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Ukrainians are not the only ones fleeing their homeland because of the war. Thousands of Russians are also trying to flee – though it becomes harder every day for them to do so because of internal crackdowns and foreign flight restrictions.
Since invading Ukraine, Russia has been almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world. Major payment networks Visa, Mastercard, and American Express have suspended operations in the country. Dozens of foreign companies – from Intel to Sony and Apple – have left the Russian market.
Still, the main reason for mass emigration from Russia is not economic. Many of those who buy airline tickets at an exorbitant price understandably believe that soon Russia will shut its own borders, as it did during Soviet times. Young men are also concerned about military conscription. Journalists and political activists, as well as regular citizens, have to worry about being arrested should they cross the “party line.”
Many Russians now have to decide whether to stay or to flee. My family has been no exception. A few days after the war started, my husband Ivan, who works for Russian-speaking media based in Poland, moved from Saint Petersburg to Tbilisi, Georgia. As a journalist who covers political events, he could have been arrested just for calling this “special military operation” a war. Now, according to a new law, spreading such unwelcome information may lead to 15 years in prison. I myself planned to fly from New York to my home city, Saint Petersburg, during the summer break. Current events ruined my plans, and there is a real possibility that I won’t be able to see my parents, who are staying put, for an indefinite period of time.
Under the circumstances, it’s been easier to leave for those who have a work visa or dual citizenship. In recent days I’ve phoned a variety of young Russians who have decided to leave, who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity.
One – I’ll call him Misha – is a 24 years old graduate student who worked in tech support. “I’m a Russian citizen,” Misha told me, “But I also have Estonian citizenship by birthright. I left because life in Russia is turning into survival during the war.”
Shortly after the war started, he packed a suitcase and asked his father to drive him to the Estonian border. “Before crossing the border, I deleted all the messages from my phone in case Russian border guards would start interrogating me,” Misha said. He is now in Tallinn staying with relatives and looking for a job.
Even more harrowing was the experience of the man I’ll call Yury, a young software developer from Saint Petersburg who texted me in a private chat. “I planned to leave Russia for an undefined period because of the current unstable situation in the country. I had a flight ticket to Yerevan, Armenia.” But when he arrived at the airport, a Russian border guard took his passport.
“Then I was sent to a special room for interrogation. A man in civilian clothes introduced himself as a member of The Federal Security Service. He asked me many questions about the purpose of the trip. He wanted to know why I chose Yerevan. I understood that my only option was to keep insisting that I was going on vacation for a week. He finally let me go.”
It is difficult to calculate how many Russians have left Russia since February 24. According to Georgia’s economy minister, around 20,000-25,000 Russians entered this visa-free country in recent days. More than 14,000 people from Russia and Belarus are in the process of applying for a visa to Israel or have expressed an interest. As for 2021, only around 30% of Russians had international passports, but this information does not help much. Some countries, for example, Armenia and Kazakhstan, allow you to enter with an internal passport.
It is likely that the majority of those who leave Russia are people like Yury and Misha, educated young people looking for a brighter future abroad, says the social scientist I’ll call Maria Matskevich, a Senior Researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “These people have a profession in demand, for example, in the field of IT,” Maria texted me: “Some of them are enrolled in foreign universities.” Many worry about persecution – and some leave in a panic, unsure where they will live or how they will survive.
This massive brain drain is one of many tragic consequences of the war on Ukraine. Modern Russia is no longer a place where young promising people feel safe and have opportunities for development.
“If you disagree with the government, you either leave or get repressed; I understand that I will be more helpful abroad than in Russian prison,” one civic activist told me via phone from Georgia: “I had a flight ticket from Novosibirsk to Yerevan and then got to Tbilisi by bus. The bus was full of Russians and Belarusians who ran from the war. There are many Russian-speaking civic activists in Georgia right now.
“We all are against the war. This support of like-minded people is very important.”
Anastasia Shteinert is a political reporter and MA Candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.