Human technology

This Telegram community is helping Russians escape Putin’s draft

Ivan Polkanov did not want to participate in Russia’s war in Ukraine. As an 18-year-old half-Ukrainian man living in Western Siberia, he feared being drafted into the Russian army. “I don’t want to kill my brothers,” Polkanov said.

In late September, amid rumors that Russian President Vladimir Putin was drafting men for military service, Polkanov — a Rubik’s cube gold medalist – began planning his escape to Kazakhstan. He had questions big and small: what documents would he need? Where could he shop? What would culture look like in its new home?

Polkanov found answers on Relocation.Guide. It is an online community that started in February with 10 people and has grown into a giant resource of over 3,000 pages, with over 50 chat channels on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. It has attracted millions of page views per month, its founder said, and has 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 fight the war in Ukraine. As many scam sites have popped up offering everything from false diagnoses of HIV to fake coronavirus vaccine cards for people looking to escape the draft and flee the country, the guide becomes a place 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] real human beings and to share their pain.

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Obtaining accurate information in Russia during the war was difficult. News sites like the BBC were blocked, along with social media sites Facebook and Instagram. Telegram has remained online, becoming a central means of accessing and sharing 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 small circle of friends. She was in Turkey getting a coronavirus shot when the war started and decided not to return. She thought others might need advice on how to leave. Within days, membership grew to 2,000 people. By October, around 200,000 people had joined. The group’s founder said the guide escaped Russian censorship because it was hosted on an online platform which has not yet been blocked.

Over the past few months, the scope of resources has increased significantly. There are over 3,000 pages in an online guide that answer basic and complex 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 to get a phone in Turkey? Which cities are LGBT-friendly?

There are also over 50 Telegram chat channels. In the generic chat rooms, where more than 30,000 members send thousands of messages daily, people inquire about border interrogations or make pleas for fellow travelers. Other channels are country-specific, allowing Russians to ask questions like, “How can I transfer money to Kazakhstan?”

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

Kuznetsov has Crohn’s disease, and as he is 31, he was not likely to be immediately drafted into the army. But he had little confidence in the Russian government. “You can’t be sure,” he said.

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

After making this decision, he entered the Telegram channel of the guide for people immigrating to Turkey and peppered the group with messages: How could he obtain a residence permit? Where could he find a SIM card? Cheap accommodation?

Other questions were tricky. He takes injection medication and asks what is the best way to transport his cold storage medication and syringes.

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

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

Lobanovskaya raised over $115,000 from nonprofits, donors and personal funds to hire a team of nine. Around 250 volunteers also help.

While much of the guide focuses on standard resettlement issues, Lobanovskaya focuses heavily on articles that help people adjust to life in their new country.

These articles include how-to guides for coping with stress, tips for coping with culture shock, and personal stories of others who have left Russia and who have succeeded personally and professionally.

“We shouldn’t just move people,” Lobanovskaya said. “But to help them fit in.”

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

Reports from Rest of the world show some Telegram channels selling HIV diagnostics for $620 for men to evade the project. Lobanovskaya said she knows of others: the scammers are selling fake visas, forging coronavirus vaccination cards and selling cryptocurrency as a way to send money because many Russian banks have been sanctioned, she said.

Viktor B., whom The Washington Post identifies only by his first name and initial for security reasons, began to flirt with the idea of ​​fleeing Russia in February. When rumors swirled in September that Putin would institute a project, he said there was “no time” and he had to leave “right away”.

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

There were still some tips missing. He found little advice on how to get a phone and internet connection in the country. He remained puzzled as to how to get around in Kazakhstan. To improve the service, he suggests adding chatbots.

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

“When you suddenly decide to move,” he said, “[this] helps you overcome panic.

Ian Garner, an expert on Russian wars, said posting on Telegram Group channels about Russia’s departure can be risky. People looking to leave the country should use VPNs or virtual private networks, avoid using their name, and read comments on Telegram channels instead of posting.

Russian officials are unlikely to “finely” control these channels, he said. Instead, “they’ll pick a few people involved in efforts like this, slap them with a fine, or send them to jail for a while,” Garner postulated. “[Then] other people will be more reluctant to join these groups.

Garner was not surprised that many Russians are flocking online to learn how to leave the country.

“They’re just leaning into the latest technology to do what they’ve always done,” Garner said. “And it’s: Watch out for number one and don’t get trapped in this nightmarish army.”