Russian Exiles

A century ago, the October Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that followed it generated a vast wave of Russian exiles: it is estimated that up to two million people left Russia as a result of the revolution and the war. Among them, a large part of the intelligentsia left in order to have the freedom to carry on their creative work, with names that have become world famous: Marina Tsvetaeva, Vladimir Nabokov, Nina Berberova. If Tsvetaeva became known for her verses on the sad fate of the refugee, those who remained – among them no less well-known names such as Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak – were persecuted, and in many cases murdered, by the Stalinist regime. This is how Akhmatova describes it: “No foreign sky protected me, foreign wings did not protect me. I was among my people then and I shared their misfortune with them.” Although it should be said that ‘foreign wings’ did not protect the exiles either: at a time when much of the European intelligentsia admired the new Bolshevik country, the émigrés were condemned as “White Russians” or enemies of everything progressive. Disliked everywhere, they had doors closed to them in their home country, and in their adopted country they found it hard to get decent jobs. “Love means sharing an artichoke leaf,” Nina Berberova wrote, describing life with her partner, the poet Khodasevich.

Just like a century ago, the wave of Russian exiles engendered by Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, has involved a significant brain drain. Of the 150,000 Russian refugees to date, it is estimated that the majority are relatively young people who have been well educated in Russian universities, a third of whom are computer specialists. Among this migratory wave, received in the West without much enthusiasm, just like a century ago, are some famous creative people.

Chulpan Khamatova, one of the most revered Russian actresses – in the West we saw her in the film Goodbye Lenin, among others – signed a manifesto against the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the beginning of the war. The Kremlin authorities warned her that her signature could get her into trouble. Faced with this threat, Khamatova fled with her daughters to Latvia, where she is now hastily learning Latvian in order to return to the stage as soon as possible. Olga Smirnova, one of the great stars of classical ballet, left her job at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow to join the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. “Every fiber of my soul is against this war,” Smirnova, whose grandfather was Ukrainian, said as she left Russia.

Writer and physician Maxim Osipov left in March 2022 for Yerevan, capital of Armenia, a country that does not require visas for Russians, making it an exception. Georgia, another of the former Soviet republics, in addition to a visa requires loyalty: every immigrant must present a statement condemning Putin’s regime. (Other favorite destinations for Russians are Baku (Azerbaijan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), Tel Aviv (Israel), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Nur-Sultan (Kazakhstan), as well as several Turkish cities. (It should be remembered that the EU does not accept flights from Russia). Osipov found the attitude of the passport control guards who asked travelers bound for Armenia, humiliating: “If you are going on vacation, as you insist, why are you taking your birth certificate and university degrees, plus a dog?” From Armenia Osipov took a plane bound for Germany. “I am frozen, ashamed, relieved,” the writer said about his escape. He stresses the feeling of being humiliated and embarrassed: every time he had to show his passport, his face fell with shame.

Viktor Muchnik, director of TV2, fled from the Siberian city of Tomsk, also to Armenia. New laws that have been decreed since the conflict began, have meant that TV crews can be arrested and imprisoned at any time if they make even the slightest comment on the war. In addition, censorship blocked TV2 along with many other television and radio stations. A few days after the station’s closure, Muchnik and his wife Viktoria packed their bags and left for Armenia. “Probably for good. We don’t want to live in a country that has started a war and among people who support it. It’s very hard to live in Russia in the midst of such militaristic hysteria. We won’t be going back.”

The punk-rock band Pussy Riot also fled: Nadia Tolokonnikova to Georgia, Maria Alyokhina to Iceland, disguised as a food delivery courier.

And the fact is that many exiles, in addition to those who remain in Russia and are against the war, are at loggerheads with their families and lifelong friends. The war has broken up families and friendships. Russians residing in Western countries have lost the right to own bank cards and their survival is becoming increasingly difficult because they cannot find work: Western sympathies are now reserved for Ukrainians. Although this is understandable, we should devote more attention to Russian citizens who oppose Putin’s regime. They think like us, they want the same as we do: for this war to be won by democracy.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)