Émigrés in Times of War

Émigrés in Times of War

The new diaspora.


Right now, I have never felt this much of an ideological divide with my father,” says Viktor (a pseudonym), aged 25 who, along with tens of thousands of other Russian émigrés, is now living in Tbilisi, Georgia. “We stopped talking at the end of October.”

While Viktor says his mother still “prioritizes the love of her children,” she has nevertheless turned into a “headphone zombie”—a trope that Viktor defines as someone who continuously listens to the Russian state-run news.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, The Washington Post has estimated that between 500,000 to 1 million Russians have fled their homeland. The two biggest waves have been in the immediate aftermath of the invasion and following the announcement of mobilization last September. Since for most émigrés it has been challenging to enter European Union countries given visa requirements, many chose to settle in Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Israel, and Serbia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has had countless reverberations across the world. The bloodiest war on European soil since 1945 has led to food crises, mass migration, and the deterioration of nuclear treaties between the United States and Russia. However, a far less discussed impact of the war has been that on Russian familial life and the traditional values associated with it, something Russian President Vladimir Putin has often claimed to defend. In addition, the ever-present divide between Russia’s liberal capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the more conservative provinces has come to the surface.

The first wave of émigrés was more ideologically opposed to Putin and his government, whereas the second wave was often fleeing mobilization. Compared with many of those who left Russia in the first weeks following the invasion, their second-wave compatriots are generally more reluctant to assimilate to their new host countries.

Viktoria Vyakhoreva, aged 30, and currently living in Yerevan, Armenia, left Moscow the week following the invasion. Born in the Russian capital, she was trained as a journalist at Moscow State University. She initially found the press to be a bright light in Russia, offering “freedom, knowledge, and political consciousness.” While she acknowledges that such positive sentiments were primarily elicited by Russia’s urban centers, as a “young, zealous, and free-spirited” journalist, she proudly attended every street protest between 2011 and 2014.

However, following the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Vika and her friends began asking those they met, “Крым наш или не наш?” (“Is Crimea ours or not?”). If they heard “Наш” (Ours), Vika says they would simply stop talking to the person, convinced that their interlocutor was an “asshole.” Naturally, given the high level of support the Kremlin received following the takeover of Crimea, Vika’s view is in stark contrast to that of many Russians who view the annexation of Crimea as an act of “reunification.”

By 2017, as Vika saw the space for opposition journalism narrowing, she decided that her skills could be better used in the world of “charitable organizations,” where she worked until 2022. These included such institutions as a charity fund that organizes crowdfunding and medical help for children with oncological and other severe brain-related problems. “For years, it seemed possible for charities to do their job and find this balance in partnering with the government and not being dependent, but it doesn’t work any more,” Vika says.

After moving to Armenia in March 2022, Vika and a former colleague launched the Hume Project in Yerevan. Having hosted over 20 lectures and a handful of courses on Armenian culture, history, and geopolitics, Hume supports the integration of émigrés through exposure to Armenia’s social and cultural landscape.

Vika’s mother, who remains in Russia with her grandmother, was very supportive of her decision to leave the country. Her maternal grandmother is Ukrainian and born in Zaporizhzhia, a region that Putin unilaterally declared annexed by Russia late last year along with three other Ukrainian oblasts. Although they have no family left in Ukraine, Vika recounts how she grew up listening to her grandmother speak to her great-grandmother in Ukrainian. While Vika remains unsure if she will return to Russia, she still has her mother and grandmother there, “so I guess I will have to visit.” Her twin brother also recently left Russia and now lives in Spain.

For Viktor—born and raised in Kazan, the fifth-largest city in Russia 500 miles east of Moscow—the war has caused a palpable split within his family. Viktor’s older brother—having lived through the 1990s, the so-called lost generation of post-Soviet Russia—is more “pragmatic,” he says. Viktor’s brother has connections within the government and some of his friends hold civil positions—some are even staffers of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper chamber of parliament. He views the war as “removed from his own life and country,” and while he “is not pro-war,” he accepts that it’s merely “a part of life.” Viktor’s older sister, involved in the still vibrant Moscow arts and music scene, is strongly against “Putin, the war, and everything.” She participated in the Moscow protests immediately following the invasion and has remained in the country with her boyfriend, an investment banker at a state-owned bank. They plan to leave “properly” one day soon, says Viktor.

Viktor tells me that his father used to listen to Echo of Moscow, a liberal radio station that has since been shuttered. His father even followed the work of Alexey Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation. However, following the protests against widely discredited elections in Belarus during the summer of 2020, Viktor’s father began following state-run news more fervently and questioning Western governments’ influence across the region.

After the invasion last February, Viktor had several discussions with his father but “did not know what to expect” from the conversations. His father began to view the West as the main problem and instigator of the crisis in Ukraine, arguing that the West “stopped making sense and did not understand Russia as a country. Russia and the West were speaking two different languages, and the West was in the wrong.” His father argued that “the US was developing an anti-Russian state in Ukraine…influenced by Ukrainian nationalists.” Viktor is quick to point out that his father does not believe all Ukrainians fit this description. His father believed the problem with the Ukrainian government focused on its indifference to “some terrible deeds in 2014,” such as the events in Odessa as well as the many years in which “Donbas was under siege and ignored.” According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, over 13,000 deaths were registered following the events of 2014 and the outbreak of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine, with a quarter of those being civilians.

For Viktor, the initial shock of the invasion coupled with the response from Western and allied governments left him and his friends with no idea “what to expect.… economically and politically, we were sitting on a ticking bomb.” Following the invasion, Viktor initially went to Uzbekistan, which was affordable and feasible since he works remotely. After spending a month in Tashkent, he returned to Moscow hopeful that peace talks in Istanbul would end the war. After spending the summer in Russia, Viktor swiftly departed for Tbilisi following the mobilization announcement, informing his parents a week after arriving in the Georgian capital.

Viktor tells me that he is “not against [his] country or countrymen…. The education and values I was given and how I was raised, I still nurture and value these. Whereas some very radical Russians are disassociating themselves entirely from their country and history.” Viktor says he generally stayed away from politics. However, after mobilization, he knew that he “did not want to be drafted or to kill people.” When in Russia, “I do not feel safe. The state does not protect me from itself. I’m not afraid of the outside world, [where] I do feel protected,” Viktor says.

Marlene Laruelle and Ivan Grek of George Washington University recently highlighted in The New York Times the “class-based experience” of the war in Ukraine. While those in the “urban middle and upper classes have expressed their discontent with the war by emigrating, the poorer sections of Russian society see things differently.” Russian history, like that of many other great nations, has often faced the societal split between, on the one hand, urban population centers and their well-to-do liberal leaders advocating sweeping changes and reforms and, on the other hand, the mass majority of the population living outside of this bubble.

Throughout the 1860s and ’70s under the reign of Tsar Alexander II, the Russian Empire embarked on a liberalizing process that would be remembered as the Great Reforms, akin to that of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost over a century later—both of which contributed to periods of serious clampdown or unrest. Under the last Tsar, Nicholas II, the dichotomy between the liberal urban centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the majority provincial population of the empire caused a divide among policy elites as well as public opinion on the best path forward for the empire’s development.

While much has changed in Russia since these times, the reality remains that there is often a disconnect between those born, raised, and educated in Moscow or St. Petersburg and those who spend their lives consumed by provincial life. When one considers the political mentalities of those in urban centers such as New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco compared to those from the Midwest or the South, the inherent nature of this dichotomy becomes clearer.

What makes this emigration crisis today all the more impactful is that those leaving are often young, educated, and tech-savvy working-age IT specialists, doctors, journalists and engineers. With Western sanctions having cut Russia’s access to most Western technologies, Moscow will be far more reliant on other partners and its own domestic innovations—something Putin has explicitly advocated for. It is clear that this brain drain will have a lasting impact on the future development of the Russian economy.

As Vika explains, her “closest environment,” during and after 2014, “was very liberal and free-minded; all journalists, cultural workers, IT-entrepreneurs, well-educated, well-paid, traveling a lot.” With Putin deriding émigrés, often in the middle and upper classes, as “traitors” and “scum,” those remaining “patriots” will be increasingly relied upon to modernize Russia amid unprecedented sanctions and societal changes. As Laurelle and Grek posited, “millions of Russians at the bottom of the social ladder can emerge as the country’s true heroes, ready for the ultimate sacrifice,” albeit predominately through the war, for now.

While Russia’s demographic situation has recovered from the severe challenges of the early 1990s, the state is still struggling with its population that has witnessed a 2 percent decrease in the 30 years since. With a birth rate of 1.5 children per woman and a death rate that is higher than similarly industrialized countries, Moscow continues to suffer from a demographic crisis.

Throughout Russian history there have been several notable periods of emigration: following the pogroms in the wake of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881, the White Russian émigrés following the revolution and civil war, and the Jewish aliyah throughout the late-Soviet period.

Vika tells me she sincerely hopes that that as a result of this wave of emigration, “Russians for the first time in history will be able to form a powerful and helpful diaspora all over the countries we live in now.” And that this diaspora “will help those who are oppressed by the Russian government and who are left without a job and earnings.” Vika believes the Hume Project will “be a part of this process.”

On her decision to leave her motherland, Vika says that she “had no hesitations” and that she “didn’t want to stay in a city which is [the] heart of [an] evil regime.” Following the invasion last February, Vika says she had “no one supporting it around. I know there are some people, but they are not mine,” she concludes.

Russia has seen and endured many times of troubles throughout its long and tumultuous history, and the current coterie around Putin is confident that the country can withstand its own troubles associated with the consequences of the invasion. Following the events of 2014 and the imposition of sanctions—modest, when compared to the economic regime in place against Russia today—the Kremlin began a process of import substitution that, to varying degrees, produced some positive results. Today, in 2023, the systemic changes needed are exponentially more demanding and vital to the stability and prosperity of the country.

Viktor believes there are people in government, such as the head of the Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina and the minister of digital development, communications, and mass media, Maxut Shadayev, who have succeeded and have stayed in place to do their job. Naturally, they have avoided speaking out against the war and are sanctioned by the West. “There are good people. But it won’t take a lot of time for the entire country to become more controlling, and people are going to get more afraid of the state and it will turn into more of a totalitarian and radicalized system than before,” he says.

Viktor continues to experience a “slight sense of distance mentally with [his] parents.” However, he explains that he also “feels sorry for them. I want to move forward, but my mother wants to take me backwards to Moscow, stalling my life. Friends I have in Tbilisi or in other parts of the world, feel differently. They benefit from the support of their parents, but I don’t.”

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