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Russians against the war seek refuge in Turkey

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Russia, there are long lines along the border and flights out of the country are sold out as men of military age try to get out. The exodus follows Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to mobilize tens of thousands of reservists after the Russian military lost ground to Ukraine's counteroffensive. Many of those fleeing are headed to Turkey, one of the few countries that allows Russians to come in without a visa. NPR's Fatma Tanis was at Istanbul's main airport.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Of the many travelers trickling through international arrivals at Istanbul airport, the Russians stand out. There is a palpable sense of urgency, even frustration, and they're carrying little to no luggage to convince Russian authorities they were leaving for short trips and not to evade fighting in the war. Most of them declined to be interviewed. One man frantically looks around and asks if I have a secret camera on him, and those who did speak didn't want to reveal their names, fearing retribution from the Russian government. I meet two friends in their early 30s who just arrived from Saint Petersburg. They're carrying slim backpacks and small briefcases. I ask one of them if he has a plan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Don't know yet.

TANIS: This is all you have?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

TANIS: OK. Did you pack in a rush?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, actually, yes.

TANIS: Switching to Russian, he says he made the decision to leave the day before after seeing news that police were interrogating men who are leaving the country. It was hard to find a ticket by that point.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Very expensive. Now it's very difficult to buy tickets abroad. It was about 3,000 euro.

TANIS: When they both got to the airport in Saint Petersburg, they were interrogated, too. The other man described what that was like.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The whole flight was completely full of men, for example, from 20 and then till 50, I think. And all men just stopped and was - we were interrogated by police.

TANIS: He says they were asked when they bought their tickets, the purpose of their trip, whether they'd served in the military before and if they'd received a notice to fight. These men haven't yet. But...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, I'm worrying. Yes. About this...

TANIS: You're worried.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: For sure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. Yeah.

TANIS: Do you think that you can go back to your country any time soon?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, I don't believe.

TANIS: So this is it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. This is it. Now we can plan something because everything changing very fast.

TANIS: Things are moving quickly in Russia. Just today, President Putin signed a refusal of service law - 10 years in prison for those caught fleeing service. Everyone I spoke with here said they were against the war in Ukraine. They know many people in Russia who are, too, and many others who do support the invasion. The issue has caused rifts between friendships and family. But people who speak out against the war and, more recently, the mobilization have been arrested. There are even reports that they're getting drafted while in police custody to be sent to Ukraine. One 36-year-old man who came from Moscow says the best thing to do is...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Try to get out from there and don't support it as we can, not pay taxes or don't work in Russian companies, etc.

TANIS: He says Russians who are against the war are very scared now, but they can't stop it. The only options are to leave or go to jail. He says there are no other choices. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.