Escape from Putin’s Russia: Exiles seek new identity but find new problems

In the hilly, cobbled capital of Georgia’s Black Sea country, a Russian IT officer made the latest of many attempts to do what would normally be commonplace: open a bank account.

The head of the branch, who was skeptical about the reasons for Artsyom Smirnov’s stay in Tbilisi, asked what would happen if he just went home to Nizhny Novgorod, a city in western Russia.

“I can only be imprisoned for saying I am against the war!” Said 25-year-old Smirnov. His request for an account was rejected, as well as requests from a Russian couple at a bank branch.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused Europe’s largest influx of refugees since World War II: millions have been expelled from destroyed homes and destroyed cities. About a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people are either internally displaced or seeking security outside the country.

But the war also singled out a smaller diaspora: Russians, estimated to be close to a quarter of a million, decided to leave their homeland instead of staying under President Vladimir Putin.

These exiles are mostly young, well educated and relatively wealthy. Many are from the technology sector or have other portable telecommuting skills; other journalists, activists or scholars, or worked in progressive NGOs.

Such paraphernalia was essentially criminalized as part of repressive measures taken by Putin’s allies shortly after the February 24 invasion. Among them – the closure of independent media and a ban on criticism of the “special military operation”, as it is officially called – not war.

Tens of thousands of these emigrants arrive daily in cities such as Istanbul, the commercial capital of Turkey, or make their way to the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, or gather in the capitals of other former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Armenia. and Kazakhstan.

Almost the first thing that many of them will say is that they admit that they are very privileged, that their plight cannot be compared to the Ukrainians affected by the war.

But they quietly admit that they left behind all their lives – apartments, jobs, relatives – and have
little imagine what may be in the future.

And they also understand that they are not welcomed everywhere.

As elsewhere, Russians arriving in Tbilisi – more than 25,000 in just the first three weeks after the war, according to Georgian authorities – have turned to social media for advice and warnings: about volatile landlords and a sudden rise in rents. , about the circumstances in which it is unwise to speak Russian in public, about the guilt and shame for the war that Putin is waging on their behalf.

The Russian leader, for his part, did his best to denigrate those who left, equating them to mosquitoes.

“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scoundrels and traitors,” Putin said in a bilingual speech on March 16. “And just spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths.”

Many of those who fled made the decision promptly, days or hours after the invasion began. Due to the closure of European airspace, as well as the difficulty of obtaining cash and flights, many took the opportunity to fly to countries such as Georgia, where they could travel without a visa.

American writer and journalist Masha Hessen, who visited Moscow a few days after the start of the war, described the staggeringly rapid uprooting.

“People I know in Moscow are starting to feel panic, really,” Hessen, who was born in Russia, said in an interview last month on the public radio “Fresh Air”. Hesse said that “there is a clear feeling that the borders are likely to close, that the country is simply turning into some kind of North Korean scenario” in which it will be impossible to leave.

It was the experience of 30-year-old Dasha Tuck, who has comfortably earned a living in Moscow as a TV commercial director and is trying to settle in Tblis.

“We watched the news and decided where and how to go,” she said. Then a friend said that two more acquaintances were taken off the flight by Russian security officers and prevented from leaving.

“We realized we needed to go fast while we still could, and we took the first flight to the North Caucasus to Georgia,” Tuck said. Bad weather held them back for five days, but they arrived safely and found a place to rest.

However, the greeting was muted, in part because of Georgia’s unfortunate history with Russia. Putin’s forces invaded in 2008 and occupied about one-fifth of the country. The fact that almost all Russian arrivals share Georgians’ sympathies for Ukraine, the exiles say, does not completely remove the stigma – and some Georgians are worried that the influx could become a target again.

Smirnov, an IT officer, says he understands this distrust. “Some think we just want to avoid sanctions; some say we should go back and fight Putin, ”he said. “I have a feeling I’m default by default and I have to prove I’m normal.”

Russian authorities are showing signs of concern over the technologically difficult demographics of those leaving the country.

One industry lobbyist, Sergei Plugatarenko, told Russian lawmakers last month that April alone could lead to the loss of 100,000 technology workers who are eagerly welcomed in other countries in the region.

Channels in the encrypted Telegram application warn those who want to leave Russia, especially if they work in a technology center, about the need to buy a round-trip ticket, drive in an easy place and delete as much information from phones. and other devices. Travelers reported that they were forced to unlock their phones and security operatives questioned why they were leaving.

Even after achieving security, some immigrants report falling victim to depression and disorientation.

“At first I was enthusiastically starting something new,” said Sima Kondratenko, a 19-year-old model who left Moscow with two friends. But reading the news from Ukraine, “you get deeper and deeper into this dark abyss – you just do not understand how all this could happen.”

Kondratenko, whose mother is Ukrainian, said she and other exiles found solace in volunteering with the international organization Helping to Leave, which remotely provides Ukrainian refugees with logistical and other assistance. From Georgia he runs round-the-clock chat forums to provide information and advice.

One of the group’s Russian founders, 34-year-old Yegor Yeremeev, said the relief work had helped volunteer immigrants put their own upheavals into perspective – and imagine a future that might not be in Russia.

“When they come to us, they get this new identity -” I’m a normal person, I help other people, I help to overcome the humanitarian crisis that is happening now, “he said.

Yeremeyev, a longtime activist before leaving Russia for Georgia, was pessimistic about whether anti-war protests could threaten Putin’s rule. Opinion polls show that most Russians, especially older people who receive news from state television, accept the Kremlin’s narrative that the aggressor was Ukraine, not Russia, and that the West deliberately provoked the conflict.

“It may take a long time,” he said of the Russian leader. “If 100,000 people protest, they can arrest them and pack them in their detention centers and police stations – they have been preparing for this for years.”

Kolotilov is a special correspondent, and King is a full-time Times writer.

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