On the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country had launched an attack on Ukraine, Sergei* boarded a plane bound for the West and left his hometown of Saint Petersburg. Three weeks into the war, Sergey, along with tens of thousands of his compatriots, got used to the idea that he might never come home again.
Sergey left his home — and his life — in Saint Petersburg on February 24. “I actually left on the first day of the war,” he told France 24 in English via an encrypted messaging service from a site he said would be wiser. Not disclosed at the moment [Putin] The system changes things every hour,” he said, referring to the series of laws that the Russian State Duma is currently pushing in order to suppress any dissenting voices.
Self-employed, Sergei describes himself as a “normal”, low-key Russian who – unlike his aging father who consumes state television – is fiercely opposed to Putin and the war in Ukraine.
“I have been against Putin since he first appeared 22 years ago,” he said, noting the autocrat’s utter lack of respect for the basic values that make up a free society, including human rights. “And I hate this unjust war against our Ukrainian brothers.”
He said: “My father lives in a completely different world and believes that the Russian army is saving Ukrainians from neo-Nazis. It is complete nonsense. I cannot talk to him about any kind of politics.”
Sergei had initially planned to travel abroad for work later this spring, but with rumors of an impending invasion of Ukraine looming, he decided to speed up his departure date.
“I decided to travel urgently because I was afraid that the situation would become really difficult, very quickly, and that the borders might be closed,” he said.
Sergey was right. Within days, the European Union closed its airspace to Russia, and some of the only means left for Russian citizens to reach the West by air are now via Serbia, Turkey, China or the United Arab Emirates.
Sergey has been away from his wife and children for more than three weeks, and although his plane ticket says he’s close to going home, he’s getting more and more suspicious that he will.
“I started working on getting my family out,” he admitted. “For the past twenty years, I have never wanted to leave St. Petersburg. I love my city and my Russian culture dearly. I am really a great patriot. But it is starting to feel like it has become North Korea or another Iran, and who wants to grow up their children in a country like this?”
Sergey is not alone who harbors those feelings. “I have many friends who have already left, or are talking about leaving,” he said.
According to a March 8 estimate by Konstantin Sonin, a Russian political economist at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, more than 200,000 Russians have left their homeland since Russia began its war in Ukraine on February 24. However, it is unclear how many Russians have taken the same approach since then.
The Armenian government gave the number 80,000 there; 20-25 thousand there, said the mayor of Tbilisi. There were more flights to Istanbul than to Yerevan every day, and on larger planes. Plus Tel Aviv, Almaty and Bishkek + a small but continuous stream through Estonia, Latvia and Finland. So 200k is minimum.
– Konstantin Sonin (@k_sonin) March 8, 2022, is the FSB listening? In the short time that Sergei was absent, he said that life in Russia had changed dramatically.
“The ruble has lost half its value, and the prices of everything that is imported from the West, such as smartphones, washing machines, cars – have already become 30-40 percent more expensive.” But worse, he said, is the repression of the Putin regime, which is becoming increasingly stifling by the day.
A year ago I went on a rally to support [Kremlin-critic] Alexei Navalny. At the time, as a first-time offender, you risked a small fine and if unlucky, you could be up to 30 days in prison. But today they arrest many [people]And, as a repeat offender, you risk fines of up to a year’s salary – a minimum – and up to 15 years in prison. She can be beaten and tortured. Some heroes are still pretending, but I’m not that brave I’m afraid.”
“And you may have heard of the new law that criminalizes even calling war a ‘war’, right? On Ukraine as anything but a carefully crafted ‘special military operation’. Anyone who breaks the law is subject to heavy fines and up to 15 years in prison.
“But itisa war!” Sergey lamented, noting that although he by no means sees himself as a political activist, he and his Russian anti-war friends prefer to stay on the safe side and are now taking extra precautions when communicating with each other. just in case.
“I don’t really think anyone would be interested in hearing what I talk about with my friends — for now at least. But that could change quickly.” So we no longer call each other on landlines, and use different [encrypted] Messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. People say these apps are not monitored by [Russian intelligence service] FSB, but who knows? ”
Disturbing stories from home Sergey said the stories he was hearing from home were increasingly worrying.
“A friend of mine was very open about his anti-war feelings in the first week of the war. He posted a lot of anti-war material on his Facebook page and stuff like that, and then [FSB agents] He went to his house and interrogated him. I don’t know what happened after that.”
Since the beginning of March, most social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, are no longer accessible in Russia after the government first moved to restrict and censor them, and when that failed, they were eventually banned.
“But you can still access social media via a VPN,” said Sergey, explaining that the location masking technology also allows them to access independent and international news in order to read what’s really going on – in Ukraine and at home.
What is happening in Ukraine is horrific. “It’s really horrific,” he said.
I recently read that Russians who leave are stopped at passport control and I asked about their political attitudes towards the current situation. And then they have to unlock their phones, show their Facebook accounts, etc. “It’s really scary,” he said.
But Sergei’s biggest fear, should he return home, is that he will be tasked with fighting a war that he does not support at all. Putin recently announced that no Russian recruits would be sent to fight in Ukraine, but Sergey finds it hard to believe.
“It is now quite clear: he wants to recreate the Russian Empire as much as possible,” he said. If Putin feels that the war will not go the way he wants, I think he will send the recruits. I did military service, so I can be sent. I hate fighting against the Ukrainians whom I support very much. I hate this war.”
* His name has been changed for security reasons, “I hate this war,” he told France 24.