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An express train stands at Finland Station in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 8, 2022, before departing for Helsinki. Finnish Railways has expanded its train service from St. Petersburg to Helsinki to accommodate the increasing number of Russians leaving their country.Stringer/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Russia’s New Exiles

As Vladimir Putin methodically destroys the remains of Russian civil society, a new group of emigres flees the country, only to find themselves frozen out of Western life

by
Izabella Tabarovsky
March 15, 2022
Stringer/picture alliance via Getty Images
An express train stands at Finland Station in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 8, 2022, before departing for Helsinki. Finnish Railways has expanded its train service from St. Petersburg to Helsinki to accommodate the increasing number of Russians leaving their country.Stringer/picture alliance via Getty Images

While the world’s attention has been riveted on Ukraine, where Russian forces are visiting death, displacement, and destruction on the Ukrainian people, another kind of destruction has unfolded in Russia, virtually unnoticed. Within the first days of the war, the Russian government smashed to pieces whatever remained of Russian civil society—including independent media, human rights organizations, and anybody who could still speak truth to power and to their fellow citizens. As the Kremlin adopted a new draconian speech law and cracked down on organization after organization—initiating or completing bogus legal procedures against them, shutting down their websites, and sending goons to physically harass them—the people staffing those organizations picked up and left the country. Within only about 72 hours, the entire institutional fabric of Russia’s civil society, painstakingly woven out of the post-Soviet institutional wasteland, was irreparably torn to shreds.

The drama of these developments is incomparable to the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. But the two are intimately related. As Vladimir Putin’s would-be blitzkrieg sputtered, the Kremlin realized that its immediate survival depended on its ability to maintain the big lie it told its people: that Russia was engaged in a “special military operation” to liberate Ukrainians from Nazis and end the “genocide” of Russian-speaking people in that country.

Russia’s swiftly adopted speech law, effective retroactively, prohibits the use of the word “war” to describe the “special operation” and forbade journalists to use any sources but official ones to report on it. Failure to comply could lead to up to 15 years in prison. Dozens of independent media across the country have been shut down. Some announced they were closing on their own in recognition of the fact that under the new regulations, there is not a word of truth they can speak or print for their readers. Russians’ access to Western social media has been cut off, too.

The total number of Russians who have left the country is hard to estimate, but Russia’s leading economist Konstantin Sonin, now at the University of Chicago, has floated a figure of 200,000. Most are now sitting in the Eurasian “near-abroad” of countries that used to be part of the USSR, with others heading to Turkey and Israel. (European Union countries and the United States are closed to Russian passport holders without visas.) Among this group are independent journalists, lawyers, and academics—the intelligentsia who made it their life’s work to oppose Putin’s regime. They are watching the unfolding horror in Ukraine and trying to process the destruction of their world. “Sometimes I text my friends: Where are you?” said Anna, a well-known independent journalist who is now in Tel Aviv who asked me not to print her real name. “They text me back: ‘I’m in Baku, I’m in Egypt, I’m in Tashkent.’”

With foreign airlines cutting off flights to and from Russia as part of an unprecedented sanctions package, and airfares shooting through the roof, many would-be political emigres have had to grab whatever flights they can. Some fled because of credible threats to their life and freedom. Others left on the assumption that it was only a matter of time before they heard a knock on the door. Many had opposed the regime publicly for years, and couldn’t possibly wipe out every social media comment, article, or broadcast that could now lead to criminal charges.

But many left quite simply because they “could no longer breathe inside Russia,” in the words of Sergey Parkhomenko, a prominent independent journalist who had established a home outside of Russia several years ago. Among those who left in recent days are also high-tech professionals and scientists. Opposition to the regime may not have been their raison d’être the way it was for the intelligentsia, but they still like to have the freedom to express their political opinions as they see fit and not to feel fear over every publicly available comment. Some report having signed collective letters against the war in Ukraine or attending antiwar rallies. Others simply realized that they couldn’t continue practicing their professions, or that the departure of foreign companies foreclosed their professional hopes for the future.

The abruptness of the departure is striking. In some cases, barely a few hours passed between the decision to leave and finding oneself on an outbound plane. Anna, who left with her children, handed the keys to her apartment to her mother. She also asked her mother to pass on her bank card to a friend who couldn’t leave because her brother had just been jailed for 30 days. (His crime? Having walked out of a metro station when a protest was happening nearby.) Anna wanted her friend to be able to use the last month of her salary, which she expected to be deposited into her account. She herself would not be able to access it from abroad. With the central bank having imposed limitations on hard currency withdrawals, Anna barely managed to pull some cash out of an Israeli ATM before Mastercard and Visa imposed bans on Russian citizens trying to use their cards abroad.

Tens of thousands of Russians in similar positions now find themselves in Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. But the city that seems to be shaping up as the main center of this new wave of Russian emigration is Istanbul. Kirill Rogov, deputy director of the Liberal Mission Fund, a Russian think tank, arrived in Istanbul via Baku. “There are quite a few people here,” he told me, referring to friends and people from his circle. “Every day I meet someone else. Just today, new people have arrived. I’ll be calling them after we finish.”

To Kirill, like for many other Russians with a sense of history, this all feels eerily familiar. Many of today’s exiles talk about the “Philosophers’ Ships” that the Bolsheviks used to deport dissenting intellectuals to Europe and Turkey, which also put me in mind of Mikhail Bulgakov’s play Flight, with its description of White Army officers—remnants of the old Russia—boarding the last boats from Crimea for Constantinople in a chaotic and desperate evacuation. Some would stay, others would eventually make it to Paris, London, and Berlin. Like Bulgakov’s characters, who feel as if they are sleepwalking through the collapse of their old life (the play is written in “dreams” rather than scenes), some of today’s emigrants report failing to catch up mentally and emotionally to the their new reality. “It’s as if you’re spinning on your axis and the picture you see around you catches up to you with a delay,” Anna said.

The recent destruction of Russia’s human rights organizations and independent media marks the sudden culmination of a 20-year-long campaign by Putin’s regime to muzzle, undermine, and intimidate Russian civil society. On Feb. 27, 2015, Boris Nemtsov, the charismatic and popular opposition leader, was murdered in cold blood outside the Kremlin walls. Nemtsov had openly supported Ukraine’s 2004 revolution and traveled to Kyiv to speak to the protesters, famously linking their struggle for freedom with Russia’s. On the eve of his murder, he was working on a report titled “Putin: The War” and preparing for a massive anti-government and antiwar rally planned for March 1. This rally became a memorial march for him. Five years later, Alexei Navalny, another charismatic and fearless opposition leader, survived a chemical nerve agent poisoning but was arrested in January 2021 upon returning to Moscow from Berlin. Navalny is slated to serve another 15 years behind bars.

Over the last several years, countless organizations have been designated “foreign agents,” a punitive label with strong connotations of treason. Among them was the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (later renamed into the Union for the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia), a venerable NGO that acquired a national reputation during Boris Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya when it set out to help distraught Russian mothers wandering Chechnya’s mountains in search of their sons—a campaign that drew more sympathy from the Chechens their sons had been sent to kill than from Russia’s leadership. On the wave of public outrage generated by these women’s stories, Nemtsov gathered a million signatures on an antiwar petition and personally delivered it to Yeltsin.

“Russia’s human rights defense movement began with the opposition against Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya,” Parkhomenko told me. In addition to his work as a journalist, Parkhomenko is also a founder of several influential civil society projects, and spent the first days of the current war in Ukraine trying to get his wife, their five children, and their families out of Russia. His wife, Varya Gornostayeva, heads Corpus, a publishing house that is about to release a new book about Nemtsov, The Successor (Preyemnik). It remains to be seen if the book still comes out. The author, Mikhail Fishman, a star Russian reporter and anchor of TV Rain—the last independent TV station in Russia—who led the channel’s broadcasts covering the first days of the invasion of Ukraine, was forced to flee the country shortly after the station was shut down.

One of Parkhomenko’s projects, Last Address, commemorated victims of political repressions by attaching a memorial plaque to the last house where the victim was seen alive. He worked closely with International Memorial—another crucial voice the Russian government squashed in the first days of the current war. Memorial was best known for documenting the history of Soviet political repressions, but no less important was its human rights division, defending today’s Russian citizens against today’s repressive state. In 2014, Memorial became the first Russian civil organization to designate the invasion of East Ukraine and annexation of Crimea as an act of aggression. On Feb. 24 of this year, on the first day of the new invasion, Memorial issued a sharply worded, three-sentence statement: “The war that Putin’s regime has unleashed against Ukraine is a crime against peace and humanity. This war will remain a shameful page in Russia’s history. We are against war with Ukraine and demand an immediate end of the aggression.” Four days later, in a decision that was widely expected, Russia’s Supreme Court denied Memorial’s appeal to reverse a lower court decision to shut it down.

Americans often take the thickness and longevity of their institutional culture for granted, but from the Russian point of view, it looks absolutely extraordinary. The New York Times started publishing in 1851. The New York Stock Exchange was founded in 1792. The Bank of New York was established in 1784 and counted Alexander Hamilton among its founders. In Russia, by contrast, revolutions and radical regime changes have ensured that little institutional culture survives from one political system to the next. Each one wipes out the culture that preceded it. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the 1991 dissolution of the USSR marked the most radical breaks with the past. The few civil society institutions that could be viewed as having survived these, if any, are the exceptions that prove the rule. By and large, there isn’t a shred of institutional culture dating back to the 18th, 19th or even early 20th centuries that broadly influences contemporary Russian life. When it comes to Russia’s civil society organizations, the oldest of them had barely crossed the 30-year mark before they were shut down.

The now-destroyed Memorial, venerated for the measure of justice and honor it conferred on victims of Stalin’s repressions, was founded in 1989. So was the original Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers. (It appears to still operate, but in a limited way.) Radio Echo of Moscow, a freewheeling independent radio station, was founded in 1990, and shut down in the first days of the current war. Novaya Gazeta, the legendary, multiple-award-winning newspaper whose roster included six investigative reporters murdered in the line of duty, including for the sin of honest war reporting, was founded in 1993. (Its editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, the recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, has made the choice to comply with laws against reporting on the current war so that the paper can stay open and report on the coming economic catastrophe.) Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty opened its Moscow bureau in 1991 on an invitation from Boris Yeltsin—as powerful a symbol of the Cold War’s end as could be. It closed the bureau a few days ago due to the targeted harassment of its journalists and the organization as a whole.

Since launching his war against Ukraine, Putin has finally “canceled” the 1990s, whose liberal legacy he has always openly disdained. To an outsider, such a wholesale destruction may seem senseless: These groups had already been pushed into a corner, serving a relatively small audience. But from the point of view of a regime facing an existential crisis, the crackdown makes perfect sense. The further Russia got bogged down in Ukraine, the deeper the economic crisis, the more likely people would be to turn away from their normal television channels and seek out independent news sources. In the first days of the war, the number of visits to the BBC Russia site tripled before authorities blocked access to it. Having told a monstrous lie, the regime could not afford a shred of truth to reach its loyal audiences. Which is why the destruction had to be total.

In her recent analysis of the contents of Russian official propaganda, analyst Olga Irisova noted that Putin’s regime rests on three legs: economic stability, lies, and fear. Irisova and her husband, Anton Barbashin, both 32, run the analytical site Riddle, whose goal is to deliver in-depth Russia analysis with the help of up-and-coming independent Russian scholars. In 2014, they left Russia for Warsaw to run the project from there. (They relied on foreign funding, and with the foreign agent laws in force could not operate the site in Russia.) From there they moved to Vilnius, which in recent years became another center of Russia’s political emigration. When I spoke to them recently, they were in Berlin, where Irisova is doing a one-year German Chancellor Fellowship at the Alexander von Humboldt Fund. Barbashin is doing a Ph.D. at the University of Glasgow. The couple splits their time between the two cities.

“Every day, I open social media and see more posts from friends: I crossed the border at such and such a place, I’m safe now,” Barbashin told me. Riddle’s three remaining editorial board members left Russia within days of the start of the war (Thailand, Turkey, and Hungary). One of Riddle’s contributors fled to Kazakhstan. Although Irisova and Barbashin have lived in Europe for eight years, they are only now coming to terms with the idea that their exile status is permanent. “For the first few years, I used to say that I’m temporarily working outside Russia,” says Anton. It’s still hard for him to think otherwise. For Olga, the realization started to dawn two years ago. Their last trip to Russia was this January, right on the eve of the war. They used to travel to Russia four times a year. Now they don’t know when they’ll be able to visit again.

From their own experiences, they know that the war is starting to tear families and friends apart. People accuse each other of being victims of propaganda (Putin’s and Western). Cut off from alternative sources of information, the majority seems genuinely unaware of the horror in Ukraine. “Sasha, why are you so upset? You sound as if the world has crumbled,” someone said to one of Olga’s girlfriends. “But the world has crumbled,” Olga said; Sasha’s friend just hasn’t realized it yet.

Technologically, Russia is about to enter a catastrophic state. It will gradually descend into literal darkness.

Most Russians seem unaware of the looming economic disaster facing them. Russia has now surpassed Iran and North Korea as the most sanctioned nation in the world. These sanctions, which numbered over 5,500 as of press time, will hit ordinary Russians especially hard. After Russia was removed from the SWIFT system, the ruble plunged to a record low value of less than one U.S. cent. Nearly 400 companies have withdrawn from Russia as a result of state sanctions or voluntary boycotts. Among the latter is McDonalds, whose arrival in 1990 was a major symbol of the end of communism, with people queuing for hours at its flagship restaurant in Moscow to get a taste of America, and which is closing all 847 of its restaurants across the country.

Still more consequential is the boycott by high-tech giants and manufacturers. Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Adobe, Cisco, and countless others have announced an end to cooperation with Russia. The announcement by Boeing and Airbus, whose planes make up 70% of Russia’s civil aviation fleet, that they would freeze the delivery of spare parts will ground many of Russia’s domestic flights—a devastating development for a country of almost 7 million square miles and 11 time zones. Analysts predict that carriers might cannibalize parked planes for parts. “Technologically, Russia is about to enter a catastrophic state. It won’t get a single computer, a single microchip. It will gradually descend into literal darkness,” said Parkhomenko. His countrymen have yet to comprehend the implications of this, he added.

Putin has taken Russia in the direction of economic isolationism, Rogov said, yet Russia’s economy is deeply dependent on imports. It will take five to seven, maybe 10 years for Russia to become self-reliant. The process would require massive restructuring, primarily in consumption and manufacturing. Entire industries might stop for lack of imported components. Toyota’s plant in St. Petersburg recently announced that it is suspending operations because it lacks the necessary parts.

I asked Irisova whether the impending economic crisis would be enough to cause a collapse of the regime. For Americans, who view the economy as paramount, the answer may seem obvious. But in Russia, the answer is far less clear. Irisova pointed out that the Iranian regime has sustained itself through the sheer power of ideology and repression. In Russia, she believes, the belief in the fiction of Nazis in Ukraine may serve the role of a unifying religious creed. “Many are truly ready to come together when they hear the words Nazism and genocide,” she said. “Many will be willing to tolerate economic difficulties in the name of fighting Nazis.”

Propaganda will also do its best to explain the collapse in ways that are consistent with the recent past. Putin has already stated that he views economic sanctions as a declaration of war. Russia’s federal channels will inevitably present economic difficulties as evidence of Western “Russophobia” and an aggressive attempt by the West to bring the country to its knees. As the economic situation gets worse, says Irisova, some men may conclude that the only way to improve things at home is to grab a weapon and go fight the Nazis in Ukraine. It’s one reason she questions the wisdom of placing such a heavy sanctions burden on ordinary Russians.

Alexander Etkind, a well-known Russian public intellectual and history professor at the European University Institute in Florence, on the other hand, is in favor “of all possible sanctions”—particularly ending purchases of oil and gas. “I’m in favor of having this regime experience a full economic catastrophe, because all the other catastrophes have already visited it.” He gives the regime no more than a few months. But if it lasts another year, he said dryly, “it will outlaw people with an IQ above 80. Those with a higher IQ will be either in the camps or abroad.”

In the meantime, though, many Russians live as though nothing of consequence has happened. I asked Kirill Rogov what we know about how the average Russian thinks of the war. He explains that it is genuinely hard to know. Measuring public opinion in a country where people have limited sources of information and repressions are rife is a complicated exercise. “Even before the war, in the 2010s, we saw that people were afraid to speak their minds in opinion surveys,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that they are afraid of punishment, although such fears are also present. They are afraid because they can’t tell where the median of the generally accepted range of opinions lies. When people can’t feel it, they prefer not to say what they think.” Right now, he believes, most people are “lying low and waiting.” 

In part, that’s because nearly a decade and a half of fruitless collective action has done its work: Opposition to the regime has produced nothing but broken lives—emigration as a best-case scenario, imprisonment as the worst-case. Conscription-age young men are particularly wary of going to antiwar protests: A faction in the Russian parliament recently proposed a law that would send men caught at nonsanctioned antiwar protests to take part in the “special operation.”

To be sure, not everyone follows their fears: Some 15,000 people have been detained in antiwar protests since the invasion began. Still, one of Anton’s friends probably expressed a widespread feeling when he said that he was waiting for the anti-regime sentiment to grow more before he joined. The contradictions in this logic are obvious, but it is also a logic that is hard to argue with. Not everyone is cut out to be Alexei Navalny.

The biggest unknown at the moment is the impact that information about dead Russian soldiers may have on Russian public opinion. The Russian government spent the first week of the war pretending there weren’t any. But even in the absence of independent coverage, numbers started to seep in. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers was reportedly overwhelmed by phone calls and emails from worried parents who lost touch with their sons. Information spread that commanders were tricking conscripts into signing contracts to join the “special operation” in Ukraine, which is illegal.

Hiding the true number of “killed in action” is a long-standing Soviet and Russian tradition. In the summer of 2014, when an independent politician in the city of Pskov, Lev Schlossberg, and local reporters discovered that local servicemen had been killed in Ukraine and demanded explanations from top military authorities, they were told that it was a state secret. Families of the KIA were found to have been intimidated, paid large sums of money, and forced to sign nondisclosure agreements. Soon after, Schlossberg was severely beaten, as were the other reporters.

This time around, things are much worse. In contrast to 2014, when a relatively small number of mostly professional troops was deployed, an estimated 190,000 troops are taking part in this war. Videos of interviews with Russian POWs posted on the website “Search for your own,” created by Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, demonstrate that the overwhelming majority are 18-21 years old. Most say they thought they were just going to take part in military exercises. Some report having been told that they were entering Ukraine as peacemakers or to fight Nazis. While Russia’s state communications regulator has blocked the site, worried families can access the information through its Telegram channel, which now has over 840,000 subscribers.

Russia was finally forced to confirm some losses a week into the war and named 498 as dead, a ludicrously low number that hasn’t changed since. The Ukrainian estimate of 12,000 Russian dead, on the other hand, is almost certainly an exaggeration. But if we take the actual number to be closer to 3,000—the average of recent Pentagon estimates, that is still much higher than Russia’s losses in 2014-15, which the State Department estimated at around 500. It is also an eye-popping one-third of the total number of KIA that Soviet forces sustained in Afghanistan during over nine years of fighting there.

In a tacit acknowledgement of the sensitivity of the issue (mothers are already starting to raise their voices), the government finally confirmed that it uncovered “several facts” of the presence of conscripts in Ukraine and asserted that they have now been brought back to Russia. “If there are five, seven, eight thousand dead,” said Barbashin, “the state will not be able to shut [the mothers] up.” The same WhatsApp networks that are now sharing jingoistic videos will be used in a few months “to share videos of crying mothers standing in front of some military unit and demanding explanations.”

In part for this reason, everyone I spoke with said that it is wrong to cut the Russians off from the world. In Rogov’s view, keeping Russians from accessing Western communications platforms and sources “will help Putin’s criminal regime.” “It is important that Russia’s inner Europe continue to exist and be connected to the civilized world. This will determine Russia’s future,” he told me. A desire for distance from Russia altogether may be an understandable reaction under the circumstances, but it is a mistake, he said: “It is precisely what Putin wants.”

What makes the current sanctions regime against Russia unprecedented is that it is accompanied by voluntary private boycotts. Some of these appear to be a combination of reactive overreach and the kind of self-aggrandizing virtue-signaling that has become the hallmark of corporate America in recent years. On the day Russia’s watchdog kicked the Echo of Moscow radio station off the air, YouTube also blocked its channel. According to Parkhomenko, a long-term contributor to Echo, the station called upon its highest-level contacts abroad and succeeded in reversing the YouTube ban, allowing the channel to live for another 24 hours before finally being blocked by the authorities.

You can’t just introduce a thousand sanctions, step aside, and wait for the problem to solve itself.

The decision by Visa and Mastercard to boycott Russia has turned out to affect only those Russians who use their cards abroad. The first victims of the ban, which Visa loudly proclaimed was tied to its “values,” were therefore Russia’s new political emigrants, who left the country only to find themselves with no access to money. Estonia’s Tartu University announced that it would stop accepting applications from Russian and Belorussian passport holders at about the same time as St. Petersburg’s State University announced it would expel 13 students who have taken part in antiwar protests. TikTok’s decision to stop uploading new Russian content has left those covering antiwar protests feeling abandoned and isolated. European countries and the United States have cut off new visas to Russian passport holders at just the time that people fleeing Putin’s regime need them.

Barbashin challenged the West’s apparent desire to freeze the Russians out completely. “Right now it looks like this: ‘We’ll separate ourselves from you, you depose Putin, and we’ll talk to you then.’ But you can’t just introduce a thousand sanctions, step aside, and wait for the problem to solve itself.”

No one I talked to among new Russian political emigrants is complaining about their situation. They are the first to say that their troubles can’t compare to the catastrophe in Ukraine. They insist that whatever help is available must go to Ukrainian refugees and the people inside Ukraine first. Yet even during World War II, the world knew the difference between Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein, and Hannah Arendt, and the Nazi regime—just as in Soviet times, the West understood the difference between Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky and the KGB.

The fate of Russia’s new political emigres should concern the West. The storied institutions that they built in Russia may be gone, but they are the carriers of that institutional memory. They have the energy and creativity to build something new. At a time when Russia is turning into a black hole, impenetrable to the outside eye thanks to the peculiar combination of Putin’s repressive tactics and Western boycotts, their ideas, skills, and knowledge of Russian society will be needed now more than ever.

Izabella Tabarovsky is a Tablet contributor and a researcher with Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, where she focuses on the politics of historical memory in the former Soviet Union. Follow her on Twitter @IzaTabaro.

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