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A flood of Russians arrive in Uzbekistan to avoid being drafted and sent to Ukraine

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

These are stressful times in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have arrived there in recent months to avoid being drafted to fight in the war in Ukraine. Some have already left. Many others are staying. NPR's Philip Reeves went to the capital of Uzbekistan, where he talked with Russian arrivals and their hosts.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's a dark and snowy night in Tashkent. But there is a pocket of warmth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: This is a bar where newly arrived Russians gather to swap stories and share tips about how to start a new life many hundreds of miles from home.

AZIZ: They don't know what to do. And this is truly a shock for them.

REEVES: That's Aziz (ph). He's asked NPR not to use his full name to avoid putting him in danger. For most of his life, he's lived in and around Moscow. He owns a coffee shop there. Now, though, he works here in this bar, mixing cocktails into the wee hours of the morning. Aziz's life changed overnight in September when President Vladimir Putin unveiled a plan to call up 300,000 reservists. Aziz and his family decided he had to leave Russia immediately.

AZIZ: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: "It was a difficult decision," says Aziz, switching to Russian. He left behind a fiancee, family, friends and also, he says, the country he loves. Yet, he's certain it was the right thing to do.

AZIZ: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: "I didn't want to participate in a contrived, senseless and cruel war," he says. It's hard to establish precisely how many Russians have come to Uzbekistan. Their numbers fluctuate. Uzbek officials have said nearly 80,000 arrived in September alone. Russians are allowed in without a visa. Putin didn't try to prevent them leaving. From his viewpoint, that was the correct decision, says Uzbek economist Otabek Bakirov.

OTABEK BAKIROV: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Better to have to leave than go on the streets shouting down with Putin.

BAKIROV: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: The Russians have landed in a very different country to their own, a Muslim-majority nation, the most populous in Central Asia. Yet they share a painful history with it. Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks were executed, jailed or dispatched to labor camps, most during Stalin's rule.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

REEVES: In another Tashkent bar, a bust of Stalin stands on a shelf. Russians and Uzbeks sit at the tables while people perform Russian classics from Soviet times.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Many in Uzbekistan, especially among the elderly, feel nostalgic about the past. Many support Putin's war. Even so, Russians arriving here to escape that war told NPR that most people welcome them - most, but not all.

NIKITA MAKARENKO: I don't want to see them. I don't want to help them.

REEVES: Journalist, playwright and moviemaker Nikita Makarenko is one of Uzbekistan's leading bloggers.

MAKARENKO: Whole problem is that they demand help. They literally demand help. Hey, we need your time. We need your cheap apartments. You need to help us to find jobs. Sorry, people, you need to help Ukrainians to win.

REEVES: That issue about taking over apartments is certainly a sore point among Tashkent residents. Fotima Qushboqeva (ph) makes her living by delivering food to traders in the city's largest market. The influx of Russians has sent her rent soaring.

FOTIMA QUSHBOQEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "It's gone up to $400 a month," she says. That's a 25% increase. There is one place where Russians are being welcomed with open arms.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: This is Tashkent's IT Park. It's a cluster of sparkling high-rise buildings. The Uzbek government is creating a network of hubs like this in an effort to turn the country into a global IT center. There's a skill shortage. Russian IT specialists are snapped up and given fast track relocation. Danis Mullin (ph), who's 27, arrived three months ago from the Russian city of Kazan. He won't talk about the war but makes no secret that he came here to avoid the draft.

DANIS MULLIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "The hardest part was realizing that you just can't be where you want to be," he says. He works here as a project manager.

MULLIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: He likes life here. The food's delicious, he says. Living's not too expensive. He's learning the language. And yet - are you missing home?

MULLIN: Yes.

REEVES: You are?

MULLIN: Yes.

REEVES: He feels homesick all the time.

MULLIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "I don't think that will ever go away," he says. On the streets outside, we meet another Russian. Margarita Gorichnya (ph) is from the Russian city of Tula. She, too, speaks of a warm welcome given to her and her husband.

MARGARITA GORICHNYA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "In three months, only two people have been unfriendly and called us deserters," she says. Russians moving here aren't all outright opponents of Putin. Gorichnya says she won't condemn Putin's government and that she doesn't understand the Ukrainians.

GORICHNYA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "They're Slavs, like us. Why do they want to be separate," she says. Above all, she hates the war and misses home. Back among the Russians at the cocktail bar, Aziz also yearns for home. When he left Moscow, he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to return. He's rethinking that. He's heard of draft dodgers who've gone back without encountering problems.

AZIZ: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: Yet Aziz says he's still worried the Russian authorities will come after him and send him off to what he sees as an entirely unjustifiable war.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Tashkent.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "US THEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.