Dima had long considered leaving Russia. The Moscow-based 26-year-old, who asked for a name change for security reasons, opposes the Russian invasion of Ukraine and criticizes President Vladimir Putin. But he told it rest of the worldthere were also many things that kept him in the country – career prospects, relatives and loved ones.
That changed on September 21, when Putin announced a partial mobilization of reservists and called 300,000 male citizens onto the battlefield. Dima had a high probability of being drafted immediately and knew he had to act quickly. “Without wasting time, a few friends and I got together and decided to leave the country,” he said.
Dima joined a Telegram channel to seek help fleeing the country, where he found a ride to neighboring Georgia. The channel called Verkhnii Lars Chat was founded in 2019 to help everyone crossing the border. It now has more than 140,000 users and is one of several Telegram dedicated to groups to help the Russians avoid the draft.
On Monday, Dima and his friends paid a minivan driver $170 each for a dangerous nearly 250-mile trip from a Russian city near the Tbilisi border. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 Russians cross the Georgian border every day – just one stream in a massive exodus from Russia over the past two weeks. More than 260,000 people have fled the country since partial mobilization was announced.
Telegram is now home to a cottage industry of services designed to help reservists like Dima avoid military service, offering everything from transportation to fake HIV and hepatitis diagnoses and other fake documents, sometimes sold for bitcoins. These groups have also become a place where people peddle services ranging from $34,100 plane tickets from Russia to currency exchange, housing, job opportunities and even permanent residency in popular destinations like Kazakhstan.
On the border with Georgia, where some The Russians waited 40 to 50 hours To enter the country amid rumors of border closures, some vendors even offered a spot in the queue to skip the line.
Launched in 2013 by Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov and operated from Dubai, Telegram has become a favorite among pro-democracy activists in many countries.
But the platform’s lax content rules have also opened the door to hate speech, government propaganda, and fraud.
Thanks to its large audience, wealth of features, and encryption, Telegram has become the chat app of choice for Russians, says Malika Kamil, a community manager in a project called Guide to the Free Worldsaid rest of the world. The project, launched at the beginning of the war, aims to help Russians leave the country. It runs a Telegram group with over 101,000 users. More than 21,000 people joined after Russia announced its mobilization efforts.
$820 The cost of a fake hepatitis diagnosis paid for in bitcoins.
Guide to the Free World uses Telegram in a number of ways. The nonprofit helps Russians emigrate through a program funded in part by Telegram’s built-in donate button, and uses the platform’s bot feature to keep spam and scammers off its channel. Other Telegram groups help track police issuing drafts and spread news about the rise of mobile recruiting offices on the borders with Finland and Georgia.
Many other Telegram channels have seen an influx of scammers. Young men have been pushed to buy Telegram services by panic and fears of border closures, although reports of fraud have increased, said Sawa Zarecki, founder of adven genesa company that helps professionals from Russia to find internships and companies to find new markets abroad rest of the world. Some were promised transportation across the border, only to have their rides disappear after taking the money.
Others sell forged documents that could result in Russian men being declared unfit for work or placed under medical observation, giving them three to six months to leave the country.
“Right now the most effective way is to get a certificate that you have HIV or hepatitis,” said one vendor, who declined to give his real name rest of the world. Vendors were offering HIV diagnoses for $620, which would be included in the Department of Health’s database, marking someone unfit for military service. A hepatitis diagnosis costs $820, paid for in bitcoins. The removal from the database that would delete the diagnosis is sold separately. rest of the world could not confirm if the services were genuine.
“The danger of being deceived is great,” says Zarecki.
Not everyone trusts the services offered on these channels. Anna, a 39-year-old Russian woman who requested anonymity for security reasons, recounted rest of the world that she had looked to Telegram for information when she was planning to leave the country for Helsinki with her husband and two young children. The Telegram groups provided them with up-to-the-minute updates and real-time experiences from the Finnish border. But she chose not to purchase her trip through Telegram, instead making private arrangements. “I don’t think it’s possible for me to buy services from strangers,” she said. “Would you buy it?”
The journey from Russia took 16 hours and involved a train ride from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, followed by two long car journeys, one with Russian number plates and one with Finnish number plates — whatever it took to increase her family’s chances of getting out of the country quickly.