The dilemmas of staying home. Opposing the war but not leaving

May 30, 2022
by Liubov Borusyak
After her study on the new Russian exiles, Liubov Borusiak talks to opponents of the war who stayed in Russia. Very few of them believe that they bear a higher degree of guilt and responsibility than those who left.
The latest wave of emigration from Russia, which emerged after the start of the war against Ukraine, turned out unprecedented in scale. According to demographers, in the first months of the so-called “special operation,” about 150-200,000 Russians left the country. Most of them were and are highly educated and come from Moscow and other megacities, with a significant share working in the IT sector. Of course, such a brain drain did not fail to attract the attention of researchers. For example, in April I conducted a series of interviews with those who had left to learn what motivated their decisions.

Of course, the new emigrants disagree with the actions of the regime and consider them unacceptable. Yet in Russia many more people with the same political views and the same socio-demographic and socio-cultural characteristics have remained – there are millions of them. According to an April poll conducted by the Levada Center, about 20% of adult Russians, or at least 20 million people, do not support the “actions of the Russian army in Ukraine.” In other words,
"the opponents of the 'special operation' who left Russia are just the tip of the iceberg."
Protesters against the war in Moscow, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Meanwhile, it is Moscow, St Petersburg and other megacities where opposition to the war is most widespread.

For many of the dissenters remaining in Russia, the current situation is difficult and painful, yet they remain at home. Researchers have yet to shed light on these people; for now, they largely remain outside the scientific and social discourse. They feel lonely and invisible, almost nonexistent, in a society where supporters of the “special operation” or people with a neutral stance prevail. Often, they are confronted with the perception that all dissenters have already left Russia and only those who support the “special operation” and the emergent political situation remain. This notion is often found on the internet and social networks, where acquaintances who have long left the country shame those who remain for staying in the aggressor country, for not suffering enough and even for allowing themselves a semblance of a normal life – for going to the theater or admiring flowers and beautiful sunsets. On top of this, the dissenters who remain face a real or potential danger of persecution by the authorities.

This is why I decided to conduct a study among this cohort, to find out what worries them, how they feel, what they intend to do and why they decided to stay. I posted a survey on the internet, sent out a link and invited everyone to both respond and pass it on among friends and acquaintances. The reaction was impressive, and the link was copied and reposted by dozens of people on their own pages or in various groups. This in itself showed that the topic is important and relevant, but the fact that I had touched some kind of social nerve became clear when 500 completed questionnaires arrived in just a day and a half (May 10-11), after which I closed the survey. In the end, a great many people wanted but missed the chance to take part in the study; quite a few wrote me about it in the week after I had closed the survey. These people really wanted to speak out, to move out of the social shadows, to show that they exist and that they are many. They also wanted – as many indicated in letters to me – to understand themselves, as well as their motivations, feelings and plans.

Study description

To some extent, this survey was a continuation of my study on dissenters who had left Russia, hence it was important to keep the pool of respondents limited to those with a high level of education and living in Moscow and other megacities. The way the questionnaire was promoted rather contributed to this, though it also restricted the sample to active internet users. Among my 500 respondents, two thirds were Muscovites, about 10% were from St Petersburg, 2% from Saratov and 1.5% from Yekaterinburg.

By occupation, the largest group (one third) was made up of teachers, university professors and researchers, while another quarter had a humanities background (e.g. editors, translators, journalists, philologists, lawyers) and 8.5% were employees of NGOs and charitable organizations. Other respondents included doctors, students and pensioners. The preponderance of people with humanities-related professions led to the fact that there were twice as many women as men among the respondents. These professions are hard to transfer abroad, especially for those who work in the Russian language, which explains why the initial wave of emigration was strongly skewed toward the IT sector and why IT specialists made up only 9% of the respondents in this survey (moreover, many IT workers who wanted to leave Russia have already done so, including relocating with their companies). Among the new wave of emigrants, IT specialists are rightly considered the most successful and in demand abroad.

The age of the respondents spanned 18 to 70: 20% were 29 or younger, 21% were 30-39, 32% 40-49 and the rest 50 or older.

Though at the time of the survey they were all in Russia, 68% had thought about emigrating, while only 25.5% had never considered it. In addition, only 37% had definitely decided against leaving, while 28% had not yet made a final decision (they are waiting to see how the situation in the country develops) and 19% think that sooner or later they will end up having to leave (the rest couldn’t say). The majority of respondents said they had friends and acquaintances who had left the country, and 42% of these respondents had rather many people close to them who had left. Thus, it seems natural that most study participants have considered or are considering leaving – this is viewed as a normal option.
"Most study participants have considered or are considering leaving – this is viewed as a normal option."
What did they feel when the war started?

A content analysis of responses to this question showed that the most common characterizations included: horror (“at first there was horror, it’s kept up, and probably will forever;” “chilling horror”), shock (“Shock. I couldn’t eat or talk for a week. I experienced several panic attacks.”) and fear (“There was a very strong feeling of fear, a feeling that life was falling apart.”), as well as powerlessness, hopelessness, grief, despair and sadness.

The second most common type of reaction was numbness, denial, a lack of understanding of how to keep going on, stupor and depression. The third was anger, hatred and indignation; the fourth shame and guilt. Most often these feelings overlapped: “total grief and extreme hatred;” “fear, shame, anger, helplessness;” “deep shock and hatred of our government.”

At that time, many experienced a panicked urge to leave, run away, hide. Those who left told me the same thing, but the participants in this survey decided not to hurry, to take time to think, to see how events would develop: “Awe, shock, then composure, working out two or three plans of action depending on how events turn.” After the first shockwave, some tried to adapt to the situation, calm down, rearrange their life, if not normally, then quasi-normally: “Overall, it’s really hard. For about the first two weeks there was complete paralysis; now it’s some uncontrollable semblance of normal life.” They needed to think and weigh their resources and opportunities not just to leave, but also to rebuild relatively normal lives in another country. The respondents who already left, like those who remained and are keeping the option of leaving on the table, aren’t ready to see their social status drastically changed and their standard of living worsened, at least at the outset.
"The respondents who already left, like those who remained and are keeping the option of leaving on the table, aren’t ready to see their social status drastically changed and their standard of living worsened, at least at the outset."
People in Moscow Metro, 2014. Source: Wiki Commons
What do they fear now?

With the passage of time – from the beginning of the war until the survey was taken almost three months had passed – the feelings and emotions have become slightly less poignant. Such intense worries do not last indefinitely. Still, the respondents cited many fears. The biggest was that those who dissent could face physical danger or persecution now or in the future: “There are serious fears that dissidence will start to be persecuted. That the authorities will no longer demand passive non-participation, but loyalty;” “It’s scary that you might come under pressure for your position. I want to freely express my point of view and tell it how it is. And, of course, I want to feel free;” “It’s scary to live where they put people who think like you in jail.”

The fear of a draft, which arose when the war began on February 24, also lingers. People are very worried about the future of their children and often do not see one; they feel that this future has been taken away from them too: “I fear for the future in a country that did THIS. For my own, for my education, career, for my future children;” “I’ve lost a vision of the future.” Such answers were myriad, showing that the image of an aborted future in their homeland is haunting people of all ages and professions.

Yet the fear of a travel ban and the borders being shut, which had led many to flee in the first weeks of the war, has subsided. A new Iron Curtain is not perceived as a real threat, at least in the near term. A significant number of the respondents got the impression that the regime does not seek to keep them locked up, preferring on the contrary to get rid of those who dissent to forestall problems and thus to leave the borders open. Many respondents hold the view that the authorities do not need them and that they are only getting in their way.

Hunger and impoverishment are low on the list of fears, though the view that the economic situation in Russia will worsen is almost universal. Still, while political fears loom large, worries about potential unemployment and poverty are much smaller, not to mention the possibility of going hungry, which is practically absent from the survey responses. Nevertheless, some respondents did mention potential financial and economic problems: “There is a fear that there will be nothing left of the economy, and I feel responsible for my parents, who have worked their entire life to provide for me, forgoing a decent life for themselves. I want to repay them in kind, so if I can’t make money in this country doing what I like, then it’s better to leave.” Perhaps there are so few responses on this theme because economic issues remain rather hypothetical for most of the study participants – they have yet to make themselves felt, unlike political issues, which are extremely acute and painful.

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.

Why are the staying?

The very question might seem strange since millions of people cannot just leave the country with nowhere to go, abandoning their homes and jobs. Still, most respondents have thought about it, in part because they constantly have to justify their decision to stay to themselves and others, in the face of accusations of collaboration with the regime – their taxes, for example, are used for weapons, so they can be considered accomplices and perpetrators of the war. One of the respondents laid out her decision to stay in the country in detail, point by point, writing that she had thought through and formulated it for everyone to who she had to explain it, which happens regularly. She begins her long answer: “I thought a lot and told my friends who left about this, so I’ve perfected the wording,” before revealing her reasons: political, epistemic, environmental and cultural (four points in total).
"They constantly have to justify their decision to stay to themselves and others, in the face of accusations of collaboration with the regime"
To some extent, among this cohort leaving seems to be considered normal. Still, far from all the respondents agree that such a norm exists, while most wrote that they don’t agree with it. Is it possible to disagree with something that doesn't exist?

The leading reason given by respondents for their reluctance to leave is along the lines of: this is my home, my country, so why should I leave? “Why should I leave? My mother is here, my children and work;” “this is my home, my ancestors lived here;” “this is my home and my country. My language and culture;” among others. Sometimes respondents added something like: “Let THEM leave” – them being the generalized regime and everyone who actually or hypothetically insists on their leaving and considers it the only right decision in the current situation.

Many people attribute their staying in Russia to a lack of resources for moving, including financial and professional. They say that it will be very difficult if they arrive abroad without money and find themselves without work, and sometimes they add that they do not want to have to rely on assistance, which Ukrainian refugees need much more. Many attribute their inability to leave – even if they wanted to – to serious burdens, including being responsible for others: elderly parents, sick relatives and pets that cannot be taken with them. Among other explanations, they also mention their own old age, poor health, lack of knowledge of foreign languages and a profession that is not in demand abroad.

Another important type of response is the desire to show that leaving is not a sign of strength but weakness, to which the respondents do not want to give in: “The weak run away, the strong stay and fight;” “emigration is the final defeat.” What does this defeat look like? There is a belief that if all opponents of the regime and its “special operations” leave, then no one will be left in Russia to resist, meaning the country will be left to the “victors,” which seems unfair and unjust to respondents; thus, while it is still possible, you should stay in Russia and fight by any means that still won’t put you and those close to you in real danger.
GUM (department store), 2018. Source: Wiki Commons
In lieu of a conclusion: Don’t fear, but fight

Participants in the study are suffering from the political and economic situation in Russia and are upset by it. Many fear persecution and do not see a future for themselves and their children. Intuitively, they very clearly separate society and ordinary people from the state, maintaining that their efforts should be directed toward benefiting society. The vast majority do not agree with the concept of collective guilt, as they believe they are doing work that is important for the country. Just under a third agree that Russians bear collective responsibility for what is happening in Russia. Both guilt and responsibility, most respondents maintain, can only be individual. Meanwhile, very few people believe that those who remain in Russia bear a higher degree of guilt and responsibility than those who have left. Many, though by no means all, have participated in political or civic activism, including various kinds of protests, human rights activities, social movements and election monitoring. Others work at charitable organizations and NGOs.

Almost all respondents believe they are doing and should do something useful for the country and people while at the same time separating themselves from the state as much as possible, taking into account the very limited opportunities for open politics in modern Russia. Still, many feel that it is necessary to fight politically with the means available, as well as to support each other to protect yourself and those close to you. Go about your professional business: teach children and students to give them a quality education so they don’t become victims of propaganda. A typical statement of this kind: “I am a teacher, I’ll continue to teach children, doctors will continue to heal people. Our skills are needed by those who remain. All the people of this vast country can’t just pick up and leave. And I hope that better times will come to this long-suffering land. Then we will be needed even more. Someone will have to put the house in order.” At the same time, they understand that the trends in the country point to the regime growing harsher and repeat the mantra: as long as we can. Almost no one has confidence that this window of opportunity will remain open for long.

Another large group of answers about what can be done for people: help those who need our help (Ukrainian refugees, independent media, arrested activists [“Provide protesters with legal support, pass along packages to them at the police station or detention center. Write letters to political prisoners.”), volunteer, educate, try to make society more open and fair, promote humanist values and raise kids in these values. Some responses begin with “don’t:” “Don’t be silent;” “don’t lie;” “don’t support the authorities;” “don’t let the regime crush the remnants of society!”

Respondents are certain that if it’s possible to change Russian society, it’s not from the outside but only from the inside, meaning it’s their duty. Still, if the conditions become completely unbearable and nothing can be done, most of them and people like them seem set to leave the country.
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