Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Reuters
ANTALYA, Turkey – Near Antalya’s Mediterranean coast is a small park known as Matryoshka Park for its large sculpture of traditional Russian nesting dolls. More than half of the sculpture’s puppets are now missing, as vandals destroyed them after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Turkey is one of the countries Russians are being forced to flee following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to mobilize an additional 300,000 troops to bolster his war in Ukraine. The exodus is being felt most acutely in Antalya, a large city on Turkey’s southwest coast. It’s a longtime Russian tourist destination that’s now becoming a haven for those who don’t want to fight in the war.
Anti-war Russians began moving here in March, shortly after their country invaded Ukraine. The current influx is large and is known as the “second wave” in the local Russian community. Entire neighborhoods near Matryoshka Park are now mostly Russian. It is the language heard on the streets and seen on billboards and restaurant menus.
Two young Russians stroll through the park, looking as if they’ve just stepped off a plane — carrying backpacks and dressed for weather much colder than Antalya’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Like many Russian men around the city these days, they are easily recognizable as draft escapees with their meager possessions, winter clothing and dazed expressions.
Both men are from Kazan, a semi-autonomous region of Tatarstan in southwestern Russia. They did not want their names released for fear of retaliation by the Russian government.
“It’s dangerous for any man,” says one of the 25-year-old men. “It doesn’t matter if you’re old, with no more than three children and no military experience. All men are at risk.”
As Tatars, they have heard that Russia’s new mandate falls more heavily on ethnic minorities like them than on Russians living in big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. They say they know many friends who were rounded up despite being strongly against the war.
“This is the Russian government’s war, not the Russian people. My issue is not just mobilization, it’s war. I have relatives in Ukraine and it’s a disgusting situation for all of us,” says another. 26 is
Life for Russians in Turkey is becoming more complicated
The men, who left Russia immediately after Putin’s draft announcement, have been in Antalya for two weeks — and feel as lost in Turkey as anyone else who arrived today. They have left their families and have no future plans. Many of their questions remain unanswered.
“We have to solve a lot of problems, mainly about how to live in Antalya,” says the 25-year-old.
Things have recently become more complicated for the Russians in Turkey. As citizenship laws tighten in the city, it becomes difficult to live and work here legally.
Another big issue is money. After pressure from the West and threats of secondary sanctions, Turkish banks have suspended the Mir payment system — the Russian version of MasterCard and Visa — making it difficult for Russians to obtain the currency or pay the tab at Turkish restaurants.
There is only one money exchange that Russians can access in Antalya – Golden Crown, the Russian exchange system. The Russians are not without a long line in front, but each of them withdraws $200 a day.
Russian tourists also want to stay in Turkey indefinitely
Russians are coming to Antalya in large numbers. According to the provincial governor, up to 19,000 Russians arrive each day. Some are fleeing the draft, others are tourists who decide to stay.
Turkish tourism companies that work exclusively with Russians tell NPR that they’ve seen a significant increase in single men booking long-term stays. But holidaymakers are also not returning to Russia on their flights, with some flights returning half-empty.
A 34-year-old man from Moscow wanted to stay. He’s afraid to release his name, but tells NPR that he bought a ticket to Turkey a few days after the draft, spent several thousand dollars and left in a hurry. He didn’t even have time to notify his bosses, who were unaware of his departure from the company.
“I’m going to surprise them when I have a Skype call tomorrow,” he laughed.
Like other men of fighting age, he faced questions from authorities at the airport in Moscow.
“I saw some people being ushered upstairs and taken to a private room,” he says. “I can’t see what happened to them, but I have a feeling they weren’t allowed to leave.”
He was one of the lucky ones because he wasn’t drafted at the time of his departure – and he bought his flight as a package tour so he could claim to be a tourist when asked why he was leaving.
But unlike other men who fled to Turkey and told NPR they would never go to Russia, this man says he’ll go back if Russia loses the war — which he believes will happen as long as Russia adopts conventional weapons.
“I will go back because we have to rebuild,” he says. “We need to vote for new people who will choose a different path. One day, when I’m old, people will come back to Russia because it’s a beautiful place.”
He says the only choice he can make now is not to be forced to kill people in a war he doesn’t believe in.