Anti-War Russians: What's it like for those who didn't leave?
December 26, 2022
  • Liubov Borusyak

    Sociologist, Free University (Moscow)
Liubov Borusyak conducted a follow-up study of Russians who are against the war and have remained in Russia to see what they think about people who left and their life in forced exile, as well as their own fate and the outlook for Russia.
The announcement of the partial mobilization in September triggered a new wave of emigration out of Russia, which was bigger than the spring one that had followed the outbreak of hostilities. We do not know exactly how many people left Russia – there is no reliable data yet – but the number is clearly in the hundreds of thousands. People who left were generally of the most active ages, the most educated and mobile, and considered the conflict with Ukraine unacceptable. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of Russians with such political views remain in Russia.

Opponents of the war who remain in Russia

From the very first months, the flow of people out of Russia has attracted a lot of attention from researchers, though opposition-minded people who remain in the country ended up outside their focus for the most part. This is likely because emigration, along with the drastic change in lifestyle, is perceived as an active behavior, while staying at home amid the realization that the situation is getting worse every month seems to be a manifestation of passivity and is thus less interesting for researchers.
"People who are opposed to the military operation in Ukraine but do not want or cannot leave their home, city or country find themselves marginalized."
Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called Russians who left the country after the start of the war traitors. Meanwhile, opposition minded people who stayed in Russia tend to think that reducing the number of regime opponents is convenient for the Kremlin. Source: Wiki Commons
Unlike people who left, they do not have their own communities, they are often surrounded by people with different views, and they want to talk about themselves and their problems, doubts and concerns.
In May, I launched a survey of people remaining in Russia who have a university degree and are against the Kremlin's policies, to give them the opportunity to speak up. The survey was conducted online through snowball sampling, with a link to the questionnaire actively promoted by a variety of people on social media. In less than 48 hours, I received 500 completed questionnaires, after which I closed the survey.

Six months passed, the partial mobilization came and went (or was stopped), and I decided to return to this same social group. Some questions were repeated in the questionnaire, some were new, and it was sampled in the same way. This time, interest in participating turned out much higher: in 48 hours, 1,300 completed questionnaires were sent in. Judging by the volume, if the survey had been left open, many thousands of people could have participated.

What do they think of themselves and people who left? Will they stay in Russia forever or might they leave in the future? How, in their view, has the mass exodus of their political allies affected the situation in the country and how will it affect it? These questions were put forward in the latest stage of the study.

Survey participants: A brief overview

One thousand three hundred people participated in the survey, with 48% living in Moscow, 19.4% in St Petersburg and about 4% in Moscow region and Yekaterinburg each, followed by residents of other million-plus cities (Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, etc.), while residents of various regional centers were also represented. Other, smaller areas accounted for 9% of respondents.

Almost all respondents have higher education or study at university now. The age distribution is relatively uniform: exactly a third of survey participants are younger than 30 years old, 21% from 30 to 39, 20% from 40 to 49, 18% from 50 to 59 and 8% 60 and older.

They have a variety of professions. Most work in education and science (15.4%), followed by the IT sector and engineering (11%), culture, literature and art (10%), and administration and management (10%). There were also students (9%), along with advertising, marketing and mass media specialists (about 5-6% here and each of the following groups); pensioners; bankers and auditors; doctors; lawyers; and editors and translators. Since humanitarian areas are more represented, there are more women than men. Perhaps another reason for the smaller proportion of men is that men who remain in Russia are trying to attract as little attention to themselves as possible.

In the February survey, 60% of participants thought about leaving the country but for various reasons stayed. In September, with the beginning of mobilization, a quarter of respondents considered it, while almost half said with confidence that they would not leave. Sometimes it is a personal choice, while sometimes leaving is impossible due to personal circumstances, like a lack of finances, doubts about finding a job, responsibility for sick or elderly relatives, etc. Meanwhile, there are people who have been preparing to leave all this time and are very much planning to in the near future or long term.

How people who leave and who remain interact

Most of the study participants have relatives and friends who left Russia during these months. Almost half of the respondents claim that quite a few or most of their social circle has left. Almost a third said that less than half of their relatives and friends are now outside of Russia. Only 18% reported that not any or very few of their friends and relatives had left.

Naturally, respondents continue to regularly communicate with their relatives and friends in other countries, which has shaped their impression of how successful their emigration is. This has to a large extent affected their decisions to leave or stay. They compare their financial possibilities, the likelihood of finding a job in another country and other factors versus people who left. Eight percent of respondents consider the emigration of people from their social circle to be quite successful – often it is people who left a long time ago, long before the start of the military operation. The option of “probably successful” was chosen by 28.7%, with the rest divided about equally between those who indicated that emigration has been difficult for friends and those who found it hard to answer the question. The high share of the latter category is attributable to the fact that too little time has passed since leaving, and it is too early to draw conclusions.

Half of the study participants had to explain to their departed acquaintances their decision not to leave. This is more often the case with people whose emigration respondents consider successful. They give different explanations, with 33.4% citing a lack of resources (money, work) and 30.7% pointing to responsibility for other people (elderly, sick) or pets that for various reasons cannot move.

Fewer respondents made a decision based on principles. Those who gave answers such as “this is my home, my country, why should I leave?” and “the country is not the same as the state, I want to fight what is happening, I am needed here” accounted for 17.2 % and 13.7%, respectively.
"The fact that people have to explain their decision to stay to friends and acquaintances who left makes them feel like violators of a certain norm that has emerged in their social circle."
This “norm” began to take shape as early as the spring and since then has become more rigid, which is noticeable in the responses. People who confidently say that they do not understand why they should leave their home are few.

True, when answering an explicit question about the existence of such a norm, only 28% of respondents agreed that it existed, while 20.6% said it probably did not and almost 42% refuted it.

The key to successful emigration in the eyes of people who stay

Which emigrants are most often described as successful by the respondents? Mostly it is people who left with a good financial cushion that allowed them to act confidently early on – "if people were rich here, they will be fine there too." Respondents also mention having a work arrangement, relocation with their firm and the possibility of continuing to work remotely.

Respondents often wrote “work in IT” to explain the success of their friends who left. IT workers can in fact make money, work and live well in any country. Many see IT skills as the biggest advantage for someone leaving. Meanwhile, in December the Duma announced its intention to introduce significant restrictions on remote work. If the law is passed, it would be a blow to many people who left.

In addition, respondents mentioned that besides money and work, successful emigrants have housing, their children go to school and their families have access to medical care. But such well-being generally means that people had such resources before they left. Rarer are stories of work, housing, etc. being acquired after leaving.

Here is a typical portrait of a successful emigrant given in one of the questionnaires: "it is mostly people under 40, with a good education, income, outlook, who often visited other countries." Often, knowledge of a foreign language is mentioned.

Comparing themselves to these successful emigrants, people who remain admit that they would be in a worse situation.

Non-material factors

Not all respondents speak exclusively about material factors. There is talk –
though encountered less often – about the importance of freedom and how a newfound freedom can ease and compensate for the difficulties associated with moving: “my acquaintances are really homesick, but I know that they live freely and happily. They are not facing this horror every day, they do not see propaganda on the streets, and in that sense it’s just mentally easier for them.” They talk about “the ability to freely think, speak, choose their life path,” though they often add that besides freedom, successful emigration also requires very “real” resources: “the people I know live in a freer and safer environment. As a rule, they have a source of income, means of subsistence.”

The stories about unsuccessful emigration experiences mostly involve “problems with work, an unstable existence and uncertainty about the future, problems at home,” etc.

There is quite a lot of evidence from the questionnaires that people who left are homesick, suffer from nostalgia and loneliness, and feel different and not needed: “they are not really needed over there, [it’s] a different language and culture;” “in any other country you are a stranger – it’s a fact, even if you get help and attention. Problems with adjusting, habits and communication, financial and problems at home are not such unimportant things and can make life unbearable at times;” “[they are] without relatives, home, friends;” “if our country does not need us, why would a foreign country?”

‘The future is leaving:’ Views on mass emigration among people who remain

In the study, I was also interested in how respondents thought the departure of so many educated people had affected the situation in Russia. There were quite a few who found it hard to answer, but most had a view and many responded in much detail.
"No matter how they judge the success of emigrants in their social circle, almost everyone believes that this was a huge loss – quite possibly irreparable – for Russia, its present and especially its future."
Senator Andrei Klishas unveiled a bill that would limit the ability of Russians who left the country to work remotely. If it is passed, it would be a blow to many of them. Source: Wiki Commons
Respondents often repeat that “the best are leaving!” The best are the young, active, highest educated, successful and promising.

Most of the responses concern a brain drain: “human capital is the most valuable thing for any country, and if it dries up, degradation is inevitable in everything;” “the country has gotten stupid;” “those sprouts of something new in medicine, education, the social sphere that held out thanks to volunteers, NGOs, enthusiasts – they will die;” “young, capable, enterprising people are leaving. Adults are leaving – talented professionals who are in demand. The consequences are obvious, and they are most noticeable in higher education, medicine, science, culture;” “young, educated, active people are leaving. We will see the impact later.” Sometimes they add that this is not so noticeable, as little time has passed, but that the further on, the worse the consequences will be.

People are also worried about the political and social consequences of emigration, with quite a wide range of views given. Some write that reducing the number of opposition-minded people is convenient for the tough political regime, hence they are not prevented from leaving: “It will be easier to build total totalitarianism here;” “less chances for protests;” “there is no one here or there to oppose the war. People are adjusting to a new place;” “if smart people leave, there is less and less high-quality human capital. Who will change the government if everyone leaves?”

The responses also include the idea that emigration makes society more homogeneous, with completely different voices sounding more often and thus the state of society as a whole getting much worse: “those who supported repressions, hostilities, the president are opening their mouths more often;” “[there are] fewer educated people – society is becoming more uniformly uneducated, more united in its stupidity and aggression;” “the percentage of deplorable gray mass has gone way up, and it feels its advantage both numerically and apparently physically.”

What should people who remain do?

Many respondents cite feelings of loneliness and depression: “it has gotten loud and even scarier;” “it has become sadder;” “there are fewer like-minded people, which really affects your psychological state;” “there are fewer people like us around. These departures will come back to haunt Russia in the future, and that is very bitter.” Accusations against people who remain – of insufficient political activity and open protest, powerlessness to stop the hostilities, etc. – are especially painful.

Since the participants in my study remain in Russia, at least for now they are not ready to agree with the idea that “the worse it gets, the better,” “the sooner everything falls apart, the sooner the hostilities will end and the regime will change.”

They really want the conflict to end and the regime to change so the country becomes different, peace-loving and democratic. Hence there are so many responses about the need to continue doing the little that can be done while remaining in the country – supporting human values, trying to convince people who are on the fence, honestly doing their jobs to be useful to people and society (but not the state), volunteering, helping the weak, needy and refugees, and ultimately saving themselves.
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