Turkey has become a popular pit stop for young Russians hoping to escape their government since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not only are the oligarchs docking their yachts on Turkey’s coasts, but an army of young people are also making their way to Turkish shores.
With most flights from Russia to Europe canceled, Istanbul International Airport has become the easiest destination for Russians to flee. So far, Turkey is admitting Russian passport holders with no restrictions, just like before the war. Russians can stay in Turkey without a visa for up to 90 days.
This immigration leniency has made Turkey the perfect respite for those who harbor anti-war sentiments and disagree with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies. Many of Russia’s highly skilled professionals, writers, artists, and performers, are taking temporary refuge in Turkey to plan what comes next.
“Of course, it is not the same for me as it is for Ukrainians; I feel my privilege. But I have lost my home,” says Vika, an artist from Moscow who is among the many new arrivals in Turkey. “My mom lives there, but I don’t know when I will see her again.”
Vika’s decision to leave was inspired by the collision of history and art. A performance based on the life of feminist icon Alexandra Kollontai, the world’s first female diplomat, premiered in Russia on the day the war started. “The social problems Kollontai rebelled against,” like disrespect for vulnerable groups and non-inclusivity, “are still present in Russia and are the reason why this war happened.”
Another recent arrival, an IT specialist from Moscow living in Kas who did not want his name published, said that his country’s war with Ukraine was hurting ordinary Russians. “I’ve lived in London, San Francisco, and Barcelona, and I chose to live in Moscow because I love it,” he said. “But with the war, and the sanctions, it feels like a different country. Still, I am one of the lucky ones who was able to leave.” He did so, he said, because of the possibility that he could be drafted to fight in a war he opposes.
As frustrating as it might be, there are not many options for Russians to push back against their government’s policies. “Fear, in general, has become a domineering force,” said Dmitry Anton, a curator at a Moscow-based experimental cinema organization, who is now living in Izmir. When the war started, many Russians expressed their anger by participating in anti-war rallies. Protests were organized using emojis to bypass government surveillance on social media. But after thousands of protestors were detained, expressing solidarity for Ukraine became nearly impossible. Even the word “war” has been banned from public discourse.
Still, Anton says Russians could have done more to avoid conflict. “There were many events in the past where you could almost predict the future,” he says. “People in the arts should have spent more time and effort promoting a decolonial discourse in Russian culture.”
Yet that did not happen, nor is it likely to anytime soon. The war has brought out an even more authoritarian side to Putin’s governing style, shrinking the space for opposition voices. His sexist and LGBTQ-phobic rhetoric, coupled with his grip on power, has prompted the creative, globally aware youth to depart. Immediately after Putin’s reelection in 2018, more than 2 million Russians emigrated to countries “where they can be freer with their skills put to a better use,” the Atlantic Council estimates. An additional half a million people left Russia in 2020, according to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency.
One of those destinations, Turkey, has been experiencing its own brain drain in recent years. In 2019, more than 330,000 people migrated from Turkey, and 40 percent were between 21 and 34 years of age. Young Turks increasingly fear not having a future in their country, which is why Turkey will only be a layover for Russians seeking a freer and more democratic destination.
Turkey’s Russian visitors do not know what their next move will be. “Some of us will have to go back to do paperwork, transfer money, or sell property; we will have to regroup and think about what is next,” the IT specialist in Kas predicts. “But in the long-term, I do not see talented people going back to Russia, and I think that will be a major problem” for Moscow in the future.
For his part, Anton says it will be difficult to come to terms with what it means to be “Russian” after the trauma inflicted on Ukrainians. “It is problematic to think about our identity and to call ourselves Russian; there is huge shame attached to it, with the idea that we didn’t do our part in changing the discussion.”
Putin’s war in Ukraine had proven costly in human and political terms. Now, it’s also leading to the flight of Russian talent, which could hurt the Russian economy for years to come. While this expertise is unlikely to remain in Turkey forever, Turkey’s willingness to offer passage to those fleeing Putin’s authoritarianism is one more factor contributing to an uncertain Russian future.
Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.