«For anyone who wants to breathe freely, life in Russia is no longer possible»
The fighting in Ukraine is driving tens of thousands of Russians to leave their country. Why? And where are they going?
Inna Hartwich, Moscow
March 17, 2022
It was an impulse. A thought that came and never left his mind. There was also fear. He was afraid that the borders would close, that he would have to go into battle, that he would be forever stuck where he did not want to be. Nikolai Knopkin quickly packed a bag, booked a plane ticket online late one evening – and left Russia. Away from his mother, away from his brother, away from a country where he no longer sees a future.
«It’s deeply sad what’s happening right now, so immature, stupid and disgusting what our president is doing,» he says during a call from Turkey, where he is still staying in an Istanbul hotel with a friend who is also from Russia. In Turkey he can take a pause, he says. He can try to get his head straight, get the most necessary things in order for the life of uncertainty ahead. «In Russia, I just can’t work anymore.»
Police checks and long lines in front of stores
Nikolai Knopkin is not his real name. None of the people interviewed for this story have revealed their real names, because they do not want to put themselves in danger, even if they are far away from Russia. Nor do they want to endanger their relatives who are still there. These are uncertain times in the country. The authorities have tightened the laws. Russia’s actions in Ukraine cannot be called a war, according to the so-called fake news law, which threatens people with up to 15 years of imprisonment.
Most demonstrators protesting against Russia’s involvement in Ukraine have been arrested, and have spent several days in jail. Criminal proceedings may also follow. Police officers randomly stop people on the streets – mostly young men – and check passports and phones. People are lining up outside stores and pharmacies to stock up on clothing, electronics and medicines, because the shops are closing or running out of supplies.
More than 60 foreign companies have withdrawn from Russia. Their Russian workers were reportedly threatened with imprisonment by the Russian prosecutor’s office because of the withdrawal, according to reports by independent Russian journalists. Prices are rising, and many people are becoming more concerned. Meanwhile, state-affiliated television broadcasts reports every day of a «precise» and «rapidly advancing special military operation» by means of which Russian troops in Ukraine are allegedly providing for the «security of the people in the Donbas.»
The year 2014 was a turning point
«It’s just unbearable. In the first days of the war I was constantly nauseous,» Knopkin says. He speaks softly, with several pauses in between words. Knopkin is a photographer. For several years he worked for a British newspaper. With the conflict in the Donbas region eight years ago, his assignments became ever fewer. «For me, 2014 was a first turning point. Year after year, interesting people disappeared from Russia. And now? For anyone who wants to breathe freely, who wants to work critically, who is planning new projects, living in safety in Russia is no longer possible.»
Tens of thousands of people have already left. They are artists, programmers, journalists, athletes, human rights activists and entrepreneurs. Up to 25,000 Russian citizens are said to be living in Georgia alone, the Georgian Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development announced a few days ago.
According to eyewitnesses, long lines are forming in front of banks and mobile phone providers in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Demand for housing is increasing, and hostility toward Russians is on the rise. Georgian protesters are demanding the introduction of a visa requirement for all entrants from Russia. Some banks in Tbilisi are even presenting Russian citizens with a document to sign, in which they are supposed to condemn the Russian occupation of Georgian territory. Without signing, they cannot open an account.
Georgia and Turkey are destinations for those who are fleeing
Most Russians are currently fleeing to countries such as Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkey. For Armenia and Kazakhstan, they do not even need a passport, a Russian identity card is enough. Serbia and Qatar are visa-free destinations for Russians. When arriving in India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam or Egypt, they can get a visa at the border.
Europe, on the other hand, requires a Schengen-area visa. Few Russians have one, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic. Independent online media organizations are compiling lists of the documentation that Russian citizens need to show in different countries. These lists serve as orientation aids for those seeking to leave. People are using messaging apps such as Telegram to exchange ideas, provide assistance in opening bank accounts in new countries, find playgroups for children and look for jobs.
Emigrants start all over again abroad
«The solidarity is great, otherwise I think you would go completely insane in this mixture of shock, helplessness, anger, shame and grief,» says Maria Larin, who is also calling from Istanbul. The Larins, Muscovites for nearly 40 years, had also decided to leave quickly. They had their two girls pack up their favorite toys and hurried to the airport. Parents and friends got a message on WhatsApp the next morning: «Maybe we are panicking, but we are now outside Russia. Hopefully safe.»
Alexander Larin worked for a foreign company for years. The company has now closed its Moscow office and offered him, an economist, the option of working from elsewhere. The family had only three days to think about it. «No job in this economic situation? One that Russia has deliberately pushed itself into? A bad outlook,» says Maria Larin.
The family owns an apartment in western Moscow, where the girls have friends and their school. «We have worked for something, we want to maintain a certain standard of living. The Russian government wiped that out in one blow,» she says. In Turkey, Maria Larin will initially be unemployed. «First of all, we have to get ourselves settled here, we have to put our daughters in a school, find an apartment, earn money. It’s a bad dream from which you can’t wake up,» she says.
The trauma of closed borders
Anyone who wants to leave Russia now will pay exhorbitant prices for airline tickets. Since most European countries have closed their airspace to Russian aircraft, and Russia in return has barred most European aircraft, the would-be exiles sometimes take bizarre detours. Some travel via Tashkent, Uzbekistan, others via Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.
Closed borders are a trauma for all who grew up in the Soviet Union. They are also passing these fears on to their children. «I’m at home in Russia, but is this still my home?» asks Elina Nazarova, who lives in Moscow. Every day, at least one friend, one relative, one acquaintance leaves the country, she says during a walk through Moscow. What can they, the young, even expect from Russia anyway? Economic decline? Dim prospects? A fear of reprisals because they want to speak their mind openly? The pandemic already took away so many opportunities, she says.
The 24-year-old, who studied cultural management, has been keeping afloat by changing jobs as needed over the past two years. «Now you can’t even work at McDonald’s, because the chain has left Russia.» She sounds resigned. Her boyfriend, an IT specialist who worked for an American company, is already abroad, she says. «Everyone around me is asking the same question right now: To go or to stay? I’m torn.»
In Istanbul, Knopkin also speaks of this inner conflict. «On the one hand, I want to be as far away from Russia as possible, out of disgust for that country. On the other hand, I want so much to be with those closest to me in Moscow.» For her part, Maria Larin almost cries: «I just want to go home. But we no longer recognize what’s happening in Russia and what Russia is doing, as our country.»