Russia's invasion of Ukraine has ruined the lives of millions of people. First and foremost, it destroyed the peaceful existence of Ukrainians, now fearlessly fighting for their country and fleeing from the war in astonishing numbers. But it has also fundamentally changed the lives of many people from the aggressor country, Russia and its dictator-ruled neighbor, Belarus.
The Russian regime assumed it had a carte blanche to increase repressions internally, thus squeezing out the last remnants of the open dissent. The only way out left for some Russians who did not agree to be complicit in the war was to flee abroad, to the world where no one was waiting for them.
Read more: Anti-war Russians find a new home in Turkey
Global Voices spoke to Russians and Belarusians who found it impossible to stay in the country that started the invasion.
In Poland, the emigrants do not equal the country they are running from
Poland has had difficult relations with Russia. It opened its doors to the fleeing Ukrainians and is building a wall on the border with Russia in Kaliningrad.
Shortly after the invasion, Elena found herself in Warsaw because it was easier for her to go there: “There is no need for sworn translations; there are opportunities to apply for a residence permit for work or study.” For her, this departure is a one-way ticket: “I have lived in Belarus since childhood. After the post-election crackdown on the protests in Belarus in 2020, it became scary to stay there.”
Soon it will be a year since the war started, and for many Russian speakers life is divided into before and after. Elena has long accepted that the war will not end tomorrow.
It can be difficult and scary for people to run from Russia, where the media writes about “two hundred years of organized hatred.” Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, state-aligned media had been eagerly reporting about “Russophobia” in the “collective West.” But the reality is very different from the picture created by propaganda. Elena notes:
The Poles have suffered enough from the imperial habits of first Tsarist Russia, then the Soviet Union. But they do not equal the country and the people.
Elena is now working and studying in Poland, although it is difficult have long-term plans. She adds:
Our world is beautiful. Despite the inadequate Imperials and their fan club. And the world is big, you don't have to live in a country that hurts you.
Kyrgyzstan has become a new home
Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet republic located in Central Asia. Previously, for economic reasons, the flow of migrants from Kyrgyzstan to Russia was numerous, but now, for political reasons, this flow has turned into opposite direction.
Lesya chose this country because of its proximity; other reasons being that there are a lot of people that understand Russian, the country has familiar food and climate, and relatively comfortable prices:
First of all, I wanted to run away, no matter where. We didn't plan on the timing of how long we'll be here. Ideally, I would like not to depend financially on my country [Russia] and find myself a place where there will be a “home,” which we have been deprived of.
Despite the fact that Kyrgyz culture and some of the traditions were oppressed during the Soviet period (as everywhere, Russification was encouraged), the Kyrgyz managed to remain their traditions, which according to Lesya, include maintaining openness, the ability to live and solve problems together as well as hospitality. Lesya notes:
Now I don’t shy away from the sight of the police, I don’t delete objectionable words in instant messengers, as I did in Moscow, where the police could easily check your phone in the subway.
She hopes that someday it will be possible to return home again, but this may not happen in the coming years:
I have already gotten used to the idea that such terrible things as war are happening “at home,” in my homeland. I was depressed for a long time, I was ashamed to do anything, draw, enjoy life, because now someone is suffering at this very moment.
Georgia: let's move on
Georgia is very careful in its political relations with Russia today. It has a history of Russian invasion in 2008, and some latest polls showed that many Georgians do not support a non-visa regime between two countries. At the same time, it is focused on joining NATO and the EU. But it was Georgia that received a lot of departing Russians. Although the official language of the country is Georgian, many people here speak Russian and English, which makes life much easier for new migrants.
Among them is a girl ჯუნო [which reads as Juno], who, until February 24, despite all the problems in her native country, never imagined herself living outside of Russia: “The need to choose another country for a long stay took me by surprise. Without an open Schengen visa, the list of options quickly dwindled to a dozen. Georgia won.” There are many reasons: “First of all, I have been here before and understood what this country is like; Russians can still stay here for a whole year without a residence permit; there is comfortable taxation and the ability to open a bank account and register an individual entrepreneur; and, finally, there are wonderful people, amazing nature, mild climate,” she says.
Over a month and a half since the announcement of mobilization in Russia, Georgia received more than 700,000 Russians, of which 100,000 people stayed. ჯუნო notes: “In all the time that I have been here, I have never faced aggression. The locals are either neutral or friendly, and I'm grateful for that attitude.”
Some Russian companies relocated all their employees, along with their families, to Georgia. Even before 2022, the country offered the “Work from Georgia” program to support the country’s economy: foreigners working remotely were invited to participate in it.
ჯუნო also works remotely and keeps in touch with family and friends who have remained in Russia: “I can say that in Russian society, many are fooled by propaganda, and people need time to figure it out. I keep in touch with Russia because my family and friends are there who couldn't leave. And that is why I have to be very careful in choosing the wording in my answers to them.”
Israel: the Promised Land
Valeria considers her story banal: “I left Russia because I can’t and don’t want to be silent, and I don’t want to go to jail for this either.” She had no relatives or friends in Israel and, despite the existing right to obtain citizenship of the country (because of her Jewish descent), before the war, she connected her life only with Russia, never having visited Israel even as a tourist.
According to her, many Israelis worry that most of those who came after the start of the war are those who would simply wait it out, and leave soon. Some Russians leave after receiving an Israeli passport, while others plan to stay.
In Russia, Valeria went to protests up to the last moment. But now she no longer believes that those who support the war can be persuaded. She closely followed the political agenda and watched the flourishing of state propaganda in the country, so the stage of acceptance of what was happening came quickly.
“It is important for me that my daughter grows up as a person who values herself, her freedom, including freedom of speech. I want it to be up to her to decide where she will live, what she will do, what ideas she will support. Unfortunately, now in Russia people are deprived of these opportunities,” adds Valeria.
What an incredible article! Thank you Anastasia and Daria!
The comment from the final commenter about her resignation at seeing the effectiveness of Russian propaganda is especially poignant. I have no idea what I would do in such a situation.
Thank you a lot Jer! It does mean so much to me and to everyone who shared their story here.