Using the same kind of rough street language he used 22 years ago when talking about rubbing out Chechen rebels even when they’re in their “outhouses,” Russian President Vladimir Putin midweek took aim at Russians who oppose his invasion of Ukraine, saying Russia should undergo “self-cleansing” and get rid of “bastards and traitors.”
“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths, spit them out on the sidewalk,” he said.
An estimated 200,000 Russians have not waited to be spat out and have left Russia already. Thousands more are planning to leave. Most Russians who have already exited have gone to Armenia, Georgia and Turkey, the easiest countries to reach as airline bans were imposed. Russians also don’t need visas to enter any of the three.
Many of the new Russian exiles contacted by VOA say they chose exile because they felt they had to demonstrate opposition to Russia’s invasion of its neighbor; others feared remaining in a Russia isolated from most of the rest of the world. Still others said they fled because they feared if they stayed, they would fall afoul of the Kremlin’s intensifying crackdown on dissent and end up in jail.
“I realized I could not stay in Russia. I knew I couldn’t be silent,” says Katya, a 27-year-old, who worked in Russia as a PR manager and game blogger. “So, there were two ways: stay in Russia and be imprisoned, or express myself abroad. I also think I can do more in other countries than in prison,” she added.
The new exiles classify themselves as political refugees, but even so — despite being critics of the invasion of Ukraine and deeply opposed to Putin — many say they’re encountering hostility abroad. And they say not enough media attention is being given to their plight. They complain Russia’s pariah status has turned them into untouchables, too.
“Now the whole world hates us,” says Alexandra, 39, a Russian who was born in Tajikistan and whose family fled to Moscow in the 1990s because of the Tajik civil war. She was 7 years old then, and she remembers “how my parents tried not to panic, but my mother could not hold back her tears when we had to leave her books. My library was much more modest, but it was hard to leave my books. I sobbed and remembered my mother,” she said.
Now in Tbilisi, Alexandra says: “I did not choose this [Putin] government, I went to all the rallies, donated to human rights organizations, and attended court trials of political prisoners. But for the whole world now, I am a representative of fascists who, to my great regret, ended up in power in my country.”
Some Russian refugees say they feel guilty complaining about their plight — after all despite what they have lost, from the physical proximity of family, homes and jobs and a settled way of life, they acknowledge they are citizens of a country that invaded a neighbor where people are losing their lives. Even so, they remain shocked at the hostility openly expressed towards them.
Nadya, who was the head of marketing team in Kaluga, a town in western Russia, says she was surprised by the Russophobia she’s encountered in Georgia since arriving in Tbilisi. She says she and her husband know Georgia well, having vacationed in the country every year for the past half-decade. “Never before have we encountered discrimination against Russians — on the contrary we have always been welcome guests here. But we have been deeply struck by how quickly a wave of Russophobia rose among the Georgians,” she says.
“Many Georgians have this logic: if you are against Putin, you should be in Russia now and fighting him there; and they are also afraid that since we have arrived, Russian troops will come to ‘save us’. They blame us for the aggression of the Russian authorities, but we are also victims of this war, just on the other side of the front,” she added.
She notes Ukrainians are “now living through events thousand times more monstrous” than what the Russian refuseniks are suffering, and she stressed it right for everyone to try to help the embattled Ukrainians. “But we did not vote for Putin; we fought against him in every possible way the last 10 years,” she adds.
Aside from anti-Russian hostility in Tbilisi, Istanbul and Yerevan, Russian refugees say they are facing practical challenges. Their Russian bank cards don’t work; it is difficult to find accommodation to rent; jobs are in short supply; and their savings have halved in value thanks to the collapse of the ruble. Dozens of chat channels have sprung up on social-media platforms, such as Telegram, for the new political exiles to swap tips and information.
Activists are also organizing meetings. “It’s important now to be together,” says Alexey. “It helps to overcome all this nightmare, I feel this unity,” he adds.
As they try to get their footing and adjust to their new lives and attenuated circumstances, the refuseniks also appear to be struggling with guilt for what Russia has unleashed on Ukraine and grief for what they have lost.
“I had established a comfortable life in Moscow,” says Alexandra, the Tajikistan-born Russian. “All this changed on February 24. The main fear is of never being able to return home to Russia. I also worry about loved ones who cannot or don’t want to leave. It is obvious that the standard of living will fall sharply. Russia is becoming a cross between North Korea, Venezuela and Germany in the 1930s. Understanding this is completely unbearable,” she adds.
But for her the strongest emotion is one of dread. “I can't believe there's a war going on. That my country unleashed this war. That we are at war with close neighbors,” she says.
Anton, a 42-year-old Muscovite and father of a four-year-old boy, shares the same sense of overwhelming horror. “My wife and I left Russia because it became impossible to stay in a country that sends people to kill other people, officially claiming creepy and terrible and nonsense grounds for doing so,” he told VOA from the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
“Of course, I was concerned about what work I could do outside Russia. I’m not ready for unskilled labor. I have to support my family. But I cannot be with people who do not admit aggression anymore. For me, it's clear now we, like Germans, will repent for generations. It is Fascism 2.0,” he said.
Anton said he was nervous they would not get out of Russia. “I was not sure until our plane took off,” he says. He had heard FSB intelligence officers were searching people’s phones and laptops and were stopping people from leaving. “For us, it went easily, but I was still pretty nervous,” he says. He says he has no future plans, and they will have to live off savings when he loses a remote job he has with a European firm, which will happen soon. “I cannot predict what might happen next, so we will take this time to lie low, watch what comes and try to figure out what to do with our torn lives,” he says.
Anastasia, a 23-year-old Muscovite, who has launched one of the most popular Telegram channels for Russian expats in Georgia, says she didn't have time to think about what exile would mean as she rushed to flee. “Standing finally under a warm shower, I slowly begin to realize my position,” she said. “I am a political refugee [not officially, but actually]. In Moscow, before the war, I had everything, now I have arrived with one suitcase and a backpack in a country where initially I knew no one,” she added.
“I huddle like a stray cat,” she says.
The mass exodus of Russians has now slowed thanks to travel obstacles. But the impact of devastating Western sanctions, along with the ever intensifying crackdown on freedom of speech and the criminalization of opposition to the war, as well as the prospects of job losses and poverty, is prompting thousands of others to plan an escape.
Western diplomats say their consulates in Russia are being inundated with visa requests. Wait times for visa appointments at Israel’s consulates are now running at eight months.
“For many Russians who do not support the war, it’s not safe to stay in Russia anymore,” says a Russian political activist. He worries, though, that the exodus of so many Putin opponents will weaken the opposition to the Kremlin.