In the days after Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine in late February, Vladimir Shurupov, a cardiologist from the Siberian city of Tomsk, felt he could not breathe properly. “I was having panic attacks, I could not eat or sleep. I just knew I had to remove myself from this place, from this atmosphere,” he said.
Shurupov, 40, had been a quiet critic of Putin’s government for years, but he had never attended a protest of any kind, fearful of unwanted attention or arrest. When the war began, disgust with the regime combined with a fear he would be sent to the front. “If there was mobilisation, I would have been called up as a military doctor, and this is not a war I would be willing 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 leaving, they flew out of Tomsk to Yerevan. After receiving Schengen visas, they moved on to Bulgaria. They have no plans ever to return home.
Vladimir Shurupov and his wife, Rita. Photograph: handout
The Shurupov family are among hundreds of thousands of Russians to have fled the country since the war began on 24 February. Putin has referred to such people as “traitors and scum” and said their departure will help “cleanse” Russian society.
Many are opposition journalists or activists, whose work has in effect been criminalised under increasingly draconian wartime laws in Russia. Others are businesspeople fleeing sanctions. Some simply did not want to be part of a society where pro-war feelings are running so high. Shurupov estimated that of 30 colleagues at his hospital, only three were opposed to the war.
Some of those who left in the days after the invasion have already decided to return, but many are set on making a new life abroad, at least until there are political changes in Russia.
“I don’t want to live behind a new iron curtain. I just had a feeling that there was no future in Russia,” said Valery Zolotukhin, 39, a literary and theatre scholar who came to Armenia with his wife and seven-year-old daughter. “In Russia, you’re living inside the fantasy of a few people … They’ve created an imaginary world and you’re forced to be part of it.”
A century ago, after the Bolsheviks took over Russia, millions of émigrés fled to Istanbul, Prague and Harbin. Today there is an echo of that process as the cafes of Vilnius, Tbilisi and Yerevan are packed with Russians in the first stages of building a new life.
Many Russian émigrés 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, because no visa is required. It has also created favourable conditions for IT businesses, prompting the relocation of thousands of Russian tech professionals over the past two months.
“At the beginning, you walked down the street and saw all your friends from Moscow, and the people from St Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod you only normally see on Zoom calls,” said Maya Gorodova, a former commercial director at Russian startups, who has set up a coworking space in Yerevan with views to Mount Ararat from the windows.
All 70 current tenants are 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 work spaces for émigrés.
The outflow of tech professionals is likely to be a huge blow for Russia, which in recent years has become a highly digitised economy. But opposition to the war, a fear of possible mobilisation and the loss of contracts with foreign clients due to sanctions have combined to push many to the exit.
At Hummus Kimchi, a new restaurant run by a brother and sister team transplanted from Moscow, recent arrivals to Yerevan discuss their next moves. Some have their eye on Britain’s Global Talent visa and have paid thousands of pounds to agents who promise to craft their forms to match the Home Office’s checklist. Others note that Germany offers citizenship within five years for arriving IT specialists.
Aleksandra Paravyan and her brother Dmitry in their cafe, Hummus Kimchi, in Yerevan. Photograph: Karen Minasyan/The Guardian
“Of course these are all reserve options,” said one young tech professional, sipping a craft beer. “Hopefully, Putin will die soon and we can all go back.”
For many who have left, emigration was the final moment in a life of gritty opposition activity, including arrests and house searches. For others it was the start of a political awakening.
One woman in her 30s, who did not want her name published, said she had always opposed Putin but had been too fearful to attend protests or post on Facebook. On the second day of the war she wore clothes in Ukrainian colours to work, and her colleagues began insulting her. She realised nobody in her social group shared her revulsion over the invasion.
“It’s impossible to talk to any of my friends, I started chats with a few of them and it feels like they are just pressing control C, control V. They’re all repeating the same phrases,” she said.
She also left behind a long-term boyfriend who works in Russia’s security services. Previously they had not discussed politics much, but before departing she wrote him a long letter setting out her opposition to the war. They have hardly spoken since.
“In a short time here I met more people who think like me than I did in the last few years in Moscow. And I realised that here I’ve stopped always calculating what I should 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, philosophising about whether there was any way to have stopped Putin earlier, and whether they should have done more. Some remain worried about repercussions at home and speak in mealy mouthed euphemisms about “the unfortunate events” or “the Ukrainian situation”. Others are eager to express their wholehearted support for Ukraine.
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 put on street markets beloved by the city’s so-called “creative class” that has sprung up over the past decade. Stalls sold vintage clothing, items by local designers and other artisan objects. “Of course it was all a facade, we lived in a bubble. And now it’s all over,” she said.
Kamay moved to Yerevan at the beginning of March, and like many has been thinking back over the past decade from today’s vantage point. She accepted that working in Moscow had involved “doing a deal with your conscience”, though she said she had been attending anti-government protests since 2011.
Recently, she said, she had been rereading 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 reporting. “I always thought she was exaggerating a bit when she described her views about 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 from an apartment in the city centre. The 50 pupils and 20 teachers have all recently arrived from Russia. Chegodayeva said she had been pondering the concept of collective responsibility since the war started.
“We are all Russians and we will have to take responsibility for this, just like Germans had to after the war,” she said. “On the other hand, I was two years old when Putin was elected, so it’s not entirely clear what more I could have done.”
Chegodayeva, 24, said she had lost part of her university stipend for arguing with her professor about whether the annexation of Crimea was illegal, and received dawn visits to her apartment from police after taking part in protests. She said the case of a St Petersburg artist who faces 10 years in jail for replacing supermarket price tags with anti-war slogans showed protest in Russia now was futile. She will only return to Russia “if there is revolution in the air”, she said.
Rather than try to persuade people to stay, Putin has celebrated the outflow of hundreds of thousands of educated, anti-war Russians. In a sinister video address in the middle of March, Putin criticised those who moved abroad or supported the west in its current battle with Moscow.
Elena Chegodaeva, a teacher from Moscow, runs a school for Russian children from an apartment in Yerevan. Photograph: Karen Minasyan/AFP
“Any people, and particularly the Russian people, are able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, and simply spit them out like a fly that flew into their mouths,” he said, using some of the harshest language of his two decades in charge. There would be a “natural and necessary cleansing of society”, said Putin, which would be beneficial to the country in the long run.
The question now is whether those who have left will gradually disconnect themselves from Russia, or form a powerful opposition to Putin and his regime from outside, rallying around political forces such as associates of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who are mostly now based in Vilnius.
“For 100 years, the understanding of emigration was that people quickly lost touch with Russia and didn’t understand it, so nobody believed the political emigration might have a chance of playing a role in Russian politics,” said Andrei Soldatov, a co-author with Irina Borogan of a recent book about 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 left the country and still have contact with their audiences, and this is an absolutely new development for the Kremlin,” Soldatov said.
Before trying to change the regime, many of the émigrés are first focused on trying to change the mind of war-supporting family members who have stayed behind, refusing to leave.
Shurupov hopes his mother will eventually join the family in Europe, but so far she is resisting. “I haven’t been able to convince her about the war, and she doesn’t want to leave. For me, this is a real tragedy.”