New Russian Emigrés Talk about Their Experience

December 20, 2023
  • Liubov Borusyak
Based on her continued survey of Russians who chose to leave Russia following the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, sociologist Liubov Borusyak writes about how life in new countries is affecting their lives and personalities.
Railroad station, Yerevan, Armenia. Source: Wiki Commons
My research project on the new wave of emigrants from Russia began in April 2022. I am studying the lives of highly-educated emigrants, primarily former residents of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. It is a longitudinal study — every six months, I conduct an online interview with each of the emigrants, who tells me what changes have occurred in their lives in the interim. The pool of this panel study is gradually growing as emigration continues. Respondents are chosen using the snowball method.

During this time, there have been four stages of the study (see the results in Russia.Post here, here and here), and 360 interviews have been collected. The last stage took place in October-November 2023. Among the study participants, there are equal proportions of men and women, their ages range from 18 to 60, and all of them have some higher education (some PhD students and Doctorate holders) or are studying at universities.

As of the most recent survey, they are currently residing in 25 different countries, the majority in Georgia, Israel, the USA, Germany, Montenegro, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Serbia. Only a handful of them settled in the first country they arrived in after leaving Russia, and for many, this is not their final place of residence — they don’t even plan on staying long. Some respondents were in the process of moving or preparing to move.

By fall 2023, most respondents had been living outside of Russia for around a year to a year and a half, and anniversaries are often a time of reflection. During the interview, I asked them to draw some initial conclusions by responding to three questions: “What has emigration changed within you?”, “What has emigration given you?” and “What did emigration take from you?” The article will present the main results of this stage of the study, focusing only on the topic of changes caused by emigration.

We’ve gotten older, younger, stronger

Respondents spoke most often about a perceived change in age. Age is largely a social construct; the concepts of “childhood,” “youth,” “adulthood” and “old age” are loaded with certain connotations that are socially associated with a particular period of time.

Before leaving Russia, when life was relatively stable, this wasn’t something our respondents considered. With their departure and the associated difficulties and hardships, this topic became more present and they began to reconceptualize it. Many young or relatively young people said that they grew up a lot in a very short time: “I feel like a much more mature person because I’ve been through a lot and dealt with a lot.” This was true not just of 20-year-olds, but of those who were 30 and older.
By mature, they primarily mean independence, self-confidence and the ability to solve problems, but some also mean separation from their parents.
Those who felt young began to feel quite mature. For most, this is a positive outcome of emigration. Thus, one 22-year-old proudly stated: “My grandmother told me the other day — and it was a ‘wow’ moment for me — “Well, you’ve become quite the mature young man!”

Respondents said that they are now able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable: “I can say for sure that I’ve grown more mature, bolder, more experienced and more self-confident somehow, I’ve become a more interesting person because I have a lot of stories to tell about what I’ve had to overcome, and that I did it.”

But growing up quickly is not always perceived as a positive. There were also quite a few stories of how the new, much more difficult situation made someone not only stronger, but also more cynical, harsher, less empathic; they had to learn to think only about themselves, because they did not have the strength to think about anyone else: “While before I used to wonder how my parents and friends are doing, and so on, now I only concentrate on myself, on getting by. I’ve stopped thinking about others entirely.” And some, like one 28-year-old woman, said about themselves: “I’ve somehow aged in this time.”

On the other hand, some less youthful respondents who were already in their 40s and 50s, started to feel younger. Some are pleased: “my neural connections have become more active, I’m learning foreign languages,” “[Emigration] has made me younger, everyone is saying so. When the youngest ones leave, it makes them older. But in adults there is a kind of return to youth, to when you could easily handle everyday difficulties, for example. There’s not enough money, so what now? You take it easy. There’s a kind of youth and lightness there.”

Others have a more dramatic perception of this return to youth, seeing it as a loss of control over their own life: “I underwent a strange metamorphosis. All my life I have been a little adult, since childhood I have always been more mature than my peers, I always knew where I was going, I always knew what I needed, I made plans. Now I am 48 years old, I have given up the adult part of myself. I live like a child — I’ll make it through today, but I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

But the most dramatic transformation happened to some elderly respondents, when instead of becoming responsible adults who are in control of their lives and the lives of their loved ones, they became weak. Here is one such example: “I have an unpleasant feeling that I am used to everyone depending on me, and to not depending on others, either psychologically or financially. I used to support my family, all my children and grandchildren. Psychologically, I was strong, but I became weak. Turns out we have to go and live out our lives elsewhere, it’s not a very pleasant feeling.”

In emigration, people begin to perceive their age differently than before, because life circumstances force them to do so. For many, this allows them to better understand themselves, their strengths and the greater opportunities offered, and sometimes they have to become tougher and more self-centered to accomplish this.
For others, especially the elderly, the new social status, expressed partly in the form of changes in social age, proves painful and difficult.”
Ministry of Defense, Astana, Kazakhstan. Source: Wiki Commons
Changing identity, adapting to new conditions

The second-most popular topic was shifts in identity, the ways respondents had to change in order to adapt to life in a different country. Regarding identity, three different types of situations emerged: 1) Russians moving to a country with which they had no previous connections; 2) Russians, including those with dual citizenship, who returned or found themselves for the first time in the country of their ethnic origin (with the exception of Israel); 3) repatriates to Israel.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the issue of changing identity was a key problem for the majority of respondents. This is partly due to the limited experience of emigration, and for many due to uncertainty, since they do not yet know in which country they will settle for a long time. None of the respondents were certain that they were in the country, or would end up in the country where they would spend the rest of their lives. As one study participant said, “the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ are no longer in our vocabulary.”

There are practically no respondents who have ceased to be interested in and concerned about the situation in Russia; their ties to the homeland remain. In most cases, these ties are still very strong. But the problem of identity is beginning to worry people, especially those whose lives have more or less stabilized: “The issue of identity. Previously, when I had no plans to leave, I asked myself this question less. Now, [the identity crisis] has only intensified because the default answer is no longer sufficient. But you still feel like you’re from Russia, no matter how you look at it, and you continue to feel that way.”

There is no single answer to the question “Who am I?” and most likely, there never will be. More and more often, respondents have started to refer to themselves as “emigrants,” (emigranty) and less as “relocants” (relokanty). Many don’t call themselves anything, because they haven’t yet determined this for themselves. Some continue to call themselves “Muscovites living abroad” or “Russians temporarily living in another country.”

The longer this goes on, the more and more relevant this issue will become, because the longer the new wave of emigrants lives outside of Russia, the smaller the likelihood that they will return, even under favorable circumstances. And almost no one, with the exception of a few young political activists, believes that such circumstances could arise in the foreseeable future.

The new wave of emigration has led some Russians to return to their countries of origin. In particular, among my respondents there was an Armenian who had spent almost his entire life in Russia, but left for Yerevan. He had a poor grasp of the Armenian language, but now is actively studying it.

Another respondent, a Kazakh by nationality, went to Moscow to study after graduating high school. He essentially rejected his Kazakh identity and considered himself a Muscovite. People like this were faced with the task of constructing a new identity: abandoning their Russian one and adopting a new, ethnic one; keeping the old, Russian identity but living in another country; or a combination. Both of the aforementioned respondents tried to combine their identities, believing that this gives them certain advantages while living in another country.

For new Israelis, it’s a slightly different story.
Although their move to Israel is officially called repatriation, most new immigrants still feel like emigrants.”
Tayelet promenade, Tel-Aviv. Source: Wiki Commons
For many, there were pragmatic considerations in the choice, such as initial assistance from the state and the opportunity to obtain citizenship immediately.

Only a few had at least a low-level knowledge of Jewish traditions and Hebrew. About half of respondents who responded to my questions in the early stages of the study have since moved from Israel to other countries, mainly to Europe. Some of those who remained did not really want to change their identity, others tried to love Israel and form a new identity, at least partially.

Following the Hamas attack against Israel on October 7, 2023, some of the new Israel residents returned to Russia or moved to more peaceful countries, but many began to actively and quickly form a new Israeli identity, and in a matter of days or weeks became Israeli patriots.

New living conditions, new rules of life

Issues with accepting new ways of life in a new society arose mainly among those who have been living and working in a certain country for a relatively long time. Since my respondents are mostly Muscovites, quite successful ones at that, belonging to the so-called middle class, they are accustomed to the fast pace of life, to completing large amounts of work in the shortest possible time and demanding this from others. But those who found themselves in Serbia and Montenegro had to get used to a slower and more measured way of living and working, known in these countries as “polako.”

But a young woman living in Berlin and working in a large German company also talked about how she had to learn to “slow down”: “I usually do everything much faster, but here, things were very leisurely. They’ll discuss any issue 20 times before making a decision. And I got feedback that I was very straightforward and tough. People said it was impossible to work with me. It took me a long time to adapt my speech and behavior.”

Many had to learn to steel themselves against rejection, submitting hundreds of job applications before eventually finding something suitable, and without losing faith in themselves. Respondents said that in Russia, they were accustomed to jobs seeking them out, as they are highly rated on the labor market. Now they find themselves in a situation where no one knows them, they have to start practically from scratch, and this, like emigration in general, requires very significant changes in themselves and their conceptions of themselves.
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