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Why do people leave Russia, who are they and where are they going?

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  • By Maria Kiseleva and Victoria Safronova
  • BBC News Russian

Image source, Getty Images


When President Putin announced a military mobilization last September, thousands of Russians rushed to the border.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Russians have left their country since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We look at who they are, where they are going and why they are leaving.

Svetlana is in her thirties and comes from a small town. She moved to Moscow at age 18 to study physics at university. After graduating, she worked as a product manager for various companies.

“I never thought I would have to leave, I had planned to retire in Moscow,” she says. “I love Russia and I enjoy my life.”

Russians had left the country even before the war in Ukraine, including those who disagreed with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and with new laws making it easier to suppress dissent. Many have settled in the Baltic states and other EU countries, as well as Georgia.

For Svetlana, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was a turning point.

“When the war started, I realized that it would not be over soon and that people would not come out to protest. I felt both emotionally and rationally that it made sense to leave,” says -She. She is now in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

“I wanted to put as much distance as possible between myself and the authorities.”

Many Russians shared his feelings and what was a trickle of water turned into a stream.

The first wave came in March and April last year: new emigrants told the BBC they were against the war and, disappointed, many Russians did not come to protest. Feeling isolated and unsafe, they felt it was safer to leave.

President Putin launched a military mobilization in September 2022. Described as “partial” by the authorities, it actually meant that most of the men were at risk of being conscripted.

Numerous reports followed of poor training and insufficient kit provided to new conscripts.

Men and their families began leaving in droves, creating days-long queues at Russia’s borders with Georgia and Kazakhstan.

The Russian president’s official spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denied that Russians were leaving en masse to avoid being drafted.


President Putin’s spokesman denied that authorities were trying to stop the men from leaving the country.

How many are left – and where to go?

There are no precise figures on how many people have left Russia, but estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to several million.

In May, the British Ministry of Defense estimated that 1.3 million people would leave Russia in 2022.

Other estimated figures from various sources confirm the trend. Forbes magazine cited sources within the Russian authorities that between 600,000 and 1,000,000 people left in 2022. Bell and RTVi – popular Russian-language media – have published comparable figures.

Leaving Russia is relatively easy, provided you have money and have not been drafted into the army. But finding permanent housing is difficult.

In the months after the war began, many countries, mainly the EU and the US, made it difficult for Russians to obtain visas unless they already had family there or they travel for work.

In many other countries, such as Georgia and Armenia, Russians face no such restrictions and can come and go as they please. They still can.

Other countries, including Kazakhstan, changed their laws earlier this year, apparently to stem the flow of Russian immigrants by limiting the number of days they can stay as tourists.

With no prospect of returning to Russia, more and more people are having to apply for residency to be able to work in the countries they settle in – even as many find ways to continue working remotely for Russian employers.

We know that over the past 15 months, around 155,000 Russians have obtained temporary residence permits across all EU countries, in several countries in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Nearly 17,000 people have applied for political asylum in EU countries, but only around 2,000 have been granted it, according to the European Union Agency for Asylum.

The Russian Interior Ministry says 40% more applied for a foreign passport in 2022 than the previous year.

“I was afraid of being sent to kill other people”

Since the start of this war, we have spoken to dozens of Russians who have left.

They come from different backgrounds. Some are journalists like us, but there are also computer experts, designers, artists, academics, lawyers, doctors, public relations specialists and linguists. Most are under 50 years old. Many share Western liberal values ​​and hope that Russia will one day become a democratic country. Some are LGBTQ+.

Sociologists who study current Russian emigration say those who leave are younger, better educated and wealthier than those who stay. Most often, they come from big cities.

Thomas is originally from St. Petersburg.

“I am a pacifist and I was afraid of being sent to kill other people. I have been against Russian policy towards Ukraine since 2014. The invasion and killing of civilians is unacceptable,” he says.



A man – who the BBC did not speak to – is arrested during a demonstration in Moscow. Some who protested against the military mobilization received draft papers themselves

After the full-scale invasion began, he posted anti-war messages on social media and joined street protests, he says. As a gay man, he also worried about his safety.

“After Russia passed laws on ‘banning gay propaganda’ and ‘fake news’ regarding the Russian military, I realized that the threat to my life and freedom had increased,” says -he.

Thomas applied for political asylum in Sweden and tried to explain to Swedish authorities why it would be dangerous to return to Russia. His request was rejected but he appealed the decision.

“Since I only get a limited amount of time with a state attorney, I am working on gathering evidence for my case myself.”

For Sergei, from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, it’s a different set of problems. He is now in Tbilisi, Georgia. The day Russia invaded Ukraine, he called several of his friends and they all agreed that the war was bad news.

“Whatever happened next, the economy was going to collapse,” he says. “A week later we all got together and decided we needed to get ready to (leave).”

As the days passed, Sergei said, the war grew closer.

“We saw a lot of military equipment on its way to Ukraine. The hospitals were full of wounded. Rostov airport was closed to civilian flights but there were a lot of planes and we knew where they were going.”

In September, after Putin’s mobilization speech, Sergei’s mother, who had criticized him for not being patriotic enough, called him and told him: “Pack your bags and go.” Sergei drove all night to Georgia, where he now lives.

Image source, Getty Images


Advertisements for military service have become common in Russia

“My wife and child are still in Russia. I have to pay for their expenses and accommodation there and mine here. I work two jobs: one remotely for my company in Russia and one here, for the small business in Russia. ‘a friend.”

Sergei says he is saving money for his family to leave Russia and move to another country. His wife, who was reluctant, now recognizes that they must look for a new life elsewhere, he says.

What does this mean for Russia?

Russian authorities have tried to downplay the impact of hundreds of thousands of educated and wealthy people leaving the country with their money, but the economic impact is clear.

Russia’s largest private bank, Alfa Bank, estimates that 1.5% of Russia’s entire workforce may have left the country. Most of those who left are highly qualified professionals. Companies complain of lack of staff and recruitment difficulties.

The Central Bank of Russia reported at the start of the war that Russians had withdrawn a record 1.2 trillion rubles (around £12 billion/$15 billion) from their accounts. This is a scale not seen in Russia since the 2008 financial crisis.

Economist Sergei Smirnov of the Russian National Academy of Sciences believes that, in general, the most qualified people will continue to look for ways to leave.

Video caption,

See: Do Russians Really Hate the West? – BBC’s Steve Rosenberg tries to find out

“There will be more and more demands for people to be able to repair cars or make shoes. I don’t like doomsday scenarios, but I think this will lead to a continued decline in productivity of the Russian economy over time.

The economist emphasizes that these trends will first affect large cities, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

“Most of the Russian territory will not be aware of these transformations, because the standard of living in small towns and villages has always been low and will continue to be low in the future.”

Svetlana, for her part, in Belgrade, does not plan to return to Russia.

“I work for a start-up based in Moldova but recently applied for a job in the Netherlands.”

Sergei, in Tbilisi, applies for jobs in Europe. For now, his life is hard: “I don’t have days off, sometimes I don’t have time to sleep one night, I take a nap in the car.”

And Thomas, in Sweden, hopes not to be forced to return to Russia, where he fears homophobic abuse. He is learning Swedish so he can get any job.

Edited by Kateryna Khinkulova

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