The new White Russians: the fate of émigrés fleeing Putin

The fate of Russia’s émigrés

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

It’s spring in Tbilisi. The fruit trees are in full blossom, the nights are warm. The Purpur restaurant near the Gudiashvili Gardens and Vinzavod No. 1 on Rustaveli Avenue – favourites of visiting Moscow hipsters and creatives for years – buzz with Russian conversation. ‘Everyone I know is here now,’ says Katya, 43, a museum curator visiting from Moscow. ‘It’s like Kvartira 44 [a Moscow café popular with the intelligentsia] on an outing.’

But instead of excitement, the mood among the thousands of Russians who have fled their country for the Georgian capital since the beginning of the war is one of anxiety and barely suppressed desperation. ‘People are putting on a brave face, talking about this plan and that project,’ reports Katya on her return home last week. ‘But nobody has any idea what they are going to do. Everyone’s feeling lost. Nervous. Ashamed for what’s happening in Ukraine. In shock.’

Tbilisi, Yerevan, Istanbul and Tel Aviv have become the capitals of the new Russian emigration. Some 5.5 million Ukrainians are estimated to have fled their country since Russia’s invasion on 24 February. But some 250,000 Russians – mostly creative professionals, journalists, managers, business people and political activists – have also escaped from Vladimir Putin’s regime. A minority – mostly bloggers, journalists and activists – have fled in fear of arrest and imprisonment under a new law that punishes ‘public dissemination of false information’ about the war with 15 years in jail (some 500 people who remained behind have already been charged). But the majority of the émigrés have left because ‘the war made it clear that the future that people believed in no longer exists’, says author and journalist Mikhail Zygar, who is now in Berlin. ‘Everything that they worked for is now impossible to achieve… They have lost their future in Russia, so there is no sense in staying.’

Just as during the first great Russian emigration that followed the 1917 revolution, the realisation that life has changed for ever and that exile could be a permanent state has, for many émigrés, dawned only gradually. ‘There are moments when the line of our fate suddenly fractures,’ wrote the Russian writer and diarist Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya – better known by her pen name Teffi – who travelled to Kyiv, then Istanbul, then Paris to escape the Bolsheviks. ‘Moments of this kind are not always noticeable. Sometimes they bear no sign or seal and are lost among the routines of our daily lives.’

For Alexei, 56, one of Russia’s most successful filmmakers, whose multi-million dollar co-production with Netflix was cancelled just days into the war, the situation at first felt like ‘an unfolding nightmare, something unbelievable’. He escaped to Tel Aviv, then Riga. He came to understand that ‘the cycles of history have a wavelength longer than a human lifespan’: ‘We are in a transition that could last 300 years. I could die waiting, but I prefer to live my life.’ Teffi’s generation fled civil war and violence. By contrast, says Alexei, today’s émigrés are escaping ‘a cold civil war. There is no bloodshed yet, but there is a clear fracturing of ethical and ideological lines. It’s clear that there is no place for people like me in Russia anymore.’

In Teffi’s world, the talk in the down-at-heel cafés of Istanbul frequented by increasingly desperate and destitute exiles was of how to find work, of wishful rumours, of the imminent defeat of the Reds, and of how to obtain visas to France. It’s much the same for today’s émigrés, who are stuck in a bureaucratic and sanctions-driven pincer. ‘We are in limbo,’ says Varvara Babitskaya, a Moscow-based journalist and literary translator who is now in Tbilisi. ‘We live with three questions – where to live, how to live, and on what money to live.’ Most middle-class Russians were used to having an EU Schengen visa in their passports as a matter of course, but two years of Covid restrictions on tourist visits by Russians has meant that very few still have valid visas. Georgia and Armenia allow Russians to enter visa-free and live there for a year. Turkey also allows free entry, but only two months’ residency. ‘Tbilisi and Yerevan are strictly temporary solutions,’ says Zygar. ‘Everyone wants to go to the EU.’

Except that visas to Europe require complicated financial and workplace guarantees – impossible to obtain for Russians who have been cut off from their savings by international banking sanctions. And for those lucky enough to have made it to Europe, it’s proving impossible to open bank accounts. ‘Russians have been cancelled,’ says Zygar. ‘It’s understandable. Western banks want to save money on compliance, so they just refuse to work with Russian clients and don’t bother to work out the difference between us.’

For all the bureaucratic challenges, most exiles I spoke to find the idea of return unconscionable. ‘I feel like both a German and a Jew in Berlin in 1939,’ says Babitskaya, whose grandfather, Konstantin Babitsky, was one of seven people arrested in Red Square for protesting against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; her grandmother also served time in the gulag for editing an underground publication. ‘I feel an irrational burden of collective guilt [for the war] because somehow myself and people like me were unable to stop it. And I feel like a Jew because we are the enemy.’

War made Babitskaya realise that Russia was an alien place. ‘When I listen to intercepted phone calls from Russian soldiers to their families [published by the Ukrainian media] I literally cannot understand what they are saying. It’s like they are speaking a foreign language. Their wives tell them to steal something for them and send it home, encourage them to rape Ukrainian women. And when these soldiers come home – if they survive – they’ll behave the same way to people around them. I don’t want to live among such people.’ For Zygar, the idea of ‘living in a fascist Russia is impossible… if you stay, you are complicit’.

The exodus has not been confined to writers, IT professionals and creative types. A slew of top Russian managers, including the deputy head of Aeroflot and two top executives of the state-owned Sberbank, have also left. The brain drain is so serious that the Russian government last month introduced new rules restricting any executive in the banking sector from leaving the country – leading to hasty resignations by nervous bankers. The economist Andrei Movchan predicts that this drain of human resources will be ‘catastrophic’ for the country’s banking sector and will accelerate Russia’s economic isolation and decline. ‘For a long time Russia was an attractive place to work because the salaries were high, the assets were undervalued, and there was serious dynamism in the retail banking sector,’ says the Harvard Business School-educated head of a major Russian executive headhunting firm, who quit her job last month and is actively looking for work in the US. ‘Now? It’s a burned field… basically the banking sector no longer exists.’ And because of the near-total suspension of the Moscow stock market, all publicly listed businesses in Russia are effectively worth zero. ‘It’s a suspended mass default, which can only end in mass nationalisation,’ she says.

In the long term, the exodus of creatives and executives will cripple both Russia’s economy and any attempt to rebuild some kind of functional civil society. In the short term – not so much. ‘I realise that big Russia probably won’t notice or care that we are gone,’ says Babitskaya. ‘Most Russians just care about survival.’ As Putin himself has said, people who feel ‘that Russia is not their country’ are ‘free to leave’. Essentially, he bade good riddance to a whole class of traitors and ‘fifth columnists’.

The good news for the new exiles is that unlike their early 20th-century counterparts, most are tech-savvy and ‘already well integrated into the rest of the world… most of these people only partly lived in Russia anyway’, says Zygar. And the Biden administration, sensing that one of the best ways to attack the Putin regime is to attract the brightest and best away, this week proposed an immigration measure to offer highly educated Russians a better chance at permanent residence and a new life in America. Under the new measures, US employers and sponsors could invite Russians outside current (four times over-subscribed) quotas for specialists, with adjudication within 90 days.

So far, the EU has offered visa-free residence with the right to work for three years to all Ukrainians – but it has no such measures mooted for Russians fleeing the same regime. The UK, for its part, has made little provision for Ukrainians and none at all for Russians, who face impossibly daunting and expensive immigration and work visa rules.

That’s a terrible mistake. Putin and his propagandists claim that Russia’s might is in its nuclear weapons and (increasingly implausibly) its not-so-mighty army. In truth, Russia’s most valuable – and most squandered – resource has been its people. In the 20th century, exiled Russians brought the world the helicopter, Hollywood and Google. For Russians fleeing Putin’s regime, the collapse of their world is a personal tragedy. But welcoming such people to the West would not only be a blow against the Kremlin but a massive boon for us.

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