Russians abandon wartime Russia in historic exodus
The Washington Post February 13, 2023
YEREVAN, Armenia — As Russian troops stormed into Ukraine last February, sending millions of Ukrainians fleeing for their lives, thousands of other Russians raced to pack their bags and leave home, fearing the Kremlin would shut the borders and impose martial law.
Some had long opposed rising authoritarianism, and the invasion was a last straw. Others were driven by economic interest, to preserve livelihoods or escape the bite of sanctions. Then, last autumn, a military mobilization spurred hundreds of thousands of men to run.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's war has set off a historic exodus of his own people. Initial data shows that at least 500,000, and perhaps nearly 1 million, have left in the year since the invasion began — a tidal wave on scale with emigration following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
Now, as then, the departures stand to redefine the country for generations. And the flood may still be in its early stages. The war seems nowhere near finished. Any new conscription effort by the Kremlin will spark new departures, as will worsening economic conditions, which are expected as the conflict drags on.
The huge outflow has swelled existing Russian expatriate communities across the world, and created new ones.
Some fled nearby to countries like Armenia and Kazakhstan, across borders open to Russians. Some with visas escaped to Finland, the Baltic states or elsewhere in Europe. Others ventured farther, to the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Thailand, Argentina. Two men from Russia's Far East even sailed a small boat to Alaska.
The financial cost, while vast, is impossible to calculate. In late December, Russia's Communications Ministry reported that 10 percent of the country's IT workers had left in 2022 and not returned. Russia's parliament is now debating a package of incentives to bring them back.
But there has also been talk in parliament of punishing Russians who left by stripping them of their assets at home. Putin has referred to these people as "scum" and said their exit would "cleanse" the country — even though some who left did not oppose him, or the war.
With the government severely restricting dissent, and implementing punishment for criticism of the war, those remaining in the depleted political opposition also faced a choice this year: prison or exile. Most chose exile. Activists and journalists are now clustered in cities such as Berlin and the capitals of Lithuania, Latvia and Georgia.
"This exodus is a terrible blow for Russia," said Tamara Eidelman, a Russian historian who moved to Portugal after the invasion. "The layer that could have changed something in the country has now been washed away."
While Ukrainian refugees were embraced in the West, many countries shunned the Russians, uncertain whether they were friends or foes, and whether, on some level, the entire country was culpable. Some nations have blocked arrivals by imposing entry restrictions or denying new visas, at times spreading panic among Russians already abroad, especially students.
Meanwhile, the influx of Russians in countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which have long sent immigrants to Russia, set off political tremors, straining ties between Moscow and the other former Soviet states. Real estate prices in those countries have shot up, causing tensions with local populations.
Nearly a year after the start of the invasion — and the new outflow of Russians — Washington Post journalists traveled to Yerevan and to Dubai for a close look at how the emigres are faring, and to ask if they ever plan to return. Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a former Soviet republic, is a destination for Russians with lower financial mobility — an Orthodox Christian country where Russian is the second language. By contrast, pricey Dubai, in the Persian Gulf, is predominantly Muslim and Arabic-speaking, and attracts wealthier Russians seeking either glitz or business opportunity.
For many Russians choosing to flee, Armenia was a rare easy option. It is one of five ex-Soviet countries that allow Russians to enter with just a national ID — making it a popular destination for former soldiers, political activists and others needing a quick escape.
Given the shared religion and language, Russians typically do not face animosity or social stigma in Armenia. Obtaining residency permits is also straightforward, and living costs are lower than in the European Union.
Yerevan has attracted thousands of IT workers, young creatives and working-class people, including families with children, from across Russia. They have established new schools, bars, cafes and robust support networks.
In the courtyard of the "Free School" for Russian children, established in April, Maxim, a construction company manager, was waiting for his 8-year-old son, Timofey. The school started with 40 students in an apartment. Now, there are nearly 200 in a multistory building in the city center.
Maxim, whom The Post is identifying by only his first name for security reasons, flew to Yerevan from Volgograd to avoid the mobilization in September. "We left for the same reason everyone did: There was suddenly a real danger in the country for me and, above all, my family," he said.
The family has adapted seamlessly to Yerevan. Everyone around them speaks Russian. Maxim works remotely on projects in Russia. Timofey likes his school and is learning Armenian. Maxim said he is sure the family will not return to Russia.
"Perhaps we will move on somewhere else, maybe even to Europe if things start to normalize," he said.
At a shelter on the outskirts of Yerevan, Andrei, 25, a former military officer from Russia's Rostov region, said he was also adjusting to his new life after similarly fleeing conscription. "I did not want to be a murderer in this criminal war," said Andrei, who is being identified by his first name for safety reasons.
Andrei works as a delivery driver, and shares a modest room with two other men in a shelter set up by Kovcheg, a support organization for Russians emigrants. "Before the war I never followed politics, but after the invasion I started reading about everything," Andrei said. "I feel so ashamed about what Russia has done."
Meanwhile, at a co-working space downtown, Russian activist groups organize debates, political meetings and therapy sessions. Messages of support for Ukraine hang on the walls, along with the white and blue flag adopted by Russia's opposition. At one meeting in late January, dozens of Russians were hunched over tables, writing letters to political prisoners in Russia.
"The more letters, the better," said Ivan Lyubimov, 37, an activist from Yekaterinburg. "It's important that they don't feel they are alone." He held up a cartoon of a smiling panda. To circumvent prison censorship, they must avoid writing anything political, but drawings are certain to be delivered.
Tanya Raspopova, 26, arrived in Yerevan last March with her husband, but without a plan, overwhelmed and frightened.
Then, she heard another emigre was seeking partners to set up a bar, a space where Russian expats could come together, and she wanted to help. Tuf, named after the pink volcanic rock common throughout Yerevan, opened its doors within a month.
They started with a neon-lit bar and kitchen on the ground floor, which soon expanded into a small courtyard. Then they opened up a second floor, then a third. Upstairs there is now a recording studio, a clothing boutique and a tattoo parlor. On a Wednesday night in January, the place was packed with young Russians and Armenians singing karaoke, drinking cocktails and playing ping-pong. "We have since created such a big community, a big family," Raspopova said. "Tuf is our new home."
Russians are everywhere in Dubai: clutching Dior totes perched atop Louis Vuitton suitcases in the airport, walking around malls in tracksuits and filming TikToks and Reels near the Burj Khalifa.
Russia's rich and powerful have long traveled to Dubai, but it was just one of many hot spots. That changed when the war cut Russians off from the West.
Thousands have chosen the UAE, which did not join Western sanctions and still has direct flights to Moscow, as their new home. Russians enjoy visa-free travel for 90 days, and it is relatively easy to get a national ID through business or investment for a longer stay.
The high cost of living means there are no activists or journalists. Dubai is a haven, and the go-to playground, for Russian tech founders, billionaires under sanctions, unpenalized millionaires, celebrities and influencers.
Shortly after the invasion, conversations in Moscow's affluent Patriarch Ponds neighborhood turned to the best Dubai real estate deals, said Natalia Arkhangelskaya, who writes for Antiglyanets, a snarky and influential Telegram blog focused on Russia's elite. A year later, Russians have ousted Brits and Indians as Dubai's top real estate buyers, Russian-owned yachts dock at the marina, and private jets zigzag between Dubai and Moscow.
Russians can still buy apartments, open bank accounts and snag designer leather goods they previously shopped for in France.
"Dubai is built on the concept that people with money come here," Arkhangelskaya said.
The UAE's embrace of foreign business has enticed a stream of Russian IT workers seeking to cut ties with Russia and stay linked to global markets. Start-ups seek financing from state-supported accelerators. Larger firms pursue clients to replace those lost to sanctions.
A 40th floor apartment in one of the Jumeirah Beach Residence towers, with stunning views, is reserved for weekly meetups open to IT newcomers. On a windy January evening, the organizer, Ivan Fediakov, who heads a consulting company, greeted guests, wearing a black hoodie with "Everyone understands everything" printed on it — a catchphrase popularized by Alexey Pivovarov, a Russian journalist branded by Russia as a foreign agent whose YouTube channel has 3.5 million subscribers.
About a dozen people arrived to discuss opportunities in India, which has maintained ties with Russia despite the war. Most expressed bitterness about the Kremlin's politics and longing for Moscow when it was an aspiring global hub.
Alexandra Dorf, an IT entrepreneur, moved to Dubai with her two children in April. "No one knew what was going to happen next," Dorf said.
"Borders can be shut abruptly," she said. "A decision had to be made; you either stay or you go quickly."
In 2022, Dorf severed all ties with Russia: She sold her apartment and car and found a new job in Dubai as a business development officer at an AI-focused company.
"For the first two months, you are constantly stressed, your children have been torn out from their usual way of life, and you can't enroll them into a school midyear," she said. "But Dubai is a blooming hub."
"The most important thing for me is to be able to develop international projects and to integrate my kids into a global community, so they grow up in a free environment," she added.
Aside from techies, many middle-class Russians followed the money to Dubai — for hospitality jobs, to open beauty salons or simply work remotely far from the warmongering motherland.
Artem Babinov, founder of a co-living space called Colife in Moscow, opened an office in Dubai days before the invasion, hoping to attract British finance specialists. The war changed his plans, and he now rents dozens of properties as short-term housing, mainly to Russians in their 30s. "The community here is key," Babinov said. "People just need other people."
Like the white Russian emigres of the Bolshevik era and the post-Soviet immigrants of the 1990s, many of those leaving Russia because of the war in Ukraine are likely gone for good.
Eidelman, the Russian historian, said that the longer the war, the deeper the scars. "Every extra month leads people to get used to a different country," she said. "They get a job there, their children go to school, they begin to speak a different language. The longer the war lasts, the longer the dictatorship in the country continues, the fewer people will return."
But technology makes this exodus unlike its predecessors, guaranteeing that Russians abroad will remain connected to their past.
Matthew Rojansky, president of the U.S. Russia Foundation, a Washington-based group, said the Russian expats could become "a repository of relevant skills for a better, freer, modern Russia." For now, though, Rojansky said, the outflow sends an clear message.
"It's historic," he said. "These people are voting with their feet. They are leaving because of what the Putin regime is doing."
Ebel reported from Yerevan, Armenia, and Ilyushina reported from Dubai.