Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
Many more have sought refuge in a number of different countries in eastern Europe. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began, Russians who have the means to do so have been racing for the border in what has become the largest exodus since the Bolshevik Revolution.
The dramatic flight underscores the far-reaching effects of Putin’s war. For Russians who came of age in the 1990s, it seemed at first that the days of having to abandon the country for political reasons were over. One could leave for economic reasons, but there was no longer a fear of persecution or restrictions on personal freedoms. In recent years, as the Putin regime has become increasingly autocratic, all that has changed. The first large group to be affected were opposition politicians, independent journalists, and political activists, who started fleeing to Europe and the United States after 2013 (Putin reintroduced political emigration as early as in 2000, but back then, it was mostly limited to the oligarchs who fell out with the Kremlin). The outflow accelerated in 2020, after Putin intensified his crackdown on civil society and changed the constitution to allow him to stay in power at least until 2036.
But it was the assault on Ukraine that has turned this trend into a giant wave. During the initial weeks of the invasion, amid ever-tightening repression at home, hundreds of thousands of Russians are believed to have left the country. Those who have fled come from many different professions and backgrounds. Many had never contemplated emigration before. But nearly all of them have three things in common: they have a high level of education, are from the bigger cities, and have a liberal outlook.
For Russia, the departure of so many educated professionals, academics, and businesspeople raises profound questions about the future makeup of the country. For those seeking large-scale political change, it also poses a new challenge: whether it will be possible to effectively pressure the regime from abroad, with so much of the domestic opposition now in jail or simply gone. And for those left behind, the hollowing out of civil society means that they may be stuck with a country that is culturally impoverished, paranoid, and hard line.
The new wave of exiles from Putin’s Russia can be grouped into four categories. The first and largest consists of IT specialists; according to the Russian Association of Electronic Communication, at least 100,000 such professionals have left since the invasion began. Long known for its engineers and computer scientists, Russia is one of a very few countries in which local Internet platforms can compete successfully with global platforms such as Google and Facebook. Before the war, many of these professionals were employees of U.S. and other Western companies; others ran their own companies and did work for foreign clients.
After February 24, however, it became clear that this kind of international work would no longer be possible. The sweeping sanctions imposed by the West hampered access to Western technologies, and many were unable to be paid by their Western clients or even connect to the servers of their companies. Moreover, many of these people are young, in their mid-20s to 40s, and fear being drafted into the army if they stay.
The second group of emigrants are journalists, activists, and nongovernmental organization employees: this group numbers probably not much more than 1,000 people, although their departure, given their importance in undergirding an independent civil society, will have outsize consequences for the country. They quickly recognized at the start of the war that the regime had made it impossible for them to pursue their work in Russia, and for many of them, staying in the country presented a very real risk of arrest and possibly prison.
The third group is made up of the liberal intelligentsia of big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg—professors, researchers, and historians. Until now, members of this group were employed by universities, museums, or other research organizations. Many worked on projects supported by Western foundations rather than the Russian government and had previously pursued their work largely free from Kremlin propaganda. Many had ties to Western universities. But in today’s Russia, this kind of independent work is seen as unpatriotic. The fleeing intellectuals do not think that their lives are in danger, but their careers are, and many of them have already lost their jobs because of their liberal views. And for the most part, they are reluctant to work and live in growing isolation from the West.
The last category of exiles is made up of businesspeople and managers of big corporations, including state-owned companies such as Gazprom, as well as the Russian banks. These Russians no longer feel comfortable in a country that is closing its borders and isolating itself from the outside world, and many of them had been working for companies that are now subject to Western sanctions or might become subject to sanctions pretty soon. When the war started, many of these people abruptly left their jobs and fled to Europe. But their chances of finding employment or a project or business to invest in remain slim, owing to their citizenship and the taint of the Russian corporate world.
Already, two months into the war, some of the recent émigrés—above all, IT specialists—are returning to Russia because they lacked resources to remain abroad. Having spent all the cash they brought with them and found themselves unable to access their Russian bank accounts, they were forced to go home. But now, with the rumors of a general mobilization in the cards, many are trying to find a way to leave again—this time, for good.
In part, the current exodus has been encouraged by Putin himself. During the first two months of the war, the Kremlin has made clear that it would rather drive its opponents out of the country than have them make trouble at home. Until now, for example, the Russian government has not put any restrictions on leaving. As Putin said on March 16, “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouth.”
In taking this approach, Putin is drawing on a long Russian tradition. In past upheavals—anti-Semitic pogroms under the tsar, the Russian Civil War, World War II, and anti-Semitic campaigns during the Soviet era—millions of people were allowed and even encouraged to emigrate. Even when ordinary Russian and Soviet citizens struggled to get permission to leave, troublemakers were actively pushed out. In 1922, for example, Vladimir Lenin personally drew up a list of 220 “undesirable intellectuals,” over 160 of whom he packed onto the so-called philosophers’ ships and sent to Germany. In the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev expanded a policy of stripping dissidents of Soviet citizenship and throwing them out of the country.
But unwanted Russians could also make trouble overseas. As we described in our book The Compatriots, throughout the Soviet years, Russian political exiles never stopped trying to change the regime they had left behind. In the 1920s, they launched a campaign of terror, sending undercover agents to bomb a Bolshevik gathering in Russia and attacking Soviet officials when they traveled abroad. In the 1930s, when the Red Army sent forces to back up the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, exiled veterans of the White Army—the Bolsheviks’ opponents in the Russian Revolution—went to fight for Francisco Franco. And when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, some Russians abroad saw a chance to fight communists and joined with the Nazis. Later, during the Cold War, Russian exiles proved instrumental in shaping the anticommunist propaganda war being waged by the United States and the United Kingdom: it was Russians who sent balloons laden with leaflets over the borders of eastern Europe, and it was their voices that were broadcast from Radio Liberty and other West-backed stations that were beaming information across the Iron Curtain. Similarly, when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Russian political émigrés in London and Paris launched a propaganda effort to try to convince Soviet soldiers to defect to the mujahideen.
At the same time, throughout the communist years, those who had fled tried to influence public opinion in Europe and the United States. They staged protest rallies in numerous Western capitals, and in 1971, they even tried to bomb the New York office of the Soviet trade company Amtorg to raise awareness of the plight of Soviet Jews.
Most of these efforts had little measurable effect. It didn’t help that Russians émigrés were notoriously bad at building political organizations, mostly because they had very conflicting views on the Russian future once it was liberated from communists—democrats clashed with imperialists and nationalists.
But there was one area in which Russians abroad scored some spectacular successes: they wrote a number of important books that, once they were smuggled out of the country, proved instrumental in changing Western opinion about the Soviet Union. (The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the memoir of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, are just two examples.) And when those books were read aloud and discussed in Russian on the radio stations that targeted the Iron Curtain, they helped reshape public opinion within the Soviet Union itself. Other efforts were less efficacious, but these books and broadcasts worked. Ultimately, for exiles to make a difference in Russia itself, they had to somehow find a way to reach those who had stayed behind.
BUDVA, NOT BERLIN
In many ways, the new Russian exodus differs from previous waves. After the 1917 revolution, some Russian émigrés went to Prague, Istanbul, and Shanghai. But above all, they went to Paris and Berlin. In those cities, vibrant Russian communities developed, publishing their own journals, newspapers, and books and forming important Russian connections in the West. Now, by contrast, visa restrictions and the high cost of living mean that only a small number of Russians are heading to Berlin. Even smaller numbers have gone to London, and Paris is almost entirely out of the picture.
Today’s exiles head elsewhere. Some U.S. software giants have moved their Russian personnel to Ireland. But those IT workers who emigrated on their own to continental Europe have struggled to get visas and bank accounts. That is why many IT specialists have sought refuge in Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey instead of Europe. The cost of living in Tbilisi or Istanbul, two popular destinations, is much cheaper than in the Baltic states. (In addition to Russian exiles, Istanbul has also become home to many foreign correspondents who cover Russia and had been based in Moscow until the new censorship made their work impossible.)
For the IT specialists, the landscape has continued to change as the war goes on. Armenia has made an effort to help them register companies and open bank accounts in the country—and it helps the local economy, too, since there is a requirement to hire local staff. On May 3, the United States also announced that it plans to make it easier for Russian IT workers to move to the States. A small colony of the Russian intelligentsia has also emerged in Montenegro, where Russian passport holders are welcomed and real estate is affordable.
The European Union has received its own wave of Russians, though they are going to different countries than previous generations. Vilnius, the small and cozy capital of Lithuania, emerged as the most important center for the Russian political exiles—it is here that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s organization has set up shop, along with many independent Russian journalists and bloggers. This has been possible thanks to the position of the Lithuanian government, which welcomed refugees from Belarus and Russia. Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia, has agreed to host a small number of NGOs and journalists, and an even smaller number have moved to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.
Overall, in contrast to the earlier waves of Russian exiles, which went to Western Europe in the early twentieth century and the United States during the later decades of the Cold War, the current wave has largely been aimed at central and eastern Europe.
THE INFORMATION INSURGENCY
Although they have ended up in different countries than their Soviet forebears, the current wave of exiles has faced many of the same challenges in bringing about change at home. Over the past decade, for example, Russian émigrés have launched several political organizations in the West, like Free Russia Forum, launched by chess world champion and political activist Garry Kasparov, who is now in exile in New York. Predictably, they have fallen into the same trap as their Cold War predecessors, unable to form a coherent or united front.
But Russian exiles have been more successful in giving the world—and Russians themselves—an accurate picture of what is happening under Putin. Consider the start of the war, when around 100 of Russia’s top independent journalists left the country, joining colleagues who had left earlier. Many of these journalists have continued to do their work from abroad, producing independent reporting on Russian affairs and generating original content on YouTube, Telegram channels, and other social media.
Even before the war, some political organizations of Russian exiles understood the power of foreign-based news and information directed at the Russian public. Since the start of the war, supporters of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and of the oligarch-turned-exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky have moved entirely to online journalism, producing continuous streams of content on YouTube and other channels and reaching millions of Russians.
In part, this is because Russian government censors have failed to build a complete information monopoly inside Russia. Despite recent efforts to ban or shut down independent news sites, and to block access to global platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, many Russians remain connected to the world via the Internet through virtual private networks. Besides, for unknown reasons, Russian censors have not blocked access to YouTube and Telegram. Thus, the portion of Russian society that is well educated and independent minded—perhaps 15 percent or more of the population —have continued to get reliable information about the war from abroad—often from the same independent Russian journalists they had followed before the invasion.
That content is now in huge demand: YouTube videos about the actual course of the war in Ukraine routinely gather several million views, and even some of the individual Telegram channels of exiled Russian journalists have tens of thousands of subscribers.
As the war in Ukraine continues, liberals who have remained in Russia have found their situation increasingly untenable. The reality of the Russian present has become horrible, but the Russian future appears even more bleak: a joke that has gone viral on social media has it that English classes in Russian schools have stopped teaching the future simple tense—because Russia no longer has a simple future. Nor does the Russian past offer much hope anymore. After the Soviet Union collapsed, then President Boris Yeltsin’s narrative was straightforward and appealing: the Soviet period was a terrible deviation from a more glorious past, and Russians simply needed to regain what they had before 1917, the Russia of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Anton Chekhov. But when Putin invaded Ukraine, the Russian Empire suddenly ceased to look so attractive. Russian liberals, disgusted by this new war of Russian aggression, have begun to look on the imperial exploits of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with horror.
To work on a new national narrative, Russians badly need not only journalists but also larger institutional support, and that support can no longer be based in Russia. Despite the long history of Russian emigration, however, there is only one successful example of such an offshore institution: the Russian Free University, established in Prague in the 1920s, when Prague was a center for Russian intellectual exiles after the Bolshevik Revolution. Dubbed the “Russian Oxford,” the university was financed by the Czech government, thanks to the patronage of the country’s first president, Thomas Masaryk. Until it was shut down by the Germans in 1939, it managed to keep the Russian intellectual tradition alive and thriving.
Now, there is increasing talk about the need to establish a similar kind of university-in-exile. There is certainly no shortage of professors to lead such an institution, given how many have fled the country. But such an institution would need significant Western support, and European countries in particular would need to take the lead.
During the long Cold War, the United States was the only country that had a strategy aimed at Russian exiles. In an effort spearheaded by the diplomat George Kennan, the United States in the early 1950s established the American Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia and the Free Europe Committee, which used political refugees to foment resistance behind the Iron Curtain. These committees in turn set up Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which brought vital information to audiences across the Eastern bloc. Yet European countries stayed largely on the sidelines. For example, although there were numerous Russian dissidents in West Germany and the U.S.-backed Institute for the Study of the USSR and Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe were headquartered in Munich, the German government did not have any part in running those institutions.
That inaction needs to change now. With hundreds of thousands of Russians on the European continent, it is time for European governments to start thinking of these exile populations far more strategically. Rather than remaining on the defensive, trying to deflect the disinformation and cyberwarfare campaigns that Moscow aims at the West, they should draw on this crucial resource to wage a new kind of information war on the Kremlin. And although much of the emphasis in the Western media has been rightly focused on Ukrainian refugees, European governments should be wary of falling into the trap of regarding Russians exiles themselves as the enemy, rather than crucial allies, in the effort to counter the Putin regime.
By funding and supporting Russian media, educational, and research projects based in Europe, European governments could help bring liberal ideas and independent reporting about Russia to Russians themselves and help counter the propaganda of the Putin regime. Over time, they could also help give rise to a new narrative about Russia and what the future of the country might be. If Western governments fail to support this sudden wave of exiles, however, they will squander what could be one of their most effective forms of soft power against Russian autocracy.
First published in Foreign Affairs