The Underground Network Helping Russians Escape The Draft

 

TBILISI -- It's already counseled thousands of Russians eager to avoid what its founder calls "the buzz saw" of war in Ukraine, legally or otherwise.

Georgia-based NGO Idite Lesom (Go by the Forest) has led one of the most brazen campaigns from abroad to help young Russians dodge the draft.

"We helped them become deserters," the group boasts of its work. The name, Go by the Forest, is a play on words, a reference to the covert nature of its work but also a popular Russian idiom understood across the former Soviet Union to mean "Get lost!"

Last week, Go by the Forest says it was once again swamped with new inquiries from concerned Russians as reports emerged of a new Kremlin-backed law to streamline conscription.

Hundreds of thousands of Russian nationals have fled their homeland since President Vladimir Putin announced a "partial mobilization" in September 2022 to provide 300,000 troops for the war effort. Many of them, including longtime anti-homelessness activist and Go by the Forest founder Grigory Sverdlin, have settled in neighboring Georgia.

The group claims to have helped nearly 6,800 Russians since its founding a half-year ago, including more than 5,100 it says would otherwise have been sent to the fighting. It says its stated aim is to help ensure that "as few people as possible pull a trigger" in Europe's first full-scale military invasion since World War II, an effort it calls "nonviolent civic resistance."

"The main purpose of this [Russian] bill is to force people to go to war," Sverdlin told RFE/RL's Georgian Service last week, after reports emerged of new legislation to prepare young Russians across the country for possible mobilization. "[The authorities] can take as many [people] as they need at any time."

Sverdlin and another Russian opposed to the war, Daria Berg, are the public faces of Go by the Forest. But they lead a network of an unspecified number of employees and "hundreds" of volunteers living outside Russia, who maintain anonymity to avoid legal or other retribution in order to provide psychological and legal counseling, in addition to practical advice on how to avoid conscription or active duty.

Over the course of three days last week, when the law's existence was disclosed and it was signed into law by Putin, nearly 2,000 Russians appealed to Sverdlin's organization for assistance.

The new legislation is aimed at beefing up national conscription as Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine grinds through its second year, with politicians and military analysts warning of a protracted war. It introduces an electronic registry and allows for digital draft notices and a state e-services portal, in addition to prohibiting those targeted for conscription from leaving the country.

Go by the Forest has declined to describe in detail the assistance it gives to draft-dodging Russians, but its advice has included changing residences or finding shelter inside Russia to stay a step ahead of the authorities. The group communicates via the Telegram messaging app and Instagram and solicits support via donations.

Sverdlin left Russia for Georgia in March 2022, weeks after tens of thousands of Russian troops rolled across the Ukrainian border after a massive, monthslong buildup that prompted U.S. officials to warn of an imminent invasion. Sverdlin's former organization, Nochlezhka (Nightlight), offered assistance to homeless people in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

After Putin's announcement of the partial mobilization six months later, Sverdlin has described "dropping out for a few days," before deciding to launch Go by the Forest to help Russians who didn't want to fight. He said he had never seen the kind of outpouring that greeted the newly founded group as "100 volunteers for the project in the morning" multiplied to "350 by the evening."

Some of the fleeing Russians' most popular destinations -- places like Kazakhstan, Turkey, and even Argentina -- have already tightened laws on residency permits for Russians or reduced visa-free visits. Not so with Georgia, whose government has resisted sanctions against Russia and kept trade and other channels open with Moscow even as Russian troops occupy around one-fifth of the country since a lightning war in 2008.

Reliable figures are difficult to find, but official data shows that more than 1 million Russians crossed the border into Georgia between March and November 2022, according to local Jam News, spurred by a wave at the start of the invasion and then again after the mobilization order in September.

In its latest figures, the Georgian Interior Ministry said there were around 113,000 Russian nationals still in the country. Last week, Sverdlin said a repeat of the long lines at the Zemo Lars border crossing are unlikely to reach the scale of last year.

"Most of those who could leave [Russia] have already left," he told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

But Sverdlin, whose activism has already contributed to the flight of many war-wary Russians, added that he was certain a new wave of Russian emigration was on the way for Georgia and some of Russia's other neighbors.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Sandro Gvindadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service