoiding the mobilization?

GS: Right, we don’t impose any concrete decisions on people. Each person decides what to do for himself. We explain how we can help, as well as what risks are involved. But ultimately each person makes the decision for himself on what to do. And if that decision is to not go fight in the war, then we’re here to help in whatever way we can.

MT: What has changed since you launched the project about a month ago?

GS: At first, there were a lot of inquiries from people who didn't know whether they are legally obligated to sign a draft notice. Others didn’t know whether they could leave the country after receiving a notice, or what might happen if they don't show up to the mobilization centers. Those kind of rather simple questions. But around two weeks into the mobilization, we started to see police roundups of service-age men on the streets and in the metro. People were being visited at their homes. There were also stories of men forcibly sent to the mobilization centers. It’s much more difficult to help people in those kinds of situations. For the past week, we’ve been hearing more from people who are already at training facilities, or those who are even near the front line and are asking how to surrender. At the same time, it’s getting more difficult to cross the border legally. Border officials are turning people around. Sometimes you can fly out of Belarus, though even there things are becoming difficult. So, there are more inquiries about how to illegally cross the border.

MT: Do you have enough volunteers for this kind of work?

GS: Overall, we have enough volunteers. We need more specialized volunteers, but we're working on that. We spend a lot of time training our volunteers. But we’re also spending a lot of time trying to get money to rent out shelters in Russia, or to buy plane tickets so that a person can leave the country, or money to pay off those who help people to cross the border illegally. Of course, you need money for all of this.

MT: Can you talk a little more about the shelters?

GS: There are cases when we help people rent a bed at some hostel or an apartment so that they can stay somewhere besides their official address. That way they can’t be found by military officials. We also do this for people who’ve deserted from the military and can’t return home.

MT: How would you assess the mobilization itself based on the daily work you do? What does it look like from your perspective?

GS: I can't say anything with total certainty, but my impression is that the official figure of 300,000 mobilized people Putin and Shoigu talk about just doesn’t match up with what is actually happening in reality. It seems the real figure is about 1.5 times more than that. And the mobilization continues.

MT: What information are you basing that estimate on?

GS: I’m basing my estimate on information from sources in the city administrations of St Petersburg and Moscow. So, an official we know will tell us that in St Petersburg 100,000 people were actually mobilized, even though publicly it was said only 30,000 were needed. And knowing that 100,000 people were mobilized in just St Petersburg alone, then clearly the total number for the entire country can’t be 300,000.

MT: What have you learned over the past month of working on Idite Lesom? Given your years of experience with nonprofit work, including Nochlezhka, was there anything new you’ve learned with this project?

GS: I've learned a lot. I didn't know anything about crossing the border illegally. I learned that it’s a rather well-established business in Russia. From what I understand, before the war it was simpler and cheaper to cross illegally. In border towns, there are taxi drivers willing to take people through unguarded roads, into Kazakhstan, Mongolia or Belarus. There’s always a way to leave, which I didn't know about, of course. I learned a lot since it's an entirely new subject for me – I was never interested in any of this before. But I would also say that I’ve probably never seen such a response from people, to where in the morning you have 100 volunteers and in the evening there’s already 300. I’ve never seen anything like that.

MT: And what sort of challenges have you faced?

GS: I would say that the main challenge is with illegal border crossings since we can’t risk endangering any volunteers in Russia. We can’t ask them to go to Samara, to find someone who will bring people illegally into Kazakhstan. We need to do this remotely, which is really challenging. Of course, we can’t send any of our team members to Russia to do this work.

MT: How long do you plan to keep working on this project?

GS: As long as the mobilization is going on, we'll continue our work. And it seems that the mobilization will continue for as long as the war continues. So we'll do this until the war ends. But it’s difficult to plan ahead. If we think about the civil resistance element of the project, then we might see some kind of evolution in what we do. We’ll think of how else we can help people and bring regime change in Russia even closer. So, we'll continue.

Update: On November 7, Sverdlin wrote on his Telegram channel that Idite Lesom helped a total of 3,234 people during its first month of operation: 22 with advice on surrendering; 56 with consultations on illegal border crossing; 4 with assistance in finding a shelter; 2 with assistance in crossing the border illegally; 2 with assistance surrendering; 3 with financial aid (plane tickets); 600 with consultations on legal border crossing; 2,591 with consultations on mobilization issues; 2 with consultations on conscription; 50 with legal advice; 51 with psychological assistance.
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