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Putin called fleeing Russians ‘traitors.’ Who’s actually leaving?

Many will be activists in exile, our research suggests

A sign shows the letter Z and a hashtag reading “We don't leave ours” over Moskovsky Prospect in St. Petersburg on March 26. (Anatoly Maltsev/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Millions of Ukrainians have fled to neighboring Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Global media attention has focused on the plight of those who fear for their safety after the Russian invasion.

At the same time, Russians are also fleeing their country in record numbers. Some fear arrest and imprisonment for participating in antiwar protests or for speaking out against the war. Such fears heightened in recent days as Russia’s new “fake news” laws produced the first charges against ordinary Russians — targeting a food and lifestyle blogger and a pensioner for posting antiwar content to their social media.

Other Russians fear retaliation at work or at school for opposing President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine — or worry about being forced into military service. And some Russians no longer see a future in a country sliding rapidly toward full authoritarianism, isolation and deep economic crisis.

Putin’s warning about Russian ‘fifth columns’ has a long, sordid lineage

Will this wave of emigration result in new pressure on the Kremlin? Our research shows how exiles — particularly well-connected activists — can become a force for political change at home, even from beyond Russia’s borders. Russians who are departing appear to be disproportionately young, urban and well-educated. Many of them work in the tech sector or other white-collar professions, prompting economists and policy analysts to warn that Putin’s Russia may also face an unexpected “brain drain.”

Political emigration from Russia is not new

Political exile has been a recurring theme throughout Russian history, from Vladimir Lenin’s decades in exile to aristocrats fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution to Soviet-era dissidents seeking refuge abroad. Even in post-Soviet Russia, emigration in response to political change is not a new trend.

After protests against electoral fraud in 2011-2012, many Russians fled the country, fearing politically motivated persecution when Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency. In fact, the number of Russians applying for political asylum elsewhere spiked to its highest levels in 2013.

In this latest period of significant out-migration from Russia, prompted by war and repression, many Russian emigres will forge a new life, and avoid politics. But also leaving Russia are longtime activists who have been protesting the regime’s policies.

In a recent speech, Putin even praised the “natural and necessary self-detoxification” of Russian society, and labeled those departing “scum and traitors.” Will the exit of Putin’s critics serve as a “safety valve” for his government — or will it increase pressure on Putin’s regime from abroad?

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Activists who leave continue to fight

Our research interviewing exiled environmental activists who left Russia before the war in Ukraine suggests that emigration will not necessarily reduce political pressure on the Putin regime. While in Russia, the Kremlin targeted these activists for repression and, fearing politically motivated persecution for their work, they fled.

Now, from their locations outside of Russia, many are continuing to influence policies both within and toward Russia. But they also face some challenges.

We found that activists-in-exile often continue to pressure the political authorities in Russia, either directly or indirectly — through other governments and international organizations. In some ways, their advocacy may be strengthened by moving abroad.

For example, activists abroad who live in democratic nations often have greater access to free media to publicize their concerns. Nadezhda Kutepova, a Russian environmentalist and lawyer who emigrated to France, appears often in the French and English-language press to draw attention to nuclear safety issues in Russia.

Other activists influence foreign policy toward Russia by lobbying the European Union or the government of their host country. Yevgeniya Chirikova, an environmental and opposition activist who fled to Estonia, advocated against the German-Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 through European political institutions long before the decision to freeze the project after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At the same time, it’s harder for activists in exile to engage their fellow Russians and keep in touch with networks and communities back home. Social media and remote video conferencing help activists maintain those connections but lack the immediacy of face-to-face engagement.

Some Russian activists-in-exile have attempted to surmount these obstacles by building digital platforms, such as Activatica.org, to support and amplify voices that remain in Russia. However, Russia’s recent decision to block Instagram and Facebook further constrains online connections, potentially leaving activists-in-exile with diminished influence back home.

Exile communities support each other

Our research shows that activists-in-exile often develop robust connections with each other and within the wider Russian diaspora community. Organizations such as the Free Russia Forum have united top Russian activists abroad to work toward more expansive political change in Russia. Some activists-in-exile have even pivoted their work to focus on this new community abroad, including through organizations like Solidarus, which supports Russian dissidents fleeing Putin’s regime.

Check out all TMC’s coverage of the Russia and Ukraine crisis in our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

This latest group of emigrants is already finding support among existing Russian exile networks. In the past few weeks, for example, a new Anti-War Committee is now extending help to political dissidents seeking refuge in Armenia and Turkey. And, as we found in our research, many of these dissidents will add their voices as “activists-in-exile” to put political pressure on the Putin regime from afar.

Exile doesn’t necessarily mean the end of political participation. But Russians who have left face new challenges, including acquiring residency and work permits, adapting to a new language and finding paid employment. Many have had to leave family members, including children, behind in Russia as they resettle.

These challenges are even more acute for today’s Russian emigres, who face barriers imposed by financial sanctions and may find a tepid welcome abroad. Along with Ukrainian refugees, Russia’s latest emigres may also need help to resettle — and the activists now fleeing Putin’s Russia may still have a significant role to play in the future politics of their home country.

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Laura A. Henry is a professor of government at Bowdoin College and co-author (with Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom) of “Bringing Global Governance Home: NGO Mediation in BRICS States” (Oxford University Press, 2021) and author of “Red to Green: Environmental Activism in Post-Soviet Russia” (Cornell University Press, 2010).

Elizabeth Plantan is an assistant professor of political science at Stetson University whose work focuses on civil society, environmental activism and autocratic politics in China and Russia.

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