Stories of Russians fleeing borders closed ‘forever’: ‘We are like a prison in Russia’

Fearing that the border could be closed “forever” after Moscow’s mobilization order for the war in Ukraine, a growing number of Russians are fleeing through Finland via the Valima border crossing, vulnerable to demobilization, AFP writes.

Russians are lining up at the border with Finland to avoid Putin’s warPhoto: Larry Heino/Shutterstock Editorial/Profimedia Images

The road will get even more complicated after Helsinki decided to close the border from midnight (21.00 GMT) to Russians on European Schengen tourist visas.

“I passed, I don’t know how others will do it. It’s sad, sad,” Andrei Stepanov, a 49-year-old Russian, told AFP about the new restrictions imposed by Finland.

“I feel sorry for the others, they are already in prison there (in Russia). Now it will be even worse,” the man lamented about the situation near the border with Kazakhstan.

“We are already behind an iron curtain, and now the curtain will be even thicker. It is very unpleasant,” sighed 60-year-old Alexander Veselov from St. Petersburg.

Asked about the number of Russians fleeing the mobilization, Finnish Interior Minister Krista Mikkonen said on Thursday that asylum applications would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re not dangerous, I don’t understand what threat we pose. We’re fleeing war, we’re against war,” said Valery Klebkin, a 43-year-old former Russian army lieutenant who left for Finland with his partner the day after the mobilization order.

“Run here, we’re not going to the front. In this situation, we need more here than there,” he told AFP.

Despite a slowdown on Wednesday, the number of entries along the 1,300-kilometer land border nearly doubled after Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a “partial” demobilization.

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“I think it doesn’t matter what your status is anymore. If you are fit to serve today, you can be in the army tomorrow,” 35-year-old scientist Viktor Zakharov told AFP on Wednesday.

He fled the country from St. Petersburg with his wife and three children. After staying in Finland with friends, he moved to Israel.

“The sense of freedom is not there yet because of sleepless nights and time spent packing,” says the young father.

In recent days, the number of daily visitors to Finland has been around 7-8,000, most in Valima in the southern part.

Its gray gates have become a transit point for thousands of Russians heading for exile in Georgia, Kazakhstan or Turkey.

“At least I’m here”

For Oleg, the owner of a bar in Moscow, it is fleeing the “terrible” panic that most of those who leave the country like him are trapped.

“They fear it will be closed forever and they will have to live in a dictatorship where they can’t do anything,” he told AFP.

For the 36-year-old, the mobilization order is only the “first sign” of a border closure on the Russian side, which he expects in the coming days.

“I can’t say I’m happy,” said Vadim, a civil servant from Moscow who arrived by bus ahead of the Helsinki announcement. “But at least I’m here.”

He left his mother and the apartment, but hopes to return to Russia later.

“I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to cross the border because I heard that many young people were taken by force and couldn’t leave because of the mobilization,” he said before getting back on the bus on Wednesday.

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Before Covid, Walima saw 2.5 million crossings each year, which dropped to 250,000 during the pandemic. In recent days, crossings have risen to 90 percent of 2019 levels, according to border officials.

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