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BY BORIS GROZOVSKY 

Hundreds of thousands of Russians who have left their country because of the war that Putin unleashed on Ukraine have the opportunity to make a significant contribution to Russia’s future democratization. But first they themselves must adapt to living in liberal democracies.

The world has been watching in horror the unfolding of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Millions of people have contributed to and volunteered in the numerous aid projects that have sprung up in the past month. More than four million people, primarily women and children, have been forced to flee Ukraine.  

Russia’s own forced migration is less visible and harder to understand. Its scale is an order of magnitude less than that of people leaving Ukraine. According to OK Russians, a charity group helping Russians who face persecution at home for opposing the war, more than 300,000 people have left Russia in the past month alone.

According to a study commissioned by the independent media outlet Takiye Dela, four to five million people have left Russia over the past twenty years, including about two million in 2018 and 2019.

New Migrants: Two Profiles

The profiles of forced refugees from Ukraine and Russia differ dramatically. Ukrainians are fleeing bombing and rocket attacks. Some have seen their homes destroyed; many are leaving cities with the entire infrastructure in ruins. Many had to spend weeks in bomb shelters or basements to survive the horrors of the war long enough to exit. Many have left loved ones behind: men are fighting, elderly people have chosen not to leave their homes. Russia’s war has caused many Ukrainians to suffer physical wounds and painful psychological trauma, which will take years to heal. The vast majority of Ukrainian refugees dream of returning when the war is over and rebuilding a country destroyed by an unjust and monstrous war.

The Russians’ reasons for leaving are less dramatic. Many could not stay because they were facing prosecution for protesting their country’s war. Many could not continue running their businesses or work as professionals because of the West’s sanctions and Russia’s own censorship laws; some had been designated “foreign agents” or “extremists.” Most of those leaving Russia have to rely on themselves and had to make sure they had adequate savings to pay for at least three to four months of living expenses, which few Russians can afford. Many Russian NGOs and media outlets have relocated their base to other countries, which means that some of those who have left will be able to earn a living.

According to early survey results, most of those who have left have been able to cope with the difficulties caused by the financial sanctions against Russia and the currency export restrictions imposed by the Russian authorities and banks. Up to a third of those who left in February and March work in IT, many of them for international clients.

New migrants from Russia are not directly affected by combat operations, yet they are leaving because of the war. It is safe to say that those who have left are united by a negative attitude toward the war and toward Putin’s dictatorship.

Unlike refugees from Ukraine, most Russians do not expect to return home quickly. Those who have left for political reasons are unlikely to go back to Russia before the dictatorship is overthrown, the repressive laws of recent years are abolished, and the country’s regime democratizes.

The laws enacted in March promise years in prison for those who tell the truth about the war, about Putin's politics, about the actions of the Russian officials and the army. The less successful the Russian army in Ukraine is, the more Putin’s secret services and the police will turn their attention to those opposing Putin’s war and his dictatorship. Back home, some of the new émigrés face criminal prosecution and could easily be labeled “traitors,” “betrayers,” and, in Stalinist parlance, “enemies of the people.”

As soon as a peace agreement is reached, the Western powers might give some thought to making a repeal of the 2022 sanctions conditional. The lifting of sanctions could be linked to a release of political prisoners, a repeal of repressive laws, and a reinstatement of the freedoms of speech and expression. Unless Russia makes these changes, the country’s political émigrés will not be able to return home.

Russia’s Failed Diasporas

One hundred years ago, Russia’s new Bolshevik government put the country’s thinkers who opposed communism and revolutionary terror on boats and shipped them off. That went down in history as the “philosophers’ steamer.” The 1917 revolution drove huge numbers of talented people out of the country, including the painter Vasily Kandinsky, the singer Fyodor Chaliapin, the writer Vladimir Nabokov, the composer Sergei Rachmaninov, the chess player Alexander Alyokhin, and the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. Some 1.2 million people left at the time, and many of them became part of the world’s cultural heritage.

About seven times as many Soviet people left the country after World War II. Between 1935 and 1958, attempted escape and refusal to return were punishable by the death penalty; the family members of an escapee were sentenced to ten years in a camp. The dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, the musician Mstislav Rostropovich, the chess player Viktor Korchnoi, the poets Joseph Brodsky and Naum Korzhavin, the writers Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Voinovich, Viktor Bukovsky, Andrei Sinyavsky, and many others left under Leonid Brezhnev, a Soviet leader who ruled between 1964 and 1982.

The publication of émigré texts was an important milestone of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But those who returned to Russia under Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as those who had stayed behind, were not able to influence the course of the country’s social transformation.

None of the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet emigration waves was able to form a capable diaspora united by shared values and goals. They failed to offer their compatriots who stayed behind a coherent reform program and effective assistance.

What Is To Be Done?

Russia’s latest emigration wave can do better. Since the summer of 2021 the Russian authorities have sharply increased their attacks on independent media. As a result, many media outlets, educational and human rights projects have relocated outside Russia or are in the process of doing so. If all those who have left are able to coordinate their effort, their influence on those remaining in Russia will consolidate. This would disable Putin’s propaganda machine and pave the way for Russia’s democratic transition.

The problem is that all emigrants from Russia are in one way or another poisoned by the Soviet and post-Soviet legacy. The older those émigrés are, the more of this poison they carry. This legacy includes:

  • egocentrism and a disinclination to engage in horizontal social connections;
  • a low level of trust in people, altruism, and empathy; a disinclination to volunteer or invest in local communities;
  • poor development of political culture, including critical thinking skills and media literacy, along with an aversion to participating in political debate (many are exposed to conspiracy theories);
  • the prevalence of “survival values” at the expense of “self-expression” and “cooperation” values—in the terminology of the late American social scientist Ronald Inglehart.

Emigrants from Russia (and Belarus) have no experience of living in a liberal democracy. Many of them do not know why it is necessary to be interested in politics, to participate in political and civil life.

Living in a liberal democracy, even for a long time, does not automatically create a liberal democratic mindset. The high level of support for right-wing nationalist parties demonstrated by emigrants from the USSR who have been living in Germany for decades is testament to that. A certain disregard for the local culture exhibited by some of the Russians who have fled to Georgia and Armenia runs in the same vein. An ingrained imperial arrogance is not easily eradicated from one’s way of thinking. Many cannot accept responsibility for the emergence of a dictatorial regime in Russia and the war it unleashed.

Changing habits of mind requires a lot of work. Russian-language educational programs aimed at the new migrants could help in that direction. These programs might consist of two parts. The first would focus on national specifics, on mastering the culture, literature, history, traditions, and customs of the host country. The second part would be more universal and would provide an introduction to political theory, philosophy, and social sciences, civic education, critical thinking, women’s rights, environmental and media literacy. All this could be done through training courses and seminars, debates, printed handouts, Instagram stories—all forms are good. In parallel, communities would be expected to emerge in which people were connected and could provide social support to one another.

If the new Russian emigration succeeds in organizing projects of this kind, then we can be somewhat optimistic about the future of Russia. For Russians, even well-educated ones, cultivating the skills of living in a democracy and social solidarity is long overdue.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Boris Grozovski

Boris Grozovski

Journalist and public educator; author of Telegram channel EventsAndTexts
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more