After President Vladimir Putin announced this week that Russia was conscripting some 300,000 reservists and military veterans to reinforce its war effort in Ukraine, international flights out of Russian cities quickly sold out. This latest wave of Russia’s exodus included Anton Shalaev, a 38-year-old senior manager at an IT company, and 15 colleagues.
On less than a day’s notice, these men of military age all left their relatively comfortable lives in downtown Moscow to fly to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Because of Putin’s war, Shalaev tossed a book, an iPad, and a laptop in a backpack and got out of Dodge.
Shalaev and his co-workers are true tech geeks, producers of high-value computer games. They represent their country’s brightest and best, members of a tech elite that was the economic foundation of Russia’s new middle class. In a last selfie from Moscow, Shalaev brandished a coffee mug that bore the slogan Not today, Satan.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Anna Nemtsova: Why didn’t you want to be drafted to fight in Ukraine?
Anton Shalaev: On the day Putin declared the war, I knew I would never fight on behalf of this new Nazi Reich. They are my personal enemies: mercenaries who steal my country from me, occupy foreign territories, and kill innocent people. Putin’s army commanders have had plenty of time to turn down their contracts; instead, they are recruiting more cannon fodder now.
So I chose to help Ukrainians suffering from this horror—pay for shelters in Kyiv with cryptocurrency and write antiwar posts on social media. To encourage Russians at home, I said: “Guys, look, I am writing this from Moscow.”
Nemtsova: What was your escape like?
Shalaev: Unlike state-owned companies such as Yandex or the Mail.ru Group, which are making their employees stay, we were independent of government funding, so we made an immediate decision to relocate.
The atmosphere at passport control in the airport was quiet but tense; men waiting for the flight around me were exchanging alerted glances. I had bought my ticket right before the announcement—we were already hearing rumors of the mobilization—so it cost me only about $300. But my colleagues got their tickets the next day, and they cost more than $1,000.
The departure was super stressful. The border guards took each of my friends aside into a small room, interrogated them, asked if they had ever served in the military, and if not, why not. And you know that type of sly border official making their little jokes: “Aha, you are leaving on the day of conscription.” Of course, they checked whether our names were in the database for the mobilization.
Nemtsova: Did you do military service, in fact, when you turned 18?
Shalaev: No, I entered the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which had a military department, so that released me from the service obligation. I studied political science, and dreamed of becoming a Russian diplomat—Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was a graduate there. For a long time, I considered myself a Russian patriot, ready to serve.
When I enrolled in college, in 2001, there was some ideological diversity: We had a neo-Stalinist who taught us about how “Josef” ruled with an iron fist, but the next class would be with a professor telling us about liberal values. Today, the school recruits students for the secret services. And lately, I heard that the dean has urged students to call for Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to surrender.
Nemtsova: What do you think of the Kremlin’s decision making?
Shalaev: A few old men and an army of zombies are leading us to hell. I say that because people around me in Russia behaved as if they had been bitten by a zombie, dragging my entire country into a dreadful war. All I saw was Russian loser husbands beating their wives, while the entire rotting house of the state system has turned my people into an army of the dead.
They are my enemies.
Nemtsova: What do you know of the situation in Ukraine?
Shalaev: I constantly follow the war news in Ukraine—and I seek out the best, most objective analysts. My main sources on the atrocities are Ukrainian refugees from cities bombed by Russian forces.
I realize that I would rather go to prison than go to fight against the Ukrainian army. I openly embrace my antiwar position. I urge my social-media followers to donate to Ukrainians. This entire war is a crime against humanity.
Nemtsova: What do you think of the Russian state media?
Shalaev: Russian propaganda is a weapon, and the bastards working there are war criminals. The greatest guilt in this entire tragedy belongs to a small bunch of old men at the top: KGB officers.
Nemtsova: Do you yourself feel guilt?
Shalaev: I blame myself for our careless life, for our hedonism. We were completely relaxed, a bunch of computer geeks enjoying a happy and comfortable decade of Moscow life, creating and playing our games. We thought the entire country was like us; we did not know our country.
On February 24, when the invasion of Ukraine began, it became clear to me that the old man had nothing to lose. He is a psychopath and does not care what happens to us all, to our economy, to our future.
My only hope is that he has some instinct for self-protection that will stop him from nuking us all.