Putin's war has triggered an exodus out of Russia -- but the escape options are shrinking
From Moscow to the Siberian oil capital of Novosibirsk, and from the intellectual hub of St. Petersburg to the nuclear submarine base of Murmansk, Russians are searching for a way out in anticipation of a grim future in a country torn apart by isolation, censorship and belligerence.
Analysis of search data, immigration figures and flight information, as well as interviews with experts, activists and people inside the country, shed light on how people who can no longer live in Vladimir Putin's Russia are trying to flee amid the president's war in Ukraine and political crackdown at home.
Russians' interest in the topic of "emigration" on Google quadrupled between mid-February and early March. Searches around "travel visa" have almost doubled, and for a Russian equivalent of 'political asylum' they jumped more than five-fold.
When searching for emigration in the past 30 days, Australia, Turkey and Israel were some of the top trending destinations, alongside Russia-friendly Serbia and Armenia, as well as Georgia -- which Russian troops invaded in 2008.
It is hard to establish exactly how many Russians have actually left the country, or indeed would be able to do so. Financial constraints, skyrocketing travel prices and limited availability of exit routes after a cascade of flight suspensions risk ensnaring those who have had enough of Putin's Russia.
"On February 24, everything changed, our lives were divided into before and after," said Veronica, a 26-year-old digital marketer who lives in Moscow. She gave a pseudonym to protect her identity.
She didn't want to make a rushed decision as she watched her friends and acquaintances abruptly packing their bags, breaking rental agreements and "leaving for Yerevan, Tbilisi and Istanbul, along with their pets," days after they learned that Russia had attacked Ukraine.
Instead she went to anti-war protests in the Russian capital.
But at the beginning of March, Veronica began to realize the situation was getting worse. "The police started taking activists straight from their apartments, taking people away from the subway," she told CNN, adding that the police came to her parents' house in Siberia to threaten her.
New legislation was passed in Russia in early March that can send people to prison for up to 15 years for posting or sharing information about the war that the authorities deem to be false. They made it illegal even to use the word 'war,' Veronica said.
The last straw for her, however, was the reaction of the wider Russian population who she thinks largely "believe TV propaganda." According to a recent independent poll, 58% of Russians support their country's military actions in Ukraine and only 17% think Russia had initiated the escalation of conflict with Ukraine.
"I was screaming that it was time for us to protest, to go to rallies, to write complaints to deputies -- instead, people went shopping on IKEA's last business day," Veronica said. "I don't want to live with people like that, they broke my heart."
Veronica and her partner started a desperate quest to leave Russia. "It doesn't matter where we go, we just want to escape," she told CNN.
In a recent speech, Putin cast Russians who do not support him as "traitors" and defined their departure as a "necessary self-purification of society [that] will only strengthen our country."
"Any people, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, and simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths, spit them out on the pavement," the Russian president said.
Yet the exodus from Russia of activists, human rights defenders and political leaders is a large and noticeable trend, according to Egor Kuroptev, director of the Free Russia Foundation in Georgia.
"The country is occupied by a dictator. Independent media are destroyed. Social networks, such as Facebook and Instagram, are blocked. There are new repressions against activists," he told CNN, attesting that those who stay are now under threat.
Political persecution is only one of the reasons why some Russians are trying to escape. In addition, some families don't believe the situation inside the country will improve, they are concerned about the possible conscription of their sons into the army or they want a Western education for their children, according to Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center.
Nikolai, who is being identified with an alternative name for his protection, is only 16 years old. In early March his parents took a difficult decision to send him to Tbilisi, Georgia, to join his older brothers who were already there. They want him to apply for political asylum in Europe later.
"In the first days of the war, all of my friends and I went to protest against it and hundreds of people were detained," Nikolai told CNN. "Policemen stop people on the streets, people just walking, going to shops, and they ask them to see their phones, their Telegram and social media and then police take them and detain [them]," he said.
Nikolai's mother waited for almost a week, hoping for the conflict to de-escalate, but on March 2, she told him to do a Covid-19 test and bought him a one-way ticket to Yerevan, Armenia, for the next day. "It wasn't a discussion, it was like, go now," he said. From there, he shared a taxi to Tbilisi with other travelers.
"So many people came here when the war started," he told CNN, adding he has run into friends he didn't even know were in the Georgian capital. "You go to buy something for dinner, you walk into the supermarket or into a shop and you hear Russian words and see Russian faces. In cafes, everywhere. It's a new reality for Georgians, too."
Since the start of the war and up until March 16, more than 30,400 Russians have entered Georgia while over 17,800 have left, meaning more than 12,600 were in the country at that point, according to Georgian interior minister Vakhtang Gomelauri.
This is almost 14 times as many Russian migrants as in the same period in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic, he said. In addition, almost 10 times as many Belarusians came to Georgia since the war broke out compared to 2019, when tourism was still high, according to Gomelauri.
Georgia is one of only a handful of countries that are affordable and take fleeing Russians without lengthy visa procedures. Other options include post-Soviet countries, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Those who can afford it go to what are usually popular holiday destinations, countries such as Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.
There have been no direct flights to Georgia since the Russian invasion in 2008. But for a number of other destinations, CNN analysis of data from Flightradar24 has revealed a noticeable increase in daily flights from Russian cities in the first two weeks of the war.
Daily departures to Armenia increased by almost a third compared to a winter average -- as many as 34 planes departed from Russia for this country of less than three million people on March 6. Daily flights to Kazakhstan and Israel have grown by around 50%. Turkey, Uzbekistan and the UAE have seen an average of one, three and four additional flights per day respectively.
It is unclear how many people who took direct flights to neighboring countries would stay there and how many would aim to get to Europe, the United States and other Western countries.
Those who were swift enough (and had the Schengen visas that made it possible), jumped into the last planes going to the European Union (EU) in the first days of the war. Flightradar24 data shows an increase in flights to several European countries including Cyprus, Spain, Finland and Hungary in the days before the air space was closed.
But the options are quickly thinning down, with many of those routes that are still open unable to operate due to carriers' sanctions-related inability to secure insurance or airplane leases. Among others, airlines in two important potential destinations for Russians, Kazakh airline Air Astana and Turkish Airlines, suspended all operations with Russia in mid-March.
In the winter months before the war over 210 airlines operated in Russia internationally, but by early March that number had dropped to just under 90, according to Flightradar24 data. Flight operators fly to no more than a third of foreign airports that were previously connected to Russia, the early March data shows.
'Almost impossible to leave'
Veronica said she and her partner have already spent 260,000 rubles (around $2,500) on tickets for flights that had been canceled and not refunded yet.
"First we bought plane tickets to Yerevan for March 5, with the Russian company s7, but it was canceled. Then we bought tickets to Yerevan with a Russian airline Aeroflot for March 8 -- but that flight was also canceled. After that we bought from the Turkish airline Pegasus, a plane to Istanbul for April 1, and today we found out that it too was canceled," she told CNN.
Attempts at crossing land borders are also problematic since Russia prohibited its citizens from leaving the country by land in 2020, officially due to the coronavirus pandemic, with only a handful of exceptions.
"Now it is almost impossible to leave the country," Veronica said. "If there are plane tickets, they are too expensive for us. We are very scared."
Arshak Makichyan and Apollinaria Oleinikova, a married couple who are activists living in Moscow, also found it difficult to leave. They told CNN: "People are massively buying tickets to Armenia. Tickets now cost five times more than before the invasion. For many people this is not affordable."
Oleinikova continued: "There are some options to leave by bus and train. Now [it] is super difficult to get a visa. You need to have a vaccine, but here you can only be vaccinated with [the] Russian vaccine. You cannot buy currency. So that's why there are major difficulties."
Russia's Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine is being widely used in multiple countries, and has been administered to millions of people worldwide, but the shot has not yet been approved by the World Health Organization. This makes travel to numerous EU countries and the US even more challenging for those who have had it.
As the escape from Russia is becoming an even more costly endeavor, it's evident that it's mostly the young, well-educated and well-paid who can afford to leave. For Russia that's largely the tech class.
Some international IT companies had been relocating employees in the months preceding the invasion of Ukraine, already anticipating reputational and financial damage. Most IT workers, especially freelancers, have the advantage of being able to work remotely, only requiring a bank account and work permit.
Within days of the invasion, multiple social media groups sprung up where colleagues or dissidents from Russia and Belarus shared information on possible escape routes.
Just one of the dozens of the groups dedicated to relocation has reached over 100,000 subscribers, with almost half of them online daily. Tens of thousands of people have joined groups dedicated to moving to specific countries, such as Armenia, Georgia and EU countries, as well as IT specialists' groups discussing opportunities and how to find jobs abroad.
One IT professional, 32-year-old Vasiliy (also identified by a pseudonym for his safety) left Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko allowed Russian troops to use the country as a springboard for attacking Ukraine.
"I chose Georgia because it doesn't require a visa, it allows you to register as a freelancer, open a bank account and receive your salary to it," he told CNN.
"I also feel safe in Georgia because many of my friends have moved here too -- Tbilisi is a mini-Minsk now." He doesn't believe all of them would stay in Georgia though, as he noticed many use the country as a transit zone before trying to get a visa to the EU.
The age and status of those departing Russia, however, have raised questions about what this flight means for the future of the country.
"Leaving Russia is a privilege," said Anna (whose name has been changed for safety), a 23-year-old Moscow native, now living in Georgia. "There is indeed a wave of immigration of smart, educated, kind and empathic people [from] Russia."
The fact that Russian dissidents are now being pushed out of the country might make it even harder for any change to seep through in society in the months and years ahead.
This is unlikely to concern the Russian president. "Putin doesn't care about brain drain, he cares about his regime only," said Kuroptev, at the Free Russia Foundation in Georgia. "It is useful for him to get rid of dissidents and make everyone silent and scared."
"He [Putin] doesn't understand that people who are leaving right now are the best people of Russia," added Oleinikova, who is 18 years old and also trying to leave her native country.
"[They] are scientists, journalists, people from the IT sector. Those are the smartest people and they are all leaving because it's too dangerous to be here," she told CNN.
"I hope people will come back and build a new future for Russia."
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