ISTANBUL — They queued at ATMs, desperate for cash after Visa and Mastercard shut down their operations in Russia, exchanging information about where to get dollars. In the cafes in Istanbul they sat quietly studying Telegram chats or Google Maps on their phones. They organized support groups to help other Russian exiles find housing.
Tens of thousands of Russians have fled to Istanbul since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, outraged by what they see as a criminal war, concerned about conscription or the possibility of a closed Russian border, or concerned that their livelihoods at home will no longer be viable.
And they are just the tip of the iceberg. Tens of thousands more traveled to countries such as Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which are better known as sources of migration to Russia. At the land border with Latvia – only accessible to people with a European visa – travelers reported long waiting times.
While the exodus of some 2.7 million Ukrainians from their war-torn country has turned the world toward a nascent humanitarian crisis, Russia’s descent into new depths of authoritarianism is leaving many Russians despairing of their future. That has created a flight – although much smaller than in Ukraine – that some compare to 1920, when more than 100,000 opponents of the Communist Bolsheviks left during the Russian civil war to take refuge in what was then Constantinople.
“This has never happened in peacetime,” said Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist at the University of Chicago. “There is no war on Russian soil. As one event, it’s pretty big.”
Some who have fled are bloggers, journalists or activists who feared arrest under Russia’s draconian new law criminalizing what the state considers “false information” about the war.
Others are musicians and artists who see no future for their crafts in Russia. And there are workers in technology, law and other sectors who saw the prospect of a comfortable life in the middle class — let alone any opportunity for moral acceptance of their government — vanish overnight.
They left behind jobs, family and money tied up in Russian bank accounts that they no longer have access to. They fear being viewed as Russians abroad if the West isolates the country from its deadly invasion, and they waver over the loss of a positive Russian identity.
“They didn’t just take our future,” Polina Borodina, a Moscow playwright, said of her government’s war in Ukraine. “They took our past.”
The speed and scale of the flight reflect the tectonic shift brought about by the invasion of Russia. Despite all the repression from President Vladimir V. Putin, until last month, Russia remained a place with extensive travel links to the rest of the world, a largely uncensored internet that provided a platform for independent media, a thriving tech industry and a world-class art scene. Pieces of western middle-class life — Ikea, Starbucks, affordable foreign cars — were widely available.
But when they woke up on February 24, many Russians knew that was all over. Dmitri Aleshkovsky, a journalist who for years promoted the emerging culture of charity in Russia, got into his car the next day and drove to Latvia.
“It became absolutely clear that once this red line is crossed, nothing will stop him,” Aleshkovsky said of Putin. “It’s only getting worse.”
In the days since the invasion, Mr Putin has forced the remnants of the independent Russian media to shut down. According to the rights group OVD-Info, he has mounted a brutal crackdown on anti-war protesters, with more than 14,000 people arrested across the country since February 24, including 862 in 37 cities.
Certainly, many Russians support the war, and many of those supporters are completely oblivious to the extent of Russian aggression because they rely on state television news.
But others have flocked to places like Istanbul, which, as in 1920, has again become a refuge for exiles. While most of Europe has closed its airspace, Turkish Airlines flies as many as five times a day from Moscow; combined with other airlines, more than 30 flights arrive from Russia on some days.
“History is spiraling, especially that of Russia,” said Kirill Nabutov, 64, a sports commentator in St. Petersburg who fled to Istanbul this month with his wife. “It comes back to the same place – back to the same place.”
The cousin of Mr. Nabutov’s mother was an 18-year-old enlisted sailor in Crimea when he evacuated to Constantinople with Commander Pyotr Wrangel’s fleet in 1920. He traveled on to Tunis, where he became an insurance agent.
Today, too, a generation of Russian exiles faces the daunting prospect of starting all over again. And they are all faced with the nagging reality of being seen as representing a country that has launched a war of aggression, even though many insist they have fought Putin all their lives.
In Georgia — where the government says 20,000 Russians have arrived since the war began — exiles have faced an intimidating environment filled with anti-Russian graffiti and hostile comments on social media.
“We tried to explain that Russians are not Putin – we hate Putin too,” said Leyla Nepesova, an activist with Memorial International, a Russian rights group recently shut down by the Kremlin. Ms. Nepesova, 26, escaped to Georgia a week ago and was tainted by association — sworn in on the street and yelled at by a taxi driver.
“He told us: ‘You are Russians, you are occupiers,'” said Ms Nepesova. “Russians are hated here – and I can’t blame them.”
Many Georgians see clear parallels between the invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008. And while most welcomed the newcomers, some have failed to distinguish between Russian dissidents who fled Russia for security or moral reasons and those who killed Mr. Putin.
The Bank of Georgia has required new Russian clients to sign a statement denouncing Putin’s invasion and recognizing the Russian occupation of parts of Georgia — a problematic request to anyone hoping to return to Russia.
War Between Russia and Ukraine: Important Things to Know
Expand the war. Russia launched a barrage of airstrikes on a Ukrainian military base near the Polish border, killing at least 35 people. Western officials said the attack on NATO’s doorstep was not just a geographical extension of the invasion, but a shift in Russian tactics.
Some Georgians have even appealed to landlords to refuse rent to Russian arrivals.
“Your hands are dirty,” a Georgian vigilante currently volunteering in Ukraine said in an online video addressed to landlords, banks and politicians in Georgia. “All of you,” added the fighter, Nodari Karalashvili, “why are you selling all this? At what price of blood?”
In neighboring Armenia, where the government says several thousand Russians arrive every day, the exiles report that they are getting a better reception. Davur Dordzheir, 25, said he had quit his job as a lawyer at the Russian state-owned company Sberbank, arranged his financial affairs, made a will and said goodbye to his mother. He flew to the Armenian capital Yerevan, worried that his previous public remarks against the Russian government could make him a target.
“I realized that since the beginning of this war I have been an enemy of the state, along with thousands of Russians,” he said.
In Istanbul, Ms Borodina, the playwright, who arrived on March 5, has already lined up a designer and a Turkish printer to make Ukrainian flag pins that Russians can wear. It is part of her effort, she says, to “save this identity” from a Russia detached from Mr Putin. She believes it is fair that Ukrainians now harbor hatred of all Russians. But she criticizes people in the West who say that every Russian bears responsibility for Mr Putin.
“Have you lived under a dictatorship?” Ms Borodina, 31, whose work tells the stories of Russians imprisoned for years after protests, said she would ask those Westerners. “Do you know what the consequences of these protests could be?”
Some exiled Russians are trying to organize mutual aid and try to counter anti-Russian sentiment. Aleshkovsky, the journalist, 37, said he cried and had panic attacks every day for the first five days of the war. Then he said, “I pulled myself together and realized I had to do what I know how to do.” He and several colleagues are organizing an initiative tentatively called “OK Russians” to help those forced to leave or trying to leave and to produce media content in English and Russian.
Mikhail B. Chodorkovsky, the exiled oil tycoon who was imprisoned in Russia for 10 years, is funding a project called Kovcheg – “The Ark” – which provides housing in Istanbul and Yerevan and is looking for psychologists to provide emotional support. Since its kick-off on Thursday, it has received some 10,000 applications.
When Irina Lobanovskaya, the marketing director at an artificial intelligence firm, started an emigration chat group in the messaging app Telegram, she started with 10 people sharing tips about visas and work permits. The group now has more than 106,000 members.
“I’m a midwife, a lactation consultant, who ran away from Moscow with an almost 18-year-old son,” one woman wrote, asking for advice for exiled health professionals. “We are in Prague trying to figure out how to move on.”
The pain of leaving everything behind has been excruciating, many said — along with the guilt that we may not have done enough to fight Putin. Alevtina Borodulina, 30, an anthropologist, signed an open letter against the war with more than 4,700 Russian scientists. While walking along the Boulevard Ring in central Moscow with friends, one of them pulled out a tote bag that said “no to war” and was promptly arrested.
She flew to Istanbul on March 3, met like-minded Russians at a protest in support of Ukraine, and now volunteers for the Kovcheg project to help other exiles.
“It was like seeing the Soviet Union,” Ms. Borodulina said of her last days in Moscow. “I thought the people who left the Soviet Union in the 1920s probably made a better decision than those who stayed and then ended up in the camps.”
Anton Troianovski reported from Istanbul, and Patrick Kingsley from Tbilisi, Georgia. Jane Arraf contributed from Yerevan, Armenia, and Neil MacFarquhar from New York.