Relocation, Evacuation, Emigration?

May 11, 2022
by Liubov Borusyak
Liubov Borusyak, professor, Free University (Moscow), speaks with Russians who chose to leave their country after the invasion of Ukraine. Who are they, what were their motivations, what do they think about the situation in their home country and what are their plans? How are they different from those who were leaving Russia in previous years?
In 2019, the US’s Atlantic Council published a study called “The Putin exodus: The new Russian brain drain”. The title was bold and eye-catching but poorly reflected the actual situation – at the time, there wasn’t a massive outflow of intellectuals from Russia; intellectuals left, but mainly to continue their education in the US or other countries or to work in large international firms. While no one knows the exact extent of emigration from Russia, let alone how many intellectuals left, the Atlantic Council study gave an estimate of 1.6 to 2.0 million people total having left over the entire post-Soviet period, much less than in many other post-Soviet countries.

Only with the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the exodus from Russia began. It’s yet unclear exactly how many people have left – and we are unlikely to get this information, as the counting is difficult. In the very first weeks, 100-200 thousand people left, while in the first month the numbers were higher than the average for previous years, meaning the outflow had intensified significantly relative to the previous post-Soviet period. That said, these figures can’t be extrapolated, as the first, turbulent wave of departures quickly calmed down and leveled off.
The protest of Marina Ovsyannikova, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Such a rush out the door, with the highly educated likely making up the majority, has attracted much public attention, both from researchers and the media. As early as mid-March, less than a month after the start of the war, the nonprofit OK Russians conducted a sociological survey of those who left Russia in February-March, in which more than 2,000 people participated. The survey wasn’t representative but gives some idea of the motivations of those who left.

We conducted a qualitative study to learn more about the motivations of highly educated Russian who have left, their perception of the situation in Russia, choice of country and plans, among other things. To some extent, this is a continuation of our previous study, since the target audience was again metropolitan intellectuals (from Moscow and St Petersburg), but this time without age limits. Three years after that study, new emigrants are leaving the country against a fundamentally different socio-political backdrop, and the outflow is proceeding in an entirely different way.

Study description

The study took place in April 2022 in the form of an online interview, in which 55 people (30 women and 25 men) who had left the country from late February through mid-April participated, all with higher education and some also with academic degrees (candidates and doctors of sciences). The vast majority came from Moscow, with a few from St Petersburg, and they ranged from 20 to 60 years old, though most were 30-45. In addition, four expert interviews were conducted online. The study participants lived in 15 different countries at the time of the interview, most having settled in Armenia, Georgia, Turkey or Israel. The rest were scattered across Central Asia and some European countries, as well as Argentina.

Only a very small number of the people with whom we spoke expected arrest or other forms of political retribution in the coming days; for the majority, such a danger seemed rather theoretical or wasn’t considered at all.

Aeroflot – Russian Airlines, 2020. Source: Wiki Commons
Flight from Russia: Unexpected or long-awaited?

Everyone with whom we spoke said that the political situation in the country had been deteriorating. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the political regime became increasingly harsh, and in the last two years repression had considerably intensified. However, only a third of the respondents thought about leaving Russia before February 24. The outbreak of hostilities induced such horror and panic that the decision was instantaneous.

As for those who had thought about leaving previously, they called these thoughts “sluggish,” having reasoned that, though in principle it was the right course of action, other issues – e.g. the apartment, children, unfinished business, relatives – should be taken care of before considering emigration more seriously. Only three respondents were really preparing to leave previously, looking for work and having made arrangements and specific plans.

Why did they leave?

Almost all respondents reported that they experienced a feeling of panic when they learned about the “special operation”.
"All of them are categorically against the war, but this was far from being the leading reason for their swift, sometimes almost instantaneous, departure. The fact is that for many years, it was the freedom of movement that was most valued by Russians."
They were sure that as long as there was the freedom to come and go, things were still tolerable – Putin’s regime, no matter how harsh it might become, could be tolerated.

Thus, as soon as mass rumors surfaced at the beginning of March that the borders were about to be closed, with exact dates (March 4 or 5) named, a real frenzy began as thousands and thousands of people bought plane tickets to any country where they could be bought (the destination country was practically not a concern) and ticket prices skyrocketed overnight. After some time, when the fear of an immediate closing of the borders had subsided, the flow of people out of the country somewhat receded.

The second most popular reason for leaving in those days was the fear of martial law and a mobilization being declared. Young men fled the country en masse, even those older than conscription age, alongside families with sons who are teenagers or of conscription age. These two reasons proved the leading ones during the massive outflow in March. In many cases, flight was impulsive and very poorly prepared.

The third motivation for leaving was political. This was either those who considered it ethically unacceptable to remain in Russia during the war with Ukraine or those who had previously been engaged in activism (had gone to protests, had been election observers, etc.) and believed that, with the level of repression intensifying every day, they could become a target. There was also the case of two respondents who, witnessing almost universal support for the “special operation” – not only in polls, but also among their friends and relatives – realized that they had become strangers in their own country and were not ready to stay.

Almost all respondents were certain that the situation in the country, both political and economic, will only get worse. That said, these were mostly people who didn’t leave Moscow in the very first days, but sometime later, having made some preparations. Currently, many people are clearly in the process of preparing for and awaiting their departure, while the outflow has become much calmer as people are now thinking about how to get to not just any country, but to one where there is work and where they want to live in the long term, not just for a couple of weeks or months.
Protest in solidarity with Ukraine in Tbilisi, Georgia, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
East instead of West

During Russia’s 30-year post-Soviet history, the countries for which people mostly left, where they aspired to go, were the usual ones: Germany, the UK, France, the Netherlands (broadly, Western Europe) and the US. Most of Russia’s metropolitan intellectuals had been there more than once, and for them the choice was obvious. They had prepared for emigration to these countries for a long time, looking for work or study opportunities and making arrangements, and had left, though with the understanding that at any moment they could come back to Russia for good, for a time or just to see relatives.

Now, however, the situation is entirely different. After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have seen their passports expire, and most don’t have active Schengen visas anymore. For this simple reason, Western countries are practically inaccessible, not to mention the fact that it’s almost impossible to find a decent job after suddenly arriving there. Thus, the choice of where to go was basically nonexistent – it must be a country that doesn’t require a visa for Russians, often one where you can go on a Russian internal passport. Such countries are few, so the decision was not about the ideal but the realistic. Therefore, tens of thousands ended up in Yerevan, Tbilisi and Istanbul, as well as in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and other post-Soviet countries.

The irony is that most of the post-Soviet countries that welcomed the new wave of Russian emigrants have historically seen flows only to Russia.
"Metropolitan intellectuals had been used to viewing migrants from the South with condescension. Yet now Russians find themselves as uninvited guests, dependent on the favor of the locals."
In the first days and weeks of emigration, they haven’t thought about this, though the issue will inevitably arise, and only time will tell whether they’ll be able to cope with the remnants of their imperial mentality.

IT workers and everyone else

It’s still difficult to say exactly what the share of IT workers is among the new emigrants, but it’s rather large – IT workers, in a broad sense, accounted for slightly more than half of my respondents. Moreover, it’s clear that in this wave of emigration there are many more IT specialists than ever before. Non-IT workers, meanwhile, are sure that IT workers have the most favorable conditions for emigration, and this seems to be true.

One case is the IT companies that have relocated to other countries along with some (sometimes many) of their employees. These companies help their employees to resolve everyday issues, settle in and receive a salary in their new country. This is a very mild form of migration. Another case is that of many large IT companies, which have allowed their employees who have left the country to work remotely instead of laying them off, meaning that these workers have a stable income. Finally, it’s easier for IT workers to find a job abroad since the demand for them is high in many countries.
Graffiti of Pavel Durov in Saint-Petersburg, 2017. Source: Wiki Commons
Most workers from other sectors don’t have such opportunities, which makes their relocation (a new term that immediately caught on) much more difficult. At the same time, in contrast to the wave of Russian emigration after the October Revolution, highly educated emigrants now aren’t ready to give up their social status, seeking to do what they did previously or something similar rather than take positions that don’t require high qualifications. One of the respondents, a professor at a well-known university, said that she was ready to wash dishes in a café; however, this was clearly a figure of speech – she, like everyone or almost everyone else, wouldn’t agree to that.

For a while or forever?

People have generally moved to countries where they hadn’t planned and didn’t want to go. One respondent said about the country where she ended up that it wouldn’t make her top hundred choices. Thus, the new places of residence are mostly temporary, something like hubs. At the time of the interview, this wasn’t the first and surely not the last country where people would live, and some moved just a few days after the interview. Only a few said they would apply for a residence permit in the country where they were residing, which suggests plans to stay there for a relatively long time.
"Almost everyone complained that the horizon for planning had drastically shrunk – they are unsure what will happen to them in a month or sometimes even a week."
The shift from their usual, well-organized life to one with such a high degree of uncertainty has proven difficult to take. In this sense, those who live by themselves or with a partner but without children, or have relocated with a company, have it easier. The majority have begun actively looking for work in European countries, but barely anyone has an idea where they’ll find it and end up. Still, several people said that despite such uncertainty and turbulence, they felt free and safe, which makes it easier for them than it would be in Russia.

Of course, families with children are especially eager to decide on and find a place for long-term residence as soon as possible, as the kids suffer from going from country to country and from school to school. In addition, respondents noted that small children were having a hard time with moving between countries and having their usual, routine way of life disrupted.
Graffiti, 2022. Source: VK
Intergenerational challenges

The parents of some respondents are no longer alive, a circumstance that they said made it much easier to leave. For others, their elderly and often unhealthy parents didn’t want to move, but they supported their children’s decision. Almost all participants in the study said that at a certain age (most often it was 60), people were no longer ready to move and upend their lives. There were also dramatic stories about how elderly parents had cried over the thought that their children wouldn’t be able to make it to their funeral.

A rather considerable number of respondents had problems of a different sort: their parents supported the “special operation” and were outraged by their children’s decision to leave. Sometimes this caused appalling conflicts. “Mom curses me and says I’m a whore of the West”; meanwhile, sometimes children leave without saying goodbye to their parents, as the conflict has gone so far that communication with relatives is considered impossible. There are many such stories of political differences leading to a break in relations – this is taken very hard and resembles a cold civil war.

Will they come back?

Previously, most of the intellectuals who left Russia didn’t consider this question important – as long as the borders were open, the decision would depend on the circumstances. Many respondents today don’t have a definitive answer either, as they can’t look so far ahead, the planning horizon being too short. There are those who are sure they’ll never return home and consider the question closed; there are those who would very much like to and will return if they are sure that the borders won’t be closed, as everyone wants to avoid being trapped in Russia; and there are those who would like to return, but only after Russia becomes a free and democratic country – many people voiced this view, though they don’t really believe that it could happen.

I know that some have already returned, though it’s unclear how many. It’s likely they are few. If certainty emerges that the borders won’t be closed and there won’t be a military mobilization, then many for whom these issues were the main reason for their panic departure may return. This is especially true for students and very young people without the experience needed to get a satisfying job abroad. There are also people who yearn so much for their homes and families left behind that settling down elsewhere will prove too difficult. There will also be those (they are already out there) who will come back to Russia to see how things play out while at the same time looking for work in the West.

In any case, the latest wave of emigration from Russia is set to continue, only in a calmer, more prepared and less impulsive fashion. Many have already made plans to leave and are gradually packing their bags.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy