Out of Russia
A day before Putin announced mobilization—a first for Russia since WW2—I was in a taxi. We made a turn from a sun-lit street into a darker one, and the driver put the visor up.
— I don’t like it when these things are down, they block the view. I recently took a trip back to my Homeland…
— Where’s that?
— Kyrgyzstan. I took passengers for chunks of the trip, to save on gas money. One of them was from Dagestan, and he always kept his visor down. I mean, it’s nighttime, and he has it down.
— So I say, “Brother, why do you do that?” And he says, “You’re a good man, I don’t want to invite trouble your way.” Turned out, he was an extremist—I didn’t even know what the word meant; it’s like, when you’re against the authorities…
— Did he say what made him an extremist?
— He said he had a conflict with the муфтий. We have muftis in Kyrgyzstan, too.
— So how was the visor inviting trouble your way?
— The guy was savvy. And a good man, too. His plan was to drive all around Russia, from one city to another, making sure to get on all the cameras—and he told me, “this camera is for speed control; this camera is to track you down”—so that the authorities wouldn’t know which region he’s in. He planned to make a run for the border after that. But he wanted to hide from the cameras while riding with me, because he thought I was a good man…
The taxi brought me to a cafe where I was to meet with a subscriber, a young Russian woman, a scientist, programmer, and teacher, in the biomedical engineering field. The waiter seemed both hungover and drunk. Yulia ordered vareniki, and I ordered borsch and a drink, a nastoika.
She got married in 2020 (I, in 2022), and I suppose her wedding was more elaborate than mine because, to prepare for it, she joined a Telegram group made up of Russian and Ukrainian brides.
There were two that proved to be frauds, pretending to be who they weren’t.
One of these woman was from Mariupol. She just kept having bad luck. Her father died before the war. Her son was sick. The other chat members chipped in and sent money her way. When her city was taken over by the Russian army, she disappeared from the chat, which made her virtual friends really worried.
Everybody was very concerned. Eventually, the girl I was talking to found the missing girl’s sister’s phone number and called her up. “She dropped from the Internet,” she said. The sister responded, “I talked to her last night. She’s in Mariupol, with her parents.”
—Parents? As in, plural?
It turned out, her father did not die. Her children were not sick. She was ok.
I kept my eyebrows up throughout this story.
My phone was flashing up. It was my wife paying attention to the news: the referendums on DNR, LRN, Kherson, and Zaporozhye were suddenly announced to take place from tomorrow to a few days after, and she was saying: “We’ve got to get you tickets to Armenia before this is over; now.”
I texted back, “Ok. I have a work call after this meeting, but let’s buy me a ticket in between.”
That’s what we did.
The next day, Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization.” Nobody knew what that meant at the time.
It means the same thing as full mobilization.
My ticket was for September 26. Importantly, and only because of my wife, it was bought on September 20. “When did you buy your ticket?” is now one of the standard questions a man is asked when crossing the border.
The next few days were a haze. We monitored the relevant Telegram channels (I’m struck by how much their titles—The Bloody Baryinya, The Messenger of the Apocalypse—are reminiscent of the “satirical journals” of 1905—1907, which I’ve been translating here at Psychopoliica). It was a time of panic, and it still is, because, while I did manage to get out (to Armenia, which isn’t quite a safe haven, because it’s suffering attacks from Azerbaijan), my wife’s still in Russia, as are some of my friends; we have relatives in both Ukraine and Russia; and then there’s the whole thing about a possibly coming world war.
Join the PsyPol community for $5/mo. All the money goes to the victims of the war.
My ticket to Yerevan cost 16k roubles, around $400. A few days into the mobilization, Karina and I thought, maybe we should change it to an earlier date. 500k roubles tickets—10 thousand bucks—were not uncommon. We stuck with the original date.
There is a Telegram channel, called Border Control, that posts reports from people who went through or failed to go through the border: where were they coming from, where to, what mode of transportation, what questions they were asked, and how they finally faired.
By the time I went to the airport, the prevalent wisdom was: I should be ok. There have been a few people in my position (no military training, “suit for limited service” health-wise) that were turned away at the border, but most people went through without a hitch.
I stepped up to the border control booth.
— Are you going anywhere after Armenia?
— Who are you coming with?
— When did you buy your ticket?
— Have you served in the army?
— What about military training at the university?
— Do you have a return ticket?
She looked through my passport with a magnifying glass, paying special attention to the seams where the pages come together. Then pushed buttons on her keyboard. Then pushed some special button, turned a key in the door of the booth, and I got ready for a different person coming in and taking charge.
A woman with a face and demeanor much sterner than the one I’d been talking to appeared and rapid-fired a whole paragraph of legalese at me. I missed most of it, but got the main part: in accordance to such-and-such rule, I am subject to an extra check and interrogation, and am I to go with her.
On our way to a small room with the letters FSB on the door, I had to answer more questions, though some were repeated: are you eligible for the draft, have you received a draft card, when did you buy your ticket, did you run into difficulties when booking the flight, what is the purpose of your visit, do you have a return ticket, do you have any other documents on you—for example, your domestic passport or your military ID?
— I’ve got both.
— Remove the covers and give them to me.
I handed the documents to her. She held them up:
— Look here now. You gave me your documents: the domestic passport, the foreign passport, and the military ID. Wait here.
She went into the room, and I sat down on a black puffy chair. I was trying to be calm, and failing at that.
She popped out maybe ten minutes later:
— Have you been to your local military office?
— So you have no paper from them saying that you can leave.
— Do you permanently reside in Moscow?
That’s what my passport says, so I replied “yes.”
— Why are you flying out of St. Petersburg then?
— My wife’s from here. Her grandmother got sick with Covid, and we came to care for her.
— Has your wife gone through the border control already?
— No, she’s staying.
— Wait here.
She left again and was gone for another five minutes. Then she returned and said “Let’s go.”
She opened another border control booth, stamped my ticket and passport, and said “Have a nice trip.”
I then had two double whiskeys at an airport bar, then a bottle of stout (ironically called Into the Unknown) while sitting on the floor at the gate, and then got on a plane.
The next day, walking through Yerevan, I took this picture.
A little girl sitting by herself, just watching the water flow.
It calmed me down.