Hundreds of thousands of Russians have decided to leave Russia for good
or were forced to flee the country since February 24. Triggered by political rather than economic reasons, this marked the biggest exodus of Russian citizens since the collapse of the USSR. The overwhelming majority are unlikely to return to their homeland. This begs the question: does the exodus constitute a sheer loss in human capital for Russia, or is it a resource for building alternative political projects for the Russian opposition? Will Russian activists integrate in host-country societies? Will these emigrants remain politically active at all, or, exhausted by political resistance, will they turn into “common people” wherever they settle down?Patterns of political activism
Eleven months are not enough to draw unequivocal conclusions about the benefits or harm of Russian emigration in terms of building alternative political projects. The new political emigrants resemble nomads moving from one location to another, driven by immigration restrictions and the search for new jobs. Those who left primarily for economic reasons or who were relocated by their employer will probably never get involved in political and civic activities in their new home. Those who were politicized before leaving Russia, for the most part, have not given up, although they may have changed the form of their participation.
Of particular interest are those who grew disengaged and those who began to go through a “school of citizenship” after emigration, in line with the practices of their new surroundings. As оne of the emigrants we interviewed in Tbilisi
in the summer remarked, “anyone who speaks Russian, with a Russian passport, should be ready to talk anywhere in the world.” Of course, that person implied talking about the war and emigrants’ attitudes toward it. Activism is one way to hold such conversations with dignity.
If emigrants are politically active, it can have an impact not only on Russian domestic political processes, but also on the host societies and states. The vast majority of those who left Russia after February 2022 ended up in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan and Georgia became especially popular for those fleeing mobilization last autumn.
Not all of these countries are liberal democracies that welcome political activism. During Putin’s visit to Kazakhstan in the autumn, several Russian anti-war activists were detained and then released
after a “prophylactic chat.” Some even feared extradition
to Russia. On the other hand, those who ended up in Germany or Finland can finally take advantage of opportunities to express themselves freely without fear of persecution and to have access to reliable and diverse sources of information.
Finally, in democratic societies, emigrants can count on support from other anti-war activists, as well as the host country community. Unplanned emigration is often accompanied by a loss in social status and a decline in income
. Those who fled the mobilization were generally in a highly vulnerable position economically. Civic activism usually requires free time, skills and political awareness, as well as some sort of financial safety cushion. Therefore, it is logical to ask what influences one’s decision to pursue activism. First, the very fact of emigration away from repressive regimes is a form of protest per se, a choice made after other forms of resistance have been considered ineffective or off limits. Another factor is the individual political and activist experience of an emigrant. A third factor is the political landscape of the host society.
According to surveys of emigrants
conducted by our team in the spring and autumn of 2022, the traumatic encounters with the repressive side of the state, contrary to expectations, do not discourage people from engaging in activism or even make them more eager to join protest actions.
We tracked how patterns of civic activism changed from March to September 2022 among the same respondents.