This Telegram community helps Russians escape Putin’s draft

Ivan Polkanov wanted no part of Russia’s war in Ukraine. As an 18-year-old, half-Ukrainian man living in western Siberia, he worried about being drafted into the Russian army. “I don’t want to kill my brothers,” Polkanov said.

In late September, as rumors swirled that Russian President Vladimir Putin would mobilize men into military service, Polkanov — a Rubik’s cube gold medalist — started planning his escape into Kazakhstan. He had questions big and small: What documents would he need? Where could he get groceries? What would the culture be like in his new home?

Polkanov found answers on Relocation.Guide. It’s an online community that started in February with 10 people and has grown into a behemoth 3,000-plus page resource, with over 50 chat channels on the encrypted messaging application Telegram. It has drawn millions of page views per month, its founder said, and counts more than 200,000 members who can use it to orchestrate every detail of their escape from Russia.

The guide is the latest example of people using technology in creative ways to grapple with the war in Ukraine. As many scam sites have cropped up offering everything from fake HIV diagnoses to forged coronavirus vaccine cards for people looking to escape the draft and flee the country, the guide is becoming a place where Russians can turn to for commiseration and advice.

“People need people,” Irina Lobanovskaya, the guide’s founder, said in an interview. “They want to hear [answers] from real human beings and to share their pain.”

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Getting accurate information in Russia during the war has been difficult. News sites like the BBC have been blocked, along with the social media sites Facebook and Instagram. Telegram has remained online, becoming a central way people access and share information.

Relocation.Guide started as a Telegram channel right after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Originally, Lobanovskaya created the group chat to share immigration tips with a tiny circle of friends. She was in Turkey getting her coronavirus vaccination when the war started, and decided not to return. She thought others might need advice on how to leave. Within days, membership swelled to 2,000 people. As of October, roughly 200,000 people have joined. The group’s founder said the guide evades Russian censorship because it’s hosted on an online platform that hasn’t yet been blocked.

Over the past few months, the breadth of resources has vastly increased. There are over 3,000 pages on an online guide that answer basic and intricate questions, like: What are the best countries to escape to if I don’t have a visa, or if I’m trying to save money? How do I get a phone in Turkey? What cities are LGBT-friendly?

There are also over 50 Telegram chat channels. In generic chatrooms, where over 30,000 members send thousands of messages daily, people inquire about border interrogations or make pleas for travel companions. Other channels are country-specific, allowing Russians to ask things like: “How do I wire money into Kazakhstan?”

Sergey Kuznetsov, a 31-year-old digital producer from Moscow, perused the relocation guide for weeks before leaving the country in September, after Putin announced his partial mobilization order.

Kuznetsov has Crohn’s disease, and since he’s 31, he wasn’t likely to be immediately conscripted in the army. But he had little faith in the Russian government. “You can’t be sure,” he said.

He didn’t have a travel visa for the United States or a European country, and didn’t want to go somewhere expensive. Kuznetsov chose Turkey because people on the relocation guide’s chat said he could get a residency permit quickly.

After making that decision, he entered the guide’s Telegram channel for people immigrating to Turkey and peppered the group with messages: How could he get a residency permit? Where could he find a SIM card? Cheap places to live?

Other questions were tricky. He takes injectable medicines, and asked about the best way to transport his cold-stored medicines and syringes.

“You can find normal information on the internet,” he said. “But … special things, like syringes or traveling with a freeze box, there is no information.”

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Lobanovskaya said this is a big reason the guide is important. In recent days, people have been rushing to leave the country. Many don’t have time to scour the internet, she said. It’s far better to have an exhaustive resource that compiles the information in one place, along with chat channels where people can ask questions in real time, she said.

Lobanovskaya has raised over $115,000 from nonprofits, donors and personal funds to hire a staff of nine. Roughly 250 volunteers help as well.

While much of the guide focuses on standard relocation questions, Lobanovskaya is focusing heavily on the articles that help people ease into life in their new countries.

These articles include manuals for coping with stress, advice for dealing with culture shock, and personal stories from others who’ve left Russia and have succeeded personally and professionally.

“We have to not just relocate people,” Lobanovskaya said. “But to help them integrate.”

The guide has also become a resource at a time when scammers are looking to take advantage of people leaving the country.

News reports from Rest of World show some Telegram channels selling HIV positive diagnoses for $620 for men to evade the draft. Lobanovskaya said she knows others: Scammers sell fake visas, forge coronavirus vaccination cards and sell cryptocurrency as a means to send money because many Russian banks have been sanctioned, she said.

Viktor B., whom The Washington Post is only identifying by first name and last initial for security reasons, started flirting with the idea of escaping Russia in February. By the time rumors circulated in September that Putin would institute a draft, he said there was “no time” left and he had to leave “right now.”

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Viktor, 31, fled to Almaty, Kazakhstan, and used the guide to find out how to transfer money, how to safely get through border control and how to get a taxpayer ID in his new home.

Still, some advice was lacking. He found little guidance on how to get a phone and internet connection in the country. He remained confused about how to get around Kazakhstan. To improve the service, he suggests adding chatbots.

Despite that, the guide remains crucial for anyone looking to flee, he said.

“When you abruptly decide to relocate,” he said, “[this] helps you overcome the panic.”

Ian Garner, an expert on Russian wars, said that posting in group Telegram channels about leaving Russia can come with risk. People looking to leave the country should use VPNs, or virtual private networks, avoid using their names and read comments in Telegram channels instead of posting.

It’s not likely that Russian officials would “finely” monitor these channels, he said. Rather, “they’ll pick a couple of people who are involved in efforts like this, slap them with a fine or send them to jail for a while,” Garner posited. “[Then] other people will be more reluctant to join these groups.”

Garner wasn’t surprised that many Russians are flocking online to learn how to leave the country.

“They’re just turning to the latest technology to do what they’ve always done,” Garner said. “And that is: Look out for number one and not get trapped in this nightmarish army.”