Russians flee abroad amid worsening crackdown

How much do the Russian people know about their country's invasion of Ukraine? Asks ITV News Correspondent Neil Connery, reporting from Moscow

Clothes lie strewn across the floor of a Moscow apartment, a bag is half-packed, some eggs boil in a pot on the stove ready to be eaten as snacks on a long journey.

Natalia is a journalist for an independent news outlet in Russia and has lived in the country almost all her life.

Today, she is packing her bags in a hurry, driving to the border and leaving. ITV News is not using Natalia's real name, nor disclosing the country she is going to in order to protect her identity.

"I haven't slept or eaten in days. I had to say goodbye to my girlfriend and I just couldn't hold back tears," she told ITV News.

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The atmosphere in Moscow is nervous and agitated. Rumours are swirling about soon-to-be-closed borders, martial law and a ban on men leaving the country.

This week, the radio station Echo of Moscow was taken off the air by the Russian media regulator for its coverage of the war in Ukraine for the first time since the attempted Soviet coup in 1991.

The independent television channel TV Rain was also blocked in Russia and has announced it is suspending its operations.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Education held an open online lesson for children about Russia's "peace defenders", presenting the Kremlin's version of Russia's war in Ukraine and describing it as a "liberation mission."

Meanwhile, children as young as seven have been detained alongside thousands of Russians who have protested President Vladimir Putin's decision to go to war.

Russia's parliament is looking at passing a law that could intensify the crackdown against those protesters and anyone who dares to challenge the Kremlin's narrative on Ukraine.

"I'm running for my life, it's not safe here," Natalia told ITV News, in between packing bags at her flat. As an independent journalist, she is worried how she will survive if she stays in Russia.

"I won't have an income here. I don't really have savings and now they are worth nothing anyway. I'm running for my freedom. It was a very hard decision. I'm very attached to the city, to my job, the people I love and the country I was born in."

Police detain a demonstrator during an action against Russia's attack on Ukraine in St Petersburg, Russia. Credit: AP

Natalia is not the only Russian trying to escape. Tickets on some airline routes have reportedly sold out. Trains from St Petersburg to Helsinki in Finland are said to be packed.

Some people who wanted to leave have had to stay because there are no tickets left to places they can enter without a visa, countries such as Georgia and Armenia.

"We found tickets, it was not easy. Half of Moscow is trying to get out the country," Ekaterina Kotrikadze, a journalist with the now-closed TV channel Rain told ITV News.

She, her husband and two children fled Russia on Wednesday evening shortly after the Russian regulator blocked the channel.

"In the airport we met so many people we know. So many colleagues. A whole bunch of people are trying to run. It's crazy, I've never seen anything like it."

Russia's war with Ukraine is only a week old and while February turned to March and the snow began to melt, a freeze spread over Moscow.

"Even for Russia, this is too much, it is absurd," Natalia said. "I am very scared. I woke up at 2am, having hardly slept and I'm shivering like never before."

Natalia says she is not someone who is easily spooked. She says she has worked as an independent journalist for years, attending protests and is used to a certain level of pressure. But now, she says, things are different.

"The cost of going to a protest has risen immensely. You're faced with real prison sentences. You get beaten, It is very violent and brutal. You are risking your health, your life, your freedom, your job, everything."

Firefighters hose down a burning building after bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: AP

In spite of the risk, some Russians have been driven out into the cold by their depth of feeling against President Putin's war in Ukraine.

"Every day, at least 300 people are being detained," Leonid Drabkin from the independent monitoring group OVD Info told ITV News.

"People are definitely afraid, some of them are afraid of our current regime and that our government is now waging a war." They are also afraid, he said, "of staying in a country that is conducting a war against another one."

Russia is not only conducting a ground war, but also an information war. In addition to taking radio and TV channels off air that do not toe the Kremlin line, the parliament is likely to pass a new law on March 4 against spreading "fake news" about Russia's armed forces.

The bill aims to punish those who "distort the purpose, role and tasks" of the Russian military.

Vladimir Putin appears undeterred by public perception in Russia. Credit: AP

The punishment for spreading "fakes" - as they are called in Russia - for example, for calling the invasion of Ukraine a "war" rather than Russia's chosen phrase of a "special military operation" could be up to 15 years in prison.

"Russia is getting closer and closer to North Korea and Iran," Ekaterina Kotrikadze said.

"Tomorrow, the Duma will sign the law which will put all the people in jail who say the truth about Ukraine.

"Journalism is banned in Russia. Russia is now a terrorist state. Vladimir Putin has ruined the lives of the 140 million people who live here. This is the end for freedom of speech."

Over the past week, the conversation in Moscow has been about Ukraine and of those currently in fear of their lives and livelihoods under Russian bombardment.

Thoughts are now turning to Russians' own futures and what awaits their country, increasingly isolated and cut off from the rest of the world.

Natalia says she is concerned about her journey out of Russia and is "very scared" that she might be stopped at the border. It is, however, a risk she believes is worth taking rather than potentially ending up in prison and staying to see the country she loves deteriorate.

"This is a catastrophe which will be far more socially, economically and politically [serious] than the collapse of the Soviet Union," Natalia said. "It will be so much worse."

Packing up a few remaining belongings, including a prized guitar, Natalia left her flat with most of her books, clothes and possessions still inside.

She has told a friend she can stay in it while she is gone. The drive to the border will take her two days and she plans to sleep in her car, worried about leaving it alone with her bags and boxes inside. She does not know when she will be back.