Russian émigrés fleeing Putin’s war find freedom in Armenia cafes | Russia

Ihe days after Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine in late February, Vladimir Shurupov, a cardiologist from the Siberian city of Tomsk, felt he couldn’t breathe properly. “I had panic attacks, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I just knew that I had to remove myself from this place, from this atmosphere, ”he said.

Shurupov, 40, had been a silent critic of Putin’s government for years but had never attended a protest of any kind, fearing unwanted attention or arrest. At the start of the war, disgust with the regime is added to the fear of being sent to the front. “If there had been a mobilization, I would have been called up as a military doctor, and this is not a war I would be prepared to fight in,” he said.

Shurupov discussed with his wife and two sons that perhaps they should try to leave the country. The family had minimal savings, but he was able to sell his car for cash and buy four tickets to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Just two days after first discussing their departure, they flew from Tomsk to Yerevan. After receiving Schengen visas, they traveled to Bulgaria. They never intend to return home.

Vladimir Shurupov and his wife, Rita. Photography: handout

The Shurupov family are among hundreds of thousands of Russians who have fled the country since the war began on February 24. Putin called these people “traitors and scum” and said their departure would help “clean up” Russian society.

Many are journalists or opposition activists, whose work has in fact been criminalized by increasingly draconian wartime laws in Russia. Others are businessmen fleeing sanctions. Some simply did not want to be part of a society where pro-war sentiments are so strong. Shurupov estimated that out of 30 colleagues at his hospital, only three opposed the war.

Some of those who left in the days following the invasion have already decided to return, but many are determined to start a new life abroad, at least until there are political changes in Russia. .

“I don’t want to live behind another iron curtain. I just felt there was no future in Russia,” said Valery Zolotukhin, 39, a literature and theater scholar who came to Armenia with his wife and seven-year-old daughter. “In Russia, you live in the fantasy of a few people… They have created an imaginary world and you are forced to be part of it.”

A century ago, after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, millions of emigrants fled to Istanbul, Prague and Harbin. Today there is an echo of this process as the cafes of Vilnius, Tbilisi and Yerevan are filled with Russians in the early stages of building a new life.

Yerevan
Many Russian emigrants have settled in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, as no visa is required Photograph: Karen Minasyan/The Guardian/AFP

Armenia is one of the most popular destinations, as no visa is required. It has also created favorable conditions for IT companies, leading to the relocation of thousands of Russian tech professionals over the past two months.

“In the beginning, you were walking down the street and seeing all your friends from Moscow, and people from St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod that you normally only see on Zoom calls,” said Maya Gorodova, former business manager of startups. Russians, who created a coworking space in Yerevan with a view of Mount Ararat from the windows.

The current 70 tenants are all recent arrivals from Russia, and Gorodova has received calls from Russians in Belgrade, Tbilisi, Tel Aviv and Bali, she said, asking for advice on setting up new workspaces. for immigrants.

The exodus of tech professionals is likely to be a blow to Russia, which in recent years has become a highly digitized economy. But opposition to the war, fear of possible mobilization and the loss of contracts with foreign customers due to sanctions have combined to push many out.

At Hummus Kimchi, a new restaurant run by a team of transplanted brothers and sisters from Moscow, newcomers to Yerevan discuss their upcoming moves. Some have their eyes set on the UK Global Talent visa and have paid agents thousands of pounds who promise to write their forms to match the Home Office checklist. Others note that Germany offers citizenship within five years to incoming IT professionals.

Aleksandra Paravyan and her brother Dmitry at their cafe, Hummus Kimchi, in Yerevan.
Aleksandra Paravyan and her brother Dmitry at their cafe, Hummus Kimchi, in Yerevan. Photograph: Karen Minasyan/The Guardian

“Of course, these are all reserve options,” said a young tech professional, sipping a craft beer. “Let’s hope Putin dies soon and we can all go back.”

For many of those who left, emigration was the last moment in a lifetime of fierce opposition activity, including arrests and searches. For others, it was the start of a political awakening.

A woman in her 30s, who did not want her name published, said she had always opposed Putin but was too scared to attend protests or post on Facebook. On the second day of the war, she wore clothes in Ukrainian colors to work, and her colleagues began to insult her. She realized that no one in her social group shared her revulsion at the invasion.

“It’s impossible to talk to any of my friends, I’ve started chatting with a few of them and I feel like they just press the C command, the command V. They all repeat the same phrases,” she said.

She also left behind a longtime boyfriend who works in the Russian security services. Previously, they hadn’t discussed politics much, but before leaving, she wrote him a long letter outlining her opposition to the war. They haven’t spoken to each other since.

“In the short time here, I have met more people who think like me than in recent years in Moscow. And I realized that here I stopped always calculating what to say based on who I’m talking to. I feel so much freer,” she said.

Many Russians in Yerevan spend long hours in the city’s cafes and bars, wondering if there was a way to stop Putin sooner and if they should have done more. Some remain worried about the repercussions at home and speak in mealy euphemisms of “unfortunate events” or “the Ukrainian situation”. Others are eager to express their wholehearted support for Ukraine.

Elena Kamay ran street markets in Moscow, loved by the city's so-called 'creative class'
Elena Kamay ran street markets in Moscow, beloved by the city’s so-called “creative class”. “We lived in a bubble,” she says. “And now it’s all over.” Photograph: Karen Minasyan/The Guardian

In Moscow, Elena Kamay ran Lambada Markets, which held street markets popular with the city’s so-called “creative class” that has sprung up over the past decade. Stalls sold vintage clothing, local designer items and other handicrafts. “Of course it was all just a facade, we were living in a bubble. And now it’s all over,” she said.

Kamay moved to Yerevan in early March and, like many, reflected on the past decade from today’s perspective. She acknowledged that working in Moscow involved “making a deal with your conscience”, although she said she had participated in anti-government protests since 2011.

Recently, she said, she had reread messages she had exchanged with Oksana Baulina, a Russian activist and journalist who left Russia two years ago and was killed by a Russian airstrike in kyiv in March while she was reporting. “I always thought she was a bit exaggerating when describing her views on Russia and the political system, but it turns out she was right all along,” she said.

Elena Chegodayeva also arrived in Yerevan in March and a few weeks later set up a school in a downtown apartment. The 50 students and 20 teachers have all recently arrived from Russia. Chegodayeva said she has been thinking about the concept of collective responsibility since the start of the war.

“We are all Russians and we will have to take responsibility for this, just as the Germans had to do after the war,” she said. “On the other hand, I was two years old when Putin was elected, so what more I could have done is not entirely clear.”

Chegodayeva, 24, said she lost part of her college stipend for arguing with her professor over whether annexation of Crimea was illegal, and received dawn visits from police in his apartment after taking part in demonstrations. She said the case of a St Petersburg artist who faces 10 years in prison for replacing supermarket price tags with anti-war slogans showed protest in Russia was now futile. She will only return to Russia “if there is a revolution in the air”, she said.

Rather than trying to persuade people to stay, Putin celebrated the exodus of hundreds of thousands of educated, anti-war Russians. In a grim video address in mid-March, Putin slammed those who have moved abroad or backed the West in its ongoing battle with Moscow.

Moscow teacher Elena Chegodaeva runs a school for Russian children from an apartment in Yerevan
Elena Chegodaeva, a teacher from Moscow, runs a school for Russian children from an apartment in Yerevan. Photograph: Karen Minasyan/AFP

“Any people, and especially the Russian people, are able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, and just spit them out like a fly flying into their mouths,” he said, using the one of the toughest languages ​​of its two decades in task. There would be a “natural and necessary cleansing of society,” Putin said, which would benefit the country in the long run.

The question now is whether those who have left will gradually disconnect from Russia or form a powerful opposition to Putin and his regime from abroad, rallying to political forces such as the opposition leader’s associates. imprisoned Alexei Navalny, most of whom are now based in Vilnius.

“For 100 years, the understanding of emigration was that people quickly lost contact with Russia and did not understand it, so no one believed that political emigration could have a chance to play a role in Russian politics” , said Andrei Soldatov, a co-author with Irina Borogan of a recent book on the history of Russians outside Russia.

Now, however, the Internet opens up very different possibilities. “The country is still connected to the world. So many Russian journalists have left the country and are still in contact with their audience, and this is an absolutely new development for the Kremlin,” Soldatov said.

Before trying to change the regime, many emigrants first try to change the minds of family members who support the war and who stayed behind, refusing to leave.

Shurupov hopes his mother will eventually join the family in Europe, but so far she is resisting. “I couldn’t convince her of the war and she doesn’t want to leave. For me, it’s a real tragedy. »