Should Europe Close Its Borders to Russian Citizens?

“The most important sanction would be for Western countries to close the borders to Russia” stated Volodymyr Zelensky in a recent interview for The Washington Post. “Because the Russians are taking away someone else’s land. Russians should live in their world until they change their philosophy.” And he added: “Whichever kind of Russian… make them go to Russia. They will understand then. They will say, ‘This [war] has nothing to do with us. The whole population can’t be held responsible, can it?’ It can. The [Russian] population picked this government and they are not fighting it, not arguing with it, not shouting against it.”

The question of not issuing visas to Russians any more was put on the table in the EU at the end of July, and after Zelensky’s emphatic statements it gained more traction. Last week, Estonia declared that, barring humanitarian exceptions, it would refuse any visa requests from Russian citizens; and proposed that the EU follow suit. Other countries in the area, such as Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and the Czech Republic have applauded the initiative. At the end of August, the EU will discuss the issue at a meeting in Prague.

Russia and its citizens should ask themselves why their neighbors are sick and tired of them. They all suffered at Russia’s hands from invasions, wars, land grabs, spoliation and interference in internal affairs. In the last two decades, for example, Russia has spent millions of rubles to subvert and subjugate the countries that after World War II belonged to its orbit. Russian secret services trained pro-Russian politicians or created pro-Russian political parties; they also encouraged corruption networks to undermine their societies. For all these reasons, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe want to punish their provocative and bellicose neighbor in some way. In recent weeks, many of them have stopped issuing visas to Russian citizens. Recently, Romanian border guards refused entry into the country to a Russian, sticking a stamp in his passport that read, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”

But how are Russians experiencing all this? The proposal to no longer grant them visas has sparked intense debates on Russian social media. Sociologist Alexei Levinson of the independent Levada Center in Moscow argues that travel to the West is essential for his and other Russian scientists’ work. The Russian Anti-War Committee, which includes Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, former Yukos oil company owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov and economist Sergei Guriyev, among others, has warned that banning all Russians from entering the EU, even those who have taken public stances against the war, “would play into the Kremlin’s hands.” The Committee has added in its warning that such a restriction “has unhappy precedents in recent European history” because it could be interpreted as a replication of the immigration policy of the United States and the United Kingdom during World War II when these countries refused to accept more Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism. Another possible comparison is with the postwar agreement between the Western Allies and Stalin under which Soviet citizens were returned from the West to the USSR. Once there, most were sent to the Gulag. Obviously, like all historical parallels, these comparisons are debatable, although the Committee is right that the measure would favor Putin: the borders were already closed, in Soviet times, to prevent Russians from having contact with anyone or seeing how people lived and thought in other countries.

Russians critical of Putin’s war are divided into three groups. Those who had already left before the war in Ukraine are generally in favor of restricting visas and accuse the others of a lack of radicalism. Those who have left after the war are against visa restrictions, and in turn denounce those who remain in Russia for attempting to live normally, thus allowing their taxes to be used to finance the war. Those who remain in the country are terrified that the West will close its borders to them. Be that as it may, one thing unites all three groups: none of them has the power to influence the decisions made by the Kremlin.

We must understand and respect the reactions of Ukrainian society and its president, as well as those of the rest of Russia’s neighbors, which may become the next targets of Putin’s regime. But at the same time, we cannot ignore what European history has taught us. If we Europeans were welcomed in the most diverse countries of the world during the terrible 20th century, let us now allow Russian citizens, as well as other groups of immigrants fleeing dictatorships and other catastrophes, to enter the European bloc without being treated as undesirables.

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)