These Russians fled to Armenia. They don’t know if they’ll ever return.

Mariyka Semenenko and her partner look out over Yerevan, Armenia. Semenenko is Ukrainian but was born and lived in Moscow. (Ksenia Galaktion for The Washington Post)
Mariyka Semenenko and her partner look out over Yerevan, Armenia. Semenenko is Ukrainian but was born and lived in Moscow. (Ksenia Galaktion for The Washington Post)

YEREVAN, Armenia — As Russia’s economy has plummeted and government restrictions on opposition to the war have increased, Russians have departed their country, suddenly and fearfully, with no time to plan a future or pack cherished belongings. They have left behind family, friends, homes and careers. They are journalists, activists, artists, foodies, mothers and fathers.

Many who made the choice to flee have decamped to this city of about 1 million, where flights are cheap and the cost of living is relatively low compared with capitals in nearby countries. A growing sense of limbo has set in. They spoke to The Washington Post about the whiplash of their exit, the pain of leaving loved ones behind and the difficulty of squaring their national identity with Russia’s invasion.

Mariyka Semenenko

35, vegan restaurateur and activist

I am Ukrainian. My father was born there. During the 22 years of Putin’s regime, I stayed in Russia anyway and tried to do something to change the system. But bombing Kyiv was a point of no return for me. I don’t want this [Russian] passport anymore.

My parents in Russia were supportive of my decision to leave. “Go away,” they said.

“First they will strangle Ukrainians there, and then they will strangle Ukrainians here,” my mother said.

For me, there’s a difference between “Russian” as a concept of ethnic identity and “Russian” as a citizen of the country. The authorities in Russia are trying to impose biological nationalism. I am a Russian, I was born in Russia, and for me, it is more like civil nationalism. A Russian is an ethnic Ukrainian, it is an ethnic Georgian, an ethnic Russian, a Belarusian, a Latvian, and so on. But we are all under the umbrella of Russian citizenship.

Alexei Tarasenko

28, food blogger

I’ve been going to protests since I was 18. I had no illusions about the political regime in Russia, and there is a risk of going to jail for my convictions and leaving my children in an orphanage.

We chose Armenia because it had the cheapest tickets and our friends are here. Also for the comfort of our children, there are a lot of people here who knew Russian.

My parents have different positions on us coming here. My dad trusts the government. My mom is more hesitant. We sat up all night with her, and I tried to calmly explain to her my position and complete rejection of this war.

My grandfather was born in Ukraine, but there has always been a tacit rejection of this fact in the family. Before Feb. 24, I used my father’s last name. But now I’ve switched to a Ukrainian last name.

Maria Goncharova

31, children’s literary critic

I’m not ready to accept that we left for good. I believed I could influence people with my actions: reviews of modern children’s books, exhibitions about memory and how the 20th century changed people’s consciousness in Russia. To suddenly realize that this was going nowhere was terribly hard for me.

My husband wanted to buy tickets and leave quickly. Our kids made “No to war” posters at school and went to shout in the streets of Moscow. I understood I had to shut them up immediately, because passersby were already looking around. And that was a good reason for me to leave.

I don’t want to make any plans now, but I would like to go back. We’ve done our best to make sure our children have a picture of the world where there are different people, different nationalities, different gender identities. Now that’s broken for them, because so many of those people have fled Russia.

Olga Barabanova

32, trustee of the Prodvizhenie charitable foundation

We discussed it many times: If the war starts, we would leave immediately. I can’t be in a country that is now an aggressor. On Feb. 24 I told my husband to sell everything we have, because we don’t have much of a safety net. We’ve spent the last three years manufacturing lightweight and comfortable wheelchairs for children and adults. We had invested everything into this charitable foundation.

I had to a face a choice: stay in Russia and continue to be an activist or leave. I probably would have chosen the first option if I didn’t have children. I certainly ask myself, could I have have done anything else? But I did everything I could. I went to protests until the very last day. I delivered food to those who were arrested. So I don’t have feelings of guilt. I think the blame is always in the hands of those who do this evil.

I don’t see any future for myself in Russia — some very powerful changes have to happen and I’m not sure they can happen in the next 10 years. If there were democracy, that would be enough to go back and rebuild everything.

Denis Kasyanchuk

26, journalist

To be Russian means first of all not being afraid to speak the truth. It is to live by conscience and truth. During the first days of the war, I was not in a position to do anything. I worked for a pro-government media outlet and we had to call the war a “military operation.” I was sickened.

My fiancee was very afraid that I would be drafted. They were mailing out summonses to come to the enlistment office that had no legal basis whatsoever. It was so scary. It’s scary to be sent to a war, but even scarier to be sent to one you don’t want to be in.

I have a lot of relatives and friends in Ukraine. And you know the scariest thing? My grandfather is Ukrainian but worked all his life at a missile plant in Dubna, Russia. Those missiles could now bomb Ukraine.

I have plans to marry my fiancee and go to Spain, to start a new life there from scratch. I don’t want to go back to Russia. You can’t go to a restaurant with your girlfriend in Moscow and then go home while people are being killed in Ukraine. I don’t think it’s right to associate yourself with that country at this point.

Aidar Bekchintaev

36, artist

On Feb. 24 my friends and I went to the main square in Voronezh. There were already a lot of police and a few people fearfully huddled together on the edges. Everyone was afraid of being arrested. I then realized there would be no big protests in Russia. I decided to pack a suitcase. The fear was very strong, but I was thinking mostly of my friends in Kyiv, sheltering in the subway.

For about 10 years, I’ve been making political art. Now I think it’s impossible to stay in Russia and continue to take risks. I could go to jail for a long period just for some antiwar pictures.

My mother, who is retired, is in Russia. It’s unclear how I can help her now, as all bank cards and Visa and Mastercard do not work. There’s no buckwheat and sugar in her store nearby, and the prices have gone up. But she supports me. I want to bring her to Armenia.

I don’t think in the next year or two Russia will be a good place to live, even if something happens to Putin now and the war in Ukraine stops today. The only way I would go back is if the media becomes independent of the government, which seems fantastical.

Mellen reported from Washington.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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