The invasion of Ukraine was certainly not to everyone’s liking. As soon as war was declared, many men fled their country to avoid being forcibly conscripted into the army. If no official figures are available, tens of thousands of Russians would have fled to neighboring countries not to be mobilized, leaving behind women and children.
Wrapped up in her winter jumpsuit, Ekaterina Filimonova cycles through the snowy streets of Moscow to drive her three sons to daycare.
Until the end of September, it was her husband, Yaroslav Leonov, who took the toddlers aged two, four and six to kindergarten. But this software developer went into exile in Serbia, fleeing the mobilization of 300,000 reservists, civilians therefore, to fight Ukraine by decree of Vladimir Putin.
“He left and I fell ill the next day. I was so stressed that I didn’t recover for a month,” Ekaterina, 34, told AFP.
The day after the announcement of the mobilization and without waiting to find out if he would be called, her husband took a train to the Kazakhstan border, ending his journey by bicycle. Then it was in Belgrade that he settled.
If no official statistics exist, there are at least tens of thousands of Russians, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, who have made the same choice as Yaroslav. Some with family, others leaving behind wife and children.
“The first month was very sad. It was very hard for me and it was hard for the children. When I’m upset, they get hysterical, they cry at night. And I understood that I had to pull myself together” , sighs Ekaterina.
Now in Belgrade, Yaroslav Leonov is in a dark mood.
He says he had no choice but to leave for fear of being sent to Ukraine. “I didn’t want to play Russian roulette,” he explains.
In the Serbian capital, he found one of his mathematics teachers, who had left Russia at the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine on February 24. They now rent an apartment together.
Yaroslav also continues to work, now remotely, for his Russian employer.
None of this eases the pain of separation. “We cannot play with the children from a distance,” he regrets.
In their cozy family apartment in Moscow, Ekaterina gathers her sons to have their father read them a bedtime story via video call.
“I hope my children understand that their dad is there, that he loves them – even from Belgrade,” he told AFP.
If Vladimir Putin announced the end of the mobilization, many exiles like Yaroslav fear a second wave and therefore do not want to return.
Anastassia Arsenitcheva, co-founder of a charitable NGO supporting mothers, confirms that her organization has received an increasing number of calls since the announcement of the mobilization.
According to her, many women have encouraged their partners to go abroad, considering it a matter of “life or death”, but many now find themselves in difficulty.
If Yaroslav Leonov manages to support his family financially, for many households this is not the case.
“In families where the man was the main source of income, we don’t know very well how to live now”, summarizes Ms. Arsenitcheva.
Alexandra, a 32-year-old Muscovite, had to quickly find a way out after the departure of her husband, a cameraman who went first to a small town in Tajikistan, then to Uzbekistan, two poor countries from Central Asia.
Until then, Alexandra had a few knitting projects that brought her a small income, but most of her time was spent with her seven-year-old daughter.
“When he left, everything fell on me. The family budget collapsed,” she says.
The young woman therefore accepted more orders, including 200 toys for the New Year, which led her to recruit several other women. She also resells furniture that she repairs online.
“We had forgotten how to be independent… but when the guys left, we had no choice!” she says.
The young woman understands the exodus of men, but she says she is determined to stay, despite the uncertainty and the difficulties.
“I’m originally from Russia. I want to live in Russia. I never wanted to leave,” says Alexandra.