Russians Between Leaving and Staying
November 9, 2023
  • Tatiana Rybakova

    Journalist and writer
Journalist Tatiana Rybakova spoke with Russians who did not want to emigrate but were forced by circumstances to leave, as well as those who wanted to leave but had no other choice but to stay.
Since February 2022, over 820,000 people have left Russia. More than 120,000 of them, about 15%, have now returned. Meanwhile, in Russia, according to a VTsIOM survey, there are fewer and fewer people who want to leave: only 8% would like to emigrate, versus 83% who said they would not. The peak number of Russians wishing to emigrate (since 2013) indeed came right before the war, in 2021, at 22%, according to a Levada Center survey. There is no data, however, on what proportion of those who wanted to leave actually went through with it. The following interviews may provide some insight into how people make the decision to leave (or stay). A telling detail: out of the 11 people surveyed for this piece, seven refused to take part, even though some of them had already left Russia. “I still have things to do back in Russia,” they said. Most of those who did agree to speak requested that they remain anonymous.
Asya Stein
‘I decided to work as long as I am able to’

Philologist Asya Stein worked as a teacher of Russian language and literature at a school. “It was a public school, but it had its own methodology. Small, cozy, where everyone cherished each other. I worked there from the moment the school was founded in the early 90s, for almost 30 years; in fact, we all set up this school together,” she says.

There was a sense that the space for freedom was narrowing even before the war, but the process, says Asya, was gradual: “We thought that we could still do something.
But since February 2022, the feeling is that you can do less and less, and there is more and more silence.
And I am not used to lying to children and avoiding difficult topics.”

Still, the family hesitated. “I wanted to continue teaching because it was a cause that was very important to me. I had a feeling that if I left, I would be betraying the children and those who I worked with,” continues Asya.

However, it all came to a sudden end. “I was denounced for conducting anti-war propaganda. They went on my social media. And this was just when the mobilization began [in September 2022], and really I was writing about how to get around it. In the end, the education department fired me in one day – and made the decision retroactive,” says Asya.

The family went to Lithuania. “We were taking the train, and a huge crowd came to the station to see me off – students, alumni of our school. The conductor even got nervous when she saw the entire platform flooded by young people,” recalls Asya.

She has not cut ties with the school – she does research, conducts online seminars and helps her former students: “Many of my kids are now studying at the Free University; some left, some stayed. I am not cutting ties with any of them.”

‘I’ll leave when people completely stop protesting’

Pavel [name changed at the interviewee’s request – TR], on the contrary, wanted to leave for a long time, since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But he understood that given his profession as a corporate lawyer, it would be hard to find work abroad. So, he prepared: he bought an apartment in Spain, learned the language and the laws of the country where he was going to go. “I planned to work with the Russian diaspora, helping with relocation, opening their businesses, working with local contractors and so on. Even then it was clear that such a business would find demand,” says Pavel. He helped several families and was thinking about opening a company in Spain even before moving there. And then the war broke out.

“When there was the rumor that the borders would be closed on March 6 [2022 – TR], I sent my wife and kids to Spain,” recalls Pavel. But he himself is still in Moscow and does not know when he will leave. Or whether he will at all.

It all started with the first protests against the war – back then they were still rather widespread. Pavel’s acquaintances called – their son had been detained at a protest. “They did not have any lawyer contacts besides me; they did not want to contact OVD-info lawyers, afraid it would only make things worse. Although I practice corporate law, challenging the legality of a detention is not a big task. So I went,” says Pavel.

The guy whom Pavel helped turned out to be the only detainee in that police department who was released without an administrative or criminal case being opened against him. “Of course, I was happy for him, proud of myself and horrified by our local ways. But to keep doing this? I did not consider it,” admits Pavel. But as he went on preparing to leave for Spain, another acquaintance called with a request to help free someone else. Then another. And so on.

Now, Pavel, along with several colleagues, regularly deals with detained protestors. “We are not an officially registered human rights group – this is dangerous now. We are not defending famous people. Sure, I am not a criminal lawyer, though we do have some on our team. My job is to get a person out after he is arrested without even an administrative case being opened, if possible. Because two administrative cases and the third is a criminal case. It does not always work out, but I try to at least reduce the size of the fine,” says Pavel.

He continues to think about leaving, but... “I cannot yet, we have work to do.
I will probably leave when people completely stop protesting. But they have not stopped yet, oddly enough.
The arrest of three lawyers representing Alexei Navalny became an unpleasant wake-up call for the entire legal community, Pavel admits, but for now he still remains in Russia. And after talking with me, he agreed to help Irina.

‘No one needs these dogs’

Irina [name changed at the interviewee’s request – TR] was also planning to leave, and had been for a long time. “For several years I went to visit my friends who had moved to Serbia. I fell in love with the country, even started speaking Serbian. Finally, in 2019, I decided that I would move – fortunately, by that time I could work remotely. But then Covid struck, lockdowns began and my move had to be postponed,” recalls Irina.

Finally, in the autumn of 2021, she came to Serbia and bought an inexpensive house in a village in the north of the country. “I even managed to get a temporary residence permit and returned home to settle all my affairs and rent out my apartment,” says Irina.

The main thing was to get the documents ready for transporting her dogs. “At that time, I had two dogs, both taken off the street,” explains Irina. While the paperwork was being done and the apartment was being prepared for renting out,the war began.
Vadim Kobzev, one of Alexei Navalny's lawyers arrested in October. Source: X
“There was the rumor that the borders would be closed on March 6, and people rushed to get on planes. Tickets were hard to come by, and those that were available cost astronomical amounts of money. But I still had to transport the dogs. A while before, I had found the addresses of carriers that transport animals by car from Moscow to Serbia, but at that time they all either refused to go or all the spots had been taken,” says Irina.

Closer to the summer, plane ticket prices fell, and Irina started working on her move again. And then on the street she came across an injured dog – it had a burn on its side. “For a long time, I posted in groups about lost animals, but no one responded,” recalls Irina.

Now, emigration had become more complicated: she needed to help her newest pet and prepare documents for it. “When I was supposed to receive all the documents, the mobilization began,” says Irina. There were no plane tickets again; people were walking across the border to Georgia and Kazakhstan, and I was stuck again.”

At the end of autumn, Irina saw a pack of stray dogs tearing apart a small Maltese. “I did not think at that moment – it was in my arms when I regained my senses,” Irina laughs.

Four dogs, soaring ticket prices and rising prices for food, veterinarians, medicine. According to Irina, veterinary medicines are now becoming more expensive in Russia and disappearing even faster than medicines for people.

And then Irina was brought in for spreading “fakes” about the army. “I have always been an activist – I helped dog shelters, donated to oppositional activists and went to rallies several times. Since the beginning of the war, of course, I have not gone to any pickets or protests, but on social networks, it seemed to me, you could still tell the truth – I am just expressing my attitude toward the war,” explains Irina.

It got her a fine of RUB 50,000. “And then a local police officer came to my house to ‘have a talk’ and clearly hinted that I was now on the special services’ radar, and real fear set in.”

She deleted all her social media accounts. She rented out her Moscow apartment and went to her dacha. (In our conversation, Irina insisted that not only her name be changed, but also some specific circumstances omitted.)

“I work remotely, but I am still trying to make money to go to Serbia, to my home [there]. But the ruble is falling, prices are rising and I have the feeling that the more I work, the further my goal moves away,” Irina complains.

Sometimes she panics: “I think, what if they find me and arrest me? What if I buy a plane ticket, send the dogs to Serbia, and they grab me right at Sheremetyevo? They will simply be thrown out onto the street. Then I pull myself together – my dogs need me.” She hopes that she will be able to celebrate the coming New Year at her home in Serbia with her friends and dogs. I hope Pavel will be able to help her.
Belgrade. According to the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs, more than 370,000 Russians entered the country between February 2022 and April 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
‘There are things that hold you back’

Yelena [name changed at the interviewee’s request – TR] is a Gestalt therapist. In Moscow she worked in a clinic, then in a psychological support center for adults and married couples. Her daughter has been living abroad for a long time and has been inviting her mother to come for several years, but Yelena did not want to leave: “my parents are buried in Moscow, I have a big group of friends here. Plus, my work entails live contact. During the pandemic, we all learned to work online, but my patients say there is a big difference between a Zoom meeting and a face-to-face meeting.” In addition, Yelena admits, at first it seemed that the whole thing was madness and would stop soon.

When the war started, Yelena’s daughter was visiting, and she left in a hurry, leaving her things behind. Yelena decided to leave too – for a short time – to take her daughter’s things to her. Now, she is trying to live between two countries: she continues to communicate with some patients in Russia online, while in the summer she went to Moscow for a month and a half and received them in person. In addition, Yelena works with Russian emigrants in a new country. “I would work with Ukrainian refugees, but many of them want to talk only with Ukrainian specialists, and I understand them,” says Yelena.

According to Yelena, the majority of new patients, both in Russia and among emigrants, are young people 19-21 years old. “Their world has fallen apart and they are now falling into depression,” she says. Even teenagers aged 12-13 who left with their parents now suffer from depression: “it would seem that their parents took them to a safe place, that everything is fine. In fact, it is very hard on them.”
“When she comes to Moscow, Yelena only goes to work and back home, limiting herself to her professional duties and her circle of close friends. But more and more often she thinks that, at some point, these trips will become impossible.”
Istanbul. Turkey is a popular destination for Russians both for tourism and for purchasing real estate to obtain a residence permit. In 2022, more than 150,000 Russians received a Turkish residence permit. Source: Wiki Commons
In her new country, Yelena is gradually meeting more and more people – she even met a colleague with whom she worked at the psychological support center. “I am still in the Moscow therapeutic group, in the supervisory group, in some projects. But online,” she says.

Saying goodbye but not going anywhere

I know a lot more people who do not support the war and the current political regime but remain in Russia – they would like to leave but cannot. But fewer and fewer of them are willing to tell their story – even on condition of anonymity. Based on many personal conversations, I can perhaps explain why people do not leave and why they return.

The first is parents. It is especially important for those who are 45+, whose parents are already old and need help. Taking them abroad is difficult and expensive (especially taking into account health insurance), and often they do not want to leave.

The second reason is that people may not be able to continue their careers properly or work in their field at all. This also stops many fairly young people, aged 30+: when so much effort has already been spent to reach certain heights in your career, it is very hard to accept low-skilled work – and this is the choice facing many who have left and do not work in IT.

The third reason is money. Now, even in countries that have seen mass emigration, such as Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro, everything has become more expensive – housing, goods and services. You can make money there either by working remotely or by providing small services to other emigrants; however, not everyone is able to do the former, while the latter does not bring in much money and the competition in the market is serious. And no one has savings that would allow them to live for at least a few years abroad.
Even selling property in Russia rarely makes ends meet – and transferring abroad the proceeds from a sale is becoming increasingly difficult.
Just a year ago, many expressed hope that the war would end soon and the regime would fall. It is not for nothing that the rumor of Putin’s death was recently discussed with such enthusiasm, even if it was not widely believed.

If there are no new economic shocks (and the authorities will try to prevent them before the presidential elections in spring 2024), many will continue working in Russia, hoping to build up a “financial cushion” for emigration. Finding work abroad remains tough, but if the regime gets tougher – which is very likely – the desire to emigrate may outweigh these concerns. The problem with parents is going nowhere, though for some the solution may be a retirement home – this business is now growing rapidly in Russia.

Thus, emigration does not look set to stop, but if the Kremlin does not announce a new mobilization, people will leave gradually, returning periodically to tie up loose ends and sell property, or even live between two countries. And perhaps more and more people will get used to the idea of living abroad.
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