In the world as it existed before Russia invaded Ukraine, on February 24th, the Vnukovo International Airport, in Moscow, was a point of departure for weekend-holiday destinations south of the border: Yerevan, Istanbul, Baku. In the first week of March, as tens of thousands of President Vladimir Putin’s troops advanced into Ukraine, Vnukovo teemed with anxious travellers, many of them young. The line for excess baggage split the giant departure hall in half. These people weren’t going for the weekend.
In a coffee shop, a skinny young man with shoulder-length hair and steel-framed glasses sat at a tall counter. “I haven’t done much in the last day,” he told someone through his headphones, sounding more nervous than apologetic. “I’ve been busy with my move. I am flying to Yerevan today, then overland. I’ll be settled tomorrow and back to work.” The flight to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, was later cancelled. Two of my friends who were also scheduled to go to Armenia that day ended up flying seven hours to Ulaanbaatar, then three hours to Seoul, ten to Dubai, and a final three to Yerevan. My friends, a prominent gay journalist and his partner, were among the Russians—more than a quarter of a million, by some estimates—who have left their country since the invasion of Ukraine.
From Moscow, it’s a four-hour flight to Istanbul. There, you could spot the recently arrived: they had the disoriented look best summed up by the Russian expression “hit over the head with a dusty sack.” Snippets of conversations I overheard in the streets concerned possible next destinations. Istanbul is easy to get to, but it’s pricey, and Russian citizens can stay in Turkey for only two months without a visa. At a low table on a restaurant terrace, a crew of Russian journalists in their twenties scrolled through their phones looking for tickets (“There are two seats left to Tbilisi for next Sunday!” “Got one!”); they tried to figure out whether they’d ever be able to access their bank accounts, which were frozen by new restrictions from both Russia and the West; and they watched as the world as they knew it disappeared. Independent media outlets, now blocked in Russia, were deleting their Web sites and hiding YouTube videos and social-media posts to protect staff members who could face prosecution under new censorship laws. At home and abroad, Russians were wiping their social-media accounts to shield themselves and those who had liked or left comments on antiwar petitions, or even posts simply containing the word “war”—acts that were now punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. Russia was fast becoming an economic pariah: the lights were going out at IKEA, H&M, and Zara. Hundreds of thousands of people were losing their jobs.
My world, too, was vanishing. I moved to New York from Russia eight years ago because of government threats against my family, but most of my friends had remained in Moscow. As political pressure grew, they adjusted. Journalists and academics changed professions. Activists replaced organizing with charity work. But there remained a community of homes open to one another, an endless series of meals shared, and a conversation that had lasted decades. I missed this world desperately, and in the months since Covid restrictions began lifting I had visited often. Now almost everyone I knew was leaving. One long going-away party flowed from house to house. “Party” is the wrong word, of course, although there was a lot of drinking. When people raised a glass to one another, they added a wish to meet again. When they toasted the host’s home, they were drinking to a place they might be seeing for the last time. [Continue reading…]