They crossed the border looking exhausted, dragging their suitcases through the mud, but the group of young Russians fleeing the threat of conscription into the army were also grinning as they entered Kazakhstan.
“Wow the air feels easier to breathe here already,” one young person with a backpack exclaimed. The party, from the central Russian city of Kolomna, more than 1,200km from the Kazakh border, spent two nights sleeping out in the open as they joined a long queue of people and vehicles waiting to leave Russia.
They were among what Kazakhstan has said are nearly 100,000 Russians and counting who have crossed into the central Asian country since President Vladimir Putin announced a nationwide conscription drive to bolster his flagging war in Ukraine last week.
It is a number that — along with the tens of thousands of Russians who have fled to Georgia, Finland, Mongolia and other neighbouring states — has blown holes in the Kremlin’s claim of broad-based support for the invasion.
It also illustrates the dramatic brain drain out of Russia. Of the 17 Russians who spoke to the Financial Times in the Kazakh border city of Oral, almost all were young professionals — computer programmers, lawyers, bloggers, bar owners — who dropped everything on September 21 when the draft was announced, and rushed to leave the country.
They have flooded into Oral, a trading city of about 200,000 people, filling its hotels, hostels and summer camps. Many of the new arrivals have slept on the floors of mosques, churches, gyms and cinemas, some even relying on handouts of food from local volunteers who have stepped in to help.
Alexander, Artyom, and Andrei, three IT workers from Moscow in their early 20s, set off from home the day after the mobilisation was announced. They flew to the southern Russian city of Astrakhan, not far from the border, and spent a night queueing before crossing into Kazakhstan.
Now, the trio share a rented room in a village outside Oral. Though they miss their families and have to get used to a more rural life, including an outside toilet and slower internet, they are upbeat, grateful to their hosts and relieved to be out of Russia, where they could have been forced to join a war they opposed.
Alexander, a developer, said he did not think twice about leaving after the mobilisation was announced, even though he now has to look for a new job, in a new country. “I had three options: prison, the front line, or Kazakhstan. The decision was obvious.”
Most of their friends felt the same way. “We have this group photo with our friends we took at New Year. There are about 12 people on it. Right now, only two of them are still in Russia,” Alexander said.
Though Putin has claimed the draft would not affect students, IT workers and other categories of people, many of those fleeing were not taking any chances.
“All I had to do was imagine that I’d be sent to the frontline, to fight on a side I don’t agree with, and the motivation was there to set off to the border straight away,” said Vadim, 20, a Moscow film student, as he paced alone outside a canteen in the Atameken camp in Oral.
Normally a summer school for children, Atameken now provides temporary accommodation for incoming Russians; Vadim, who spent a night sleeping rough on the Russian side of the border, is staying in one of its 12-bed dorm rooms.
He said he hoped to make it to Georgia, where he has friends, and he also hoped his father — who has done military service and is of call-up age — would follow soon.
Everyone the FT spoke to in Oral opposed the war in Ukraine, though some acknowledged that it had taken the mobilisation decree to bring it home to them and their families, and to make them take action.
Alexander, the developer, said he welcomed the shock that it had been for the less politically engaged in Russia, and for people like him, who had grown accustomed to the war.
“We’ve been taught for years . . . not to stick our necks out. It’s made the population very apolitical,” he said. Now, people were engaging, caring not just about themselves but about each other too. “Our society will be more united, meaning that in future we can try to prevent something like this happening again.”
For one young woman at Atameken, the final straw came last Friday, when she was told by her university in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar that she had to come to a city square for an event — only to find out that it was actually a pro-war rally.
Horrified, she decided she could no longer remain in Russia, and a few days later crossed over into Kazakhstan, making the final leg of her journey by bike.
Grigory, 32, a bar manager from Siberia, acted fast when the mobilisation was announced. First he rushed to the local registration office with his girlfriend so they could get married, to make it easier for her to join him as his wife wherever he might end up.
“We forged a document saying she was three months pregnant, so they let us get married on the same day,” he said. Hours later, he was heading to Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has made it clear that it will keep letting Russians in, and its president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said this week that it was a “humanitarian question” since Russians who could face conscription were in a “hopeless” situation.
Oral has welcomed the newcomers, and some of the arrivals in turn have tried to show their gratitude. On Thursday, a couple of dozen young Russians gathered by a stream in the city, put on rubber gloves and started collecting rubbish.
“[Kazakhs] have given us free food, housed us, I’m in shock,” said Alexei Sibirskiy, a well-known Russian environmental blogger, as he stood in thigh-high waders by the stream, holding muddy rags and a discarded tyre. “They see us as hostages of this horror that’s taking place in our country.”
But several of Oral’s local residents also said they were worried about what the consequences of such an influx of Russians might be, on everything from local housing prices to social cohesion. Others bristled at helping citizens of a country that was the aggressor in the war.
Aizhana Mazaliyeva, a psychologist who has helped out at welcome points and let Russians crossing the border stay at her home, said she had noticed criticism of volunteers such as herself from other Kazakhs. She thought both sides had a point.
“Everyone has the right to be afraid. They have a right to fear conscription, and Kazakhs have a right to be afraid about what all this might bring,” she said.
While many of those who fled Russia in the immediate aftermath of the February invasion had jobs or family ties that helped them relocate, a large number of those arriving this week had no concrete plans for the future. Some did not even have passports, as Kazakhstan is one of a few countries that lets Russians enter on their basic identity documents.
Alexander, 32, left his life in the city of Bryansk when news of the mobilisation came through. “The only goal I had was to cross the border,” he said at the Atamaken camp.
He explained that his former wife and two children lived not far from the frontline in southern Ukraine, raising the horrifying prospect that he would be forced to fight on the opposite side to them.
One thing was clear, he would not be going home. “Return to Russia? Not during this government.”