THE FIRST thing people did was scrub away the “Z” signs Russian soldiers had scribbled on their windscreens. It was not enough to have been driven from their homes by war and the threat of being drafted to fight against their fellow Ukrainians. They had to be humiliated, too. Freedom meant three days in the car, waiting. Belongings spread out on the ground. Strip searches. Leading questions. “Glory to Ukraine,” the Russian security officers would whisper to them, attempting to provoke a pro-Ukrainian response. “I wanted to shout out ‘glory to the heroes,’” admits Liudmyla Lopushkina, 72, who instead bit her tongue. “I cried when I finally saw the Ukrainian police badges.”
Most routes out of the Russian-occupied territories of southern Ukraine lead to checkpoints near Zaporizhia, an industrial city on the banks of the Dnieper. For the past near-week that Russia has been holding sham referendums in their name, the crossing has been particularly busy for residents of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Luhansk regions; thousands have travelled often-treacherous routes to freedom. On September 27th the Kremlin-backed puppet governments in the four provinces claimed interim “results” in the sham votes, of between 87% and 99% in favour of being annexed by the invading country. These ludicrous numbers should fool no one.
On September 27th, the last day of “voting”, The Economist counted hundreds of vehicles crossing from Russian-controlled territories. Each car brimmed with humanity. The same convoy that brought Ms Lopushkina included seven members of the Krymskaya family. They had travelled for three days from Hola Prystan, near Kherson, piled up in the back of a hatchback designed for four. The mother, Alena Krymskaya, said a book could be written about the terror their family had left behind. They had put off leaving until the last moment, she said. Minds began to turn when a relative was taken away and tortured with electric shocks. The fake referendums, and threats of conscription, sealed the deal.
The hastily organised votes across the four occupied provinces are part of Vladimir Putin’s tempestuous response to unexpected reverses on the battlefield. He is also mobilising fresh Russian soldiers to send to the front—perhaps hundreds of thousands of them—and issuing nuclear threats to try to deter Ukrainians from taking back the land he has stolen (and NATO from helping them). Some suspect, too, that three unexplained gas leaks in the undersea Nord Stream pipelines to Europe may have been caused by Russian sabotage.
In Zaporizhia, some of those fleeing described a farcical voting process. Most said they hid from council officials, who often knocked on doors with armed guards to drum up votes. In some cases there were over twice as many guards as officials. Ms Lopushkina said she locked her garden gate and “pretended not to be at home”. Often, the armed guards intimidated locals into putting a cross in the “correct” box.
Yuriy Kulish, a retired police officer from Nova Kakhovka, said Russian soldiers in Kherson had become nervous since the start of a Ukrainian counteroffensive at the end of August. Precision strikes from US-supplied missiles rendered supply bridges across the Dnieper river unusable, he said. Replacement pontoons were also destroyed. A truck full of gravel fell into the water before it could be used to create a new crossing. “They know the way things are going,” he said. The fact that they had not stopped him leaving was proof that their “minds were on other things”. He had escaped complete with his police credentials and awards, which he hid in the car, and said he intended to enlist in the Ukrainian armed forces as soon as he reached his family in Odessa.
Initially, Russia reportedly blocked military-age males from leaving its occupied territories. This move was widely interpreted as a sign of its intention to draft them soon after the fake referendums—on the spurious grounds that once these parts of Ukraine are annexed to Russia, their residents will be Russian and liable for conscription. On September 26th an unexpected new order from Moscow reversed that policy. Soldiers are now allowing men to leave, though many were warned that the order would be reversed again on October 1st. That is the day after Vladimir Putin is scheduled to address a meeting of both houses of Russia’s parliament. It is widely assumed that he will order the annexation of the four Ukrainian provinces. Whether he can enforce such a blatant land grab in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance is another question.