I landed in Belgrade, Serbia, exactly one night after Vladimir Putin ordered a “partial mobilisation” in Russia.
In layperson terms, this meant that all able-bodied men in Russia were eligible to go to war in Ukraine.
On that night, the air was tense in the Serbian capital. More like boiling, almost reaching a feverish pitch. Serbia is one of Russia’s closest allies — there are posters and billboards of the two proclaiming their mutual admiration for one another all over the capital — courtesy of Russia’s helping hand to the Serbs in the war against Bosnia.
It is also one of the few countries left in the region that allow Russians visa free entry. Former Soviet Republics and satellite states such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Czechia have all limited the entry of Russian nationals.
More than half the people staying at my hostel were young Russian men, many my age, fleeing almost overnight with their backpacks and a few prized possessions. Most of them had no future plans. Everything was uncertain.
“Serbia is a brotherly country to Russia. I knew we would be welcomed here, said Dmitry, who originally hailed from Moscow.
“But it’s been a bit awkward with the backdrop of what’s happening around us. We used to be so proud of being Russian in the Slavic world. Now we’re literally hiding in shame from country to country. I try not to talk in Russian in public out of the fear of what an onlooker might say for what my country is doing,” said the 31-year-old.
Oddly enough, everyone I met from Russia wanted to talk. A lot. They wanted to explain themselves; justify and rationalise why they had fled at this very moment and not before. At the same time, you could also tell they were self censoring, careful not to say too much, that too in a country with friendly ties to their homeland.
“Everything has gone, it’s not the same country anymore … I don’t even recognise it,” said 34-year-old Oleg, who only gave his first name. “We’ve gone back in time by around a hundred years. It’s hard to rhyme and reason when everyone you know doesn’t see it and are blinded by patriotic fervour,” said the man from Yekaterinburg, one of the largest cities in Russia.
“Patriotic fervour? What do you mean?” I asked.
“I am just very angry right now. I hope you understand,” he replied, not wishing to explain further.
This was a recurring theme in my conversations with the young men I met. “I paid $3500 just to get here,” said 24-year-old Alexei from Moscow. Ticket prices for one-way journeys out of Russia shot up the day after Putin’s announcement as able-bodied men, who were likely to be called up for army duty, attempted to escape.
According to one estimate, which was disputed by the Kremlin, almost 700,000 Russians had escaped to neighbouring countries since the announcement on Sep 21 until the beginning of October.
“Normally it doesn’t even cost $500,” Alexei continued. “I am just 24 years. I have my whole life ahead of me. I don’t want to go fight for something that I don’t even believe in or stand for”
“You don’t stand for the War in Ukraine?” I inquired.
“That’s not what I said,” he replied quickly.
As I was walking from the town centre to my hostel, I literally got caught in the middle of an anti-war protest, led largely by fleeing Russians. Simultaneously, there was a counter-protest in support of the war, led by Serbians. Just when things couldn’t get any more raucous, there was another protest by the Church against the staging of a pan European Pride event.
What did I just get myself into, I wondered.
As a child, I’d always been fascinated by Russia, so one summer I taught myself to read the Cyrillic alphabet, all of which was coming to use now. I don’t speak the language, but by simply reading it, you can get a rough idea of the situation.
On the long walk to my hostel, I read all the graffiti and signage along the way, trying to make sense of the situation in town.
“Putin is a criminal”
“Putin is a brother”
“Glory to Russia”
“Faggots go home”
“The Ukrainians are heroes”
“Djokovic get vaccinated!”
“I love Djokovic”
All over Belgrade, you could see the letter “Z”, a militaristic symbol used in Russian propaganda by civilians as a sign of support for the invasion. Outside Russia, the symbol has been banned from public display in most countries — obviously not in Serbia. It was everywhere.
Oddly enough I also happened to spot a “Z” painted in the Ukrainian colours.
Another oddity that was very common across the Serbian capital were murals glorifying Ratko Mladic, the war criminal often dubbed as the butcher of Bosnia.
I’d literally just been in town for an hour and it was already wild. I felt like I was tripping. Nothing made sense. Absolutely nothing.
Regardless, I felt like I was bearing witness to a piece of living history up close and personal.
Welcome to Serbia.