Hundreds of thousands flee Russia and Putin’s ‘two wars’
At least 200,000 Russians have abandoned their homes and jobs for fear of being persecuted as ‘scum and national traitors’.
Vinnytsia, Ukraine – Nana Grinstein fled Russia because the Kremlin’s new laws punishing criticism of its so-called “special operation in Ukraine” may land her in jail.
Grinstein, a playwright, her husband Viktor, a video editor, and their 14-year-old daughter, Tonya, left behind the hysteria in Russia caused by the war in Ukraine, and the persecution of anyone who dares to say that President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” is, in fact, a war.
“The world that we’ve been building for years, that seemed unshakable, important and relevant, crumbled before my very eyes like it was made of cardboard,” Grinstein told Al Jazeera from a rented apartment in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Arriving in Armenia in early March, the family found that tens of thousands of other Russians had made the journey before them, and they have witnessed the arrival of many more since.
Grinstein and her family fled Russia fearing the very real possibility of persecution for being, to use Putin’s own words, “scum” and “national traitors” – slurs that have spurred a witch-hunt reminiscent of the Stalin-era purges.
The Grinsteins are now among at least 200,000 Russians who have abandoned their homes and jobs because they are disgusted by the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine and the largely enthusiastic response to the war by their compatriots.
“They want nothing to do with Putin’s sham-Imperial project and don’t want to be associated with his war crimes,” columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote in mid-March.
“Others [leave] because they cannot imagine living under the Soviet-style autarky to which Western sanctions have doomed Russia,” he wrote.
The post-invasion flight from Russia is the latest but hardly the final chapter of the exodus of millions who cannot stand to live under Putin’s rule.
From 2000, when Putin was first elected president, to 2020, four to five million Russians have emigrated, according to research published by the Takie Dela magazine in October.
The figures were based on surveys, official national data from dozens of countries – from Kazakhstan to Canada – as well as Russian statistics on the number of people who had cancelled their residence registration.
In the early 2000s, Russians migrated mostly to Europe and North America, but after 2014 more moved to former Soviet republics, the magazine reported.
The new tide of Russian migrants is huge – and rising.
At least 200,000 people left Russia in the first 10 days of the war in Ukraine, according to calculations by Konstantin Sonin, a Russian-born economist at the University of Chicago.
“The tragic exodus not seen for a century,” Sonin wrote in a tweet, where he compared the ongoing flight with the “White Emigration” that followed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution when some five million people fled the former Russian empire – ending up in Germany, France, the United States, Argentina and China.
Among the emigres were novelist Vladimir Nabokov, composer Igor Stravinsky and Ukrainian-born helicopter designer Igor Sikorsky.
Nowadays, emigration is faster and far easier, especially for digital nomads who can live almost anywhere as long as there is access to broadband internet and online banking.
A survey of more than 2,000 emigrants conducted in mid-March by OK Russians, a nascent nonprofit that helps emigres, found that about a third of those who left were IT experts, managers of all sorts constituted another third, and the remainder were office workers and creative freelancers – designers, bloggers, journalists.
The survey concluded that at least 300,000 Russians had left the country by March 16, mostly to Georgia, Turkey and Armenia.
Others have left for more exotic destinations.
When the war started, Leonid Shmelkov was on vacation in Sri Lanka.
The 39-year-old animator, whose “My Own Personal Moose” cartoon won a special prize at Germany’s 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, decided to stay in Sri Lanka – and urged a dozen friends to join him.
Shmelkov and his friends work on long-distance projects despite imperfect web access and power supply in Sri Lanka. They have learned how to get by living on an island where web access and the power supply are far from perfect.
Sri Lanka’s tourism-dependent economy nosedived because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and authorities have allowed thousands of Russian tourists to extend their stay because they are welcome of the business, Shmelkov said.
Reflecting on the conflict, Shmelkov feels that Moscow is not just at war with Kyiv.
Propaganda exaggerating the role Soviet forces played in the victory over Nazi Germany led to a “cult of war” that acted as a precursor to the current war hysteria in Russia, he explained.
“We’ve had some sort of a cult of war, a very wrong cult of war, not in the sense of ‘let’s do everything so that it doesn’t happen again’,” Shmelkov told Al Jazeera.
“The Russian government is waging two wars – one against Ukraine and the other one against normal people in Russia.”
‘Not Orwell, this is King’
Two-thirds of Russians feel “pride, inspiration or joy” about the war in Ukraine, according to a March 4 survey by the Levada Center, Russia’s last independent pollster. Only 18 percent felt “anger, shame or depression” at the war.
A resident of Moscow, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, compared the current environment in Russia as being more like a plot in a Stephen King horror novel than to the anti-Utopia of George Orwell’s “1984”.
“I am surrounded by zombies. No one forces them, they support the war voluntarily and with joy. This is not Orwell, this is King,” she said.
Propaganda-filled television shows are broadcast “almost around the clock”, and their influence on the hearts and minds is as devastating as “nuclear weapons”, she added.
“It’s killing everyone and everything, turning black into white and vice versa. Year after year, drop after drop, fake after fake.”
Thousands of war critics have been jailed, harassed, their homes raided, subjected to smear campaigns, and physically attacked by unidentified thugs, human rights groups say.
This new witch-hunt surpasses any previous quashing of dissent under Putin, who said in mid-March that “scum” and “national traitors” should be “purged”.
“For two decades, the argument has been that oppression and human rights violations are a necessary evil to ensure economic growth and stability, [but] in the end, Putin’s regime has neither,” said Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a rights monitor.
“The increasing brutality in Russian society has forced the country’s brightest to leave in search for a better future for their families,” he told Al Jazeera.
Newly resident in Yerevan, Grinstein’s professional and personal history is a reflection of the evolution of oppression in Russia.
The 51-year-old Muscovite penned scripts for award-winning movies and television shows, but it was her lesser-known writings that drew the ire of Russian authorities. Since 2011, she has been writing for Teatr.doc, Russia’s most political, persecuted, and outspoken theatre.
Grinstein based her plays on interviews and documents that described the lives of LGBTQ Russians, Muslim labour migrants and the post-WWII co-existence of Germans and Russian settlers in the Soviet-occupied Baltic exclave of Konigsberg.
For years, the Teatr.doc troupe faced threats, arrests and interrogations, but their shoestring-budget performances won accolades and awards.
When the war in Ukraine began in February, Grinstein tried to rally filmmakers she knew in opposition to the conflict. Her appeals were in vain, because too many of their film projects depended on government funding.
Grinstein’s own family history epitomises the new divisions in Russian society – and the not-so-distant Soviet past.
Her husband, Viktor, refrains from discussing the war with his elderly pro-Russian parents who live in the separatist-controlled southeastern region of Luhansk.
Her daughter, Tonya, saw how the Kremlin’s war propaganda affected her peers, who mostly cheered the invasion.
“She was scared more than we were,” Grinstein told Al Jazeera.
For Grinstein, their recent arrival in Armenia echoes another war that uprooted her family a generation ago.
She was born in 1971 in Baku, the capital of then-Soviet Azerbaijan, into an Armenian-Jewish family where she remembers wearing a classy dress to her high school graduation in 1988 – and walking home past soldiers in armoured vehicles.
The troops were deployed by Moscow during the Azeri-Armenian tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh that would spark a war four years later.
Anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan soon forced the Grinsteins to leave for Armenia, from where she later moved to Moscow to study in a prestigious film school.
She realises now that despite her anti-war stance, her family will still be blamed for allowing Russia’s war against Ukraine to happen.
“My forefathers were persecuted for being Jewish, then – for being Armenian, and we will be persecuted for being Russian,” she said.
What soothes her is working on plans to move to Germany, “the immense hospitality” of Armenians – and the view in Yerevan she has of Armenia’s most sacred mountain.
“I see Mount Ararat from my window, and that’s inspiring,” she said.