People queuing on the Russian-Georgian borderImage source, Getty Images

Image caption,

When President Putin announced a military mobilisation last September, thousands of Russians rushed to the border.

By Maria Kiseleva & Victoria Safronova

BBC News Russian

Hundreds of thousands of Russians are estimated to have left their country since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We look at who they are, where they are going, and why they are leaving.

Svetlana is in her early 30s and originally from a small town. She moved to Moscow at 18 to study physics at university. After graduation she worked as a product manager for various companies.

"I never thought I'd have to leave, I planned to retire in Moscow," she says, "I love Russia and I enjoyed my life."

Russians had been leaving even before the Ukraine war, including those who disagreed with Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and with new laws that made it easier to punish dissent. Many settled in the Baltic states and other EU countries, as well as in Georgia.

For Svetlana, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine of 2022 was a turning point.

"When the war started, I realised that it would not be over soon and also that people would not come out to protest. I felt both emotionally and rationally it made sense to leave," she says. She is now in Belgrade, Serbia's capital.

"I wanted to put as great a distance between myself and the authorities as possible."

Many Russians shared her feelings and what had been a trickle turned into a stream.

The first wave came in March and April last year - new emigres told the BBC they were against the war, and disappointed more Russians did not come out to protest. Feeling isolated and at risk, they felt it was safer to leave.

President Putin began a military mobilisation in September 2022. Described as "partial" by the authorities, in reality it meant most men were at risk of the draft.

Numerous reports followed of poor training and insufficient kit provided to the newly conscripted.

Men and their families started leaving in droves, creating days'-long queues on the Russian borders with Georgia and Kazakhstan.

The Russian president's official spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied Russians were leaving en masse to avoid being drafted.

Image source, Reuters

Image caption,

President Putin's spokesman denied the authorities were trying to stop men leaving the country.

In April Russian authorities introduced an "online call-up", where new conscripts could be added to a digital register rather than be handed the papers by hand - he also denied the new system was designed to stop the flow of men leaving.

How many left - and where to?

There are no exact figures on how many people have left Russia - but estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to several million.

In May the UK Ministry of Defence estimated 1.3 million people leaving Russia in 2022.

Other estimates of figures from various sources confirm the trend. Forbes magazine cited sources inside the Russian authorities as saying that between 600,000 and 1,000,000 people left in 2022. The Bell and RTVi - both independent Russian media - published comparable figures.

Your device may not support this visualisation

Leaving Russia is relatively easy, as long as you have money and have not been called up to the army. But finding a permanent place to stay is hard.

In the months following the start of the war many countries, mostly the EU and the US, made it difficult for Russians to apply for visas unless they already had family there or were travelling for work.

In many other countries - such as Georgia and Armenia - Russians faced no such restrictions and could come and go as they please. They still can.

Other countries, including Kazakhstan, changed their laws earlier this year, reportedly to stem the flow of Russian immigrants by limiting how many days they can stay as tourists.

Without a prospect of returning to Russia, more and more people need to apply for residency to be able to work in the countries they are settling in - though many are finding ways to keep working remotely for Russian employers.

We know that in the past 15 months, around 155,000 Russians received temporary residence permits in, collectively, EU countries, in several countries of the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia.

Nearly 17,000 have applied for political asylum in EU countries but only around 2,000 have received it, according to the European Union Agency for Asylum.

The Russian Interior Ministry says 40% more have applied for foreign passports in 2022 than in the year before.

'I was terrified of being sent to kill other people'

Since the start of this war we have spoken to dozens of Russians who have left.

They come from different walks of life. Some are journalists like us, but there are also IT experts, designers, artists, academics, lawyers, doctors, PR specialists, and linguists. Most are under 50. Many share western liberal values and hope Russia will be a democratic country one day. Some are LGBTQ+.

Sociologists studying the current Russian emigration say there is evidence that those leaving are younger, better educated and wealthier than those staying. More often they are from bigger cities.

Thomas is from St Petersburg.

"I am a pacifist and was terrified of being sent to kill other people. I've been against Russia's policy towards Ukraine since 2014. Invasion and killing of civilians is unacceptable," he says.

Image source, ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP

Image caption,

A man - who the BBC has not spoken to - is detained at a protest in Moscow. Some who protested against military mobilisation were themselves handed draft papers

After the start of the full-scale invasion he posted anti-war messages on social media and joined street protests, he says. As a gay man, he was also concerned for his safety.

"After Russia adopted laws on 'ban on gay propaganda' and on 'fake news' about the Russian army I knew that the threat to my life and freedom had increased," he says.

Thomas applied for political asylum in Sweden and tried to explain to the authorities there why returning to Russia would be dangerous. His application was turned down but he appealed against the decision.

"Since I only have the right to limited time with a state lawyer, I am working on gathering evidence for my case on my own."

For Sergei, a native of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, it is a different set of problems. He is now in Tbilisi, Georgia. The day Russia invaded Ukraine, he phoned several of his friends and they all agreed the war was bad news.

"Whatever happened next, the economy was going to go down," he says. "A week later we all met up and decided we needed to prepare to [leave]."

As days went on, Sergei says, the war got closer.

"We saw a lot of military kit on its way to Ukraine. Hospitals were full of wounded. Rostov airport was closed for civilian flights but there were lots of planes and we knew where they were going."

In September after Putin's mobilisation speech Sergei's mother, who had criticised him for not being sufficiently patriotic, phoned him and said: "Pack your things and go." Sergei drove all night to Georgia, where he now lives.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Advertisements for army service have become common in Russia

"My wife and child are still in Russia. I have to pay their expenses and accommodation out there and my own here. I work two jobs - one remotely for my company in Russia and one here, for a friend's small business."

Sergei says he is saving money to get his family out of Russia to another country. His wife, who had been reluctant, now agrees they need to look for a new life elsewhere, he says.

What does this mean for Russia?

The Russian authorities tried to downplay the impact of hundreds of thousands of educated and well-off people leaving the country along with their money, but the economic impact is evident.

Russia's largest private bank, Alfa Bank, estimates that 1.5% of Russia's entire workforce may have left the country. Most of those who left are highly skilled professionals. Companies complain of staff shortages and hiring difficulties.

Russia's Central Bank reported in the early stages of the war that Russians withdrew a record 1.2 trillion roubles (around £12bn / $15bn) from their accounts. This is a scale unseen in Russia since the 2008 financial crisis.

Economist Sergei Smirnov from the Russian National Academy of Sciences believes that, as a general trend, higher skilled individuals will continue to look for ways to leave.

Media caption,

Watch: Do Russians really hate the West? - The BBC's Steve Rosenberg tries to find out

"There will be increasingly more demand for people to be able to fix cars or make shoes. I don't like apocalyptic scenarios but I believe this will lead to productivity within the Russian economy continuing to fall over time."

The economist points out that these trends will primarily affect large cities, such as Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

"Most of the Russian territory will not be aware of these transformations because standards of living in smaller cities, towns and villages have always been low and will continue to be in the future."

Meanwhile Svetlana, in Belgrade, has no plans to return to Russia.

"I am working for a start-up based in Moldova but recently I applied for a job in the Netherlands."

Sergei in Tbilisi is applying for jobs in Europe. For now his life is tough: "I don't have any days off, sometimes I don't have enough time for a night's sleep, I nap in the car."

And Thomas in Sweden hopes he won't be forced to go back to Russia where he fears homophobic abuse. He is learning Swedish to be able to get any job at all.

Edited by Kateryna Khinkulova

Related Topics

More on this story

magnifier linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram