Dima had considered leaving Russia for a long time. The Moscow-based 26-year-old, who asked that his name be changed due to safety concerns, is opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and critical of President Vladimir Putin. But, he told Rest of World, there was a lot keeping him in the country, too — career prospects, relatives, and loved ones.
That changed on September 21, when Putin announced a partial mobilization of reservists, calling up 300,000 male citizens to the battlefield. Dima had a high likelihood of being drafted immediately and knew he had to move quickly. “Without wasting any time, a couple of friends and I got together and decided to leave the country,” he said.
Dima joined a Telegram channel in search of help to flee the country, where he found a ride to neighboring Georgia. The channel, called Verkhnii Lars Chat, was created in 2019 to help anyone crossing the border. It now has more than 140,000 users, and is one of a number of Telegram groups dedicated to helping Russians avoid the draft.
On Monday, Dima and his friends each paid a minivan driver $170 for a perilous, nearly 250-mile journey from a Russian city close to the border to Tbilisi. It’s estimated that as many as 10,000 Russians are crossing the Georgia border every day — just one stream in a massive exodus out of Russia over the last two weeks. More than 260,000 people have fled the country since the announcement of the partial mobilization.
Telegram is now home to a cottage industry of services designed to help reservists like Dima avoid military service, offering everything from transportation to falsified HIV and hepatitis diagnoses, and other forged documents, sometimes sold in exchange for bitcoins. These groups have also become a place where people hawk services ranging from $34,100 flight tickets out of Russia to currency exchange, accommodation, job opportunities, and even permanent residency in popular destinations such as Kazakhstan.
On Georgia’s border, where some Russians waited 40–50 hours to enter the country amid rumors of border closures, some sellers even offered a place in the queue to skip the line.
Launched by Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov in 2013, and operated out of 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 scams.
Thanks to its large audience, abundance of features, and encryption, Telegram has become the chat app of choice for Russians, Malika Kamil, a community manager in a project called Guide to the Free World, told Rest of World. The project, launched at the start of the war, is dedicated to helping 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 for a falsified hepatitis diagnosis, paid using bitcoins.
Guide to the Free World uses Telegram in a number of ways. The non-profit helps Russians emigrate, through a program partly funded by Telegram’s built-in donation button, and uses the platform’s bot function to keep spam and scammers from its channel. Other Telegram groups help track police delivering draft papers, and broadcast news about the rise of mobile recruitment offices at the border with Finland and Georgia.
Many other Telegram channels have seen an influx of scammers. Young men have been driven by panic and fear of border closures into buying services from Telegram, even as reports on scams have risen, said Sawa Zarecki, founder of Advengene, a company helping professionals from Russia find placements and companies find new markets abroad, to Rest of World. Some were promised transportation across the border, only to have their ride disappear after taking the money.
Others peddle fake documents which could qualify Russian men to be declared unfit for duty or to be put under medical observation, giving them three to six months to escape the country.
“At the moment, the most effective way is to get a certificate that you have HIV or hepatitis,” one seller, who refused to share their real name, told Rest of World. Vendors offered HIV diagnoses that would be added to the Ministry of Health’s database, rendering someone as unfit for military service, for $620. A diagnosis of hepatitis goes for $820, paid using bitcoins. Removal from the database, which would delete the diagnosis, is sold separately. Rest of World was unable to confirm whether the services were genuine.
“There is a huge risk of being deceived,” says Zarecki.
Not everyone trusts the services being offered on these channels. Anna, a 39-year-old Russian who requested anonymity due to safety concerns, told Rest of World that she had looked to Telegram for information when planning how to leave the country for Helsinki, with her husband and two young children. The Telegram groups provided her with minute-by-minute updates and real-time experiences from the Finnish border. But, she chose not to buy her trip over 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 trip out of Russia took the family 16 hours, and included a train ride from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, followed by two long car rides, one with Russian license plates and one with Finnish plates — whatever it took to increase her family’s chances of getting out of the country quickly.