Russians are fleeing their country in droves. Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan; Estonia, Latvia, Montenegro. In the first two weeks of the war alone, Georgia took in 25,000 Russians, and Armenia was receiving some 6,000 Russians per day. By the end of March, 60,000 Russians had gone to Kazakhstan. And many more have sought refuge in a number of different countries in eastern Europe. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began, Russians who have the means to do so have been racing for the border in what has become the largest exodus since the Bolshevik Revolution.
The dramatic flight underscores the far-reaching effects of Putin’s war. For Russians who came of age in the 1990s, it seemed at first that the days of having to abandon the country for political reasons were over. One could leave for economic reasons, but there was no longer a fear of persecution or restrictions on personal freedoms. In recent years, as the Putin regime has become increasingly autocratic, all that has changed. The first large group to be affected were opposition politicians, independent journalists, and political activists, who started fleeing to Europe and the United States after 2013 (Putin reintroduced political emigration as early as in 2000, but back then, it was mostly limited to the oligarchs who fell out with the Kremlin). The outflow accelerated in 2020, after Putin intensified his crackdown on civil society and changed the constitution to allow him to stay in power at least until 2036.
But it was the assault on Ukraine that has turned this trend into a giant wave. During the initial weeks of the invasion, amid ever-tightening repression at home, hundreds of thousands of Russians are believed to have left the country. Those who have fled come from many different professions and backgrounds. Many had never contemplated emigration before. But nearly all of them have three things in common: they have a high level of education, are from the bigger cities, and have a liberal outlook.
For Russia, the departure of so many educated professionals, academics, and businesspeople raises profound questions about the future makeup of the country. For those seeking large-scale political change, it also poses a new challenge: whether it will be possible to effectively pressure the regime from abroad, with so much of the domestic opposition now in jail or simply gone. And for those left behind, the hollowing out of civil society means that they may be stuck with a country that is culturally impoverished, paranoid, and hard line. [Continue reading…]