‘Cold, shameful and free’: Anti-Putin Russians take refuge in Armenia

Less than 48 hours after deciding to flee Russia, writer Maxim Osipov and his wife were at a Moscow airport. “I knew it should have been a sentimental moment,” Osipov said as he crossed the Russian border and boarded a plane bound for Armenia, a small country in the South Caucasus. “But it was like I was dead and watching the afterlife. I was more curious than sentimental.

Tens of thousands of Russians have left the country since President Vladimir Putin announced the start of the invasion of Ukraine. Some of those heading for the exits in this unprecedented exodus feared the mass repression that was to come; others worried about the possibility of conscription into Russian forces or the possibility of borders being closed. Almost everyone who has sought refuge far from home is horrified by the bloody violence in Ukraine and the increasingly gloomy political mood in Moscow.

Arriving in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, which has recently been plagued by unusual snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures, Osipov said he felt “cold, shameful and free” – a reference to a quote about emigration from German writer Sebastian Haffner, who escaped Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. “I’m ashamed of Russia,” said Osipov, who lived in the picturesque town of Tarusa , just outside Moscow. “I’m ashamed that I didn’t stay in Tarusa. I’m ashamed because friends couldn’t leave because of their aging parents or for other reasons. And, of course, I’m ashamed to be Russian because of what we’re doing in Ukraine.

The influx of Russians is hard to miss in Yerevan, home to around a million people and known as the “Pink City” due to the widely used pink tuff stone. Most of the Russians arriving are from the country’s beleaguered middle class, and clusters of lost-looking Muscovites are a common — and incongruous — sight on Armenian streets. Spoken Russian is now much more common in Yerevan than it was before the war, soaring property prices have led to a wave of evictions, and queues at banks are endless.

Russians don’t need a visa to enter Armenia, and the country’s Soviet heritage means most locals speak Russian, making it an attractive destination. Other post-Soviet capitals have also seen notable influxes of Russians in recent weeks, including Tbilisi in neighboring Georgia and Bishkek in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. The Turkish capital, Istanbul, and cities in the Baltic states also have rapidly growing Russian emigrant communities. According to some estimates, the total exodus last month could reach 250,000 people.

Many of those arriving from Russia are in shock, obsessively communicating with friends and family and trying to figure out what to do next, even turning to history for clues. about what will happen. “Everyone reads Karl Jaspers on collective guilt, Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil and Jonathan Little benevolentsaid a museum curator from Moscow who flew to Yerevan with her boyfriend and requested anonymity to speak freely. “I haven’t made a decision yet, but in terms of feelings, I can say that there is more pain than shame. I feel so sorry for Ukraine.

Even abroad, many Russians are still afraid to speak freely, especially if they hope to return. A “fake news” law signed by Putin earlier this month provides for prison terms of up to 15 years, and many believe it could be used to spark a new crackdown. Several Russians declined to give an interview for this article, and the museum curator said she deleted her anti-war Facebook posts. “A person has a limited amount of mental strength and at the moment some of that strength has been stolen away by fear,” she said.

While most new arrivals are concentrated in Yerevan, Russians have also headed to other destinations across Armenia, including the “northern capital” of Gyumri and the mountainous spa town of Dilijan. Many intend to settle in a new home, while others consider moving to Europe or even further afield.

Maria Maiofis and her husband, Ilya Kukulin, both prominent academics, pulled their 17-year-old daughter out of school and bought three tickets to Yerevan eight days after the outbreak of war. Over coffee in Yerevan, they said they couldn’t remain silent and didn’t want to go to jail for protesting – so their only option was to leave.

They and their dog had to change airports in Moscow after their flight was canceled at the last minute. When their plane was briefly held on the runway before takeoff, their daughter had a panic attack. “The three weeks we spent here [in Yerevan] I feel like I picked up the pieces,” Maiofis said. The couple added that they wanted to find a job in a “free country”, but would stay in Armenia for a few months.

While those who flee generally hold similar political beliefs, they come from a variety of different jobs and industries. The exodus includes most of Russia’s remaining freelance journalists – worried about the new “fake news” law – and much of the IT industry. As many as 100,000 IT workers could leave Russia in April, according to the Russian Electronic Communications Association. Russian private internet giant Yandex said it was looking to rent a new office in Yerevan.

The loss of hundreds of thousands of highly skilled men and women is likely to have a long-term economic impact on Russia, but these emigrants also represent some of the country’s most active anti-regime opposition. The consequences of this mass evacuation on the current anti-war movement, as well as future opposition to the Kremlin, are different to assess, but seem important.

On a recent Sunday in Yerevan, several hundred Russians, Armenians and Ukrainians gathered in a snowstorm for an anti-war march through the city center. As protesters waved Ukrainian flags and chanted “Putin is a murderer!” », « No to war! Academics Maiofis and Kukulin said participating in a political rally without fear of arrest was a novel and cathartic experience.

Christy J. Olson