What Life Is Like For Russian Emigrants
November 15, 2023
  • Anna Kuleshova
    Sociologist, coordinator of the New Russian Diasporas Outside the EU project, Social Foresight Group
  • Maria Volkova
    Sociologist, supervisor of the New Russian Diasporas Outside the EU project, Social Foresight Group

Based on their research, sociologists Anna Kuleshova and Maria Volkova discuss the experiences and adaptation mechanisms of Russians who fled the country due to the war, as well as the changes that took place in their host countries amid the huge influx of Russian emigrants.

City hall in Novi Sad, Serbia. Source: Wiki Commons
What unites Russians who left their country after February 24? Amid the very deep crisis in Russia-West relations, the basis for unity is often not so much Russian nationality and citizenship as it is a common fate, the desire to distance themselves from their origins and professional solidarity.

The Social Foresight Group conducted a study, commissioned by the Boris Nemtsov Foundation, in Armenia, Serbia, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Israel. These countries differ considerably in terms of their economic and investment climates, labor market conditions and migration policies; however, it is precisely this diversity that allows us to draw conclusions about the relative effectiveness of their different approaches.

Attitudes toward Russian emigration

We can make a rough distinction between two types of migration policy, which we have designated as “open” and “closed.” The “open” policies adopted by Armenia and Serbia have attracted Russian companies, entrepreneurs and professionals. This, in turn, boosted the Armenian and Serbian economies. Meanwhile, Turkey and Kazakhstan, which have more “closed” policies, have become more like transit points.

Russians accounted for a significant inflow of money into the economies of their host countries. For example, Armenia’sGDP for 2022 had been forecast by the World Bank to grow 4.8%, but it actually grew 12.6%, as estimated by the IMF. This growth is not least driven by IT companies opened by Russians and money transfers from Russia. According to the Central Bank of Armenia, in the first quarter of 2023, Russians transferred $1.2 billion to Armenia – five times more than the same period in 2022.
The influx of Russians coincided with GDP growth of 5.6% in Turkey, 7.0% in Kyrgyzstan and 10.1% in Georgia. Serbia’s GDP growth came in below expectations due to higher energy prices, though Russian emigrants did help to stop the decline in GDP, as reported by Serbian officials.

The exceptions were Kazakhstan and Israel. Due to the structure and size of their economies, the influx of Russians seems not to have had a significant effect.

All countries discussed in this study have seen their IT sectors strengthened, which is attributable to highly qualified and wealthy Russian emigrants – these are people who were moved by their employers or who entered the countries on a work visa.

In Serbia and Armenia, this led to the creation of their own IT hubs. In the Emerging Europe IT Competitiveness Index, Serbia placed 12th in 2022, having risen from 47th place in 2019.

According to Novaya Gazeta, following the arrival of Russians in Armenia and Serbia, public investment in the urban infrastructure of Yerevan and Belgrade rose, the service sector improved and the number of public spaces increased.
Communities of Russians most actively took shape in Serbia and Armenia, where emigrants’ integration into the local economy was the deepest
A Russian emigrant in Tbilisi's airport on the way to Istanbul, May 2022.
Photo by Anna Kuleshova
– Russians found work and opened their own businesses. In particular, Russian educational initiatives, bars and restaurants, various kinds of information/communication and cultural projects, etc. began to appear.

Thanks to friendly migration policies, the Russians who moved to these countries from Turkey and Kazakhstan stayed there, as well as those who had initially planned to go to the EU but did not have the resources and/or grounds for obtaining the necessary documents.

Paradoxically, the openness of Armenia contributed to the fact that many Russian emigrants put off formal legalization in the country, remaining as “tourists” while working for third countries. Meanwhile, in Serbia, where it is harder to keep the legal status of “tourist” for a long time, the country’s migration policy stimulated formal integration.

Russians initially viewed Kazakhstan and Turkey as countries where they could easily enter and stay for a relatively long time without making much effort to legalize themselves. However, a subsequent tightening of their migration policies forced many Russians to leave these countries.

As mentioned above, many who left Russia for Kazakhstan and Turkey later moved to Armenia and Serbia. One of our respondents said: “setting up a legal entity [in Armenia] is very fast. There are very few documents: you need a social security card translated into Armenian and certified by a notary, and you need a foreign passport. It takes two hours... There are no hurdles or obstacles to opening [a business] at all.”

The tightening of migration policy seems to have been one of the reasons that in Kazakhstan and Turkey Russian diasporas were less actively integrated into the local economy and opened businesses than in Armenia and Serbia.

Israel stands apart

Russians had been coming to Israel under the repatriation program before an emergency repatriation process was launched in March 2022, which made it possible to obtain repatriate status without going through a lengthy preliminary check in Russia.

During the first year of the Russia-Ukraine war, thanks to the emergency repatriation process more than 50,000 Russians came to Israel. However, after some time the bureaucratic system could no longer handle the flow of new repatriates. The situation was aggravated by the complexity of procedures, as well as the lack of consistency in decision-making between different departments of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior and even between different officials.

Even greater difficulties appeared in the winter of 2023, when the Netanyahu government returned to power. Analysis of Telegram channels allowed us to make a paradoxical observation:
“The Russian diaspora in Israel is the least integrated of all the countries where Russians have gone since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The emigrants spend comparatively more effort on legalization in Israel than in other countries. Our respondents spoke very negatively about the Israeli bureaucracy (including the financial system): “the banking system here is basically the 19th century compared to what we had in Russia. The apps are hell. It is simply impossible to call your personal [account] manager... I will not even start a conversation because it is just terrible.” Others agreed: “the Israeli banking system is probably the worst I have encountered in my life;” “the bureaucracy is awful here...”

Common fate, distancing from “Russianness” and professional solidarity

“The fact is I remain a Russian citizen, but now I do not have a full sense of belonging,” said one of our respondents. “I’m […] now trying to disown this. It is, of course, impossible to do, because in this situation it is very difficult to separate your citizenship and your attitude to what is happening...”

The desire to disassociate oneself from Russia, which is waging a major war against Ukraine, strengthens the sense of national identity among Russian citizens who are members of ethnic minorities, leading them to identify more strongly with their ethnic group. For example, our research group encountered a community of Bashkirs who created a transnational network of support and mutual assistance.

There are associations of Buryats who left Russia (Russia.Post has written about this), and Kalmyks too.

Often, respondents said that they were united by a common fate: having found themselves in difficult circumstances due to the same events, they should unite and help each other. This is especially true for those who, due to meager financial resources, struggle to get by while in emigration but at the same time do not want to return to Russia.
Uniting with others who have made similar choices is especially important for Russians who have lost important social ties in their life, like friends or relatives who support the war.”
A Russian teenager forced to study online, Tbilisi, March 2022.
Photo by Anna Kuleshova
In emigration, they are trying to reestablish trusting relationships and rebuild their social capital through solidarity with like-minded people and people in similar circumstances.

People who lived “in their own bubble” and say that in their social circle no one supported the war find themselves in their new country surrounded by people from their previous, often professional, circle. Such solidarity is typical for emigrants who left the country as part of a professional group.

This can be either a joint relocation, when coworkers decide together on the country and city, or “chain” emigration. Coworkers may not be close friends, they may not want to be neighbors and spend their free time together, but they can help each other. For instance, in our study there was the case of a group of psychologists who jointly chose to move to Alanya (Turkey), after which they have kept in touch there and organize joint professional projects.

There are also examples of transnational professional groups, whose members have maintained strong ties and felt solidarity while being in different countries.

“My colleagues and I made the decision together,” says a member of such a group, “but we each went separately... We talk, work on joint projects... Twice a year, Russian-speaking psychologists come to work on them – from Russia, from Austria, from Georgia, from Kazakhstan. One colleague even came from India...”

“Diaspora economies” are emerging around these professional groups: Russians open new businesses in their host countries, and other Russian emigrants who find themselves in the same country use their services because they trust their compatriots. But these services – fashionable “Moscow” cafes, expensive beauty salons, etc. – exist for the more affluent, for emigrants who are often dissatisfied with the local level of services and are ready to overpay to get what they were accustomed to in Russia.
“The social inequality seen in Russia is being reproduced abroad.”
It is harder for people not from Moscow or St Petersburg, who lack a financial backstop and/or do not have a profession in demand abroad to integrate into emigrant communities in cities where, for example, a large number of Moscow- or St Petersburg-based IT specialists have moved.

Russian emigrants helping refugees

After the escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and now between Israel and Palestine, the question is often raised about how this will affect the Russians who went there after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war. So far, we only know that many of our respondents are involved in volunteer programs, helping those in need in their host countries, taking refugees into their homes and providing assistance with goods, food and money.

“I moved to Armenia a year and a half ago, in March 2022, like many Russians after the start of the war in Ukraine,” Vlad, an IT specialist from Moscow, now working remotely in Yerevan and volunteering to help refugees, says.

“I really sympathize with the Armenian people who find themselves in a difficult situation. I cannot compare their experience with mine, because my life is quite easy in this regard – I had the privilege to move. I feel comfortable here. My friend and I brought food to help refugees. These are people who have been under siege for a very long time. So, I wanted to get involved too and do my own, little part.”

Another respondent, who was in Yerevan when the conflict with Azerbaijan began, said that “the guys brought food, ready-made food, goods, whatever they could to help. Even just washing things is a problem in such a situation. Those who had cars drove around to different places, I know that they brought clothes to Children’s Park, took people to see doctors, transported things... There were active discussions in volunteer chats... Russian IT specialists taught math and physics for free to some of the refugee children and high school students...”

“Of course, we tried to get involved and help. Like they helped us. The owners of the house allowed us to take in people in need; an Armenian family with two daughters lived with us for almost a month. We became friends. They thanked us, just as we had thanked the Armenian people for helping us... It’s very strange, I was just in that situation myself, but then you get the opportunity to help others. So, I became stronger, right?”
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy