New activists or new ‘common folk?’ The evolution of political activism among Russian anti-war emigrants
January 15, 2023
  • Margarita Zavadskaya
    Senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), Finland
  • Ivetta Sergeeva
    Doctoral researcher at the European University Institute (EUI), Italy
  • Emil Kamalov
    Doctoral researcher at the European University Institute (EUI), Italy
  • Veronica Kostenko
    Independent researcher of migration (Tel-Aviv, Israel)
Margarita Zavadskaya and her coauthors conducted a survey of new Russian emigrants, exploring the civic and political initiatives they are engaged in, their ties and attachment to Russia, and their vision of its future.  
Rally in support of Ukraine in Tbilisi, March 2, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
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. 
"People who have been through police searches, violence, detention at protests, threats or workplace pressure have remained engaged in anti-war activism even after emigrating, regardless of their country of residence."
The emigrants of the 2022 anti-war wave could often rely on networks and assistance from those who had left Russia in previous years. Political emigrants from Russia who left between 2014 and 2022 found themselves actively involved in anti-corruption or environmental initiatives in their destination countries. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, they often acted as organizers of anti-war initiatives and projects that provided help to Ukrainian refugees.

Figure 1. Who Russian emigrants are helping and donating to (N = 611; convenience sample)

Source: March and September 2022 online panel survey

New forms of activism 

After emigration, the forms of activism underwent significant changes. Emigrants continued to take part in volunteer initiatives, with about 22% reporting that they had in the past three months (versus 16% in the first month of emigration; see Figure 1). The share of those emigrants who took part in unsanctioned protests dropped from 40% to 26% from April to September 2022 (see Figure 2). This is largely due to the simple fact that “unsanctioned protest” is not a familiar notion in the host countries where the political regimes are gentler and peaceful protest is not criminalized. 

In Armenia and Georgia, political protest is a norm of political life, not to mention the EU countries. The share of those taking part in sanctioned demonstrations fell from 55% in April to 21% in the autumn. However, among the emigrants that we surveyed, the share of those participating in volunteer projects aimed at aiding compatriots has tripled from 10% to 32%, while the share who helped Ukrainian refugees rose from 4% to 29%. Support for Ukrainians has been criminalized and is therefore virtually impossible on Russian territory, but after leaving Russia many emigrants were able to join such endeavors and also donate to the Ukrainian army. In other words, emigrants switched from outright anti-war actions to volunteering. 

Figure 2. Political activities of emigrant before and after February 24 (N = 1,565; convenience sample)

 Source: March 27-April 4 online panel survey. (

Helping Ukrainians is an important signal sent by emigrants to host-country societies. However, not all emigrants are engaged in such activities. Women in general are more likely to protest, make donations and provide various kinds of assistance to refugees. Men behave more cautiously: initially, they preferred helping their compatriots. An additional interpretation is that men are more likely to take on the role of the “breadwinner” and have less time to help refugees, which is left to their spouses. This pattern is typical in many Russian households, including relocated families of IT specialists. Finally, men of Russian origin are probably not always welcome among volunteers. There is, however, great variability in this regard from one host country to another and from network to network. In general, men became more active in the autumn compared to the early stage of emigration, which suggests that it is women who spearheaded anti-war resistance.

As the emigrants who left before the “partial mobilization” was announced are better off financially and have more social capital, this facilitates mutual support and volunteer work.
"The level of trust between those who left is unprecedentedly high and allows these translocal communities to cooperate, including across borders, and keep ties with people who stayed in Russia."
Participation in the volunteer movement has not weakened over time – on the contrary, it has grown stronger. Autumn emigrants were very likely to join the ranks of volunteers among those who had already settled in a bit, using emigration chats and channels, where they can count on their compatriots’ help.

Meanwhile, donations to Russian NGOs and media decreased only slightly, from 47.8% to 45.9% (see Figure 2). The share of respondents who provide targeted assistance to Ukrainian refugees and other NGOs increased from 36.6% to 47.2%. Emigrants began to donate to local NGOs in their host countries, with 12.3% of our respondents mentioning that. Factors that are keeping civic activism afloat seem to be the influx of new emigrants, peer support from within and outside the community, and finally the protracted nature of the war.

Donations to Russian NGOs and online activism remained roughly the same from spring to autumn, regardless of the destination country. However, some patterns of activism may differ depending on the political backdrop of the host country. For instance, participation in demonstrations is significantly more common among Russian emigrants in Germany, less so in Turkey or Israel. Evidently, the more privileged emigrants who enjoy broader networks, connections and other resources were more likely to end up in consolidated democracies. Therefore, there is a self-selection effect in our data, which does not allow us to distinguish the “regime effect” of the host country from the characteristics of the emigrants themselves. Degrees of political freedom – insofar as it is available to emigrants at all – vary considerably from country to country. Anyway, the effect of the host country’s political regime does matter, and in the more democratic countries, emigrants are more likely to get involved in civic activism.

Attachment to Russia

Politically active and well-educated emigrants could be an asset for host societies. The vast majority do not plan to return to Russia, so they will no longer be a force for future political change in their home country. According to our data, only 16% of the Russian emigrants who left after February 24 returned to Russia before September 2022. Moreover, for the majority of them, the return was temporary: they went back to settle their affairs, such as rent out or sell property and left again within a few months. Nevertheless, Russian emigrants who left the country permanently can serve as a powerful resource and “support group” for people who are moving between Russia and politically safer locations and – most importantly – for those who remain in Russia. Unlike past emigration waves, the current one has often meant families left behind in Russia and projects abandoned halfway through; in other words, much of what they invested themselves in before the war and what they will continue to invest themselves in. Therefore, the connection between those who left and those who stayed is an auxiliary mechanism for potential change.

Figure 3. How often Russian emigrants talk to their relatives in Russia (N = 1, 985; convenience sample)

Source: March and September 2022 online panel survey

Contrary to the popular belief that there is insurmountable division between those who left and those who stayed (see more on this in Lyubov Borusyak’s article in Russia.Post), the majority of Russian emigrants maintain close ties and a high level of trust with people who remain in Russia. Every second respondent said she talks to her loved ones in Russia every day or almost every day, while 37% indicated that it was several times a month. At the same time, more than half (55%) of respondents talk about politics with their families in Russia, even though these conversations can be frustrating for both sides (see Figure 3).

Figure 4. Interest in the politics of host countries (N = 1,939; convenience sample)

Source: March and September 2022 online panel survey

Having embarked on a trip without a return ticket, emigrants still say that their “heads and hearts” remain in Russia. Undoubtedly, the majority of respondents remain emotionally attached to the country. Almost half say they feel strongly attached and only a third see their attachment to Russia as quite weak. This is not surprising given the short time spent in emigration and the fact that many Russian emigrants keep close ties with their relatives and are emotionally involved in political events related to Russia. Meanwhile, developing an attachment to a new country is often a long and complex process. The nomadic nature of emigrant movement, along with the stigmatization of Russians at least in some of the receiving countries, will make this process even more difficult.

Emigrants’ interest in political life in Russia often goes hand in hand with a rising interest in their new country’s politics. More than half of our respondents were interested in the politics of the country where they found themselves at the time of the survey. Still, interest in the Russian political agenda does not necessarily translate into engagement in the politics of the host country: a significant share (39%) indicated that they were not interested in host-country politics (see Figure 4).
"At the same time, emigrants’ expectations regarding the situation in Russia have not changed in any way and remain gloomy. About 35% of those participating in our panel survey still assess the likelihood of positive changes in Russia as impossible or low."
Only 7% await positive changes. Evidently, respondents do not associate their personal well-being with the state of affairs in Russia. Despite the gloomy expectations, emigrants have not lost interest in the Russian political agenda. More than 90% of respondents indicated that they were very interested or rather interested in political developments in their homeland.

Contrary to the popular view of a fragmented intelligentsia, the shared trauma of emigration, along with mutual trust and a high degree of politicization, unites the emigrant community and is in a sense even “resocializing” its members. Theoretically, this mix lays the foundation and opens up possibilities for the development of alternative political projects. Still, as long as they remain outside Russia, politicized emigrant networks are likely to become “support groups” or a sort of “sanatorium” for political opposition rather than a hotbed of it.

The outcome of the war in Ukraine will shape any political changes and the prospects for political opposition in Russia. Though they are unlikely to be at the core of such developments, resourceful and democratically minded emigrants, as well as their networks, may have a role to play in Russia’s democratization if and when it takes place.
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