Last month, for the first time since World War II, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of army reservists to bolster Russia’s forces in Ukraine. That meant 300,000 reservists—all men—will be going to the front lines. And, more than 700,000 people have since fled the country to avoid such a fate, according to Forbes Russia. This estimate cannot be independently verified, and has been disputed by the Kremlin. But if accurate, it suggests that nearly 0.5 percent of the population left Russia in just three weeks.
Even conservative projections from border control agencies paint a picture of a nation in flight. During the two weeks following Putin’s mobilization announcement, 119,000 Russians entered the EU and an independent review of Russia’s Federal Customs Service data for the same period showed 200,000 going to Kazakhstan and another 49,000 entering Georgia. In total, because precise figures are hard to come by so quickly, “hundreds of thousands” have likely escaped Russia, Reuters reports. It will take months to fully understand the impact of the mobilization on Russia’s demographics—most of the available data is not disaggregated by gender. But while the number of draft-eligible men among the exodus of Russians is unknown, anecdata certainly suggests that the people leaving skew male. Which means that the Russian women who stayed behind have been learning to live without men.
“A few days ago I was at a kid’s birthday party. There were 20 people there, all women with kids and not a single man!” a Russian woman from Moscow who I’ll call Anya told me. (The women interviewed for this story asked for varying levels of anonymity—on March 4, Russia’s parliament adopted new laws making it illegal to spread “false information” about the Russian army and its activities, with penalties up to 15 years in prison. The laws are so broad that many fear speaking about the war at all.) “All of their husbands left—for Israel, Dubai, somewhere else. I imagine it’s hard for them to remain behind, alone with the kids and without their husbands’ support, but no one is complaining.” With their partners safely aboard, these women have to manage household finances, raise kids, and often figure out how to quickly pack up their whole lives and join them.
This story is now all too common among Russian women: A male spouse or partner hastily flees the country, unsure if he meets the mobilization criteria but not wanting to risk staying, while she remains. Of the four women who shared their experiences with Slate, two have partners who moved abroad.
“It is so hard when someone you love leaves,” said Katya, a 26-year old woman from Moscow who asked that her name be changed for her safety. “I spend a lot more time now missing him, and I focus on work to distract myself and not think about it.” Katya said that her daily life doesn’t feel that different—though she did learn how to fix home appliances, which would typically have been her partner’s domain. “It’s more a question of accepting the fact that this person is far away and you don’t know when he will return,” she said.
For others, the moment feels a little different. “Right now I am happy that I don’t have a family,” Sofia, who studies cartoon animation in a Moscow university, said. “I used to be so worried, thinking, ‘I still don’t have a husband and kids’ and now, it’s like, ‘Phew, I don’t have a husband and kids’. I’m already anxious enough for my relatives.”
Aleksandra, a regulatory affairs manager at a Moscow company, has long felt disillusioned with the Russian government. Soon after the country invaded Ukraine in February, she started asking her husband to leave the country. But the couple had just bought their first apartment and were about to finish the renovations, which held her husband back. When the mobilization order came, he finally agreed to leave. “Although we weren’t sure if he would fall under the categories of men being mobilized, we didn’t want to risk it,” Aleksandra said. “Especially seeing how in practice they’re calling up everyone, essentially anyone they can get their hands on. And all the promises from the government that there would be no mobilization, or that it would be partial (only those who served in the army)—they all turned out to be lies.”
The mobilization effort unleashed chaos across Russia, sparking protests and criticism. Stories of men who were illegally issued draft notices, despite failing to meet mobilization criteria, circulated online. Opposition to mobilization was vocal enough to prompt Putin to publicly chastise officials in a televised conference and call for “mistakes” to be corrected. “Like many bureaucratic tasks in Russia, mobilization is being conducted using quotas levied on districts,” Mark F. Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained. “The quota system decentralizes and simplifies execution but incentivizes local authorities to prioritize output at any cost. This can create abuses.”
Rumors of men grabbed off the streets and shepherded to the nearest military commissariat generate fear and anxiety—enough to drive many men to permanently leave the country. “Among people I know, everyone left,” Aleksandra said. “There are a few couples like us, where the husband or male partner left while the woman stayed behind. But all of them are planning to leave eventually. For now, no one is planning to return.”
The overnight disappearing act has resulted in several strange situations. Katya, who works in a creative industry, realized suddenly that many of her male colleagues had left the country. “The problem is everyone on my team has a different specialization so it’s not always possible to reassign technical tasks,” she said. She also used to ask male co-workers for help with physically challenging tasks, like carrying heavy equipment or repairing something. Now, there’s no one left to ask.
Anya has been covering shifts for two male colleagues who left for Europe. She works in the media industry, which is particularly important right now. “On some days we didn’t have people to cover for them, so we were working extra,” she said. The days she worked extra “were days of referendums in Ukrainian regions and Putin signing their annexation, so they were full of news, when media organizations especially can’t afford to be short staffed.”
All four women told me they’re constantly worried about the men in their lives, whether partners, friends, or passing acquaintances. “It feels like this constant anxiety,” Sofia said. “You look at your professor, and you worry. He’s explaining something in class, and you’re wondering if he’s OK.” In her free time, Sofia’s mother now hunts down military supplies and prepares backpacks for recruits, just in case someone she knows is drafted.
Days after Putin’s mobilization announcement, Russians were Googling “how to break an arm at home” in record numbers. One of the women I spoke to told me about a colleague who really worried for her brother—until one day he actually accidentally fell and broke his collarbone. “Now my colleague doesn’t have to worry when she reads the mobilization news,” she said.
Articles advising men on how to avoid mobilization proliferate in Russian media. “Legal and not so legal lifehacks” include not opening the door when someone knocks, staying off social media, undergoing a surgery, adopting a child as a single father, faking a physical or mental illness, and checking yourself into rehab for drug addiction. This is particularly relevant to people who don’t have the financial resources to just leave. Everyone I spoke to is a middle class urbanite living in Moscow. They can go if they want to. Which might be one reason why Russian authorities often target men from poor and rural regions, as well as those of Muslim and Asian backgrounds. The Washington Post reported that activists in the impoverished far eastern regions of Buryatia and Yakutia believe that the mobilization disproportionately targets ethnic minorities.
“I don’t know anyone who was drafted or taken away, except my cousin who is out in the countryside,” Sofia said. Although her cousin has heart problems, he was deemed fit to serve. His family is exploring many options to shield him from the draft, including enrolling him in seminary school—they heard that people in religious careers are exempt from service.
Unlike their male counterparts who had to flee quickly, Russian women have the luxury of time. Or maybe they don’t. “Among women, there is this fear that you have to leave the country now if you want to get married and start a family because there is no one left here,” Sofia said. “How do you raise kids in this country?” But Sofia hasn’t left yet. Her loved ones are holding her back. She hopes her parents will soon join her sister and her sister’s husband in the Balkans, but she will only consider leaving herself if most of her loved ones have gone.
“Even people who are leaving, I don’t think fully comprehend this, they’re running because everyone is running,” she said. “I am afraid of that moment when it sinks in, when we get to see the true results of this mobilization.”