Why I left Russia: ‘Thousands of people dead for no reason’

A Russian who opposes the war in Ukraine recounts how he and his boyfriend fled the country and went into exile.

Passengers are seen at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport - the base of Russian carrier S7 - on March 5, 2022, the day S7 Airlines cancelled all its international flights due to sanctions imposed on Russia over the country's invasion of Ukraine.
To leave Russia, Andrei (a pseudonym) had to try about 15 times to book a flight, and soon after buying his first ticket, the air carrier cancelled its flights out of Russia [AFP]

Andrei*, a university researcher, and his boyfriend oppose the Russian government and its invasion of Ukraine. One week after the war began, they decided to go into exile like tens of thousands of Russians and fled to Turkey. Here is Andrei’s account. 

Soon after the war began, there were many reasons to leave Russia. The economic situation was horrible, and the last independent news organisations that we had closed. The last straw was when we started to hear rumours there would soon be martial law and the border would close. By that time, I was afraid.

It was very hard to buy plane tickets. I had to try about 15 times. The internet wasn’t working well, and just 20 minutes after I bought the first ticket, the company stopped its flights out of Russia.

Sometimes, even as you entered the data, the website would tell you there were no flights. That was a very frightening sign because we worried it could be the Russian state asking Russian companies not to let people go abroad.

We were anxious, angry and extremely upset. I only had good feelings when I was teaching, because then I couldn’t think about the news. We didn’t sleep or eat much because of the stress.

There’s a channel on the messaging app Telegram for people to share information and advice on crossing the Russian border. Some were saying that when trying to leave, usually by air, they’d been held in a special room where the border guards asked them a lot of questions. Some people had been forced to open their phones and show their messages, and even re-install Telegram so old messages would reappear. So before we left, we deleted all our messages voicing opposition – there were a lot of them – and uninstalled Telegram.

We couldn’t pack very many things, but we had to prepare not to return home.

We left the second week after the war began. When we passed through border control, it was the best feeling we’d had since the war started. We exhaled. We had a beer and some food at the airport and then flew to Uzbekistan. That was also stressful because it’s a crime to be gay there, but we went anyway because we were so afraid the border would close, and that was the only flight we were able to book. We mostly just stayed in our hotel room there, trying to figure out our next steps, until we were able to book flights to Turkey.

The following week, we were in Turkey. We felt very relieved. We’ve actually run into some friends from Moscow here who’ve also left, and we talked about how we all got out and what we were going to do next. As we discussed how we felt we all just kept saying “pizdets”, which is Russian for “total f***up”. Some of our other friends went to Georgia – five people at least. I personally know 12 people who’ve left so far.

We plan to stay in Turkey indefinitely, so right now we’re looking for a long-term place to rent in the countryside where it’s more affordable.

I have most of my savings invested. I can’t get them out, because the stock market is closed in Russia. It’s possible that I’ll lose them. But it doesn’t bother me right now. I’m safe.

I think we’re going to search for some cryptocurrency ways to transfer money from Russia. Before I left, I tried to get some cash, dollars, at an ATM. I joined a line of 25 plus people at the ATM. I stood there for 15 minutes before I realised there was no movement. The ATM was broken.

I was surprised by the outbreak of the war. I couldn’t have imagined it would happen as it has, with bombs in Kyiv. I need to make an effort to believe that this is what’s happening. There are thousands of people dead for no reason.

I knew the regime was bad – I’ve been protesting against Putin since 2011 – but I couldn’t imagine this. Friends and I were saying, “Nuclear war is not supposed to happen, but the war against Ukraine was also not supposed to happen.” So now I don’t believe in predictability in Russia.

I’d just recovered from a very hard bout of illness, so I didn’t go to the protests, but I was coordinating with friends. I aggregated information about where the police were, from direct messages and chats and news from protesting groups, and I’d forward it to my friends who were there and recommend which direction to go in to avoid police.

They didn’t carry signs because people with signs get caught first. So they were just walking, sometimes shouting something.

Protests at the moment are very hard. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny used to organise them, and now he’s in jail and much of his team is abroad. So it was unorganised. Police immediately closed the square where people were going, and that made the protests very widely distributed around the whole centre of Moscow, so it’s impossible to really know how many people were there.

My friend got fined 20,000 roubles, like a third of the average [monthly] salary, for standing alone holding a sign saying, “No to war”. It isn’t easy money to give away, but it’s way better than being jailed for even two days.

When the invasion began, some Russian soldiers thought they were going to train. I’ve seen multiple videos of Russian POWs on a Ukrainian Telegram channel saying they didn’t know they were going to war. Of course, they could be lying because they were caught by Ukrainians, but I think it’s likely they didn’t know.

I’ve read that about 52 percent of Russian people support what’s going on, but this isn’t support like with the 2014 annexation of Crimea when the territory was taken easily without many people dying, and the sanctions were soft. Back then, people were happy about the annexation, some were even celebrating. Now, people are just like, OK, I believe TV, so it was probably necessary.

There hasn’t been a drop of independent television in Russia for more than a decade. One hundred percent of the content on TV is pro-Putin. My friends don’t watch TV at all, but even those who do are like, “I’m not going to speak up against the war because if they’re OK with Russian troops dying, they’d probably kill me.” So it’s support out of fear.

The mainstream news the older generation watches, I think it’s completely detached from the truth. They say, for example, that Ukrainians use citizens as human shields. But it’s like, well, what are all those Russian soldiers doing with weapons? Killing people.

The mainstream news also talks about how Ukraine is working on developing nuclear weapons, and biological weapons specially designed to affect just Russian people. Special bioweapons that only kill Russians. I know that’s stupid. But some people will believe anything, and the Russian government has spent billions on propaganda, which has resulted in people having low trust in science and other reliable sources.

Even now, Russian friends who are staying, they’re living their normal lives. But I think that worse things may happen in a month or two – economic collapse, jailing lots of people for their views, hate crimes.

We should be worrying about our friends, but right now we’re still worrying about us. This has all been very stressful. I was talking to some people about it, and when they asked me, “How are you?” I started crying. So that’s mostly the state I’ve been in. Now things are getting better, and there’s hope, so once we’re settled in, we’ll get back to worrying about our friends.

As told to Delaney Nolan. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

*Name has been changed at the interviewee’s request.

Source: Al Jazeera