‘A fascistic regime’: Putin’s Ukraine war triggers an exodus — from Russia – Grid News

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‘A fascistic regime’: Putin’s Ukraine war triggers an exodus — from Russia

Dima Varlamov is convinced that this is only the first wave.

Four weeks ago, the 32-year-old was a reporter in Moscow, working for TV Rain, an independent Russian network. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the station was blocked as part of a Kremlin crackdown on dissent, and its journalists — along with other independent-minded Russians — threatened with arrest for sharing even the most elementary facts about Russia’s war. “We saw increased censorship within days,” Varlamov told Grid.


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The night TV Rain was shut down, rumors flew about a police raid on the network’s staff. It never happened, but the message, Varlamov said, was clear. The point was to “scare us.”

The choice was also clear: stay in Russia, unable to continue reporting in safety, or flee, joining an exodus of Russians already estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands.

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Varlamov chose to leave. “I didn’t come alone,” he told Grid from his temporary base in Istanbul. He was joined by friends and colleagues from TV Rain and other outlets. “When we left, we didn’t think much about where to go,” he said. All he brought with him was “underwear, socks, pants and a laptop. That’s it.”

At least 150 journalists have left Russia since the war began, joined by professionals from a range of sectors and backgrounds. One estimate, from a Russian economist at the University of Chicago, puts the total number of those who left in the immediate aftermath of the invasion at 200,000 — a figure that has almost certainly risen in recent weeks.

They have made their decisions for a variety of reasons — from opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war, to dimming work prospects as Western sanctions force all manner of businesses to close down. More than 450 companies have shuttered or scaled back operations in Russia in recent weeks, in sectors as varied as technology and finance, law and retail. (As Grid’s Benjamin Powers reported, up to 70,000 programmers have already left Russia, a tech sector brain drain that is likely to accelerate; as many as 100,000 are expected to leave in April alone.)

Varlamov believes that as the sanctions take hold, the rush to leave will accelerate. “I think there is going to be a second wave as the economic situation worsens,” he said.

“We feel guilt”

To the west of Ukraine, more than 3 million refugees from the war are navigating new lives, seeking shelter and jobs and schooling for their children. For the new Russian diaspora, there is of course nothing like that desperation. But there are challenges and trauma of a different sort.

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There is also a sea change in terms of what these people feel they can say about the country they left. As they arrived in Turkey, imagining their next steps, Russians spoke of Putin and the war in ways that would be almost unimaginable in their native country.

Sasha Chernousova, 33, a shoe designer from St. Petersburg, fled with her husband, Alec, and their daughter. Now in Istanbul, she told Grid that “we understood that our country is going in a very bad direction.”

Worried about growing authoritarianism under Putin, Chernousova and her family said they had been thinking about leaving for some time. She had been a regular for years at opposition protests. Her hope, she said, had been to “stay in the country and make it better.”

But the invasion of Ukraine, and Putin’s subsequent crackdown, made it impossible to remain. “We understood that this is a fascistic regime, and we must go out,” she said.

“Maybe things will change soon,” her husband, an art historian and publisher, added, striking a faint note of hope. “Maybe not soon. We don’t know.”

Since arriving in Istanbul three weeks ago, the couple have made it a point to attend local protests against the war — an effort on their part to make clear to new friends and neighbors in Turkey exactly where they stand.

“We feel terrible because we are part of this machine of war,” Chernousova told Grid, “This war is made with our money. And we feel guilt, of course. We do not know what we can say, but we go there with posters saying, ‘Russians against the war,’ and we stand there with Ukrainian flags.”

‘Eventually, they say they hope to return — although they do not know when that might be. “We really want to finally go back,” Alec told Grid. “We have a wonderful flat in St. Petersburg, in the center of the city, a 19th-century building in very beautiful district.”

For now, it will have to wait, as the picture inside Russia continues to darken inexorably, so much so that, with state media and Kremlin propaganda dominant, millions of Russians aren’t fully aware of what is happening. “They thought, OK, we have to get rid of Nazis in Ukraine, and this ‘special operation’ will be very quick and very smooth,” Varlamov, the former TV Rain journalist, said. “So there is nothing to be afraid of.”

But Varlamov believes attitudes in Russia may change as the economic punishment takes effect. “Russia has been sanctioned since 2014, and people are used to living under sanctions. But eight years ago, it wasn’t so harsh,” he explained. “Now the situation is completely different. The previous sanctions only damaged the authorities, the government. [But] when people get their bank cards blocked, that’s something special. No one could foresee it.”


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Few places to go

Like Varlamov, Chernousova and her family came to Turkey because it was one of the few places that remains accessible from Russia, in terms of visa regulations and air travel. Western sanctions have dealt a body blow to westbound routes; you can no longer fly from Russia to the European Union or U.S. destinations. Ticket prices on the routes still operational — to Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia — have spiked.

The last direct train link between the European Union and Russia — a Finnish service between St. Petersburg and Helsinki — was suspended this past week.

That leaves a handful of countries to Russia’s south and east where Russians can still travel. While no official figures have been released, tens of thousands of Russians are estimated to have come to Turkey in the month since the war began, according to local media reports. Among them is one particularly well-known member of the new Russian diaspora: Anatoly Chubais, a longtime Kremlin official and until recently an international envoy for Putin, who last week flew to Istanbul with his wife.

Lisa Birger, an émigré who left Russia for Turkey more than a decade ago, told Grid that in addition to Turkey, many Russians were escaping to Armenia and to Georgia, where at least 20,000 Russians have arrived since the start of the war.

A “country … outside a country”

A freelance journalist with both Russian and Georgian heritage, Birger said she could not stop crying for the first few days after the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine. Now, she has thrown herself into helping others who want to leave. “We are like a country that exists outside a country,” she told Grid. “For us, the people who have already been living here, we are trying to help those in danger. For example, at my place, I have a mother and a sister of a political activist who ran away because the Russians tried to arrest him two times on the streets of St. Petersburg.”

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At least one dissident oligarch has pitched in to help those leaving Russia, she said, citing the billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, exiled in London after being jailed by Putin. “[He has] representatives here, and they are renting apartments [for some of those who have fled],” Birger said. The Khodorkovsky-backed initiative, called Ark, is also active in Armenia.

Such support is often critical; many recent exiles had to leave their possessions behind. “Most of the journalists that I know had to leave in a very short time before Russia became North Korea, so they are pretty shocked and have no concrete plans,” said Baris Altintas, who helps run an Istanbul-based nonprofit that provides pro-bono legal services for journalists. Since the onset of war in Ukraine, she has been working with friends and colleagues to help Russian journalists escape.

“There are now about 30 Russian journalists [in Istanbul] that we are trying to assist with different issues and at least 10 others who don’t need our help,” she told Grid. “But of course, there are probably more in Istanbul. I also have many friends who have come who are not journalists or activists, who are just regular people trying to get out, fearful of their future.”

Indeed, such is the influx that one “can see a lot of Russians now in the streets” of Istanbul, Marina Kozinaki, a 35-year old psychotherapist from a small town near Moscow, told Grid.

She fled in early March. “Many times I thought about leaving,” she said. Over the years, Kozinaki told Grid that she had been to several opposition protests. But she never left because “I love Russia, and my friends and family are there.”

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That changed a week after the Ukraine invasion, when she went to one of the early protests in Moscow. “I had a conversation with a policeman, and it was very frightening,” she told Grid. “I had a placard that said ‘No war,’ and the policeman came and told me to put it away and go away from the square. And about 10 or 20 meters from there, other policemen were beating people. I was just lucky that they let me leave. It was so scary. It was in that moment that I thought, ‘No, I must leave.’”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this story.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

  • Beril Eski
    Beril Eski

    Freelance Reporter

    Beril Eski is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.