Wartime Exodus and the Future of Russia

Among the many things that have happened, one cannot ignore the massive and rapid departure of tens of thousands of people from Russia

All that happened to Russia and in Russia in the first ten days of its war against Ukraine can be understood and analyzed in detail only after many years, when all the data becomes available and when history puts everything in its place — who was right and who was wrong, whose hopes and prophecies came true and whose hopes was not in vain.

Among the many things that have happened, one cannot ignore the massive and rapid departure of tens of thousands of people from Russia. During the time when it was still possible to fly from Russia anywhere, huge airliners departed from each of the country’s metropolises many times a day to Istanbul, Yerevan, Baku, Tashkent, and Bishkek. Obviously, the main request was the absence of an entry visa requirements for Russian passport holders. Further plans in many cases remained vague — to sit out the war in Turkey or Georgia, to try to get visas somewhere else. Social networks were flooded with brief messages about leaving Russia and heartbreaking stories about planes crammed with IT-specialists,  psychologists, producers, journalists, businessmen, their families, and pets.

The large number of people in airports with pet carriers signaled that people were not leaving for a short vacation. Another alarming indicator was the fantastic prices for destinations that are not at all popular at this time of year — and yet people bought tickets and left.

Also notable is the frequency of threatening remarks by border guards to those leaving, in particular the phrase «You understand that we will not let you back?» Most likely, these are private opinions, but modern Russian law is such that normal everyday life abroad inevitably leads to crimes: contacts with undesirable and banned organizations, statements on topics forbidden in Russia in prohibited terms, and so on.

There has probably only been one period in Russian history when so many people left the country in a matter of days, bound together by one thing only: an unwillingness to accept the new reality that prevailed in the country. I am talking about the evacuation of the White Army from the Crimea in November 1920, when some 165,000 people left Russia in three days. In 2022, there was no defeated army evacuated, and there was no civil war in Russia, but in a moral sense these events have much in common. These days, those who no longer see any possibility of staying in Russia left, because the authorities had defiantly and unequivocally stripped them of everything that was important, familiar and dear to them — prospects, jobs, ways of life, the ability to move freely around the world and generally an ability to feel like free people in a free world. According to observers’ calculations, 150 journalists of the federal media alone left during the days of war — and this after the continuous departure of opposition journalists from Russia for many years.

How many people in total left Russia in the first ten days of the war? Given the multitude of flights from different cities, we are obviously talking about several thousand leaving daily. According to local reports, 20-25 flights from Russia arrived to Yerevan alone every day. We should add to this those who crossed land borders from Finland to Kazakhstan. According to Georgian authorities, about 30,000 Russian citizens entered the country in just a few days by multiple ways.

Obviously, for many of those who left Russia in recent months and years with the hope of returning at the first opportunity, the war and the accompanying rapid changes in life in Russia have become the last straw forcing them to admit that they had left their country for a long time or even forever. Finally, since the intensification of rhetoric related to Ukraine in 2021 and the increasingly realistic threats of sanctions, many companies, especially in IT, seriously considered the practicalities of the relocation of their employees — so that in the last weeks before the war, those who otherwise might not have gone or would not have gone so fast have already started to leave Russia. And so, according to the most conservative estimate, we may be talking about 50-60 thousand citizens of Russia who urgently left during the war, but maybe the real number of those who left the country is close to 100 thousand or even more, taking into account all the categories mentioned above.

Despite the looming airline crisis, the only way to stop those who suddenly feel uncomfortable in Russia from leaving is to close the border from the inside. If the war continues for a long time, this measure is practically inevitable. As long as the borders remain open in some form, the flow of people leaving will not dry up: many have been unable to pack up and leave literally for nowhere in a few days for objective and subjective reasons, so they will do so a little later. The sanctions imposed against Russia and the reaction of the Russian leadership to them have also become a serious restriction: it has become a problem to leave Russia with money, and we are not talking about taking out millions, but modest amounts of family savings. In fact, these measures have made life in Russia, where cards and payments still work, more difficult for those who have left it.

Of course, against the background of the tragedy in Ukraine, where millions of people are becoming refugees because of the Putin regime’s attack, the flow of refugees from Russia remains in the shadows, and these people not only do not expect or receive any special assistance, but even suffer from the sanctions imposed against the Putin regime, as mentioned above. Nevertheless, this wave of emigration means a great deal for the future of Russia, near and far.

In a sense, these people are victims of the cold civil war waged by Putin’s regime in recent years, which they lost. However, in a real civil war, people fight with weapons in their hands for their vision of the future; in a cold war, only one side — the citizens — is unarmed. Putin’s dictatorship is armed and does not hesitate to use all the instruments at its disposal. After the 2012 protests, Putin stopped even pretending to be tolerant of different opinions: he preferred to simply label all those who disagreed with him as enemies and not waste energy trying to please them, to change their minds, to reach a compromise with them. Since the spring of 2012, he began to pit «ordinary working people» against «office hamsters» and all kinds of «creative class.» After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, the level of hatred rose even higher, and those who disagreed with the regime were methodically turned into traitors to the homeland and enemies of the people.

One cannot say that there has not been any response. All these years the opponents of the dictatorship in Russia, especially young people and the notorious middle class, tried to do something —social activism, volunteer movement, political activity grew. Now it already seems fantastic that in 2017-2020 in Russia there was a peak of legal political activism associated with the work of Alexei Navalny and his team. As a result, it was possible not only to influence election results, but even to win regional election campaigns.

In 2020, however, Putin went on a decisive offensive. Viewing from 2022, it begins to look like the Kremlin has been preparing for war for a long time and thoroughly. In this sense, it is quite logical that a year before the elections of the State Duma (which should have demonstrated its ultra-loyalty to Putin during the war, and did so) and a year and a half before the war started, the leader of the most influential anti-Putin movement in Russia tried to be killed. They failed to kill Navalny, but the disgrace to the eyes of the world did not stop Putin, but perhaps encouraged him to abandon all disguise of his intentions and the essence of the regime created in Russia. From that time on, a new era began in Russia, the logical continuation of which was the war with Ukraine and the separation from the entire civilized world.

The brutal crackdown on rallies in support of Navalny in January 2021 was only a prelude to what happened next. Within a few months Navalny’s team was actually outlawed, and those of its members who did not manage to leave Russia in time and urgently, ended up in prison. Repressive legislation was constantly tightened, and all human rights and civil society organizations that were deemed undesirable by the authorities were crushed and banned.

As a result, by the beginning of the war with Ukraine, Russia had everything ready to finish off what was still alive and resisting. Despite all of this and the already mentioned mass exodus, Russian citizens are still coming out to protest, and there are already more people detained at anti-war rallies than at rallies in support of Navalny.

Nevertheless, the prospects for any protest movement in Russia are unclear. Now, to the fear of repression and the attrition of protesters who are already on trial or in custody, another factor is added: the physical departure from the country of a substantial part of those who either went to the protests or who would have joined them sooner or later.  100,000 people represent large rallies in 10 cities, to put it bluntly. In many Russian cities, a situation can arise when the very same few hundred or thousands of people who went to all the protests, just left. Thus, either those who have never done this before will go out, or almost no one at all. As the socio-economic indicators deteriorate, the protest may become different and come close to the Kazakh version, when desperate people take to the streets with no influential leaders, no program, and no experience of participation in actions and easily become victims of provocateurs first, and then of punitive actions of the authorities.

No one is saying that all of those who left were participants in the protest movement, but it is obvious that they are part of the environment from which the protest came, donations, ideas, and support. But the most painful thing to think about is what and with whom Russia will be left after Putin’s regime collapses. If this happens many years from now, most of the people who have left Russia are unlikely to return to the country they left — new roots and a new life have already been put down in the new place. The country destroyed by Putin’s policies will come to a standstill: the pro-Putin administrative, power and economic elite will be completely discredited, and there will be no place to hire anyone else. This will create conditions for permanent political instability in Russia and the prospect of a return of the Putinists in the first election — simply for the lack of a force that could oppose them. The Western world cannot and should not wash its hands of and stigmatize Russia and especially those who have left it in recent years. Russian emigration needs to be dealt with constantly and purposefully, so that after the fall of Putin’s regime, the country has a chance to change and return to the normal path of development, to become an ally of the West forever.

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