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Where Have All the Men in Moscow Gone?

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MOSCOW — Friday afternoons at the Chop-Chop Barbershop in central Moscow used to be busy, but at the beginning of a recent weekend, only one of the four chairs was occupied.

“We would usually be full right now, but about half of our customers have gone,” said the manager, a woman named Olya. Many of the clients — along with half of the barbers, too — have fled Russia to avoid President Vladimir V. Putin’s campaign to mobilize hundreds of thousands of men for the flagging military campaign in Ukraine.

Many men have been staying off the streets out of fear of being handed a draft notice. As Olya came to work last Friday, she said, she witnessed the authorities at each of the four exits of the metro station, checking documents.

Her boyfriend, who was a barber at the salon, has also fled, and the separation is taking a toll.

“Every day is hard,” acknowledged Olya, who like other women interviewed did not want her last name used, fearing retribution. “It is hard for me to know what to do. We always planned as a couple.”

She is hardly alone. While there are still plenty of men in a city of 12 million people, across the capital their presence has thinned out noticeably — in restaurants, in the hipster community and at social gatherings like dinners and parties. This is especially true among the city’s intelligentsia, who often have disposable income and passports for foreign travel.

Some men who were repulsed by the invasion of Ukraine left when the war broke out; others who oppose the Kremlin in general fled because they feared imprisonment or oppression. But the majority of the men who have left in recent weeks were either called up to serve in the military, wanted to avoid the draft, or worried that Russia might close the borders if Mr. Putin declared martial law.

No one knows exactly how many men have departed since Mr. Putin announced what he called his “partial mobilization.’’ But hundreds of thousands of men are gone. Mr. Putin said Friday that at least 220,000 had been drafted.

At least 200,000 men went to neighboring Kazakhstan, which Russians can enter without a passport, according to the authorities there. Tens of thousands of others have fled to Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Israel, Argentina and Western Europe.

“I feel like we are a country of women now,” Stanislava, a 33-year-old photographer, said at a recent birthday party that was attended mostly by women. “I was searching for male friends to help me move some furniture, and I realized almost all of them had left.”

Many married women remained in Moscow when their husbands fled, either after getting a povestka — a draft notice — or before one could arrive.

“My friends and I meet for wine, and talk and support each other, to feel that we are not alone,” said Liza, whose husband, a lawyer for a large multinational company, received a notice several days before Mr. Putin announced the mobilization. He quit his job and escaped to a Western European country, but Liza, 43, stayed behind because their daughter is in school and all her grandparents are in Russia.

Women whose husbands were drafted also suffer from loneliness — but theirs is overshadowed by fear that their spouse might not make it back alive.

Last week at a voenkomat, or military commissariat, in northwestern Moscow, wives, mothers, and children gathered to say goodbye to loved ones being shipped off to fight.

“These men are like toys in the hands of children,” said Ekaterina, 27, whose husband, Vladimir, 25, was inside collecting his rations, and moments away from being shipped off to a training camp outside Moscow. “They are just cannon fodder.” She wished he had evaded the summons, saying it would have been better for him to sit in jail for a few years than to return home dead.

If Muscovites were able to indulge in a hedonistic summer in which it felt like nothing had drastically changed since the invasion of Ukraine, the situation is much different as winter sets in and the consequences of the war, including sanctions, become more evident.

On Monday, Moscow’s mayor announced that mobilization in the capital had officially ended. But many businesses were already feeling a downturn. In the two weeks following the call-up, the number of orders in Moscow restaurants with an average check of more than 1,500 rubles — about $25 — decreased by 29 percent over the same period last year. Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender, closed 529 branches in September alone, according to Kommersant newspaper.

Many downtown storefronts are empty, with “FOR RENT” signs hanging in the windows. Even the office of Russia’s flagship airliner, Aeroflot, closed its office on chic Petrovka Street. Nearby, the storefront windows where Western designers had continued to change their mannequins through the summer were finally papered over.

“It reminds me of Athens in 2008,” said Aleksei Ermilov, the founder of Chop-Chop, comparing Moscow to the Greek capital during the global financial crisis.

Mr. Ermilov said that of the 70 barbershops in his franchise, the ones in Moscow and St Petersburg were most feeling the absence of men.

“We can see the massive relocation wave more in Moscow and St. Petersburg than in other cities, partially because more people have the means to leave there,” said Mr. Ermilov.

Local media report that attendance at one of the largest strip clubs in Moscow went down by 60 percent and that there are also fewer security guards available because they had either been mobilized or fled.

Meanwhile, downloads of dating apps have significantly increased in the countries to which Russian men fled. In Armenia, the number of new registrations on one dating app, Mamba, increased by 135 percent, a representative of the company told RBK, a Russian financial news outlet. In Georgia and Turkey the rate of new downloads was above 110 percent, while in Kazakhstan it was up by 32 percent.

“All of the most reasonable guys are gone,” said Tatiana, a 36 year old who works in technology sales, as she watched a game of billiards with her friends at women’s social club in the trendy Stoleshnikov Lane. “The dating pool has shrunk by at least 50 percent.”

During the summer, the alley was full of hip young Russians enjoying themselves. But on a recent Saturday night, it was relatively empty.

Tatiana said many of her clients had left, but she said she would stay. Her job doesn’t allow for remote work, and she said she didn’t want to subject her large dog to the steerage of an airplane.

But other Muscovites still plan to leave. Another member of the women’s club, Alisa, 21, said she had just graduated and wanted to save up enough money to leave Russia once her friends had finished their studies so they could rent a place abroad together.

“I don’t see any future here in Russia, at least not while Putin is in power,” she said.

For those men who stayed, navigating the city has become nerve-racking.

“I try to drive everywhere, because they can give out draft summons on the street and next to the metro,” said Aleksandr Perepelkin, a marketing director and the editor of the Blueprint, a fashion and culture publication.

Mr. Perepelkin stayed in Russia because he felt an obligation to his more than 100 employees to keep the company functioning. But now his offices remind him of the early months of the coronavirus pandemic because of all the missing people. He and his business partners are unsure what to do.

“Marketing is the type of business you do in normal life,” but not in wartime, he said in a posh cafe and co-working space. The cafe was almost entirely filled with women, including a group celebrating a birthday with a class on arranging flowers.

At the Chop-Chop barbershop, Mr. Ermilov, the founder, said something similar. In late September, he left for Israel, and he now plans to open a business that has no physical presence in his home country and that is “less exposed to geographic risks.”

Inside Russia, the managers of the barbershops were talking about possibly expanding services that cater to female clients.

“We talk about reorienting the business,’’ said Olya, the manager. “But it is impossible to plan now, when the horizon of planning has changed to about a week.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Berlin and Alina Lobzina from London.

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