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"I didn’t want to become an orc. How could I stay?". An interview on the border between Georgia and Russia

30.09.2022

The Media Loft journalists talked to Yegor Borisov (name changed), a graduate of a prestigious technical institute in St Petersburg, a political activist, businessman and a public figure, about the realities of what is happening on the Russian-Georgian border, the fear for his life, and the unprecedented help from total strangers.

Yegor will turn 39 in the autumn. After the partial mobilisation was announced, he left Russia.

- At what point did you make the decision to leave your hometown? Was it a flight or a deliberate move?

- Any politician in Russia - and I have been taking part in elections, raising money for electoral campaigns, and working in pre-election headquarters - had been thinking about leaving since spring. Many people left then.

I decided for myself: "I will not go until there is a direct and immediate threat to my health or life. I am not trying to portray myself as tougher than I am, and I don't want to play the victim. However, this is the moment when I felt a direct and immediate threat.

I have experience of loss in my life: between 2015 and 2017, I lost a child, a business, a home, and a marriage: all in a row. As a result, I developed a very acute sense of impending danger. I know what happens if you don't listen to that feeling.

Having said this, making up my mind was very difficult. Public and political activity was the most interesting thing I had done in my life. Equally, the opportunities to do this in emigration (nowadays the euphemism "relocation" is used, but I think it is right not to hide what is happening behind the soft terms) are very limited. In Russia, on the other hand, there are no such opportunities left at all.

Plus I am a politician tied to "the land" - I started by fixing up the house and the yard. I just had time to hold the first official meeting of owners, to be elected as the chairman. I signed the minutes on the day of departure. It is very painful to lose it all, but it is possible to restore it all, to start from the beginning: a lost life (or a leg) cannot be regained.

In some ways it's easier for me: I have a remote job in IT, no wife or kids or even a steady girlfriend, no house to build all my life, or anything else that's hard to leave. I do however have elderly parents, childhood friends and a brother.

Breaking up, of course, hurts, but I think the real emotion will kick in afterwards. At the moment everything is pushed out by the need to help everyone who can be helped to leave and get settled.

Here in Tbilisi all people with organizing skills are worth their weight in gold now. So I started helping people to leave as soon as I slept the night away. I also have to find a way to settle in on my own. So there is no time to be sad. I have, however, realized that the pain will still be severe. It is just on pause for now.

About a day or so passed from the decision to fly from St. Petersburg to Sochi. I must have made up my mind the moment I started to think about leaving in a practical way. Like, I would calculate the plan and not make a decision yet, but so that if I did, I wouldn't have to waste time on planning. In fact, that's when I actually made it.

From that point onwards, the rails were already in motion. The moment of pressing the "buy" button on the airline website also felt like a point of no return, but emotionally it was already easier to decide than to basically start thinking about departure not in the abstract, but specifically, with clear planning.

Anyway, I threw my laptop, jumper, pants, two pairs of socks and a couple of powerbags in my rucksack and drove to the airport.

A day earlier I had ascertained my older brother's position (15 years apart, I'm 39) and chatted with another friend and former business partner, about his age. Both had the same reaction: jokes and "it won't touch me, but if it does, I'll go". It got to me.

Men in Russia really don't care whether they live or die. It seems that they are so depressed (and how can they not be when you in your own country can only influence the colour of the wallpaper in the room) that in principle they do not care whether to live or die.

That's where I got really scared. I think that's what finally convinced me.

"It was a certainty that the people would get it"

- Before that, I thought that in six months I would somehow get to the people. In spring the TV ratings dropped drastically and more people began to trust the independent media. The stranglehold on the internet has failed. Everyone who wants to read Cholod, Meduza, BBC or Deutsche Welle. YouTube in general is freely accessible, although there has been much talk of blocking it.

There was Bucha, there was Irpen. There were many fresh graves all over the country, thousands of victims of a senseless war. There was a certainty that if they started grabbing everyone and taking them to the slaughter, the people would get the message that on the same day they would sweep Putin away like crumbs from the table. I think Putin himself felt the same way and that is why the mobilization did not take so long. When you have the majority on your side that is against it, it's no big deal, no matter what happens.

Now though, they've started to round up everybody - and people go to the recruiting offices voluntarily, there are even queues somewhere. As for those who don't go, they say they will go "if they say so".

This voluntary readiness to kill yourself looks so scary when you look into the eyes of such people that it's just impossible to put into words.

It must have been convincing, yes.

- Then why didn't you leave after February 24th?

- I didn't want to make life easier for Putin, I wanted to remain a thorn in the side of our extremely unsympathetic system of power. Now I have evidence of my health class (category B), my profession (IT), my category (second), my status (reserve), my military occupation (driver). Also, there are already the first dead bodies. This is a direct and immediate threat.

I am a completely inexperienced traveller. I didn't even have a suitcase.

I remember, before my departure I was fixing the charging port in my phone, I was afraid of being out of touch. I prepared and signed the minutes of the tenants' meeting, I wanted to close the case, I had invested a lot in it. I left all the work on the house and the yard, it was very precious to me, it hurt. I left my parents, my brother, and many friends. However, my niece and her husband decided to follow. It's warming.

"To live in a normal country"

- Were your friends and relatives were supportive? I know your ex-wife lives in Israel. She didn't advise you to drop everything and leave early?

- We are on good terms, she took part in my operative fundraising for contingencies, I collected money directly from the fields near Vladikavkaz. She advised, of course, and was very persistent.

One of the reasons (not the only one, of course) for our separation a few years ago was that she wanted to live in some normal country, where people were not tortured or imprisoned for their opinions, with decent free medicine (even before the divorce we had beaten her cancer together, but cancer is a thing - it can come back at any time, and although I think that the doctors in her case medically worked perfectly, we both have many questions about the psychological atmosphere of cancer treatment in Russia), and I wanted to stay in Russia and do politics here. From 2022, that choice may seem funny, although I don't regret it at all; it was an amazing experience.

With my in-laws, it's like this: everyone in our family who is older than me (brother, mum, dad) watches TV all the time, which is what shapes their views. It's creepy.

Not being in Russia it's hard to imagine what the zombie propaganda apparatus does to people. They literally believe every word that is said on TV, even if the opposite was said yesterday. It's scary.

Especially since my cousin lives in the UK, I can’t understand how is it possible to seriously believe in "foreign agents" and "NATO wanting to take us over"? I can't understand it.

Those who are younger (my niece, her husband), however, fully subscribe to my views. It's a breath of fresh air.

In the last six months I have managed to persuade my mother to at least start reading the independent media, to get acquainted with the other point of view as well, but she still can't believe that no one attacked us or intended to. Of course it is painful to admit to yourself that for 22 years you voted for fascists and that you personally have the blood of tens of thousands of peaceful Ukrainians who did you no harm at all. I don't know if the elders in our family will ever be able to handle it.

Fortunately, everyone supported the departure, or at least did not discourage it. Dad and Mum even ended up fundraising for the costs associated with it, and quite sensitively.

I'm very much afraid that Dad or my brother will go to the front. I try to talk to them in a way that makes them at least a little bit heard. I tell my brother that I need his life much more than the Zaporozhye region. He answers: "Let's not talk politics."

We do avoid this subject in order not to quarrel with each other. Even before it was not easy to maintain good relations, but after six months of sessions with a psychologist I became able to communicate with my family without constant pain. Despite this, for the last six months it has been even more difficult.

"A means of political repression"

- Were you fleeing mobilisation specifically or something else? What's scary about Russia?

- I was a member of one of the opposition parties and I worked as an assistant to two opposition municipal deputies, at Ilya Varlamov and Maxim Katz's Urban Projects Foundation - three times the opponent of the Russian Federation (laughs).

It is clear that I have been at all the big anti-war rallies, all the big rallies after Navalny's arrest after his return to Russia and many others. I took part in organizing the signature collection for Vladimir Putin's resignation.

All in all, I have enough reasons not to feel sufficiently safe - given that the authorities in Russia have already shown their willingness to use mobilization as a means of political repression by sending those detained at anti-war rallies to the military enlistment offices, and from there straight to Ukraine for slaughter.

Having said that, I am very careful in my actions and choice of words. I'm not going to get caught in a political criminal case on purpose. I would not want to take steps that could make it difficult to return to Russia (or at least to what is left of it). Although it seems obvious that under Putin this is unlikely to happen, and after him it is unclear what will happen.

What are you afraid of? Prison, pain, torture? Moral pressure? Given my previous experience, it is likely that I am capable of resisting it a little more than the average citizen. But, as I said before, I don't overestimate my own stamina.

Besides, there can hardly be two political prisoners in Russia capable of continuing politics from a prison cell.

"Collected 40,000. They saved us"

- What is the real situation at the border? How did you get to Tbilisi?

- First we flew to Sochi by plane (me and two friends of my friend and fellow political campaigner). There we got in a car (we agreed to go to Tbilisi), which we found in the Upper Lars chat room. There was another person in the car with us, a young Georgian. We travelled in two cars, ours and the car of our driver's brother, with another crew of people I did not know.

In about 24 hours, on a Saturday evening, we reached the border of North Ossetia. The driver was awake the whole time, as we had suggested. Before the border there was a traffic jam and a pile of traffic police cars alongside. The driver went off to talk to some traffic police, but when he came back he said that no one was allowed in, but that for a fee they would take us through all the checkpoints with flashing lights.

I don't remember the exact amount, I think it was 5,000 per person.

At this point I realised that I wouldn't be able to get to the border cheaply, so I started collecting money from everyone who persuaded me to leave. At night, from my phone, directly from the car. I collected 40 thousand. They saved us.

In the end, we did go after a traffic police car with blinkers, our two cars and two or three others. We drove through that checkpoint, then took a diversion road where there was another checkpoint that we had to go through too. We drove on.

Then we got past Vladikavkaz, and a new traffic jam came up. Again we didn't understand anything. The driver drove along the roadside as far as the beginning of the jam, where there was the same checkpoint and everyone was turned around. This time the driver refuses to come to an agreement. At this point I started to get scared that we were going to stay there. The driver says "I can take you to the hotel, I've got to sleep, I don't have any other options for you". Standing by the roadside, we were thinking. My friend writes that there is a bypass road, but the driver refuses to go that way.

Just then a huge white Jeep "Lexus" pulls up, and a couple of sturdy young men get out. They say we're locals, so we'll take a diversion through the checkpoint.

I did not understand whether they meant that they had an agreement with the traffic police or not, it was no longer in my power to think. I lowered the price threefold (from 15 thousand per person to 5 thousand) - and we were off. We have been driven through the same road. Really one post we drove around. We took the money and drove off. Only there was another checkpoint just around the bend.

All the way, we were told that they sometimes let us through these checkpoints, we just have to wait. How much - was not clear. Our driver agreed to wait for 2.5 hours, and then he said, as if he would just turn around, that we could walk. We asked “will they let us cross the border on foot?”. He replied “well, you can get into a car with someone or buy a bicycle, I think there are some there”
This did not seem like a convincing option, but then someone in my crew found some alarming information on the internet that the border was about to be closed (I think it was a speech by a Georgian MP stating that Russians should not be allowed in), and persuaded everyone to walk. A local man (as DSS allowed cars of locals) was found ready to bring us to the tail end of the next traffic jam before the next checkpoint for 7 thousand USD per car. We agreed: it was 26 km, it was heavy and cold with our luggage.

We drove with him for a while. Then we walked along until the next traffic jam and another check-point of traffic police (they let us in on foot). Towards us a car came, stopped, and offered to give us a ride for 4 thousand.

It is very cold there and it was night. I was freezing, I had almost ran out of money. It was good that I managed to take plenty of water and food, but there was no place to spend the night.

I was already thinking that if they turned me down at the border, I would literally freeze to death before I got back to Vladikavkaz. What could I do in the city without money, where could I go? It was very scary.

About 300 metres before the border, we jumped into a car whose driver agreed to take us across the border to the neutral zone for 5,000 dollars per person. It was an unrealistically low price, they usually asked for 10-15 thousand at that moment.

It was 6 am on a Sunday morning. At around noon we were in Georgia. In other words, it took less than a day and a half from our flight from Petersburg to Georgia. Although they wrote everywhere that it took 40 hours just to get to the border. Apparently, those who did not leave their car were standing for so long. Our scheme (bypassing traffic jams and checkpoints on foot and then catching a car before the next jam) turned out to be the most successful.

At the neutral strip we were offered a car to Tbilisi for 5,000 per person. We agreed, there was no more energy to bargain. We knew someone was getting away for three thousand.

They did not ask us any special questions at the border. Only the purpose of the visit. Georgians also asked us the address where we were going to stay. Well, it is not a problem, I looked in the telephone and told them an address. By the way no one confiscated our telephones, although we were afraid of this happening.

From the stories of friends, which the same route reached after, we know that the situation has somewhat changed. It changes all the time there. The prices have all grown by 10 times, but they have started to let people walk across the border. This does, however, mean that there are now pedestrian traffic jams in the mountains, in the cold.

The latest information says, sometimes they turn away those who have received a summons (this information is as of September 30). One person was molested for his age and for having a stamp of mandatory military service in his passport, he gave 100 dollars and they let him through (this was somewhere between the 26th and 28th).

There were also military personnel and a military registration and enlistment van, but I have no information about summonses being served on the spot or being sent to the front straight from the border (and I heard the stories of many who followed, and still do).

Also, on the Georgian side volunteers of the organisation "Let's help people leave" organised humanitarian aid. I do not know whether my tweet with the "truth from the border" influenced them or they had found out from the newcomers themselves and started this project. They weren't allowed into the neutral strip for a while. I don't know how it is now.

By the way, the situation at the border only hit the press after my track, I think. Such a delay is due to the fact that people are traumatized and have no time for interviews. However, I have found the strength to write about what is going on there. I did, however, have to drink some chacha - it was not easy to sink back into these emotions.

Plus I have experience dealing with the press, it is easier for me, and I have managed to sleep. Although, when I was writing this, I was wide awake again, because I was "leading" (i.e. advising and coordinating online) the others, who were following me. Although I was leading them about as much as I was being led by them.

Special thanks to my mate for his help. He and his friend were taking out political activists, they took me out. Then the wife of another activist wrote to me and asked if I could help. My friend told me: if you are ready, you can do it. Now you know as much as I do. So I started to lead the travellers myself. I led four people so far, two politicians and two relatives, my niece and her husband (they were not activists, but also of our views).

- Were you afraid of being turned back, of being caught?

- I was afraid that the border would be closed or that they would not let me out and I would die of cold at night in the rain in the mountains. It was also frightening that some would be let in, others would not, and that there would be nothing you could do to help the others. Going back? Stupid. Even if you did go back, how could you help? I was also afraid that even if they don't let me out of the country, I could have run away through Kazakhstan but I wouldn’t have had neither the money nor the moral strength for that. In general, I was afraid that I would fail, that I would not do everything I could, and then I would not forgive myself.

"In collusion with local mafia"

- Is it really possible to buy a place in the queue?

- I didn't really understand what the phrase meant, although everyone used it. Like, you pull up in front of a car, it pulls out, and yours gets in? So as soon as it pulls out, the next one comes in.

When we got there, we understood that it was probably just a question of jumping on foot into a car that was already at the border. They drive people back and forth, cross the border, turn around and go back - to get a new portion of people and money. They wedge themselves into the traffic jam at the very border. One of the reasons why no one goes there.

They say that the local mafia and the traffic police have arranged such a scheme. As you can imagine, money is left there by huge people.

Sometimes, people get out of their cars and start regulating the traffic themselves, and they don't let the cheeky ones who cut in line in. Then the queue of cars slowly starts to move. Although this is just some of the time: most of the time it stands still. Attempts to organise themselves in this way are deleted from the local chat room. They say the admin is in cahoots with the local mafia. I couldn't think of any other explanation either.

"Everyone is very frightened"

- What's the mood of the people? Who are these people?

- I don't remember talking to any of the other people leaving. They look like ordinary people, a representative sample of Russian citizens.

I don't hear any shouts of "Glory to Ukraine" (and even they don't care about it), there's no Z’s on the cars either. One thing is noticeable however, everyone is very frightened, there is a grim determination on their faces.

Men, women, families, old people, children. Everyone is there.

- How were you greeted on the other side?

- The man who drove me to Tbilisi was not very sociable. The guy from my crew was telling him about corruption in Russia, about injustice of the attack on Ukraine, about the bad state of our army, about his anti-corruption investigations. He nodded or answered very briefly somehow. I never understood what was on his mind.

When we went home to our friends, they were very happy to see us. We found somewhere to sleep for the first few days. They were also Russian immigrants, they had been in Tbilisi for a long time. A large cozy and bright house, two dogs and a kitten. I even had my own bedroom. It was good.

I did not manage to fall asleep at first though, despite accumulated lack of sleep. I had to drink some wine. I was overexcited, both from stress and from the joy of having broken through.

When you get from grey rain, cold and fear of the border to sunny and warm Georgia, it is very impressive. As if you flew from Mordor to Rivendell on eagles.

- What are your plans? Is there an understanding that there will be a job? Housing?

- First, to help everyone who can be helped to get out. That's the most important thing now. As long as there's a place to sleep, showers, laptops and wi-fi, that's all I need. Then it's time to figure out permanent housing, maybe with someone else from politics. That would be cool, it's more fun to live with like-minded people than with random people.

My work was remote for the most part, I talked to my colleagues, they had no questions about my departure, they understood everything. However, the accommodation here would of course cost me considerably more than I was paying in St. Petersburg, which meant that I would have to look for extra income or work more.

"My conscience won't allow me to shoot"

- Why could you not stay?

- Some people say: I will refuse to go and fight, or I will shoot the commander, or I'll persuade everyone at the front to make a revolution and march on Moscow, or just shoot myself in the arm.

That's bullshit. Just look at the statistics: such cases are few and far between.

Why on earth would I be one of those few? What are my special qualities for that? Willingness to shoot people? I don't have that in me. Special courage, determination? The ability to resist pressure and manipulation to a sufficient degree?

Counting on that is just incredibly unreasonable arrogance. I do have the skill to plan my resources. I understand that there is a 98% chance that if I am taken, I won't be able to break free, I wouldn’t dare to hurt myself and my conscience won't allow me to shoot the commander.

Besides, it doesn't work like that: when you and your commander are in the same trench under bullets, you will be saving skins together, not shooting each other. The army men understand this very well, they are not tired of living, they will put you in conditions where you have a choice: shoot the Ukrainians or die.

After you have experienced fear in the battle and two or three killed comrades you will begin to hate Ukrainians fiercely, sincerely, and with all your heart you will fight with them. You will become an orc, like 98% of naive guys who thought that they will not fight.

I don't want to become an orc. How could I stay?

Media Loft editorial team
Photo footage: From Egor Borisov's personal archive
Cover photo: Verhnyi Lars telegram chat

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