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ISTANBUL — Russian rapper Oxxxymiron’s latest concert was his smallest in years. Hundreds of people piled into a tiny basement venue on Tuesday, with those who couldn’t get tickets jostling on the street to try and get in. As the lights dimmed, the Oxford University-educated hip-hop artist stepped out in front of a banner that read “Russians against war.”
Those words alone could land him behind bars for up to 15 years under Russia’s new laws criminalizing “fake news” and criticism of the armed forces. But Oxxxymiron and his fans were in Istanbul, just one destination of choice for tens of thousands of Russians fleeing since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
“Everyone I know is against this pointless war,” said Polina, a 25-year-old graphic designer from St. Petersburg. “I don’t feel safe going back, so I will try and stay here for as long as I can. My bank cards aren’t working, but I have some friends in Turkey who can help.” One friend paid for her ticket to the gig, from which all proceeds will be donated to charities helping Ukrainian refugees.
Not everyone is as lucky. Sasha, a master coffee roaster, handed in his resignation at an upmarket Moscow cafe and spent most of his savings on a flight to Istanbul, having dodged the draft for mandatory military service last year and fearing he could be sent to serve on the front lines in a war he doesn’t support. “I was so nervous they wouldn’t let me on the plane,” he said, having read reports of interrogations at the border. “But I knew I had to leave and I had no other options.” This is his first time out of the country, and he is staying in a hostel until his cash runs out or he can find work. Neither Polina nor Sasha wanted to give their full name.
They are part of a growing exodus of skilled workers looking to move overseas as economic chaos and political repression begin to bite, dividing Europe in a way not seen since the fall of the USSR. Officials in Armenia, a former Soviet Republic where Russians can travel without a foreign passport, say at least 80,000 have arrived in the past three weeks, while the mayor of Tbilisi, the capital of neighboring Georgia, reported 25,000 coming to his city alone.
Like Oxxxymiron, many of those who have left studied in the West before returning home, part of a generation of outward-looking creatives, technical specialists and entrepreneurs that fuelled Russia’s growing economic and cultural sectors. “Young people who want to travel abroad, who want to build their lives, buy consumer goods and have a kind of middle-class lifestyle — they’re the ones who have been marginalized most by Putin’s decision to invade,” said Ian Garner, a historian studying Russian wartime propaganda. “And these are the same people who are more likely to support the anti-war movement.”
While small groups initially staged protests in cities across the country, they have been met with an immediate and brutal crackdown. Human rights group OVD.info estimates that 14,980 demonstrators have been arrested and a chilling recording leaked online appears to show officers beating a detainee who refused to confess to taking part in an unauthorized rally — banned under COVID-19 laws that have been all but scrapped in other areas of life.
Consequences of speaking out
While those at the concert in Istanbul wore T-shirts bearing the name of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny and chanted “glory to Ukraine,” their compatriots back home are facing harsh consequences for speaking out. Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer on Russian state TV, went viral after jumping in front of cameras during a live news bulletin holding a sign reading “stop the war” and telling viewers “you are being lied to.” She was detained, fined and could yet face time in a prison colony. Others, like a pensioner living near the Siberian city of Tomsk who scrawled a message calling for an end to the conflict, have also faced hefty fines.
Few who have left had any hope that staying and fighting for what they believe in will lead to any kind of change. “My family live in Ukraine,” said Taras, a 42-year-old IT consultant. “I wanted to go out to protest — I felt it was the least I could do for them. But seeing what is going on, I know it wouldn’t make a difference.” Able to work remotely, he now hopes to rent a house near the coast in Turkey and bring his wife over.
Putin himself has welcomed the fact so many who don’t agree with his war have fled, calling it a “cleansing” of society. “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, and will simply spit them out like a gnat that flew into their mouth,” he claimed in a fiery speech on Wednesday. “This will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenges.”
While the loss of politically engaged young people may make Russia easier for the Kremlin to control, the brain drain will also undo much of the progress made in vital sectors like technology. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who himself has previously championed IT as the answer to economic stagnation, moved earlier this month to offer digital experts preferential mortgages and put in place tax breaks for companies that stay. Despite that, it is proving difficult to keep highly mobile workers with sought-after skills in the country.
Ukrainians Taras Chaus, from Lviv, and his girlfriend Elizaveta Cheliy, from the frontline city of Zaporizhzhia, are among those who turned out to see Oxxxymiron perform, having left just two days before the rockets began to fall on their country. “Ordinary Russians are against the war,” Chaus said, “many don’t yet understand how bad it is — but if they want to live well and look after themselves, this will start to change. Only a small number have left, and there are plenty of people there to oppose the war.”
Cheliy, however, was less optimistic about the prospect of domestic unrest forcing Putin to change course. “Those who speak other languages and know what the reality in other countries is like want to leave. But older people just believe what they see on television — they won’t change their minds,” she cautioned.
On stage, the rapper they came to see made the same point. “People who support what is going on don’t know what is going on,” he shouted into the microphone. “They think this is just a ‘special operation’ — but it is a war.”
Then, turning to the camera broadcasting his words via livestream to tens of thousands of viewers back in Russia, Oxxxymiron implored people to wake up to the reality of the conflict. “I think most people here agree with me — but I know many watching will not. You can’t just go along with what you are being told. I’m begging you — investigate alternatives to the opinions you have. Talk to your parents — they’re not bloodthirsty people, but they watch too much TV.”
“Listen, because it’s so important, not just for Ukraine but for Russia too. If you don’t, we will lose it.”
For now, it isn’t clear whether that message will get through or if, before long, too many will have left for it to matter.