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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Things will only get worse.’ Putin’s war sends Russians into exile.

Two Russian TV journalists, Katerina Kotrikadze and Tikhon Dzyadko, prepare to leave Istanbul with their children for Tbilisi, Georgia, March 6, 2022.

By Anton Troianovski and Patrick Kingsley

They lined up at ATMs, desperate for cash after Visa and Mastercard suspended operations in Russia, swapping intelligence on where they could still get dollars. At Istanbul cafes, they sat quietly studying Telegram chats or Google Maps on their phones. They organized support groups to help other Russian exiles find housing.

Tens of thousands of Russians have fled to Istanbul since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, outraged about what they see as a criminal war, worried about conscription or the possibility of a closed Russian border, or concerned that their livelihoods are no longer viable back home.

And they are just the tip of the iceberg. Tens of thousands more traveled to countries like Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan that are better known as sources of migration to Russia. At the land border with Latvia — open only to those with European visas — travelers reported waits lasting hours.

While the exodus of about 2.7 million Ukrainians from their war-torn country has focused the world on a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, the descent of Russia into new depths of authoritarianism has many Russians despairing of their future. That has created a flight — though much smaller than in Ukraine — that some are comparing to 1920, when more than 100,000 opponents of the Communist Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War left to seek refuge in what was then Constantinople.

“There has never been anything like this before in peacetime,” said Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist at the University of Chicago. “There is no war on Russian territory. As a single event, it is pretty huge.”

Some who have fled are bloggers, journalists or activists who feared arrest under Russia’s draconian new law criminalizing what the state deems “false information” about the war.

Others are musicians and artists who see no future for their crafts in Russia. And there are workers in tech, law and other industries who saw the prospect of comfortable, middle-class lives — let alone any possibility for moral acceptance of their government — dissipate overnight.

They left behind jobs and family and money stuck in Russian bank accounts that they can no longer access. They fear being tarred as Russians abroad as the West isolates the country for its deadly invasion, and they reel over the loss of a positive Russian identity.

“They didn’t just take away our future,” Polina Borodina, a Moscow playwright, said of her government’s war in Ukraine. “They took away our past.”

The speed and scale of the flight reflect the tectonic shift the invasion touched off inside Russia. For all of President Vladimir Putin’s repression, Russia until last month remained a place with extensive travel connections to the rest of the world, a mostly uncensored internet giving a platform to independent media, a thriving tech industry and a world-class arts scene. Slices of Western middle-class life — Ikea, Starbucks, affordable foreign cars — were widely available.

But when they woke up Feb. 24, many Russians knew that all that was over. Dmitry Aleshkovsky, a journalist who spent years promoting Russia’s emerging culture of charitable giving, got in his car the next day and drove to Latvia.

“It became totally clear that if this red line has been crossed, nothing will hold him back anymore,” Aleshkovsky said of Putin. “Things will only get worse.”

In the days since the invasion, Putin has forced the remnants of Russia’s independent media to shut down. He has engineered a brutal crackdown against anti-war protesters, with more than 14,000 people arrested across the country since Feb. 24, including 862 in 37 cities Sunday, according to the rights group OVD-Info.

To be sure, many Russians support the war, and many of those supporters are completely unaware of the extent of Russia’s aggression because they rely on state-run television news.

But others have flocked to places like Istanbul, which, like in 1920, has again become a haven for exiles. While most of Europe has closed its skies, Turkish Airlines has been flying from Moscow as much as five times a day; combined with other airlines, more than 30 flights arrive from Russia on some days.

“History moves in a spiral, that of Russia especially,” said Kirill Nabutov, 64, a St. Petersburg sports commentator who fled to Istanbul with his wife this month. “It comes back to the same place — back to this same place.”

Nabutov’s mother’s first cousin was an 18-year-old conscript sailor in Crimea when he evacuated with Cmdr. Peter Wrangel’s fleet to Constantinople in 1920. He traveled on to Tunis, Tunisia, where he became an insurance agent.

Now, too, a generation of Russian exiles faces the daunting prospect of starting from scratch. And all face the gnawing reality of being seen as representing a country that launched a war of aggression, even though many insist they have spent their lives opposing Putin.

In Georgia — where, the government says, 20,000 Russians have arrived since the start of the war — exiles have faced an intimidating environment, full of anti-Russian graffiti and hostile comments on social media.

Many Georgians see clear parallels between the Ukraine invasion and Russia’s war on Georgia in 2008. And while most have been welcoming to the new arrivals, some have not distinguished between Russian dissidents who have fled Russia for security or moral reasons and those who support Putin.

In neighboring Armenia, where the government says several thousand Russians have been arriving daily, the exiles report receiving a better welcome. Davur Dordzheir, 25, said he quit his job as a lawyer with Russia’s state-owned Sberbank, organized his financial affairs, made out a will and said goodbye to his mother. He flew to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, worried that his past public comments against the Russian government could make him a target.

“I realized that since the start of this war, I am an enemy of the state along with thousands of Russians,” he said.

Some exiled Russians are trying to organize mutual aid efforts and seeking to counter anti-Russian sentiment. Aleshkovsky, 37, said he cried every day for the first five days of the war and suffered panic attacks. Then, he said, “I pulled myself together and realized I needed to do what I know how to do.” He and several colleagues are organizing an initiative tentatively called “OK Russians” to help those forced to or trying to depart and to produce media content in English and in Russian.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled oil tycoon who spent 10 years imprisoned in Russia, is funding a project called Kovcheg — “The Ark” — which is providing housing in Istanbul and Yerevan, Armenia, and is looking for psychologists to offer emotional support. Since its kickoff Thursday, it has received some 10,000 inquiries.

The pain of leaving everything behind has been excruciating, many said — along with the guilt of perhaps not having done enough to fight Putin. Alevtina Borodulina, 30, an anthropologist, joined more than 4,700 Russian scientists in signing an open letter against the war. Then, as she walked with friends on central Moscow’s Boulevard Ring, one of them pulled out a tote bag that said “no to war” and promptly got arrested.

She flew to Istanbul on March 3, met like-minded Russians at a protest supporting Ukraine and now volunteers for the Kovcheg project to help other exiles.

“It was like I was seeing the Soviet Union,” Borodulina said of her last days in Moscow. “I was thinking that the people who left the Soviet Union in the 1920s probably made a better decision than those who stayed and then ended up in the camps.”

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