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ISTANBUL — Russian rapper Oxxxymiron’s last concert was his smallest in years. On Tuesday, hundreds of people crammed into a small basement venue, and those who couldn’t get tickets jostled in the street trying to get in. As the lights dimmed, the Oxford University-educated hip-hop entertainer stepped out in front of a banner that read “Russians Against War.”
Those words alone could land him behind bars for up to 15 years under new Russian laws criminalizing “fake news” and criticism of the armed forces. But Oxxxymiron and his fans were in Istanbul, just a destination of choice for tens of thousands of Russians on the run since President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
“Everyone I know is against this unnecessary war,” said Polina, a 25-year-old graphic designer from St. Petersburg. “I don’t feel safe going back, so I’ll try to stay here as long as possible. My bank cards are not working, but I have friends in Turkey who can help me. A friend paid for her ticket for the concert, all proceeds from which will be donated to charities helping Ukrainian refugees.
Not everyone is so lucky. Sasha, a master coffee roaster, tendered his resignation at an upscale Moscow cafe and spent most of his savings on a flight to Istanbul, after dodging compulsory military service bills last year and fearing a to be sent to serve on the front lines in a war he can’t stand. “I was so nervous that they wouldn’t let me on the plane,” he said, after reading reports of interrogations at the border. “But I knew I had to leave and I had no other options.” This is his first time leaving the country and he is staying in a hostel until his money runs out or he can find work. Neither Polina nor Sasha wanted to give their full names.
They are part of a increasing exodus of skilled workers seeking emigration as economic chaos and political repression begin to take hold, dividing Europe in a way not seen since the fall of the USSR. According to officials in Armenia, a former Soviet republic where Russians can travel without foreign passports, at least 80,000 people have arrived in the past three weeks, while the mayor of Tbilisi, the capital of neighboring Georgia, has reported that 25,000 people had come to his city alone.
Like Oxxxymiron, many of those who left studied in the West before returning home, part of a generation of outward-looking creatives, technical specialists and entrepreneurs who fueled growing economic and cultural sectors. of Russia. “Young people who want to travel abroad, who want to build their lives, buy consumer goods and have a kind of middle-class lifestyle – they are the ones who have been most marginalized by the decision to invade Putin,” said Ian Garner, a historian studying Russian war propaganda. “And these are the same people who are more likely to support the anti-war movement.”
While small groups initially staged protests in cities across the country, they faced immediate and brutal repression. Human rights group OVD.info estimates that 14,980 protesters have been arrested and a chilling recording leaked online appears to show officers beating an inmate who refused to confess to taking part in an unauthorized rally – banned under COVID-19 laws that have been all but abandoned in other areas of life.
Consequences of speaking out
As those attending the concert in Istanbul wore T-shirts bearing the name of imprisoned opponent Alexei Navalny and chanted ‘Glory to Ukraine’, their compatriots back home face harsh consequences for speaking out . Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer at Russian state television, has gone viral after jumping in front of cameras during a live newscast holding a sign that read ‘Stop the war’ and telling viewers ‘we’re lying to you’. She was detained, fined and could still face a sentence in a penal colony. Others, like a pensioner living near the Siberian city of Tomsk who scribbled down a message calling for an end to the conflict, have also been hit with hefty fines.
Few of those who left had any hope that staying and fighting for what they believe in would lead to any change. “My family lives in Ukraine,” said Taras, a 42-year-old IT consultant. “I wanted to come out to protest – I felt it was the least I could do for them. But given what’s going on, I know it wouldn’t change anything. Able to work remotely, he now hopes to rent a house near the coast in Turkey and bring his wife over.
Putin himself has hailed the fact that so many who disagree with his war have fled, calling it a “cleansing” of society. “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from garbage and traitors, and will simply spit them out like a gnat that flew into their mouth,” he said in a fiery speech on Wednesday. “This will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, our cohesion and our willingness to respond to all challenges.”
While the loss of politically engaged young people may make Russia easier for the Kremlin to control, the brain drain will also undo much of the progress made in vital sectors like technology. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who has himself championed IT as the answer to economic stagnation, decided earlier this month to offer digital experts preferential mortgages and introduce tax breaks for remaining businesses. Despite this, it is proving difficult to keep highly mobile workers with in-demand skills in the country.
Ukrainians Taras Chaus, from Lviv, and his girlfriend Elizaveta Cheliy, from the frontline town of Zaporizhzhia, are among those who traveled to see Oxxxymiron, who left just two days before rockets began falling on their country. “Ordinary Russians are against war,” Chaus said, “many still don’t understand how bad it is – but if they want to live well and take care of themselves, that will begin to change. Only a few left and there are many people there to oppose the war.
Cheliy, however, was less optimistic about the prospect of domestic unrest forcing Putin to change course. “Those who speak other languages and know the reality of other countries want to leave. But older people just believe what they see on TV – they won’t change their minds,” she warned.
On stage, the rapper they came to see made the same remark. “People who support what’s going on don’t know what’s going on,” he shouted into the microphone. “They think it’s just a ‘special operation’ – but it’s a war.”
Then, turning to the camera broadcasting his words live to tens of thousands of viewers in Russia, Oxxxymiron implored people to wake up to the reality of the conflict. “I think most people here will agree with me, but I know many won’t. You can’t just accept what you’re told. I implore you, look for alternatives to the opinions that Talk to your parents, they’re not bloodthirsty people, but they watch too much television.
“Listen, because this is so important, not just for Ukraine but also for Russia. If you don’t, we will lose it.
At this time, it’s unclear if this message will get through or if, before long, there will be too much left to matter.