Many people who have no hope for the future have already fled or are attempting to leave Russia due to the war in Ukraine.
Could we not view these individuals, who do not support what is happening in Ukraine, who see themselves as Europeans (as many Russians do), who have worked for the West and are afraid to remain for fear of punishment, also as refugees? Some are arriving to other countries with no jobs and little cash.
There have been reports that AirBnB hosts are refusing to accept reservations from Russians or Belarusians because they perceive them as complicit in war. Others, however, are finding respite. Over 8,000 how now applied for asylum in the United States from the border with Mexico.
Ilya (names throughout have been changed) left Russia within the first week of conflict. “It’s clear that now Russia will finally be a totalitarian state, and it will be bad to live there because of all of the sanctions… I think that as long as Putin is in power, I will either rarely return to Russia, or I won’t return at all,” he said.
An acquaintance in Istanbul wrote me that he knows many Russians who are “suffering from the conflict. Many don’t know when or if they will return home, others have lost their jobs.”
The path for those who wish to leave Russia now will be difficult, as most flights to and from the country have been suspended. The European Union has closed its airspace to Russian flights and vice versa; Russian Aeroflot has canceled international trips; some who still want to leave are going by foot, although there are still exorbitantly priced flights – up to thousands of dollars – through countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.
After learning of the bombings in Ukraine, Lera, a 29-year-old professional, ran to withdraw US dollars and buy an iPhone. She then organized tickets out of the country for her and her boyfriend.
“My boyfriend is in the reserves, and we were primarily afraid of a mass mobilization… Secondly, I had the sense that the future of Russia had ended and so we had to get out by any means as quickly as possible, because nothing good is waiting for me. Thirdly is the sense of danger. I worked for three years at an American organization, and now in Russia people regard nonprofit organizations poorly, they are designated undesirable organizations and foreign agents, and this applies now to the right and to the left….”
Those who remain in Russia will be grappling with an economy where the ruble has already lost 40% of its value compared to the dollar. While I was still living in Russia, one dollar equaled approximately 72 Russian rubles; as of March 15, it is about 111.50 rubles to the dollar.
CNBC has reported that the current crisis will “set the country back thirty years” and the economic isolation could extend for as little as five, but more likely for decades. More than 300 global brands have now left the country, and Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and PayPal have discontinued services.
“There is the understanding that there will be a financial crisis… the ruble has fallen… [but] I would say that in Russia right now there is not panic, though people are very careful, even those who look on the situation neutrally or positively,” Sasha, a 28-year-old student, said.
This did not stop Russian citizens from queuing at stores like Apple and IKEA to purchase as much as possible before the companies fully withdrew from the country. Sasha noted that at the beginning of March “there [were] lines of many people trying to spend money on things that are worthless,” when normally men would be buying small gifts and flowers to present to their girlfriends for International Women’s Day.
There is even a picture of a Russian man’s refrigerator filled with McDonald’s burgers circulating on Telegram and Instagram; he allegedly purchased as many as he could when he learned that his favorite fast-food chain would be leaving Russia.
On March 13, the Russian-language Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty posted photographs to Instagram of the “Prisma” supermarket with nearly empty shelves after the ruble’s devaluation. However, as of March 15, Russia’s RIA Novosti service published an article where several supermarkets reassured the Russian public that they have sufficient stock.
But Sasha believes that the economic crisis that is taking hold still does not seem to have sunk into the consciousness of some Russians. Some do not see “that Russia is being barred from financing, from markets, that what is happening regarding the sanctions is far more horrible and that the effects will impact them much more quickly than the first time [it happened after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014],” Sasha said.
“They definitely believe that Russia will build its production, that Russia will establish trade relations with China, with Southeast Asia, et cetera.” According to Sasha, it is likely because people believe what they are watching on Russian television: that the Russian economy is padded from the worst economic effects of this crisis.