Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians are estimated to have left their country. We examine who they are, where they are going, and why they are leaving.
Originally from a small town, Svetlana moved to Moscow at 18 to study physics at university. After graduation, she worked as a product manager for various companies.
My plan was to retire in Moscow, she says, I love Russia and I enjoyed my time here.
Even before the Ukraine war, many Russians had left, including those who disagreed with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and with new laws that made it easier to punish dissent.
A turning point in Svetlana’s life was the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
I realized that the war would not end soon and that people would not come out to protest. Both emotionally and rationally, it made sense to leave, she explains. She now lives in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital.
As much as possible, I wanted to distance myself from the authorities.
The trickle of Russians who shared her feelings turned into a torrent.
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During March and April last year, as per the reports new emigrants they opposed the war and were disappointed more Russians did not protest. Feeling isolated and at risk, they felt it was safer to leave.
According to the authorities, President Putin began a partial military mobilisation in September 2022. In reality, most men were at risk of being drafted.
The newly drafted were reported to have received poor training and insufficient equipment.
In Georgia and Kazakhstan, men and their families began leaving in droves, creating days-long queues.
Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s official spokesman, denied that Russians were leaving en masse to avoid enlistment.
New conscripts can now be added to a digital register instead of being handed papers by hand in April – he also denied the system was intended to stop the flow of men leaving.
What are the remaining numbers and where are they going?
A number of people have left Russia, but estimates range from hundreds of thousands to several million.
The UK Ministry of Defence estimated that 1.3 million people would leave Russia in 2022.
The Bell and RTVi – both independent Russian media – published similar figures. Forbes magazine cited Russian authorities as saying 600,000-1,000,000 left in 2022.
If you have money and have not been drafted into the army, leaving Russia is relatively easy. Finding a permanent place to live, however, is more challenging.
Following the beginning of the war, many countries, mostly the EU and US, made it difficult for Russians to obtain visas unless they already had family there.
There were no such restrictions in Georgia and Armenia, where Russians could come and go as they pleased.
Kazakhstan, for example, changed its laws earlier this year to limit the number of days that tourists can stay as tourists to stem the flow of Russian immigrants.
The possibility of returning to Russia is decreasing, so more and more people are applying for residency to be able to work in the countries where they are settling – though many still work remotely for Russian employers.
Over the past 15 months, approximately 155,000 Russians have received temporary residence permits in EU countries, in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Central Asia.
The European Union Agency for Asylum reports that more than 17,000 people have applied for political asylum in EU countries, but only 2,000 have been granted asylum.
According to the Russian Interior Ministry, 40% more foreign passport applications were received in 2022 than in 2021.
The thought of being sent to kill other people terrified me
We have spoken to dozens of Russians who have left since the war began.
Some are journalists like us, but others are IT experts, designers, artists, academics, lawyers, doctors, PR specialists, and linguists. They come from a variety of backgrounds. Many are under 50. They share western liberal values and hope Russia will one day be a democratic country. Some are LGBTQ+.
According to sociologists studying the current Russian emigration, those leaving are younger, better educated, and wealthier than those staying. They are typically from bigger cities, too.
St Petersburg is where Thomas comes from.
Invasion and killing of civilians are unacceptable,” he says, as a pacifist who was terrified of being sent to kill others.
As a gay man, he was also concerned for his safety after the full-scale invasion began. He posted anti-war messages on social media and joined street protests.
He says the threat to his life and freedom increased after Russia passed laws against gay propaganda and fake news about the Russian army.
Thomas applied for political asylum in Sweden and explained to the authorities why returning to Russia would be dangerous. His application was denied, but he appealed.
Because I only have limited time with a state lawyer, I am gathering evidence on my own.”
The day Russia invaded Ukraine, Sergei, a native of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, called several of his friends and they all agreed that the war was bad.
He says the economy would go down no matter what happened next. “A week later, we all met and decided to leave.”
Sergei says the war grew closer as the days passed.
Hospitals were full of wounded. Rostov airport was closed for civilian flights, but there were lots of planes, and we knew where they were headed.
Sergei’s mother called him after Putin’s mobilisation speech, accusing him of not being patriotic enough. Sergei drove all night to Georgia, where he now lives.
As I work two jobs, one remotely for my company in Russia and one here for a friend’s small business, I must pay my wife and child’s expenses and accommodation overseas.
Despite his wife’s hesitation, Sergei says he is saving money to get his family out of Russia.
How does this affect Russia?
Even though Russian authorities tried to downplay the impact of hundreds of thousands of educated and well-off people leaving the country, the economic impact is evident.
Approximately 1.5% of Russia’s entire workforce may have left the country, mostly highly-skilled professionals. Companies complain of staff shortages and difficulty hiring.
There was a record withdrawal of 1.2 trillion roubles (around £12 billion / £15 billion) from Russian accounts in the early stages of the war.
Smirnov believes that higher skilled individuals will continue to look for ways to leave, as a general trend.
I don’t like apocalyptic scenarios, but I believe this will lead to productivity falling within the Russian economy as it continues to grow.”
These trends will primarily affect large cities, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg, according to the economist.
In smaller cities, towns, and villages, the standard of living has always been low and will continue to be low in the future.
In the meantime, Svetlana has no plans to return to Russia from Belgrade.
Currently, I work for a Moldovan start-up, but I recently applied for a job in the Netherlands.
Currently, Sergei in Tbilisi is applying for jobs in Europe. At the moment, his life is tough: he has no days off, sometimes he doesn’t have enough time for a sleep, so he naps in the car.
In Sweden, Thomas hopes he will not have to return to Russia where he fears homophobic abuse. He is learning Swedish to be able to get a job.