The great escape from Russia: Live on Russian Twitter

Screenshot from The Insider YouTube channel showing the Verkhny Lars checkpoint on the Russian-Georgian border.

The main message dominating the Russian segment of Twitter can be summed up in one word those days — “Run!” — as many men flee their country to avoid possible military draft.

On September 21, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a  “partial” military draft. This is a rather confusing term as there is no concept of a “partial draft” in Russian legislation.  Moscow, though, is not new to playing with words and legal definitions, particularly since it started its invasion of Ukraine: to this day, the war can only be described as a “special military operation” in the public space, which extends to social media, and any deviance form this term can lead to punishment.

Since Putin's statement, an estimated 260,000 Russian men are believed to have left Russia, mostly overland to countries sharing borders with Russia (Kazakhstan, Georgia, Finland, Mongolia), or, at exorbitant prices, by plane. The chaos created by this situation is intensively discussed on the Russian segment of Twitter, as users share their views and advice.

One frequent topic is the lack of rule of law in Russia, and its disrespect for international law, as this user, a popular Twitter user, writes:

“Friendly Reminder: You have no rights in Russia. “They can't mobilize me because…” – they will mobilize you because you have no rights. “They can’t send me to the front right away like that” – they will send you, because you have no rights. “They can’t …” – they can. And they will. As soon as you give them the opportunity.”

Iliya Krasilshick, a public figure and former publisher of the online outlet media Meduza, uses swear words to explain how urgent the need to escape is:

I am enraged by people who try to analyze the situation, and think whether it is worth or not running away from it [military draft]. There is nothing to fucking think about.  You can hope for the best as much as you want to, but be ready for a clusterfuck.

Another user adds this:

First they gave you 8 years to emigrate, then 7 months to evacuate, now there are only 6 days left to escape.”

This refers to dates of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the February 24 starting date of Moscow's second invasion of Ukraine, and Putin's September 21 statement.

Indeed tens of thousands of people have taken such advice take seriously. Tweets with the hashtag Verkhny Lars, the name of the border crossing between the south of Russia and Georgia, was among the top Twitter trends these days.

Footage from Germany's Deutsche Welle from September 26, shows that queues to pass the Verkhny Lars border point with Georgia are over 20 kilometers long, and the crossing may take several days:

The exodus of Russians who do not want to participate in the mobilization continues. The queue of cars on the border of Georgia and Russia at the Verkhny Lars border crossing stretched for almost 20 km. Here, they have to wait for 40-50 hours. And some Russians were not allowed to cross because of  the decree on mobilization— DW in Russian

People crossing that border say there is no water or food, and that they run out of gas and have to spend chilly nights on the ground around makeshift fires. According to one Twitter user, this is what the neutral ground between Georgia and Russia looks like in Verkhny Lars:

Verkhny Lars – Georgia – Neutral land. A 12-hours line to freedom.
Abandoned bicycles along the entire roadside of the neutral line are a symbol of mobilization in Russia 2022.

This is a “branch of hell of Earth,” says one user, whose passage took 30 hours. In this Twitter thread, he describes how people give up their cars and personal things, and walk tens of kilometers to just pass the border.

So, the thread about Verkhnii Lars! Now it is literally a branch of hell on Earth. People stand in line for days… I realized that I literally slipped through, although it cost me a total of 22k (as it turned out, it was cheap) 

This photo, which shows a crowd of people, mostly men, trying to cross the border, is reported by the independent Russophone news outlet MediaZona. It has become a symbol of people running from Putin’s Russia to escape being forced to kill or to be killed in the war.

Russians were allowed to cross the border with Georgia on foot, according to Baza and Tbilisi_life. Officially, the Verkhny Lars checkpoint is not intended for this.

Are Russians refugees?

Whether or not to describe this massive group of Russians leaving their country as refugees is also a source of heated debate, particularly from a Ukrainian perspective, given that Russia's invasion triggered a wave of over 7 million Ukrainian refugees and 8 million displaced people within Ukraine.

As one Russian Twitter user who successfully crossed the Georgian-Russian border adds:

I went from Georgia to Siberia by car to get some things. Now I am trying to get back, it has been six days already. Millions of Russians now know what it is to be a refugee.

Russians are fleeing Russia because most of them do not want to go to war as only 10,000 volunteered, among the 25 million eligible for the draft. Different countries are taking various positions on this: Germany, and now the US have offered to give asylum to those running from mobilization. 

However, both the ability to escape to neighboring countries as well as calling these Russians “refugees” have enraged a lot of Ukrainian Twitter users.

“I can’t understand how did it happen? Russia has invaded Ukraine, yet those
escaping from Russia are refugees?”

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