OK. Tell me your name — just your first name because I know sensitivities — your age, and where you live.
My name is Kirill. I’m 24. And I live in Moscow Oblast.
So Kirill, going back to the beginning of the war when Putin first ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, take me back to that moment in your life. What did you think when you saw that?
On the 24th, I woke up not very early, kind of like usual, around 11 o’clock in the morning. My friend, in the morning, said that war had begun. If I’m being honest with you, I don’t actually remember that day very much because I didn’t fully understand and comprehend the magnitude of what had happened and how horrible it would all be.
I remember that I went home that day and began talking to my parents.
I didn’t really want to talk about it with my parents because I don’t talk about political topics with them. We have very different points of view, and I like to avoid those things with them.
My parents aren’t exactly part of that really toxic part of the public that’s really, really for this war, that puts Z stickers on the back of their car. They’re not those people.
It’s hard for me to quite describe to you, but I will say that they are people who try very hard not to notice the lawlessness that is going on around them.
And I came to them and said, the war is a catastrophe.
There’s no reason in the world that one country should attack another country. It just seemed so clear to me.
And they said, what do you mean by war?
Are you saying that they’re lying to us and you’re the one who knows the truth?
Did you argue?
Yes, we argued very badly. I love my parents. That’s clear. We each set our position and never returned to the topic because we understood we just had different points of view.
So the time started going by, yes, and I basically turned into a person that was just constantly updating the news on my phone.
The strange thing was, there was a war. I could see it happening.
But in the first three months, I didn’t really feel it at all.
Nothing around me changed.
And that is what was most disturbing for me — the contrast.
A number of years ago, a very famous rock musician said this about the Chechen War. He said the most disturbing thing was being at the war and seeing the mud and the death and getting on an airplane and flying back and landing in Moscow and seeing people walking around on the streets and children playing on jungle gyms and people shopping.
The most frightening thing is for people to have their lives keep going on and not feel the pain that is being caused in this other place. It really just didn’t concern our lives.
Where were you the moment that you heard about this so-called partial mobilization?
It was two days ago. I woke up 15 minutes before my alarm clock, and I saw the news. I saw the news in the face of the president.
I saw the banner headline with little lightning bolts next to it that was telling me this was important, that he was announcing a partial mobilization.
And I understood that given my health, my age, and my former military service, that I fit the criteria 100 percent.
How did you feel in that moment?
I guess I just felt this sense of resignation, kind of futility. Like, I was just going to go to work, but I was going to be called up in this draft and go to war.
What was the feeling in your heart?
I felt this emptiness — not anger, kind of almost nothing.
I just thought, what do I do next?
Because I realized at that moment that the war had finally come to me.
Kirill, you talked about your military service. How long did you serve in the military?
I was there for a year.
When I graduated from my technical school, I was drafted. And I didn’t have money to buy my way out of it.
The only people who really go to the army are the ones that can’t buy their way out of it.
It’s not a choice to go off to defend the fatherland. It’s about poverty and the desire to feed their families.
So going back to when Putin first announced the mobilization, what did you start to do? What was the first thing?
First, I started researching where I could go to get out — where I could go to get out that wouldn’t require a visa and wouldn’t require a lot of money because I don’t have a lot of money.
Physically, I started to feel bad. I had a really bad headache.
I was very afraid. I’m not going to hide it from you. I was terrified.
Then I just sat down, breathed in, caught my breath, and I went to work.
I got there, and there were several other young men who were in the same category as me. We sat there. And we were drinking coffee together and kind of laughing and just talking about it, and it felt better.
We were talking about what was the information out there, who was going to try to leave, what we were going to try to do.
As the hours went by and I was texting with my friends and watching the news, it became very clear how many lies had been told. They said they wouldn’t draft students.
And we saw many students being called up. They said they wouldn’t draft people who were in their 50s and 60s. And we saw many people in their 50s and 60s being called up. So it became clear that this was something that was really going to affect everybody.
Then I began to feel really in danger that they’re going to come for me right now.
And I saw when the news had been announced about a partial mobilization, all of these people going out to protest.
I wanted to go out to the protest, but I stayed home because I was very afraid that if they got me — if the police got me — that would lead to my drafting.
How do you feel about that?
I feel regret that I didn’t go.
It was as if I had just kind of abandoned the mission, as if I was saying, OK, young women, young men, you people not of drafting age, you go out and say your piece and say it on my behalf.
I feel like I’m dramatizing this. I don’t want to be dramatizing this.
Da, da, da, Kirill.
No, no. I don’t want you to be thinking that I’m in some sort of terrible situation. It’s just a lot of people are in this situation now.
I’m warm. I feel good. I’m under a roof.
The thing that I’m feeling right now has nothing — nothing — in comparison to the thing that people are feeling who are in the war. I don’t want to have any comparison drawn there.
So two days after Putin’s announcement, my father got a call. A friend of his in the police station gave him a call. And he said, there’s a draft notice for your son tomorrow, for the next day, and that he was going to bring it over.
I had this feeling of helplessness. I didn’t know what to do.
And I’ve been at work for the past couple of days.
You live at work now?
Yes, I’m living at work.
You’re sleeping there? You’re brushing your teeth there? You’re taking a shower there?
Yeah, actually, all of the above. And it’s actually not that hard because I’m working in an organization that is for homeless people, so there’s lots of creature comforts and things that we have for people around.
I’m hiding here because I don’t want to be in a place where people recognize me, and people could come and give me this draft notice.
The way that it has been working is that people are being given these things on the streets, at protests, when they come out of the metro. And this is something that I’m trying to avoid. So I’ve been here at work, and I don’t think they will find me or get me if I don’t go out.
There were a few people in my company that met the criteria for the draft. We put a few plans together, which we’re now trying to carry out. Our coworkers are trying to gather all of our documents and figure out from embassies and from different places where potentially we could go and get a visa to get out.
I’m hugely grateful to them. But I understand that that variant is really unlikely, that it’s basically not going to happen.
So if that doesn’t happen — and I don’t think it will — then the second thing we’re thinking of is to get to the border with Kazakhstan. And we’re hoping that the border doesn’t close.
When would you go to Kazakhstan?
So I’ll probably be in this work space that I’ve been in for the past couple of days until the 20th of September. But if I get a visa, there’s still a danger because they’re looking for people in the airports. And they could be looking at my passport in the airport.
So airports are not a safe place.
In the train stations, they’re checking people even less. And the least of all, the checking, is by car.
Do you plan to go by car?
[SPEAKING RUSSIAN] How far is it to the Kazakh border?
Right now I’m looking. I’m looking. It’s about a 20-hour drive.
That’s very far.
But again, there’s a complication. I don’t have a car.
So this would mean maybe finding a group that was going or asking someone to drive me to the border.
So far I don’t have any options before me, but there are some options here. My father — my father has a car, maybe with him.
Kirill, would you ask your father? Would you ask your father to drive you to the border?
I asked them to come see me on the weekend. It’s probably going to be on Sunday. And I’m going to personally ask if they would be amenable to that option.
They’re having a hard time understanding the risks. They see only what is told on television, which is that young people won’t be sent to the war. They’ll first get some training. So it’s hard for me to explain that I risk prison time and that I’m not going to go to this draft.
What will you say to them?
I’ll tell them that I don’t want to die purely for the reason of one person who’s doing this completely senseless thing.
I’ll just explain in a very practical way, and I hope that we can find a common language.
Kirill, if your parents do refuse or simply say back what they’re seeing on television, is that painful to you that you might not be able to find a common language, even when it’s about your own life?
No, it’s not painful.
If I had also been steeped in the propaganda for so many years that we have external enemies, that we need to be vigilant, I think I would probably have the same view.
If you don’t make it to Kazakhstan, what will happen?
It depends on if they stop me. If that happens, then I’m going to have to hide somewhere inside the borders of Russia.
Kirill, when you think about going to war on behalf of Russia, wearing a Russian uniform in Ukraine — when you think about having to do that, how does that make you feel?
That’s the most terrifying thought of all.
I’ve already decided that it’s better to go to jail than to go off to that absolutely insane and senseless war.
Why is it such a terrifying thought for you, being in Ukraine in a Russian uniform?
It’s not even about the fear of being killed, but of killing someone.
I said, how are you doing? He said, I’m OK. I just didn’t sleep very much, and I’m not thinking very well right now. Oh, my goodness, Kirill.
I had these plans. I had plans for a vacation. I had plans to read.
I had plans for the next couple of weeks. And now I’m just constantly, obsessively watching the news and trying to figure out how to get to the Kazakh border.
Strange that I had these plans.
It’s a very strange feeling, kind of a funny feeling almost for me now because I feel at home here.
And I feel happy here in this job. I, myself, am not very outgoing. And they’ve really made friends with me. And I want to stay.
I can’t really describe it. I can just concentrate on the one thing I know — that I have to leave this place and that I have to leave the closest people to me in my life. But feels like it’s just going to be a long weekend — that I’m going to go away, and then I’m going to come back. And I’ll be right back here at the homeless shelter, talking with the residents.
Two days after our conversation, Kirill texts me. He says he’s heard the borders might be closing soon, and he needs to leave now. So he packs a small bag — his flashlight, his headphones, his favorite T-shirts.
He buys some Snickers and some bottles of water for the road. His father can’t drive him, so Kirill decides to take the bus with a friend. They ride through the night.
When they reach the border with Kazakhstan, they find a line of cars waiting to cross that stretches for 10 kilometers. So Kirill and his friend find a checkpoint where they can cross on foot.
He texted me a picture of the crowd. Thousands of people are waiting.
Many of them are young men in sweatshirts, their hoods drawn against the cold. He records a video of a border guard taunting the crowd, insulting them for trying to leave Russia.
And then he stops texting. For almost 20 hours, I don’t hear anything.
Then on Wednesday night, I get a message.
“Sabrina, hello. Everything is good. I crossed the border.
A few of the guys who were with me were not allowed to leave. I so far don’t have a local phone, almost no internet. And for now, I’m answering only my loved ones and my friends.”
I was able to spend about a week in Kazakhstan, and then I decided to go farther into Uzbekistan.
The situation on the border between Russia and Kazakhstan was very, very tense.
Many Russians had come into Kazakhstan.
And the effect of that was that the apartments, the rents, had gone up by two to three times.
When we were trying to cross, my friend and I met two other people, and we made friends.
The four of us together paid 5,000 rubles to be driven to the next town and 5,000 rubles for lodging for a period of time.
5,000 rubles is a little bit less than $100. We decided that we probably needed to get further away from the towns at the border and find a youth hostel or something further into the interior of Kazakhstan so it would be less expensive.
The next day we bought bus tickets, and we rode about 150 kilometers further into the interior of Kazakhstan.
We had done a booking at an inexpensive hotel online. But once we got there, they told us that our booking had been canceled, and there were no places in the hotel.
It was about 8:00 PM. And we didn’t really know what to do.
So we started calling every number we could find in the internet, any place we could find. Everything was full.
So we then had a think on what we wanted to do further.
My colleague in Moscow at my organization for the homeless, he was actually from Uzbekistan. And his mother still lived there and said, if you ever need any help, you can go to her in Uzbekistan, and she will help you formulate your documents and do whatever is necessary. So we decided to go to Uzbekistan.
We live in a three-room apartment. There are five of us in the apartment. And so we pay $500 a month for all of that. And that’s good for our budget.
We, when we first arrived, didn’t know where to buy food really. And there were little local places run by just ma and pa Uzbek people who would cook for you, like street food.
People were extremely kind and very generous.
And it is, as you know, a Muslim country. There’s just a lot of goodwill toward visitors.
People were really kind and really, really eager to help.
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