People’s Attachment to a Homeland that Suddenly Feels Less Like Home
June 17, 2023
  • Tatyana Rybakova

    Journalist and writer
Tatyana Rybakova writes about how Russians who remain in Russia but want to leave explain their decision and why they most often cite attachment to their homes.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to various estimates, from 500,000 to 1.3 million Russian citizens left Russia. According to the sociological research center Romir, as of the beginning of this year, 15% of citizens would like to emigrate but remain in Russia.

This is a third less than the pre-war level: in 2021, 22% wanted to leave (data from the Levada Center). However, in that pre-war Levada poll, only one tenth of those 22% who wanted to leave said they were taking steps to do so. This figure surprisingly correlates with the difference between those who wanted to leave before the war and now – after repressions were ramped up and mobilization launched.

One might think that the difference is the people who wanted to leave left. However, judging by emigrants’ stories, most of them left without any preparation. So, they were not the people preparing to leave. Where, then, did those pre-war 10% who were preparing to emigrate go? Perhaps those who said in surveys that they would like to leave did not really intend to?

Unfortunately, the survey methodology does not allow us to answer these questions. On the other hand, a comparison of polls before the war and after the invasion shows that neither the war, nor the intensification of repression, nor the mobilization, which the people aptly termed “mogilization” [mogila means grave in Russian], necessarily drives all those who said they were ready to emigrate to do so.

Obviously, the obstacles can be myriad – from difficulties in obtaining visas to a lack of funds. In September last year, three days after the start of mobilization, the publication Bumaga took a survey among its readers. Of the respondents, 3.3% had left after the start of mobilization, while 3.1% had before it (after the start of the war). Another 14.6% did not want to leave as a matter of principle. Meanwhile, 31.6% said they wanted to leave, and 45% said that they were not ready to leave yet.
"In response to an open question about what is stopping people who remain in Russia but would like to leave, 49% answered that they do not have the money to move."
The second most popular reason given is the need to care for relatives, though it was given by much fewer respondents (19.3%).

So, a lack of finances is the main reason that people who want to emigrate remain in Russia – at least that’s what they say. Of course, Russia is not a rich country. In terms of average income, it is between Kazakhstan and Brazil. But income is not all assets. More than 70% of Russians, according to a VTsIOM survey in 2020, own a house – and that is a significant asset. One would agree that the cost of housing would not cover all the costs of emigration for residents of the Russian hinterland, where much of the housing is simply illiquid or just cheap. But Bumaga, which conducted the survey, is a St Petersburg publication. And St Petersburg is only behind Moscow and Sochi in terms of apartment prices. This is a good asset that can be sold, even after evacuation abroad. In fact, this is exactly what many people who leave do: the share of transactions for the purchase and sale of existing houses through a power of attorney (meaning the owner is most likely outside Russia) has reached 50%.

In addition, opponents of the war from all over Russia surveyed by Kholod cited a lack of funds as the obstacle to leaving. Why do people complain about not having money to move if they have an asset that allows them to emigrate not “empty-handed?” The most common answer that sounds in conversations about emigration, both those with the author herself and in groups for emigration: “We have a very nice apartment, it would be a pity to sell it for cheap.”

Yes, housing has been getting cheaper since before Crimea. Rather, in rubles it has been rising in price, but in dollars or euros, which are needed when moving, it has been falling. Still, the sale of a nice big-city apartment can provide good start-up capital. However, they are not selling and not leaving.

It seems that one should not trust the given reasons too much. It’s not always about a lack of funds to move. And the very reluctance to consider the sale of their Russian houses to provide the funds may indicate that the attachment of Russians to their homes is much deeper. Moreover, from a legal point of view, the ownership of real estate in Russia is not very well protected.
The external walls of apartments de facto do not belong to their residents: the municipality or the developer has the right to hang up advertising banners or the letter Z without the consent of the residents. Source: VK
Crooked property

Until 1991, citizens of Russia, then still the USSR, did not own large property. They had no businesses of their own, no shares, no housing. Even individual houses or dachas, if they were not owned by an agency, stood on rented state land.

The privatization of housing, which began in 1991, was carried out fairly quickly and aimed at creating a broad class of owners. In contrast to the “voucher privatization” launched in the summer of 1992, it was successful: whereas most citizens sold their privatization vouchers or invested in funds that subsequently went bust, the majority retained their square meters. However, this success did have a flip side.

Firstly, the legal registration of housing, especially multi-apartment housing, was not perfect. Since privatization was voluntary and went on for several years, only the apartment itself was transferred into ownership. Municipalities remained in charge of common areas, as well as the land plots under the houses and the adjacent territory.

This scheme subsequently began to be used by private developers: apartments and nonresidential spaces are sold as property while the common areas remain with the developer. To this day, the land generally remains with the municipality. Moreover, even the outer walls of the apartments technically do not belong to their residents:
municipality or developer has the right to hang up advertising banners or the letter Z without asking for consent by the residents, as is happening now."
What people got as property was the air within the walls of their apartment. Even the registration of private housing is not always done right: the land under public spaces there also usually belongs to developers or municipalities. Moreover, the author is aware of cases when the communications of a village are located on land plots sold to citizens and the developer does not draw up an easement (the owner’s obligation to provide access to public communications for compensation – or, more often, a discount to the purchase price of the real estate) but reserves the right to dig up the communications in case of an accident.

The amendments to the Housing Code adopted in 2020 even allow for demolishing any building “to renovate the living space and create favorable conditions for the life of citizens” – in other words, the authorities can do almost whatever they want. Nevertheless, housing in Russia is still considered one of the best stores of value and most reliable investments.

Distrust in the financial markets or experience of generations?

I have many friends still in Russia. All of them are absolutely against the war, Putin and the current political system. Most of them have professions that would let them at least earn a living in an inexpensive country. Often, they make more than just enough for bread and butter. Most have savings. Most invest these savings in a house, considering it an investment. Moreover, almost all my friends who left Russia left behind an apartment – even just a small one – which they rent out.

I have been telling my friends for a long time that renting out an apartment is not the best investment. Besides the above mentioned legal issues, the income from renting out an apartment is, in the best case (an apartment in a good location, not bought with a mortgage, with inexpensive repairs and furniture), 6% per annum. In rubles. Meanwhile, the average annual return of the S&P 500 is the same 6%, but in dollars. The MOEX exchange is returning 18.4% (with dividends).

After all, Russian government bonds are yielding 7-8% – with notional amounts of RUB 1,000, all savings can be invested there – without taking out a mortgage. And that’s not counting the depreciation of the apartment, losses when tenants leave and income tax. My arguments always get a similar response: “You do not know what the stock market will do, but an apartment is always an apartment, nothing will happen to it.”

It is possible that potential investors are put off by the immaturity of the national stock market and its attendant distortions, ranging from widespread insider trading (trading based on information received from companies or government agencies ahead of the market) to the low qualifications of, if not fraud by, financial advisors and public funds, not to mention high volatility due to frequent economic crises. The traditional distrust of Russians in institutions – and financial institutions in the first place – should not be discounted either. But there is another reason – the experience of generations.

The only safeguard

Economist Yakov Mirkin writes in his book Rules of Senseless Financial Behavior that every generation of Russians loses their assets, and the next one starts life from scratch. However, a house, an apartment, a dacha – these assets have often survived 3-4 generations.

There is also a social aspect in people’s attachment to their homes, especially in the capital. Even though in Russia the so-called propiska, which actually fixed a person within the boundaries of a settlement, was replaced by registration at one’s place of residence, social benefits are tied not to the individual, but to the place of registration. For example, Muscovites receive a pension supplement of RUB 10,000 to RUB 20,000, despite the fact that the average pension in Russia is RUB 19,322. Since social payments make up a large chunk of income for the majority of the population, it is not surprising that
"Many people simply do not dare to sell their only house in Russia and thus lose their registration, rightly fearing that they may not get a pension abroad."
Own home in Russia

Owning your own house in Russia is something more than an asset.

As Russian journalist Maxim Trudolyubov notes in his book People Behind the Fence, in the post-Soviet years Russian society saw an appropriation of property rather than a creation of it. “The difference between that which is appropriated (‘moy’) and that which is created by your own hands and mind (‘svoy’)” the philosopher Vladimir Bibikhin sought to formulate 20 years ago.

Creating in Russia is hard: it is difficult to maintain a business without connections in government agencies or the siloviki, and a proper environment for innovation has yet to be created – as the sad experience of Rosnano has shown, “Silicon Valley” behind the fence of state protectionism in Russia gets you nowhere. Science is chronically underfunded and is increasingly lagging global trends - according to Russian Academy of Sciences Vice President Valentin Parson, over the last five years more than 50,000 science workers have left the country. Meanwhile, the privatization of the 1990s made it possible to “capture” or “appropriate,” to get for nothing or buy a lot of property for a very low price – is it surprising that real estate has become one of the most valued “appropriations?” And is it any wonder that in the ensuing “golden decade” of high energy prices, people who earned relatively high wages, thanks to the money flowing in, invested their money in housing? After all, many had felt the fragility of their well-being. An apartment is yours and will not go anywhere, no one can take it away – unlike a business or money on the stock exchange.
Luxury housing near Moscow has almost halved in price over the last year. Source:VK
However, this attitude is changing. According to Incom Real Estate research, elite housing near Moscow has almost halved in price in the last year, dropping 45%, while cheap housing has risen in price 20%. It’s simple: the rich are selling their houses and leaving, perhaps moving abroad, where they purchased housing before. Those less well-off are buying housing and staying. This is understandable: the elites have long possessed not only “appropriated” but also created property, while they value Russian real estate less than real estate abroad.

Another aspect noted by many researchers is the atomization of Russian society. Coupled with distrust of everyone and everything, and above all of the authorities, this encourages Russians to cling to the only universal freedom: the freedom to lock themselves in their own homes.

Hence the refusal to leave settlements that have become the de facto front line, which has baffled many: even after sending the whole family to a safe place, old people often remain in their houses and apartments – to “guard” it. Residents of bombed-out Ukrainian villages and cities have behaved in the same way, as did many residents of Abkhazia during the Abkhaz–Georgian conflict or Grozny residents during the wars in Chechnya.

However, having your “own home” is often not only about square meters, but also a more general idea: your native language, a familiar environment, your culture. Still, this attachment has further drivers: a lack of knowledge of foreign languages and internationally recognized qualifications (these reasons were also given in the abovementioned Bumaga survey), of contact with other cultures (less than 30% of Russians have a passport, while only 2% of people surveyed by VTsIOM had a Schengen visa as of September last year), of experience in studying and working in other countries. It is not surprising that many are deterred from leaving by the fear of not fitting into a foreign society, not finding a job or another source of income. Hence the search for justifications for their attachment to their homeland, which has become unlovable: “who needs us there,” “don’t chase rainbows,” and if things are completely unbearable – “I want to leave, but I have no money.”
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy