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‘The Exodus’: Why some Russians are fleeing their homeland amid Ukraine invasion

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WATCH: It's getting tougher for tens of thousands of people to flee the fighting in Ukraine. Mike Armstrong reports on the hurdles they're encountering, how many families are being ripped apart, and the dire situation of those still stranded in the deadly conflict. – Mar 8, 2022

Before his four-hour flight out of Russia’s Domodedova airport on Saturday, 32-year-old Vladislav Slepyshev wiped his phone clean.

On his social media, you’d find him speaking out against his country’s president, Vladimir Putin. In his camera roll, you’d find photos of him protesting the war against Ukraine on the streets of downtown Moscow.

A post of Vladislav Slepyshev from social media of him in Moscow before leaving. The post in part reads: “I believe in peace and a future in our country without Putin’s dictatorship and repression.”. Provided by Vladislav Slepyshev
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Ukraine and Russia set to hold another round of talks – Mar 7, 2022

“For the posts I’m making, you’d just get instantly 15 years in jail,” he said.

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Russian authorities continue to arrest protesters and block independent news outlets as the war against Ukraine rages on.

On Friday, Putin signed a bill into law that criminalizes the intentional spreading of what Moscow deems to be “fake” reports. Anyone convicted would face up to 15 years in prison.

“I couldn’t keep silent, so I decided I’m going to go,” Slepyshev said.

Click to play video: 'Russian police detain hundreds at anti-war protests across the country' Russian police detain hundreds at anti-war protests across the country
Russian police detain hundreds at anti-war protests across the country – Feb 24, 2022

He fled Russia on March 5, and headed to Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, where he has relatives.

Read more: Russian, Belarusian truckers speak of fears over Ukraine war: ‘It should be ended’

He’s calls his departure, and the departure of the many other Russians fleeing the country, “the exodus.”

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“I’m in a safe place now,” Slepyshev told Global News, as he sat on a mauve-coloured couch in his family’s home in Tashkent, just hours after arriving.

As a teenager, Slepyshev wanted to be a Russian navy officer.

“I was very patriotic,” he said. “The propaganda worked on me very well.”

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That was before he found his music, and spent time working on cruise ships as a musician. He travelled to Vancouver in 2019.

Just a few days before leaving Russia, however, Slepyshev attended a protest in support of Ukraine in Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square.

The invite to the protest came as a message from the organizers asking people to join them for a walk.

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“You can’t say meeting, you can’t say protest,” he said, because of the possibility of jail time.

Russian Police officers detain a man during an unsanctioned protest rally against the military invasion in Ukraine on March 6, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine on 24th February 2022, its actions have met with worldwide condemnation with rallies, protests and peace marches taking place in cities across the globe. Photo by Vladimir Pesnya/Epsilon/Getty Images

Despite the tough laws in place, Russians across the country have continued to protest against the invasion of Ukraine. On Sunday alone, protests took place in dozens of cities across the country, including in Siberia and St. Petersburg.

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According to OVD-Info, a rights group focused on tracking political arrests, a total of 1,558 people were detained in 43 Russian cities on Sunday.

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Nearly 10,000 people have been detained in Russia since Feb. 24, according to the group.

“(The police officers) looked like storm troopers from Star Wars but they were dressed in all black,” said Slepyshev, describing a scene from the protest he attended. “They just grab people so the crowd doesn’t get larger. I saw a guy get arrested right in front of me. You get really, really scared. It’s really (rough).”

While at the square, Slepyshev met an older man who despite the heavy police presence held a sign that read “no to war.”

He and Slepyshev shared a hug and took a picture together.

Vladislav Slepyshev and the man he met while protesting in Moscow. Provided by Vladislav Slepyshev

“It was so emotional,” Slepyshev said. “It changed everything inside me.”

Slepyshev says he’ll now use his guitar as means to make money in Tashkent, where he plans to stay for a few months as he tries to get a Visa for Dubai, or any European country.

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Vladislav Slepyshev performing.

Most of his money, says Slepyshev, has either been transferred into crypto-currency or sits in his bank account with the potential of being frozen at any moment.

Like Slepyshev, Elena Podymova also took the decision of leaving her homeland last week.

For Podymova, despite living in Russia for 25 years of her life, she says she doesn’t think she’ll ever return.

Born in Togliatti, a city in western Russia, Podymodva fled to London last week.

“I felt relieved that I would finally have a better life,” she told Global News after arriving in London. “I don’t really think that Russia is a good country for me to live, especially, when you do not agree with government on a lot of things.”

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Now 26, Podymodva immediately started searching for plane tickets when the war began.

Elena Podymova. Provided by Elena Podymova

It was difficult to get out of Russia, she said. To get to the UK, she first flew through Turkey.

“Direct flights to London were already cancelled. Plane ticket prices became unrealistic but I didn’t want to be blocked in the country,” she said.

“I realized that this is the place where I want to live,” she said about her new home. “Everything came together in a puzzle.”

Before leaving, Podymova protested in Moscow, video blogging her journey on TikTok to her over 61 thousand followers.

On Sunday, TikTok suspended new content creation in Russia. The same day Netflix also stopped service to the country.

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@lelondoner

Moscow now 🥺🙏🏼🇷🇺🇺🇦 #moscow #russia #ukraine #nowar #russiaukraine #stopwar #🇺🇦

♬ original sound – Elena

“As Russian people don’t have the right to do protests in Russia, they just tried to go on the streets and walk in large crowds,” she said. “But everyone understands why people are there. It seems to me that the majority of such people are in favour of stopping this war.”

Podymova’s videos document her journey out of Russia in detail, from her boarding the plane to her going to anti-war protests after arriving in London.

@lelondoner

Going out of Russia 🥺🙏🏼🇺🇦🇷🇺 #russia #ukraine #russiaukraine #kiev #🇺🇦 #🇷🇺

♬ оригинальный звук – 💗

“When I crossed passport control in London, it was only then I exhaled and realized that now everything is fine and I am safe,” Podymova said.

The ongoing war

As of Sunday, less than two weeks after the war began, Russian forces stepped up shelling of cities in Ukraine’s center, north and south, a Ukrainian official said. A second attempt to evacuate besieged civilians collapsed.

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With the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy urging his people to take to the streets and fight, Russian President Vladimir Putin shifted blame for the war to Ukraine, saying Moscow’s invasion could be halted “only if Kyiv ceases hostilities.”

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudueau also arrived in Europe on Sunday to meet with allies and discuss the intensifying war in Ukraine.

On Monday, Ukraine plans to ask the United Nations’ top court to issue an emergency ruling requiring Russia to stop its invasion, arguing that Moscow’s justification for the attack is based on a faulty interpretation of genocide law.

— With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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