YEREVAN, Armenia — At the Lumen cafe in the Armenian capital, as soon as the doors open, Russians arrive, order specialty coffees, open their sleek Apple laptops, and try to navigate a dwindling array of options to start their lives over.
The background music and sun-drenched interiors are soothing counterpoints to the hectic departure from their country, leaving behind parents, pets and the sense of home that had all but disappeared when Russia invaded Ukraine last month.
“This war was something I thought could never happen,” said Polina Loseva, 29, a web designer from Moscow who works with a private Russian IT company she declined to name. “When it started, I felt that now anything is possible. They are already putting people in jail for some innocent words on Facebook. It was safer to leave.”
Russia is bleeding outward looking young professionals who were part of a global economy that has largely shut down their country.
Before the war broke out, officials say only about 3,000 to 4,000 Russians were registered as workers in Armenia. But in the two weeks after the invasion, at least as many arrived in this small country almost every day. While thousands have left for other destinations, government officials said late last week there were about 20,000 left. Tens of thousands of others are looking for a new life in other countries.
The speed and magnitude of the exodus are evidence of a seismic shift that triggered the invasion of Russia. Although President Vladimir V. Putin suppressed dissent, until last month Russia remained a place for people to travel abroad relatively untethered, with a largely uncensored internet providing a platform for independent media, a thriving tech industry and a world-class art scene. Life was good, the emigrants said.
For the newcomers to Armenia lies a sense of controlled panic over the guilt of leaving their family, friends and homeland, along with the fear of speaking openly and the sadness of seeing a country they love do something that they hate.
“Most of those who have gone against the war because they are connected to the world and they understand what is happening,” said Ivan, co-owner of a Cyprus-based video game development company. He and many other Russian exiles interviewed in Armenia said they would not give their full names for fear of repercussions at home.
Ms. Loseva and her friend Roman Zhigalov, a 32-year-old web developer who works for the same company as her, sat at a table in the busy cafe with friends looking for a place to stay. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, she leaned against Mr. Zhigalov and closed her eyes as he put his arm around her shoulder.
“A month ago I didn’t want to move to another country,” she said. ‘But now I don’t want to go back. It is no longer the country I want to live in.”
At other tables in the small cafe, young Russians tapped on laptops or looked at their Apple watches. Some logged into Zoom meetings; others looked for places they could afford to rent with their savings unreachable.
But the plunge in the ruble, which at one point had lost about 40 percent of its value against the US dollar, and skyrocketing housing costs in Armenia, which are priced in dollars, have left some who lived in stylish Moscow apartments , considered moving from budget hotels to even cheaper hostels with bunk beds and shared bathrooms.
Most of those who have come to Armenia work in IT and other sectors that rely on unfettered internet and international banking connections, economy minister Vahan Kerobyan told DailyExpertNews.
But among those who have fled Russia are bloggers, journalists or activists who feared arrest under the country’s draconian new law, which even makes it a crime to use the word “war” in connection with Ukraine.
Some of the recent Russian arrivals in Armenia said they have contracts that will allow them to work remotely for at least a few months if they can find a way to get the money. Others said they were moved to Armenia by US and other IT companies, who continue to pay their salaries. But many have continued to scramble to access enough money to scrape together apartment deposits.
Visa, Mastercard and PayPal have severed all ties with Russia, leaving only the Russian Mir bank card, which is accepted in Armenia and a few other countries, for electronic payments.
Kate, a 26-year-old project manager for a Russian aid agency, said the night before she and her boyfriend left Moscow, they went from ATM to ATM for three hours, trying unsuccessfully to withdraw dollars. At each ATM, people with bodyguards pressed forward and withdrew $5,000 at a time until the machines were empty, she recalls.
“We couldn’t say anything because it felt very dangerous,” she said.
Tens of thousands of other Russian exiles have traveled to Georgia and Turkey. But Armenia, a former Soviet republic that has remained neutral in the conflict, has offered the softest landing. Contrary to the reception in Georgia, none of the Russians interviewed said they had encountered hostility. Here they can enter the country without a visa or even a passport and can stay for up to six months, and Russian is widely spoken.
For some, the fear of leaving their country is compounded by the feeling that the world is increasingly equating all Russians with their president.
“I want to be with the rest of the world, not Russia,” said Mr. Zhigalov, the web developer. “But we can’t be with the rest of the world because it feels like being Russian is now seen as a bad thing.”
Maria, a 30-year-old Russian travel guide editor who had arrived in Armenia the week before, was also concerned about the hostility.
“What do people in America think of Russians?” she asked seriously. “Did they hate us?”
Maria said she had been involved in anti-government protests in Russia in 2018.
“I was so scared,” she said of her decision to leave with her husband, a sports training center manager. “I was afraid of being arrested if I protested. And to live there and do nothing, I don’t want to live like that.”
Most of the Russians interviewed said they left because the crushing of international sanctions made it impossible to work for companies from other countries or with foreign clients, or because they feared Russia might close its borders.
Like many of the men who left, her husband, Evgeny, feared he would be drafted and forced to fight in Ukraine. The couple rushed to find a flight from Moscow after most airlines cut ties with Russia and ended up spending almost all the money on tickets for a flight to Yerevan.
Many of those who left are entrepreneurs or freelancers in industries that depended on foreign clients, who have cut ties with them, even for work outside of Russia.
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A Ukrainian base is hit. A rocket attack on a barracks in the southern city of Mykolaiv has killed as many as 40, a Ukrainian official said. That number would make it one of the deadliest attacks on Ukrainian troops since the start of the war, and the death toll could be much higher.
“They just tell us, ‘Sorry guys. We hope to work together in the future, but right now we can’t,'” said Ivan, the video game developer, of his European partners.
At another cafe, 35-year-old Alex, his blond hair pulled back with a headband and arms tattooed with milestones in his life, said he spent four hours at the Moscow airport while his flight was delayed, drinking gin and tonics.
“I just got drunk at the airport to muster some courage,” he said. “I probably should have left sooner, but I’m in love with my country.”
Alex, who declined to say what industry he worked in, said he wept as he listened to voicemails from Ukrainian friends summoned to fight.
“These guys sat around, smoked cigarettes, drank beer and played music,” he said. “The next day they had to get a weapon and defend their country. These were people who had never held a weapon before. It’s terrible.”
For many Russians, there is also the pain of a generation gap with parents and grandparents who grew up in the former Soviet Union.
“My parents, my grandma and grandpa watch TV and completely believe the TV line, so it hurts to talk to them,” said Kate, the project manager of the support group. “At some point I realized I loved them too much to argue about it. So I said let’s not talk about it.”
“I have no solid ground under my feet,” she said. “We are here now, but we don’t know where we will be in a week, a month or even tomorrow.”
At Yerevan airport last week, Viktoria Poymenova, 22, and her boyfriend, Bulat Mustafin, 24, from the Russian town of Mineralnye Vody, drove a tower with suitcases, bulging backpacks and two small couriers carrying their tiny rescue dog Mishoo, and their tortoiseshell cat, kisya.
Mr. Mustafin, an engineer, worked as a technician for movie projectors in cinemas, which now cannot show films from Hollywood studios, because they have cut ties with Russia.
Ms. Poymenova teaches web programming for an online school in Cyprus. Their plan was to find an affordable apartment in Georgia.
“If we don’t find one, we’ll come back here. And if we don’t find one here, we’ll go to Turkey. And if there is nothing, we will go to Serbia,” said Mrs Poymenova. “We just want a peaceful life, but it’s very difficult when your country makes such a disaster.”