The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Angry over invasion of Ukraine and fearing crackdown, Russians trying to move abroad crowd into few remaining trains and planes

People get off the Allegro train, one of the few remaining routes from Russia to Europe, at the central railway station in Helsinki on March 3. (Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP/Getty Images)
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Thousands of Russians streamed out of train stations and airport terminals in Europe this week, leaving behind a home country that is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world and a government that is moving to stamp out dissent.

Many did not book a return ticket.

Some expressed fury at Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion of Ukraine. Others said they were ashamed. Several were afraid to talk.

“It is pointless to remain. There is no future for us,” said Vyacheslav, 59, who left Russia’s St. Petersburg with his wife and 7-year-old daughter by high-speed train Monday morning. By early afternoon, he and his family had made it to Helsinki, the Finnish capital, where Russians have been welcomed with flowers and signs in recent days.

“Putin is crazy,” said a Russian woman who arrived by plane in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, with her teenage son over the weekend.

A new iron curtain descends on Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine

It’s difficult to assess how many Russians are opposed to the war in Ukraine, with a recent survey by a group of independent research organizations suggesting that a majority back the invasion. But some are rushing to leave Russia for good, as they fear border closures that would isolate them from family abroad, or worry about being conscripted. Those who leave say they vehemently oppose the invasion and were alarmed by the Kremlin’s chilling crackdown on the few remaining platforms of criticism.

Russian missiles killed at least 35 people and injured at least 134 on March 13 at military facilities near Ukraine's border with Poland. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Some Russians who arrived in European cities in the past week appeared to be fearful of the Kremlin’s reach, amid reports that Russian authorities are questioning and searching some outbound travelers. Several of the Russians who left for political reasons refused to provide their full names, citing concerns for relatives who stayed behind or that they may not be allowed to return to see friends or family.

They had few options for getting out, after almost all European airlines suspended their flights between Russia and the rest of Europe over the last week, following E.U. sanctions on Russian aircraft and retaliatory measures by the Russian authorities.

European sanctions on Russia will cost Europe, too, early signs show

In northern Europe, some crossed the Russian border by car, bus or train into Finland. Others scrambled to get tickets for the few remaining flights to the east and south of Europe, with Turkey and Serbia among the main destinations.

As Air Serbia planes from Moscow arrived in Belgrade last week, Natalia Gryzunova struggled to carry her two large suitcases and three pieces of hand luggage. She said she had long opposed Putin and was deeply relieved after fearing she might not find a way to leave.

“I haven’t slept well since February 24th,” she said. “I cry every day.”

She said she had found it difficult in the days before she left to avoid arguments with people on the street or colleagues who openly supported the invasion. As rumors circulated last week that Russia could institute martial law and close its borders, she packed her bags, paid $1,000 for one of the last available tickets and left Russia.

The 58-year-old instructor has a return ticket to Moscow in two weeks, but she doesn’t think she will be on the flight. With her 28-year-old son studying at Harvard, she said, she is afraid of a new “Iron Curtain” rising between the West and Russia that would separate them.

“Maybe we deserve it — because we allowed the dictator to hold on to power for 20 years,” she said. “Now, we’re the country of Putin.”

In Helsinki, hundreds of Russians arrived at the railway station and main long-distance bus station on Monday. Finnish train operator VR said its twice-daily train connection from St. Petersburg to Helsinki has been so overbooked since the invasion that it is exploring adding a daily train.

An estimated 500 Russians are already arriving at the main railway station each day, despite entry requirements that are difficult to fulfill. Travelers must be Russian or Finnish citizens with a valid visa, and they must have been vaccinated with a coronavirus vaccine that’s accepted by Finnish authorities. That excludes Russia’s most widely administered shots.

Meanwhile, trains from Helsinki to St. Petersburg are virtually empty, a VR representative told YLE, Finland’s national broadcaster.

For many of the arrivals, Helsinki is only a temporary stop on their journey to other parts of Europe or even farther abroad.

More than 2 million people have left Ukraine, foreshadowing a massive humanitarian crisis

A 39-year-old Russian graphic designer who arrived in Helsinki on Monday afternoon said he has family members in the United States but had not decided where to go next. He did not want to provide his name because his 11-year-old daughter remains in Russia.

In the days before his departure, he pleaded with his ex-wife to let him take their daughter out of the country, he said. But he arrived in Helsinki alone.

For him, the tipping point came in recent days amid concerns that he could be conscripted or that borders could close permanently. As a vocal critic of Putin, he said, he also risked imprisonment under a harsh new censorship law enacted Friday that can carry sentences of up to 15 years.

“I don’t know when I will see my daughter again,” he said.

While worries over Russian politics weighed heavily among new arrivals, concerns over the fallout of U.S. and European Union sanctions appeared to have also played a role in some travelers’ decisions to move.

The sanctions target oligarchs and leading Russian politicians, but they’re also expected to have a severe impact on ordinary Russians. They have already prompted long lines at ATMs in Russia, and the government has introduced limits on the sale of certain “socially significant goods” such as sugar, cooking oil, flour and pasta. When Swedish furniture giant IKEA announced that it was pulling out of Russia, its stores were swept bare of everything from bookshelves to sausages.

For many leaving Russia, it appeared uncertain how hard they would be hit by the economic fallout — and how long they could stay afloat. Visa and Mastercard are suspending operations in Russia, and several Russian banks are being disconnected from the global SWIFT payment mechanism, which will make it more difficult for Russians to access funds and make payments both at home and abroad.

Vyacheslav, the 59-year-old consultant, said he hopes his family can stay with friends in Europe for the time being and live on their savings. “You just have to hope for the best. We each have higher education,” he said. “We will manage somehow.”

Gryzunova, the 58-year-old instructor from Moscow, woke up in a Serbian hotel room Friday morning after her first full night’s sleep in over a week. But she found herself in a country where she does not know anyone.

She’s considering buying property in Serbia, which would allow her to stay in the country. Serbia has historically been a country at the crossroads between Russia and the rest of Europe, and as the E.U. imposed severe sanctions on Russia in past days, Serbia refrained from following suit. That could make Serbia a preferred option for Russians who seek to move abroad but whose savings are still in Russian banks.

Gryzunova said her husband, a German national, is still trying to save his small business in Russia.

Though her husband may join her in Serbia within days, and perhaps move his business there, many of Gryzunova’s friends and relatives have decided to stay in Russia.

Almost all of them “have old parents or little children,” she said. “It’s very difficult to make this decision.”

Noack reported from Paris and Crouch from Helsinki. Aleksandar Djordjevic in Belgrade contributed to this report.