From Moscow to the Siberian oil capital of Novosibirsk, and from the intellectual hub of St. Petersburg to the nuclear submarine base of Murmansk, Russians are searching for a way out in anticipation of a grim future in a country torn apart by isolation, censorship and belligerence.
Analysis of search data, immigration figures and flight information, as well as interviews with experts, activists and people inside the country, shed light on how people who can no longer live in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are trying to flee amid the president’s war in Ukraine and political crackdown at home.
Russians’ interest in the topic of “emigration” on Google quadrupled between mid-February and early March. Searches around “travel visa” have almost doubled, and for a Russian equivalent of ‘political asylum’ they jumped more than five-fold.
When searching for emigration in the past 30 days, Australia, Turkey and Israel were some of the top trending destinations, alongside Russia-friendly Serbia and Armenia, as well as Georgia — which Russian troops invaded in 2008.
It is hard to establish exactly how many Russians have actually left the country, or indeed would be able to do so. Financial constraints, skyrocketing travel prices and limited availability of exit routes after a cascade of flight suspensions risk ensnaring those who have had enough of Putin’s Russia.
“On February 24, everything changed, our lives were divided into before and after,” said Veronica, a 26-year-old digital marketer who lives in Moscow. She gave a pseudonym to protect her identity.
She didn’t want to make a rushed decision as she watched her friends and acquaintances abruptly packing their bags, breaking rental agreements and “leaving for Yerevan, Tbilisi and Istanbul, along with their pets,” days after they learned that Russia had attacked Ukraine.
Instead she went to anti-war protests in the Russian capital.
But at the beginning of March, Veronica began to realize the situation was getting worse. “The police started taking activists straight from their apartments, taking people away from the subway,” she told CNN, adding that the police came to her parents’ house in Siberia to threaten her.
“I was screaming that it was time for us to protest, to go to rallies, to write complaints to deputies — instead, people went shopping on IKEA’s last business day,” Veronica said. “I don’t want to live with people like that, they broke my heart.”
Veronica and her partner started a desperate quest to leave Russia. “It doesn’t matter where we go, we just want to escape,” she told CNN.
“Any people, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, and simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths, spit them out on the pavement,” the Russian president said.
Yet the exodus from Russia of activists, human rights defenders and political leaders is a large and noticeable trend, according to Egor Kuroptev, director of the Free Russia Foundation in Georgia.
“The country is occupied by a dictator. Independent media are destroyed. Social networks, such as Facebook and Instagram, are blocked. There are new repressions against activists,” he told CNN, attesting that those who stay are now under threat.
Political persecution is only one of the reasons why some Russians are trying to escape. In addition, some families don’t believe the situation inside the country will improve, they are concerned about the possible conscription of their sons into the army or they want a Western education for their children, according to Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center.
Nikolai, who is being identified with an alternative name for his protection, is only 16 years old. In early March his parents took a difficult decision to send him to Tbilisi, Georgia, to join his older brothers who were already there. They want him to apply for political asylum in Europe later.
“In the first days of the war, all of my friends and I went to protest against it and hundreds of people were detained,” Nikolai told CNN. “Policemen stop people on the streets, people just walking, going to shops, and they ask them to see their phones, their Telegram and social media and then police take them and detain [them],” he said.
Nikolai’s mother waited for almost a week, hoping for the conflict to de-escalate, but on March 2, she told him to do a Covid-19 test and bought him a one-way ticket to Yerevan, Armenia, for the next day. “It wasn’t a discussion, it was like, go now,” he said. From there, he shared a taxi to Tbilisi with other travelers.
“So many people came here when the war started,” he told CNN, adding he has run into friends he didn’t even know were in the Georgian capital. “You go to buy something for dinner, you walk into the supermarket or into a shop and you hear Russian words and see Russian faces. In cafes, everywhere. It’s a new reality for Georgians, too.”
This is almost 14 times as many Russian migrants as in the same period in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic, he said. In addition, almost 10 times as many Belarusians came to Georgia since the war broke out compared to 2019, when tourism was still high, according to Gomelauri.
Georgia is one of only a handful of countries that are affordable and take fleeing Russians without lengthy visa procedures. Other options include post-Soviet countries, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Those who can afford it go to what are usually popular holiday destinations, countries such as Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.
There have been no direct flights to Georgia since the Russian invasion in 2008. But for a number of other destinations, CNN analysis of data from Flightradar24 has revealed a noticeable increase in daily flights from Russian cities in the first two weeks of the war.
Daily departures to Armenia increased by almost a third compared to a winter average — as many as 34 planes departed from Russia for this country of less than three million people on March 6. Daily flights to Kazakhstan and Israel have grown by around 50%. Turkey, Uzbekistan and the UAE have seen an average of one, three and four additional flights per day respectively.
It is unclear how many people who took direct flights to neighboring countries would stay there and how many would aim to get to Europe, the United States and other Western countries.