The Putin Generation is Fleeing Putin’s Russia
Uliana Pavlova – April 7, 2022
ISTANBUL — At a hostel down a cobblestoned street not far from Istanbul’s fabled mosques and cathedrals, a young Russian restaurant worker named Misha was smoking cigarettes on the balcony.
Misha quit his job on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, swiftly packed his bags and left Moscow without a clue when he will be back. Only 24, for the last few weeks he has shared a $10-a-night bunk room with three other guys. He estimates his money will last about a month.
“I decided without a second thought — That’s it,” he told me. “I thought, ‘I am 24 years old, I have arms, legs, I am not dumb, well, I probably won’t perish.’”
Misha isn’t a jet-setter; in fact, this is his first trip outside of Russia. When I asked him what surprised him most about life outside Russia, he said: “I don’t feel scared when I pass by police officers, even if they are holding guns. I just feel safe.”
Misha told me that he had lost faith in his homeland. Only a toddler when Vladimir Putin became president, his entire life has been lived in the Russia that Putin built during his 22 years in power. Last year, Misha went to rallies in support of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who has been jailed after leading a pro-democracy movement that brought to light massive corruption by Putin and his circle. In recent months, the Russian government has intensified its crackdown on opposition and independent media.
“Even before this war started, I went to Navalny rallies and various other opposition events and saw that the effect from this was zero! No matter how hard we try, the government keeps screwing the bolts tighter and tighter,” Misha said.
In response to the war in Ukraine, at least some of the young Russians who grew up in Putin’s Russia are fleeing. With opposition to the war in Russia effectively criminalized, some are actual refugees, fleeing Putin’s crackdown on opponents and media. Some are intellectual exiles who no longer want to live in a country that invades a neighbor or supports a despot.
Tens of thousands have landed in Istanbul, because Russian flights can reach Turkey without crossing into European airspace and Russians don’t need Turkish visas to visit.
As a result, you can now hear Russian on the streets and on lines that form in front of ATMs — with Russian credit cards disabled, Russian refugees are living on any cash they can withdraw from ATMs. Inside coffee shops, you can overhear Russians exchanging tips on cheap places to stay, how to open a bank account or the best places to exchange currency.
Under Turkish law, they can only stay for 90 days. What will happen to them next is a topic in the cafes, bars and hostel lobbies where they also gather to discuss the political developments in their homeland. Most still have friends and families who are left in Russia.
Putin’s generation grew up in the post-Soviet era of exhilarating upheaval. They ate at McDonald’s, read Harry Potter and danced to Rihanna. Unlike their parents, they don’t know what it is like to live behind an Iron Curtain and they don’t wish to find out.
And Putin doesn’t want them, either, dubbing self-exiled Russians a “fifth column” that is working to undermine their homeland. In a televised address, Putin condemned Russians with a Western mentality as “national traitors” who cannot live without “oysters and gender freedom.”
I’m part of this generation, too. I’m a freelance journalist and landed in Istanbul when it became clear that my reporting could put me at risk if I stayed in Russia.
I didn’t expect I’d have so much company.
During my first week in Istanbul, I find myself sitting next to a couple from Saint Petersburg in a small coffee shop. I ask if I can interview them, and they agree.
Nastya Mez, 26, and Igor Timofeenko, 28, are both from the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don just an hour away from the border with Ukraine; their families speak with a southern accent that can sound like a mixture of a Ukrainian and Russian pronunciation. For the last few years, they have lived in Saint Petersburg, the second-largest city in Russia.
“My father stopped speaking to me after we moved to Turkey. He thinks I am part of the fifth column,” Igor tells me. He notes that his surname ends in “enko” which is a common Ukrainian ending. “He has been brainwashed with TV and thinks that Ukrainians are Nazis, despite our last name being Timofeenko.” Igor laughs bitterly.
I hear similar stories from other young Russians I meet. When Misha told his father that he ran from Russia to Turkey, he was met with radio silence. His father hasn’t spoken to him since.
“He has not been interested in anything all his life. He sits in a room all day and watches TV,” Misha says, including one of Putin’s most influential propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov.
“I tell him: ‘Dad, let me watch Solovyov for an hour with you, and you, in turn, watch Navalny’s YouTube investigation with me for 10-15 minutes.’ And he says that this is evil, that the Internet is evil,” Misha tells me.
When his mother asks him to fix something on her phone, Misha subscribes her to Navalny’s Telegram channel and the one operated by his organization.
For both Igor and Misha, economic concerns also played a role in their decision to flee. They fear what will happen to Russia as its economy is battered by unprecedented sanctions and on the verge of the first major default since 1998.
“We grew up in the well-fed 2000s. We still remember the time when everybody was getting rich, when the average [monthly] salary in cities with a population of a million-plus was around $1,000. Now it’s hard to even imagine this,” Igor said.
Now in Russia, prices are spiking, the ruble has lost value and stores are running out of basic necessities like sugar and feminine hygiene products.
“Sadly, Western sanctions are also affecting those who oppose Putin and don’t want to stay in Russia and pay taxes to support the regime,” Nastya said.
When I ask them if they have encountered any instances of Russophobia while abroad Nastya has a sharp reply: “Nowhere are Russians treated as badly as in Russia.”
As Putin seems to have feared, Russia’s young exiles are continuing their anti-war protesting from abroad. On the third week of the war, Russians gathered outside one of Istanbul’s nightclubs for the first in a series of charity concerts by Russian cult rapper Oxxxymiron called “Russian Against War.’’ All revenues from the concert were promised to go to a Polish independent NGO helping Ukrainian refugees.
Oxxxymiron, also known as Miron Fyodorov, has enchanted Russian-speaking popular culture with his clever lyrics that sometimes sound like political manifestos. His Jewish family fled Soviet Russia in the 1980s, and he spent half his childhood in the West. After graduating from Oxford, he returned to Russia as an adult and his rap battles gathered million of views on YouTube.
Most in the crowd are under 30, stylish, urban, middle-class Russians. Some even brought anti-war posters. During the performance, the newly-minted emigres chanted: “No to War,” “Glory to Ukraine” and “Putin Huylo” — an anti-Putin obscenity.
This is exactly the demographic that Putin resents. The feelings are mutual.
“I cannot wait until all of this is over, the dictator is dead and I can return to my country,” Alexander Salin, 25, an IT programmer from Saint Petersburg carrying a Ukrainian flag tells me inside the concert venue.
His girlfriend stands quietly next to him and looks visibly distressed by Salin expressing his political opinions to a journalist. Salin says he is also a Navalny supporter and he donated to the Kremlin critic’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has been branded an extremist organization in Russia.
“I hope that people like me will be useful in Europe or elsewhere and that there will be no Russophobia,” Salin tells me.
At the concert, I also met people from Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. It felt as if the young people of the post-Soviet countries came together to transcend the boundaries of Russian nationalism in a demonstration of the kind of brotherhood of nations that once were espoused by the Soviet Union.
Some of the concertgoers were Ukrainian. Lera, 23, and Stasya, 24, told me they were from Dnipro, Ukraine. Both young women moved to Istanbul several months before the war started.
“We are shocked and horrified by what is happening,” Stasya tells me.
Stasya’s mother was able to join her in Istanbul a week ago, while Lera’s family remains in Dnipro. Even though the city avoided heavy shelling, unlike Kharkiv and Mariupol, the nightly sirens and fear are keeping everyone awake.
“Even as we live abroad, it is impossible to make any plans, because business is connected with Ukraine, our relatives are in Ukraine, all our friends are in Ukraine, and every day we check the news. It is infinitely impossible to focus on anything and live normally,” Lera says.
“Physically, we are here but our head is in Ukraine,” she says.
When I ask them how they feel about going to a concert surrounded by Russian expats as Russian missiles are destroying Ukraine’s residential areas, they give a gracious answer.
“We don’t judge people by their passports. Like all Ukrainians, we don’t hate Russian people, because of their passports, but we hate those Russian people who support the war or are indifferent to it,” Lera said.
Oxxxymiron had cancelled a series of concerts in Russia to protest the war and the Istanbul concert was the first of a series he planned to hold in other countries to raise money for the victims. He addressed his audience from the stage with a bright neon “Russians Against War” slogan lit up behind him: “Those people who are for this war, are actually against this war,” he said. “They are sure that a ‘special military operation’ is underway, that it’s only military facilities that are being bombed.” He reminded the audience that Russians aren’t being told the truth.
“Unfortunately, our parents, friends of our parents, very often live in this illusion. You need to talk to them because they are most likely not bloodthirsty people, but most likely they are watching too much TV.”
The crowd cheered.
A common theme emerged in my conversations with the opposition-minded Russians who had fled to Istanbul: Protests do not work. Putin’s police state is too powerful.
Pavel Gorchakov, 31, has been protesting Putin’s regime for the past 10 years until finally deciding to leave the country forever. I met him on the same hostel balcony where I met Misha, also smoking his cigarettes. He had left his wife, who is pregnant, behind in St. Petersburg because she couldn’t travel. He is waiting for her to give birth before they can travel to Thailand as a family and reestablish their lives in a new country.
He has a long ginger beard and embellished his fingernails with the message, “NO WAR”.
Before deciding to flee, Gorchakov had attended an anti-war rally in Saint Petersburg. “In a city with a population of more than 5 million people, I saw only 200 students at a rally, chased out by 500 riot policemen,” Gorchachov told me. “I didn’t see many adult, capable men who think like me.”
Over 15,000 Russians have been detained by authorities for participating in anti-war protests since the war started, according to the independent human rights monitor OVD-Info. Images of men in black balaclavas dragging men, women, the elderly and teenagers off the street have filled social media. But in a country of over 140 million, 15,000 is a small percentage.
“I realized that I need to go, and the faster the better,” he said.
He reminisces of the days of Bolotnaya protests in 2012, referring to the massive protests in Russia that opposed Putin’s fraudulent reelection and his move to amend the Constitution to govern Russia again after he already served two terms.
“When there was Bolotnaya there was a feeling that now freedom is rushing from all the cracks, we are now changing something. I’m telling you now, and I have goosebumps. And then the National Guard appeared, they brought paddy wagons,” Gorchakov says.
Gorchakov tells me he received anonymous threats by email, which also inspired him to leave quicker.
It becomes clear to me that Misha looks up to the older and more rebellious Gorchakov. Misha does not want to give me his last name because, unlike Gorchakov who is a well-paid IT specialist, Misha is struggling to find work in Turkey and might have to return to Russia once he runs out of money.
Gorchakov encourages him to pick up programming. “I was about your age when I started, around 24-25,” Gorchakov tells him.
“I have been studying online courses all day long,” Misha tells him. “And, when I’m 30, I’ll grow a beard and start vaping,” he says and we all laugh.
As our conversation continues, I notice the lingering presence of another man who quietly joined us on the balcony. It turns out he’s from Ukraine.
“Why don’t you also torture Sasha?” Misha suggests, pointing at the man in the corner. “He is from Kharkiv.”
Sasha, it turns out, is a 31-year-old Ukrainian who came to Istanbul for a friend’s birthday on Feb. 23. The next day Russia fired artillery rockets at his hometown, destroying the residential building next to the building where he bought an apartment three years ago. His family is in Luhansk — inside one of the pro-Russian separatist regions — and he calls them every day.
I feel uncomfortable asking him how feels being surrounded by so many Russian citizens, staying in the same hostel in Istanbul.
“Well, you are not vatniks,” Sasha says, using a slang term for people who support the regime and believe religiously in the Kremlin’s propaganda. We all chuckle, embarrassed for the vatniks back home, some of them in our own families.
“You are not in Russia. What can you do?” he adds. “I resent those who support this operation. They are also responsible for this, by quietly consenting to everything that is happening.”
After a silence, all four of us exchange tips and plans on where to go in case Putin starts a nuclear war.
Stranded in this country for 90 days, on a tiny balcony thousands of kilometers from our home countries which are at war with each other, we realize we need each other. And we share a laugh.