Russian Emigrants Between Staying Abroad and Going Back
December 4, 2023
  • Tatiana Rybakova

    Journalist and writer
Journalist Tatiana Rybakova writes about how and why Russians in emigration decide whether to stay abroad or go back home.
In November, in the most popular Russian group on Facebook, made up of people who either already left Russia or are planning to, members were asked whether they would go back when the war ended. In three days, more than a thousand comments were left, and they kept coming in.

I decided to see how the responses were distributed. To keep the experiment “clean,” I took only original comments – they were left by people who wanted to give their own answer, and not argue or agree with someone else’s opinion.

There were 319 such comments. I divided them into categories, and this is what I came up with:

Definitely no – 56.4% (180 answers)
Most likely no – 14.4% (46 answers)
Most likely yes – 9.0% (29 answers)
Definitely yes – 4.7% (15 answers)
Other (mostly reasoning about other people’s examples) – 6.0% (19 answers)
The remaining comments (9.5%) were either not relevant or do not give a clear answer.

There is no point and nowhere to go

Among those who answered “definitely no,” most emphasize that the end of the war is far from being the only condition for going back; a change in the political regime is also necessary, they say, as well as a change in the views and moral attitudes of the majority of the country. “If the government does not change, then do not expect anything good;” “the war will end, but everyone’s brains will remain the same.”
Many are confident that after the war, Russia will face years of ruin and possibly the collapse of the country:
The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Astana, Kazakhstan. Source: Wiki Commons
“first there will be chaos, [then] stabilization, recovery, setting up broken chains and links with the international community, etc. This will take decades.”

They note that soldiers coming home, having become accustomed to violence and weapons, will make the situation with crime worse: “for me, the main problem is the anthropological crisis in which relatives of soldiers received a chance for upward mobility. Sometimes soldiers were forced to fight, because if they had not, they would have been [still] in jail or drinking in the village... this is not the society in which I want my child to grow up.”

Finally, many of these people emphasized that they do not want to go back because they had already adapted to life abroad (generally they had left a decade ago or more): “do you spend many years adapting to go back to see the birch trees? You can take a tour;” “it seems to me that about three years is already the point of no return for most.”

They also note that it will be difficult for children who grew up abroad to adapt to Russia – for them another country is their homeland now: “those who left may be planning on it [going back], but their children are growing up in a different context, and the longer they grow up in it, the less likely they are to want to go back to a place they do not remember.”

Those who answered “most likely no” expect to go back only if something forces them to (for example, aging parents) or they are unable to gain a foothold abroad.

As some of the commenters believe, only Russians who left due to the mobilization and who have no complaints about the regime itself will go back: “given that many left without having the ability to obtain a residence permit and the right to work, people who cannot earn money [abroad] will probably return.”

The responses “most likely yes” are more specific: someone is going back to live on a pension earned in Europe (“In Russia everything will be cheap with my pension”). Others expect to go back after the war ends because they cannot adapt to life in a new society (“I live here only with my clan”), while some do not see much difference where they live – at home or not (“in reality, it is just moving to a place that, for some reason, is nicer and more interesting and has more money.”)

Finally, the responses “definitely yes” are either people who have already gone back or who are stopped only by the war, as well as those who believe that many Russians who left have already gone back: “many have returned… [their] money ran out; “I am just not ready to live in another country. For that to happen, the situation [in Russia] must be really terrible or dangerous.”

A diverse emigration

One should separate Russians who left due to the war and those who left earlier, on their own, says sociologist Sergei Belanovsky. Among the former, there are two categories: those who fundamentally disagree with the regime, and those who left because of the mobilization.

The main problem of emigrants, in his view, is financial, and whoever cannot earn money goes back. “In Russia they can easily find a source of income. Many go back to their previous place of work,” says the sociologist. Meanwhile, the situation is better for emigrants who work remotely.

“There are those who have income only in Russia and there those who can receive orders outside of Russia. The latter have it much better. Remote workers tied to Russia adapt much worse. In addition, they are justifiably afraid that they may lose their source of income and they will not be able to find a new one.” In addition, young people, even those who work remotely, have a strong incentive to go back under the wing of their parents. “This is not necessarily for financial assistance, but rather for everyday and emotional support,” Belanovsky believes.

It is clear that a significant (often decisive) factor is knowledge of a foreign language. Some know it from the beginning, with the motivation to return decreasing over time for those who successfully learn it, according to Belanovsky.

Emigrants who fundamentally disagree with the war may go back due to a lack of income or what they perceive as a dead end in a foreign social environment.
Those who feared the mobilization seemed to believe that there would not be another one.
Tbilisi, Georgia. Source: Wiki Commons
“Perhaps they are sadly mistaken, though maybe not. It is roulette,” Belanovsky shrugs.

Thus, he believes, Russians who left can be divided into “adapters” and “maladapters.” “Maladapters, if they did not burn their bridges behind them, come back. Some adapters may also come back because of their parents or a desire for a familiar social environment (including housing). However, it appears that most adapters are not coming back.”

A very important factor, the sociologist notes, is children. “If children start going to school, adapt and master the language – and they do this faster than adults – this is a powerful incentive to stay in the host country, especially in Europe. But I think that among those who left due to the war, such people are in the minority. Childless people are more mobile.”

Meanwhile, those who left for post-Soviet countries come back much more often. These countries are chosen by Russians who are less adaptive and who perceive their departure as temporary, explains Belanovsky.

Thinking it through

Many people left without weighing all the consequences of leaving, making the decision impulsively, out of fear for their own lives and those of their children, notes psychologist Natalya Cheskis. “There were no conversations with children, no one explained to them why their parents had decided to move, which resulted in a jump in children’s anxiety levels,” she says.

According to Cheskis, the problems of relocation (moving because your employer is moving) and emigration include several aspects that cannot be ignored: “you lose your identity and have to find a new one. You must say goodbye to what is familiar and well-established, reorient yourself and adapt to new things; you are in a situation of uncertainty, and you need to withstand the stress that arises from that.” You need to find a social environment that gives you a sense of belonging, and in the case of emigration, not relocation, you need to find work that you are ready to do.

If a person made a deliberate decision, consciously chose the place where he wants to live, if he is ready to overcome the challenges that lie ahead, he will stay, Cheskis thinks. If the decision [to leave] was spontaneous and motivated only by fear, then most likely the person will go back when the situation changes.

According to Cheskis, the issue of going back or not should be revisited after a year or a year and a half abroad. “Only I think that those people who decide to return must be prepared for the fact that it will no longer be the same as before, that they will have to adapt again to a society in which there will be many traumatized people, and this will be a colossal problem for society, on top of the many others,” she warns.

Do emigrants help their host countries?

Economist Nikolai Kulbaka says the same thing. “Most people who left, in one way or another, understand that the Russia they left is gone forever. The point is that the Russia that will exist in a year or two – no matter whether it is the ‘beautiful Russia of the future,’ ‘Putin’s Russia’ or something in between – will no longer be their country, [and will be] a country where they will feel like strangers.”

Generally speaking, in his view, if an emigrant managed to find a good, stable job, then the chances are that he will stay abroad. “Historical experience shows that if migrants stay in a country for more than two years, they begin to put down roots.”

Still, it remains to be seen where exactly they will stay: many who left for Central Asia are now moving on, usually, to European countries.
“Russian emigrants are leaving Turkey, which has tightened the issuance of residence permits. Meanwhile, more and more people are going to Serbia, which has made legalization much easier.
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey. Source: Wiki Commons
After Germany did the same for highly qualified workers, the flow of Russian emigrants picked up. “The drift is not over yet, so until people have settled down completely, it is hard to say how and where highly qualified Russian workers will have an impact,” Kulbaka believes. In his view, it will be possible to assess the impact of the “brain influx” six months to a year after their arrival in a particular country.

However, the impact of emigration on the economies of host countries is broadly positive. “Emigrants bring their money, they bring demand. Of course, an increase in demand also causes an increase in prices, but this is a normal situation, as any economic growth is accompanied by higher prices,” according to Kulbaka.

He says it is also important that Russian emigrants generally have money, since if they did not, they would not be able to emigrate. In addition, most of them are from big cities, meaning they should be able to easily fit into a new society.

It is also important how big the country and its economy are. “For example, for Poland the impact is basically invisible, but for Montenegro it is big,” says Kulbaka. By the way, Montenegro is already worried that after the end of the war the Russians and Ukrainians who emigrated there will leave and the local economy will suffer: from February 2022 through August 2023, these emigrants paid EUR 338 million to the government in taxes and social contributions.

And it’s not just about money. “Many Russian projects, both educational and cultural, are now being developed there. The country, by European standards, is on the periphery, outside the main cultural centers. Thus, the appearance of a Russian diaspora there has invigorated both cultural and economic life, and they, of course, would not want to part with them,” explains Kulbaka. However, he notes, that sentiment is not shared by many other countries.
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