Mikhail Zygar

The Intellectual Exodus from Russia Escaping Putin

Mikhail Zygar
An Essay by Mikhail Zygar
Russia is currently experiencing the most invisible exodus in history – the mass flight of journalists, artists and programmers. They are part of a long tradition of intellectuals who have been forced to flee from Moscow's heavy hand.
Medals for sale at a flea market in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi

Medals for sale at a flea market in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi

Foto: Orhan Karsli / Anadolu / Getty Images

It’s not known how many people have left Russia in the last two weeks, but there is no doubt: We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. It is perhaps the least visible exodus in history. As the entire world focuses on the war in Ukraine with horror, a mass exodus of Russian journalists, artists, actors and programmers has begun.

According to rough estimates by the Georgian authorities, around 20,000 to 25,000 Russians have made their way to Tbilisi since the start of the war.

About Mikhail Viktorovich Zygar

Reiner Zensen / IMAGO

Mikhail Viktorovich Zygar is a Russian journalist and writer. From 2010 to 2015, he served as editor-in-chief of the independent Russian television network Dozhd.

Tbilisi has always been a popular city among Russians for its delicious food, good wine and hospitable people. But now there are too many Russians. The influx of immigrants is worrying many in the country. Some residents of Tbilisi have begun collecting signatures for a petition to introduce visa requirements for Russian citizens.

A bridge across the Kura River in Tbilisi, Georgia

A bridge across the Kura River in Tbilisi, Georgia

Foto: Mint Images / imago/Mint Images

And the behavior of the authorities has been contradictory: On the one hand, Georgia has submitted an official application for European Union membership. On the other, though, at least two famous Russian journalists who have protested against the war in Ukraine and have long criticized Putin were turned away when they tried to enter the country. Georgia is where most of the recent wave of Russian emigrants have ended up, and many of them realize that this is far from the safest place for them.

The departure of the Russian middle class from the country, which began on Sunday, Feb. 27, has become increasingly infused by panic. That was the day most European countries closed their airspace to Russian aircraft. Many Russians thought that the borders would soon be sealed and that there would be no way out.

The result was an almost tenfold increase in ticket prices from Moscow to Istanbul, Dubai, Yerevan, Baku, Bishkek and even Ulaanbaatar. Russia’s intellectuals flew out in all directions, taking the most bizarre detours. Indeed, the fear of closed borders remains one of the most persistent phobias of all former residents of the Soviet Union.

Behind this is an historical trauma that Russian society has to this day still not overcome.

Over the past 20 years of Putin's presidency, as respect for human rights and freedom of expression has continued to deteriorate, many Russians established a red line for themselves, beyond which they would be willing to emigrate: if the borders were to be closed. Behind this is an historical trauma that Russian society still has not overcome, even though it lies more than one hundred years in the past. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks staged a coup and overthrew the liberal interim government. A few months later, they closed the borders, forbidding travel abroad, much less the export of money and valuables. The Russian nobility, poets of the Silver Age, outstanding avant-garde artists, dancers of the Russian ballet, scientists, writers and journalists were forced to seek ways to escape, abandoning all their possessions.

Typical of this period is the story of the legendary poet Zinaida Gippius and her husband Dmitry Merezhkovsky, who was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature. Thanks to their influential connections, they miraculously managed to secure jobs as field teachers in 1919, teaching Russian art history to Red Army soldiers.

That enabled them to leave Petrograd (now known as St. Petersburg), despite the strict permit system the Bolsheviks had introduced for entry to and exit from the city. When they arrived at the front, they fled and crossed the border on foot across the ice of the Gulf of Finland. It then took them quite some time to get from Finland to Paris, where they owned an apartment. They opened the door with their keys and settled safely into a life of exile. They were, of course, something of an exception – all others also encountered difficulties in leaving Russia, but not all owned property in Paris.

Hundreds of thousands of people left Russia in those years, among them many who went on to become stars abroad, making enormous contributions to world culture and science: Nabokov, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Ayn Rand, Bunin, Chagall, Kandinsky, Sikorsky. And then there were their friends and colleagues who were desperate to leave – but were ultimately unable to.

Russian poet Alexander Blok

Russian poet Alexander Blok

Foto: Heritage Images / Heritage Images/Getty Images

The great Russian poet Alexander Blok, seriously ill, asked to be released abroad for treatment, but the Soviet government mockingly granted an exit visa only to him and not to his wife. Mikhail Bulgakov, the great Russian writer and author of the novel "The Master and Margarita," tried to emigrate for several decades and wrote many letters to Stalin, appealing to him that if they would not let him perform his plays in Russia, he could at least be sent abroad. But all of his requests were refused.

Shockingly, there have been similar episodes of government bullying of the intelligentsia throughout Russia's cultural history. Russian scientists, writers and artists have always wanted the freedom to move in a global context and communicate with their peers, yet the authorities have consistently tried to control them to the point of suffocation. As a result, all of today’s Russian intelligentsia grew up hearing horror stories about how the dictatorship destroys the brightest and most educated – even when it hasn't suppressed them, it has strangled them in its embrace.

Ethnic Russians from Sukhumi in Abkhazia on the Black Sea

Ethnic Russians from Sukhumi in Abkhazia on the Black Sea

Foto: Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

In Soviet history, there were two different attitudes toward emigration. On the one hand, a huge number of people left. On the other were those who stayed on principle and expressed their contempt for the emigres. Symbolic of the latter group is the great poet Anna Akhmatova. In 1922, she wrote the poem, "I am not one of those who left the land," which children in Russian schools still have to memorize today. Akhmatova herself met a tragic fate. In 1921, her first husband, the poet Nikolay Gumilyov, was shot. In 1935, her son Leo was arrested, and Anna spent the following years in the Kresty Prison in Leningrad, where she wrote "Requiem," her most famous poem. Her final husband, Nikolay Punin died in the Gulag in 1953.

Poet Anna Akhmatova and writer Nikolay Gumilyov with their son

Poet Anna Akhmatova and writer Nikolay Gumilyov with their son

Foto: Itar-Tass / picture alliance / ITAR-TASS

The poem "Requiem" includes lines that Akhmatova wrote at the end of her life and which are frequently quoted in Russia as evidence that emigration is an absolute moral impossibility: "I chose to remain with my people: where Catastrophe led them, I was there," Akhmatova wrote five years before her death.

These lines have frequently been quoted in recent years by opponents of President Putin — those who preferred to stay and fight rather than to leave their country. They symbolize the noble and heroic fate of those who chose to remain in their home country, enduring torture and repression (Akhmatova’s own fate is a terrible story of an unhappy, tormented and lonely woman).

The discussion of "is it time, or is it not yet time to leave?" has been the most popular topic of small talk in Moscow for the last 20 years. Some, invoking Akhmatova, said leaving would be unacceptable. Only a minority believed the trends to be so frightening that emigration was the only possible moral choice.

Eight years ago, during the occupation of Crimea, two of Russia’s most popular media outlets came under attack: The television station Dozhd (where I was editor-in-chief at the time) and the online newspaper Lenta.ru. Employees at Dozhd decided to stay. After providers removed the channel from their lineups, the TV station lost most of its viewers, but then it started broadcasting on the internet and retained its independence. Staff at Lenta.ru all decided to leave Russia together and establish the new, independent media outlet Meduza in Latvia.

At the end of 2021, Meduza and Dozhd were declared "foreign agents" almost simultaneously. And last week, the death knell sounded: Russian parliament passed a law that equates any truthful information about the war with treason, and now all journalists face up to 15 years in prison for their work. The TV station Dozhd suspended operations and most of its staff hastily flew to Istanbul or Yerevan. Meduza, meanwhile, has been blocked in Russia. Last week, all of Dozhd’s employees left Russia along with journalists from other independent media outlets, as well as scientists, actors and teachers.

Strangely enough, the reason is not just fears for their own safety. Not just the fear of closed borders that has kept them in their shackles for many years. After the attack on Ukraine, many felt they could no longer remain in a Russia that had become an aggressor. They could not allow a war to be waged in their names. Many of them participated in antiwar rallies in the initial days of the war - demonstrations that were brutally suppressed. They compared Putin to Hitler and said they couldn’t stay in the country that unleashed the war.

As they leave, they already know that they are now cursed everywhere. That they will be welcomed abroad as "Putin’s people," and not at all as those who fought desperately, although unsuccessfully, against him for 20 years.

Yet the stream of people leaving continues uninterrupted. And the authorities in the Kremlin seem quite pleased about the development: The emigrants are forbidden from taking their money with them, and parliamentarians have already introduced proposals that emigrants be stripped of their citizenship and their property be nationalized. And Putin, of course, is much better off with his critics out of the country. Lenin called intellectuals the "shit" of the nation and did everything in his power to make them leave or disappear. Putin has rid himself of this "shit" just as effectively.

Most likely, Russians will soon become one of the world’s largest divided nations. One part, the victorious ones, will live in Russia, surrounded by a wall. The others, the losers, will be on the outside, on the other side of the wall.

And they will be waiting for the wall to come down one day.

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