‘Scared to stay’: Why some rushed to leave Russia after war

Martial law rumours, coupled with frustration over country’s economic situation and growing isolation, led some to head abroad after invasion of Ukraine.

An Aeroflot Airbus A320-200 aircraft takes off at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow, Russia, June 10, 2018.
Many Western countries have banned Russian aircraft from their airspace following the invasion of Ukraine [File: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

Days after Russia sent troops into neighbouring Ukraine, triggering anti-war protests that have resulted in thousands of arrests and prompting public figures to speak out against the invasion, rumours began spreading that President Vladimir Putin was planning to impose martial law.

Such a measure would potentially give the authorities emergency powers, shut down the borders and order a state of mobilisation drafting able-bodied men into armed service.

While the Kremlin was swift to dismiss the speculation as “fake news” and has also urged people to “unite” around Putin, some did not want to risk it.

Al Jazeera spoke to several people who have opted to leave Russia in recent days for a number of reasons, including frustration over the country’s economic situation, its growing isolation on the international stage and the muzzling of the few remaining critical voices in the media.

‘Didn’t bother to pack’

Alexander* was already planning to travel abroad to see his girlfriend, but the unexpected start of the war on February 24 brought forward his plans.

“Immediately all my friends and relatives started to push me into wisely buying new tickets on this very date,” he told Al Jazeera by phone from Hungary’s capital. “I felt it as a little bit of an overkill at the time, but on Friday, already in Budapest, I saw on the news the skies were closed by all the European neighbours of Russia. So I guess they were right.”

INTERACTIVE- Airspace closures for Russian aircraft
(Al Jazeera)

Since countries in the European Union and elsewhere – as part of the West’s package of sanctions against Russia over the war – decided to close their airspace to any flights taking off or landing in Russia, the prices of airline tickets have soared, while anyone heading to the West has to take long detours.

Grisha* is planning to get a Schengen visa after arriving in Armenia on Friday evening, where flights from Moscow are still landing.

“I think it’s likely; very likely even,” he said, referring to martial law being introduced. “I didn’t even bother to pack, I just left three months’ rent with my housemates and bought the next flight to Yerevan.”

The visa issue is seen as an obstacle for those wanting to leave, especially since several countries including Latvia, the Czech Republic and Japan have suspended issuing visas to all Russian citizens. But others, like the Italian embassy in Moscow, are still accepting applications.

“We drove through the border crossing by Vyborg [near St Petersburg],” said Yuliya*, who decided on Wednesday night to leave for Finland with her husband.

“There weren’t many other cars at the border crossing,” she said, feeling “lucky” her own visa was still valid.

“When we crossed the border, it felt like we finally climbed out of a black hole that had been sucking us in all week.”

‘I feel strange’

Russia said earlier this week 498 of its troops had been killed in Ukraine so far. Putin has ordered compensation to be paid to the families of the soldiers who died, while officials praised the Russians fighting in the neighbouring country as heroes who will always be remembered.

But for Alexander, like the rest of the people Al Jazeera spoke to, the future seems gloomy.

“I want to be an optimist and it feels sweet to agree with those of my compatriots who envision this war as the economic suicide of Putin’s regime, which will inevitably collapse in the months to come under the heavy weight of hardcore sanctions and the hunger riots caused by them,” he said.

“But my 30-year life experience as a Russian literally doesn’t include a single memory of a successful democratic turn,” he added. “Hence I’m preparing myself for the worst: a gloomy decade in the war-economics, full-blown autocracy where luxuries such as journalism, cultural institutions or booming IT sector no longer thrive.”

Grisha, who took part in the anti-war protests in his hometown, feels guilty for leaving.

“I feel strange,” he said. “I think I’m gonna go back. I can’t just leave my friends back there, fighting.”

But the majority of Russians are staying where they are. And even if they wanted to leave, they are still bound to their home.

“Whoever has the opportunity is leaving; two or three of my close friends went through Turkey,” Tatyana*, 32, told Al Jazeera.

“I’m scared to stay here. We’re stuck in [a bind]: here, they will push on us; there, they don’t like Russians now.

“I think I will go but my whole family is here. I will try, probably, but my family won’t go, and I’ll need to find a job. If I go, it’ll just be me – and I don’t know where.”

*Asked to be identified like this for safety reasons

Source: Al Jazeera