There’s an issue on which Russians opposed to Vladimir Putin and his war in Ukraine have aligned passionately with the Kremlin: The proposal by some European nations to stop the issuance of tourist visas to Russians. This unfortunate alignment represents a failure of vision and leadership for the anti-Putin exile and emigre community.
Even before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for Europe to stop letting in more Russians and to send home the ones already there — a call he has since tempered, saying Russian asylum seekers should still get visas — some of Russia’s most consistent antagonists, especially in the Baltic countries, began agitating for a visa ban. Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is one of the public faces of the campaign. With Estonia barring Russians with valid Estonian-issued visas for the European Union’s Schengen free travel area, the drive has picked up some momentum: Latvia, Finland and the Czech Republic — which now holds the EU’s rotating presidency — are stopping new Schengen visa issuance.
These countries, most recently joined by Poland, would like to make this the EU’s common policy, despite objections from some of the union’s bigger members: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has spoken out against the idea, saying the war was Putin’s, not the Russian people’s.
The Kremlin — no surprise — has waxed indignant over this campaign. “The only possible attitude we can have is extremely negative,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week. But Putin opponents of every flavor — even those who are hardly allies — have chimed in, too. The so-called Antiwar Committee, formed by high-profile emigres including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Sciences Po provost Sergei Guriev, protested against the visa ban, saying it had “lamentable precedents in recent European history.” Entrepreneur Yevgeny Chichvarkin, one of the committee’s founders, articulated more clearly what this meant in a Twitter thread: “Send the Jews back to Nazi Germany, let them overthrow their Hitler! That’s the logic, right?” Leonid Volkov, the right-hand man of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, also criticized the visa ban project on his Telegram channel, arguing that few Russians support “usurper” Putin and his war and that banning them from traveling to Europe will have no effect on the regime’s stability.
I’ve been watching the debate with a sinking heart. It shouldn’t even be happening: We anti-Putin Russians are missing a great chance to keep mum. Instead, the volume of media and social network commentary suggests that we are putting our concern over the possible loss of travel to Europe (with no effect on visa-free travel to dozens of other countries) at least on a par with our concern over what our birth country is perpetrating daily in Ukraine. This loss of face and show of selfishness is one the emigre community cannot afford.The arguments for and against the visa ban are obvious: On the one hand, it’s weird to let Russians vacation blithely in countries that materially support Ukraine and accept Ukrainian refugees; on the other, “tourist” visas allow fugitives from the regime to seek asylum in Europe rather than be pushed back from the border, like, for example, many Chechen asylum seekers who have tried to enter Poland in recent years. Yet the issue has resonated so widely — and put Peskov and Russian liberals on the same side of a virtual border fence — because it transcends rational and moral arguments. The underlying truth is that Russians of any stripe, whatever they say about Putin and the war in Ukraine, are not wanted in many European countries these days. Without exception, these countries are those that were attacked, occupied or subjugated by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.
There’s a strong legal case that the concept of “enemy alien,” applied by some Western countries during the two world wars, is obsolete, and visa decisions in the modern world must only be made on an individual basis. In Canada during World War I, Ukrainians were on the receiving end of blanket restrictive policies as citizens of Austria-Hungary. On an emotional level, however, the idea that all citizens of an enemy state are, to some extent, one’s enemies is potent and natural.
As Russians, we represent Russia to some extent, no matter what we say. Each of us carries around more than a blood-red passport. It doesn’t take much introspection to discover our personal red lines. To say one is against Putin and the war, or to volunteer for Ukrainian refugees, is relatively easy. But here’s a progression of questions increasingly difficult to answer in the affirmative: Do I want Russia to suffer a decisive military defeat? Do I want this defeat to result in Russia’s disintegration? Would I send money to support the Ukrainian armed forces and buy lethal equipment for them so they can kill more Russians? Would I myself take up arms against Russia alongside Ukrainians?
To many Estonians, Latvians, Czechs and Poles, any Russian who cannot, without hesitation, answer “yes” to all these questions is a potential enemy, a threat to their security. True, their countries are not officially at war with Russia. But then, Russia is not officially at war with Ukraine: It’s only conducting a “special military operation,” and anyone who says it’s a war risks going to jail in Russia.
How many Russian emigres would unequivocally answer each of the successive questions in the affirmative? In all honesty, I would be unable to do so.
As a result, I accept — and others like me should also recognize — that we are not welcome in countries that feel existentially threatened by Russia’s trip back to the 20th century, despite our vehement opposition to Putin and support for Ukraine. Indeed, if this were the 20th century, we could expect far worse than a tourist visa ban: Internment for enemy aliens was the norm, and in the U.S., even American citizens of Japanese descent were sent to camps. It’s great that today’s Europe, even the countries that have experienced Russian oppression, is not so indiscriminately vicious — the post-World War II years have brought some permanent change, it seems. It is, however, easy for people to revert to the nasty old ways, and our own country presents an ugly example of how it can happen. In the worst-case scenario — Putin escalates in Ukraine, wins, attacks another country — Russians in Europe, no matter their immigration status, would almost certainly face dire consequences.
These days, not even a democratic country’s citizens can take their human rights — the freedoms of speech, movement, peaceful protest — for granted. As nationals of a hostile state, we would be especially naive to do so anywhere in Europe, and especially on its eastern fringe.
So why are we — including the leaders of the emigre community, such as they are — focusing so much on the visa ban issue? I can find no answers that would be flattering to us as a group.
After the Nazis took over Germany in 1933, its emigres included figures such as Albert Einstein, Arnold Schoenberg, George Grosz, Bertolt Brecht. These were people who represented a dramatically different Germany, people capable of advancing their new homeland in ways that would have been harder without them. As the US art historian Walter William Spencer Cook put it when so many brilliant colleagues arrived, “Hitler is my best friend. He shakes the tree and I collect the apples.” The latest wave of Russian emigration, to which I belong and which has culminated with the start of the war in Ukraine, doesn’t appear capable of creating this kind of sentiment. Many of us are competent and able to hold down decent jobs — but, as a community, what do we really offer Europe and other Western safe havens? Arguably, the best Russian creative minds left earlier, in the late 1980s and the 1990s: Nobel Prize-winners in physics Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, composer Alfred Schnittke, artists Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov, poet Alexei Parshchikov.
We could at least compensate for what our emigration wave lacks in terms of sheer genius by not being so self-absorbed — and so entitled. For those of us already in Europe or other safe havens, trying humbly to understand and blend in with local society is an unheroic but acceptable way to shed the awful baggage we carry because of Putin’s dictatorship and the war. If we cannot represent a powerful, compelling vision of a different Russia — one that is morally and constitutionally incapable of anything like Putin’s version of fascism — we can at least try to be quiet Europeans.
The alternative is uniting behind a vision of our birth country that we can actually promote and fight for — and get better results than we have gotten to date. Do we have what it takes? The focus on fleeing to safety suggests otherwise.
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Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”
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