Hundreds of Russians pressed forward in a dark, Istanbul concert hall as they awaited the appearance of anti-war rapper Oxxxymiron on Tuesday, with many fans chanting against Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
A sign in the background over the stage said: “Russians against war.”
Oxxxymiron, who canceled sold-out performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg when the Russian invasion began, announced on Instagram that the Istanbul charity concert was the first of a series in cities where Russians have fled.
By the end of the night, organizers claimed the concert had raised $30,000 for Ukrainian refugees.
It was a scene perhaps no longer possible in Moscow, where Putin has vowed to pursue an ominous campaign against so-called “scum and traitors” who oppose the war in Russia. For hundreds of Russians who have left the country in recent weeks, many of them vocal opponents of the war in Ukraine, the concert was a balm.
“It feels like Moscow just migrated here, at least our circle. There was like a great exodus when the war escalated.”
“It feels like Moscow just migrated here, at least our circle,” said Olga, an IT professional who declined to share her surname because she still fears criticizing the Russian government publicly. “There was like a great exodus when the war escalated.”
More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine in the violence of the past three weeks, according to the UN. But at the same time, a smaller, more privileged migration route is emerging in eastern cities like Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, Tbilisi, Georgia, and Yerevan, Armenia.
Alongside Istanbul, these cities are becoming hubs for the new Russian diaspora: the often young, highly educated and globally mobile who have decided to leave Russia in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and economic sanctions from the West.
Olga said that she hopes to eventually return to Moscow, but knows it might not be possible. When she left, she decided to pack a single Christmas ornament that would remind her of Russia. The situation reminds her of scenes from history books, when hundreds of thousands of “White Russians” who opposed the Bolsheviks emigrated to Turkey in the late 1910s and early 1920s. She doesn’t think that they realized they would never go home, either.
Through social media and word of mouth, Russians are helping each other leave the country and relocate, navigating visas and job options in foreign countries.
Irina Lobanovskaya wrote a “Relocation Guide” that was originally intended for friends and acquaintances, but has been viewed more than a million times. A companion Telegram channel has more than 100,000 subscribers.
“It was like a tsunami, the amount of people who needed this information was enormous,” said Lobanovskaya, a marketing officer for an artificial intelligence startup who fled to Istanbul.
“A lot of Russians who came here now are not planning to stay and live here very long — for now, it’s a place where many of them are staying temporarily, catching their breath and trying to figure out their plan for the future,” Lobanovskaya said.
It’s hard to know how many Russians have arrived in Istanbul, but most estimates are in the tens of thousands. Turkish Airlines is running several flights a day from Moscow, all wide-bodied, Boeing 777 jets that often sell out.
“I was trying to help my friend evacuate, and he had to buy a ticket to Sri Lanka,” said Russian activist and journalist, Mita Aleshkovsky.
Some people will fly anywhere, he said, just to get out.
“Of course, the majority who are leaving are against the war, and the majority, they hate Putin,” Aleshkovsky said.
But their political affiliation does little to protect them from broad economic sanctions imposed by Western governments and companies. Visa and Mastercard have stopped services for Russian cardholders, including those who are living abroad. Access to PayPal has been disrupted as well as online tools that are popular among remote workers, such as Adobe Photoshop.
Russian President Vladmir Putin has also banned exports of foreign cash worth more than $10,000.
“They are killing the opposition, and they’re killing the ability for people who are against Putin to resist, survive and leave,” Aleshkovsky said. “We are going to face the situation when those thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, they’re going to be really refugees. Without everything, in like — weeks.”
In a small, Istanbul café specializing in historic and traditional recipes, 26-year-old Ksenia Demakhina picked at a plate of candied walnut and clotted cream.
“I didn’t see my future in Russia … maybe since the war started. For me, the war started eight years ago in Crimea.”
“I didn’t see my future in Russia … maybe since the war started. For me, the war started eight years ago in Crimea,” Demakhina said.
Demakhina, a trained psychotherapist, has been involved in Russian anti-war protests since she was a teenager. She moved to Istanbul in November, when news first broke of Russian tanks gathering on the Ukrainian border.
“I was like 'Mom, I should leave.’ I didn’t have a visa [to Europe,] and Istanbul is the easiest way,” Demakhina said. “I just left Russia to [go] somewhere.”
To leave was a last resort; she loves her country and her family, she said. But it was a necessary act of self-preservation, she said. Police had already begun to harass her family due to her political activities. On Feb. 24, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, her fears of war were confirmed — she couldn’t stop crying.
“I understood that it’s impossible for me to come back. I thought that I might never see my grandmother alive,” Demakhina said. “Of course, I’m worried about my Ukrainian friends. But I thought about my family, too. Putin destroyed my life and a lot of other people’s lives.”
Dhemakina said she’s spent the past weeks with an overwhelming feeling of sadness and guilt. She doesn’t think everyday Russians should bear the full responsibility of Putin’s actions in Ukraine because criticizing the government is so dangerous in Russia.
“But I still feel responsibility,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s very important to say I’m sorry — I did my best.”