Anatomy of an Exodus From Russia

As the war in Ukraine progresses, an anthropologist catalogs the mass departure

Anatomy of an Exodus From Russia
Passengers disembark from the last Allegro train from St Petersburg, Russia, at the central railway station in Helsinki, Finland on March 27, 2022 / Alessandro Rampazzo / AFP via Getty Images

The end came for all of us at once. (Interview Subject 1)

On March 1, in a Moscow therapist’s office, Alevtina “Alya” Borodulina chose to leave Russia.

The invasion of Ukraine had begun five days earlier. People called the new world “After 24,” marking the invasion’s date and the ruthless and irrevocable division of time it had created. Daily routines no longer structured life but instead gave way to existential concerns. Nostalgia now tinted the immediate past. It was her first therapy session, scheduled prior to the war’s outbreak in response to anxieties that had lost their relevance. She had recently turned 30. In the office, Alya spoke only of the war. The therapist replied by discussing the structure of fairy tales: a rupture giving way to acceptance and a determination to venture forward in order to restore a broken world. “Should I leave the country?” Alya asked point-blank. The therapist had no answers to give, but she also did not scoff, and perhaps this made all the difference. “In this story, what would the character do?” the therapist replied. Within 48 hours, Alya would be in Istanbul.

After the session, she walked through Gorky Park on her way to work. She called an Armenian friend who had been thinking about leaving for Yerevan. Alya suggested they take his car and drive. “I’ve already bought plane tickets for March 9,” he said. The prices for nearer dates had been too high. Eight days seemed an eternity. She felt as if she were stuck in a horror film. “We don’t have enough time,” she said. His flight would eventually be canceled.

When Alya arrived at her office, ashen faces greeted her. A comatose trepidation had hung in the air for the past five days. She worked at Moscow State University’s Institute of Anthropology, researching the effect of extractive industries on Russian populations. Her job allowed her the freedom and funds to travel throughout the country conducting interviews. Over the years, Alya had seen many of the researchers get their doctorate degrees and leave Russia in order to make careers and enjoy higher standards of living abroad. When colleagues had asked if she planned to do the same, she would name a remote region of the country and reply: “I can’t leave Russia. I haven’t been to Sakhalin Island yet.” After Alya had traveled to Sakhalin Island twice, she began to use Kamchatka, a peninsula abutting the Sea of Okhotsk in eastern Russia. In autumn 2021, when she finally made it to Kamchatka on a research trip, Alya dreamed she was standing in a friend’s apartment in Berlin, painting the walls white. The friend, who had once tried to entice her to apply to a German university, asked, “Why are you still in Russia?”

Alya had never aimed to make her career abroad. Russia and its furthest reaches, its various cultures and languages and topographies and climates, had always captivated her. Her colleagues had been a second family. The institute’s director had been like a father. At her desk on March 1, she thought back to the interviews she had conducted with fishermen on the coastal town of Poronaysk in the far east — many of them drank heavily and her director had insisted she take a male colleague, citing the town’s seedy reputation, but she had gone alone and nothing had happened. Alya had cherished the opportunity to embed herself in these remote spaces, even if she felt pained by the decay, the inequality and the suffering. She called it a masochistic love. As an undergraduate university student, she had first been drawn to anthropology while interviewing former factory workers in the towns dotting Lake Onega in northwestern Russia. The exercise had been designed to teach students how to conduct ethnographic research. Many of the men had gone blind because of chemicals used in the manufacturing processes. She could no longer remember what they had built.

There were protests, yes. We went. Me and my mom. She was taken away for wearing a green hat [a color symbolizing anti-war sentiments]. She had bought the hat before all of this — it was a fashionable color, a trend. But of course she didn’t put it on just for style. I guess it was written on her face why she was wearing it. (Interview Subject 6)

In the months prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Alya had intentionally avoided news concerning the military buildup — the first escalation in autumn and the second in December had exhausted her, bringing with it an amorphous foreboding. Anxiety and fear had merged with a sense of helplessness. She read the independent press but skipped articles on troop movements. By late February, it had become impossible to avoid. Friends texted her about President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 21 speech recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two self-proclaimed separatist republics. She grew certain something ghastly was going to happen. Her mother, who had been born and raised in Chernobyl and had moved after the 1986 nuclear accident — first to Cherkasy in Ukraine, where Alya had been born, and later to Moscow — could not understand her daughter’s anxieties. Russian news incessantly broadcast its dulling certainties in their shared apartment.

The day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a national holiday celebrating the armed forces. Alya had long promised to spend time with her mother, but often found reasons to postpone. They traveled to a shopping mall in Moscow’s Danilovsky district. Her mother surveyed various clothing items and grinned, picking out a cream-colored coat that she thought contrasted nicely with her daughter’s hazel hair. Alya felt they were smiling through the impending apocalypse. As they traveled home, they saw red fireworks explode against the dark sky through the windows of their taxi. In her room, Alya consulted the “I Ching,” a Chinese divination system she had seen on the American television series “Man In The High Castle.” She knew it could reveal nothing, but cosmic certainties provided their own comfort. To elicit the future, she took aromatic Indian sticks and moved them from hand to hand. The tactile movement helped her relax. She tossed the sticks to form a hexagram. It indicated war. She did not sleep that night.

We had a pre-scheduled office move the day after the invasion. Thank God. It gave us something to do. After a day spent reading the news, eight hours of carrying boxes was a joy. The only thing we thought about was how to carry this table or how to fit it into this corner. These were wonderful thoughts. It helped a lot. We just kept moving all this furniture into our new office pretending that there would actually be work in the future. At the end of the day, we sat on boxes for three hours. No one wanted to go home or be alone. We laughed, joked and spoke nonsense. We said that we were drinking prewar water and eating prewar bread and prewar olives. In the meantime, we kept getting calls from suppliers saying, “We won’t be able to deliver these items.” (Interview Subject 9)

On the morning of the invasion, Alya watched YouTube videos of the aerial bombardments. Her anticipation of some form of hybrid war turned to shock at the sight of cities bombed. Horror and despondence and fear and guilt commingled. The war brought a feeling of crushing defeat in its wake, erasing some deep-seated sense that in the future her generation would inherit Russia and construct something better. She felt certain that whatever protection Russia’s civil society had enjoyed, it now lay dead. Gone too was the feeling that in the pretenses to democracy — in the need to falsify and warp elections but perform them nonetheless — there had been a certain safety, the existence of possible paths toward liberalization, the space within which to somehow operate and work, in however limited a fashion, toward something constructive through research, academic articles, curatorial work and protest. Previously, she had not feared speaking publicly about the country’s issues. This disappeared with the invasion, replaced by a sense of unbearable loss, alongside more practical fears like closing borders, a disintegrating economy and the disappearance of independence at work. In addition, the war brought with it shame and a feeling of complicity in things she did not know how to change. She had visited family in Kyiv and Cherkasy every year during her childhood. She had traveled to Kyiv for the New Year in 2020.

As news of the invasion spread, everyone seemed to call everyone, reaching out to old friends to provide or receive comfort. She thought of purchasing medications for her grandparents and food for her cat, each item imported. The day following the invasion, she ran into an old classmate who now worked for a government department. Alya asked about her plans for the future. “I cannot leave,” the old classmate replied. “I have children in kindergarten. It would be too hard to find a new school for them. I’ll adapt.” She heard of others who planned to wait until the school year ended before leaving the country. Still others struggled to find countries that would allow them to bring their pets.

At home, Alya’s father rejected her characterization of Russia’s aims and actions. “Dad,” she began, “what would constitute evidence to you? If a scientific research paper could demonstrably prove that Russia invaded without any provocation, would this settle it?”

“Is the journal Western?” her father replied.

They always landed here. Not speaking of what had happened, merely how one understood things to happen. These cosmic epistemological concerns left her feeling alone. They moved onto other topics. All the same, she resented hearing others denounce those who supported the war as living a lie. Instead, they lived inside a truth, with its attendant assumptions and logical conclusions. A truth so profound it appeared unalterable.

After the invasion, I became unable to concentrate on my work. We had a meeting on Zoom. The session was led by an Italian. There were all these people from different countries on the call. It represented a world that no longer existed. I started crying and turned off the camera. (Interview Subject 14)

Alongside four friends, Alya decided to protest. An anti-war prayer gathering had been scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 27, outside Christ the Savior Cathedral, just south of the Kremlin. They took bibles and candles in order to blend in with the crowd. The weather felt like spring. Each of them had learned how to behave if they ended up in police custody. They carried travel-size toothbrushes and toothpastes in order to stay clean in detention. Remaining in a group was crucial. If one protester got detained, the others could send emergency texts to a special Telegram number that alerted organizations capable of navigating the state’s serpentine legal procedures. She had protested with these same friends in January 2021 after opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been detained upon reentering Russia following his poisoning. At that time, a Russian social science organization had requested help collecting protester testimonies. She had conducted an interview while running from police. As they prepared to go to the cathedral, one of their friends hid a canvas bag onto which he’d written “No to War” in black marker. While they walked past the Ministry of Defense toward the protest, another friend read online that Putin had ordered Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces to high alert. “Rationality has been canceled,” she said to Alya.

The location of the protest had been strategic. The state’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church meant protesters hoped that the cathedral’s vicinity would be protected from security forces. Instead, riot police in black helmets had blocked the entire square around the church, erecting a fenced perimeter. People feared standing beside the barriers. The police pulled individuals who loitered for too long out of the crowd and loaded them onto buses. Alya and her friends circled the perimeter. On Gogolevsky Boulevard, their friend took out his canvas bag with “No To War” on it. He was tackled and taken away. The remaining four went to his home to meet his wife and call organizations designed to assist those detained. He was kept for longer than legally permissible but eventually released. Later, the mask requirement on Moscow’s metro (always loosely enforced) would be lifted, while health-related bans on large gatherings remained. It was said this allowed surveillance cameras to better capture the faces of protesters. But by then, Alya had left.

I worked in the cultural field. We had done everything we could [to make Russia a better country]. Anyway, that’s how you explain it to yourself. In the first moments after the war I felt, “This is so f—ed up. How is this possible?” We had tried so hard. (Interview Subject 16)

At her office on March 1, Alya approached human resources about working remotely. They refused to allow it. In the days following the invasion, the Moscow mayor had declared victory over coronavirus and any concessions to workers had been removed. She heard that the university’s different institutes had been required to provide lists of employees who had missed work over the past five days. The Institute of Anthropology’s director remained inaccessible. She felt certain many of the freedoms bestowed on researchers would disappear. Alya told a couple of trusted colleagues of her plans and took all her vacation days at once. Perhaps no one had any illusions, but she was informed that she would be expected back on April 19.

In hindsight, her decision to leave appeared both irrational and overdetermined all at once. She did not run any immediate security risk by staying in Moscow, and yet she felt certain she could not remain and that everything had been irrevocably altered. If she could not protest, she felt the need to do something, to somehow attempt to reclaim what had been tarred. In the distance, in some alternate space, she felt potentiality remained: a community, a movement, a group of individuals who had given up their homeland in order to improve it, somehow, from the outside. She felt strongly that she had no right to enjoy whatever benefits might accrue from a life in Russia. In the end, it was an ethical determination. Alya could not explain exactly how the connection between place and person broke, but it had broken, and this break meant giving up what had long helped forge her identity: a job she loved, colleagues and friends for whom she cared, a home and her parents. But with this rupture also came exhilaration and energy and focus. In many ways, it did not feel like a choice. To stay would be to concede.

The list of possible destinations dwindled as international flights shut down. She thought about Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Georgia. She thought about Dubai and Doha. She heard of others traveling to Israel. Ticket prices had soared. Time distended and collapsed in strange ways. She felt as if she were playing Heroes 4, a strategy-based video game she had loved as a child in which players marshaled and deployed their resources. The need to dissociate from herself, to conceptualize her movements within some form of narrative arc, dominated her final days in Moscow. Alya determined that her money would go furthest in Istanbul. When she tried to purchase tickets on the Turkish Airlines website, it announced they had sold out. A colleague advised her to go to their office in central Moscow. When she arrived at 4 p.m., a long line had formed extending beyond the doors. Escape encompassed no scripted scenes of desperate running, merely standing in interminable lines. The man in front of her wore a fancy coat and stylish scarf. He asked her to hold his space while he searched for an ATM with cash. Certain branches had run out of money. Banking applications installed on phones alerted people to locations where withdrawals were still possible. People ducked in and out of the line. After the man returned, they commiserated over the pointlessness of waiting and went to have dinner. It was the only food she had eaten in a day. He told her he needed to get documents from the Institute of Anthropology to certify that he had been educated in Russia. She smiled at the coincidence and offered to help, placing a call to her office and having the documents scanned and sent to his email. At the same time, he managed to locate the travel hotline used by the Brunei Embassy to schedule trips for their diplomats. He shared it with her. She bought her ticket to Istanbul.

Throughout the day, a sense of self-recrimination hung over her — stupidity at not getting everything in order before the invasion, stupidity in not anticipating the war, stupidity in believing a great many things about the future that had turned out to be false. She had benefited from a sterling education and attentive parenting. She felt deeply that she had messed up. As an only child, she had been cosseted. With this realization came a sense of responsibility for her parents, who seemed immune to worry and incapable of grasping the patent falsity underlying the words spoken by televised talking heads. She could generate reasons and blame official media for their attitudes, but she could not really understand. A friend surmised that all their parents, having lived through the ’90s, required a narrative of progress to legitimize their lives. They needed to believe that things had gotten better. To admit otherwise would distort their sense of self.

Alya pleaded with her parents to leave, but they remained unmoved. “Then withdraw everything,” she told her father in her measured manner. “It’s going to be like the ’90s.” For reasons she didn’t quite comprehend, he acceded to her appeal and exchanged many of the family’s rubles into dollars. Even her grandparents, who had recently moved from Ukraine to a dacha in Zelenograd, a Moscow suburb, seemed to accept Russia’s putative aims. They had been beaten down and frustrated with the corruption and complacency of Ukraine’s political class. They knit these observations into the grander narratives proclaimed on Russian state media. They had no idea how to use the internet.

I downloaded the airline’s app and began looking for tickets. It went like this: You would start entering your data and already someone had bought that ticket since they had entered their data faster. The money was a lot, and I tried to do everything correctly and clearly on the app, but you’re so nervous, and you know you won’t get through to the call center, and if you mess up, they probably won’t return your money — and it’s a lot of money. After I thought I had bought a ticket, the website froze and there was no confirmation. Only later at the airport did I find out that I had actually gotten the ticket. But once I had put in all the information on the app, I went home to grab a backpack before I left. I had about an hour before the flight was supposed to leave. I even took a taxi from the subway to my house to save five minutes. I didn’t have time to go to the bathroom or eat or take a shower or change clothes. I just took a backpack and left. (Interview Subject 18)

On March 2, Alya withdrew all her money from her savings account and changed it into $100 bills. The Russian government allowed individuals to take up to $10,000 out of the country. She divided her cash in different envelopes and hid them throughout her suitcase’s compartments. The continual stress gnawed. She left home and traveled to a tobacco shop in search of cigarettes. She had not smoked since university. “You’ve come for cigarettes that we don’t have,” the shopkeeper said, pointing to empty shelves. “Everyone has started smoking again.”

Alya knew a fellow anthropologist and Russian national, Eva Rapoport, who had been living in Istanbul and could offer her a couch. They texted. She didn’t have a concrete plan for Istanbul. She possessed only a sense of continual impermanence and the not always comforting perspective that, in the scheme of things, she was fortunate to have some money, the ability to leave and a friend with an unoccupied couch outside the country. “It is like 1922, except with different politics,” someone remarked, referring to the exodus of White Russians in the wake of the Russian Civil War. The analogy hung in the air. But what had those exiles accomplished? What had they changed? In the event, she would help build an organization in Istanbul that housed incoming Russians without enough funds to secure accommodation. She would furnish apartments for others in the early days and catch a cold. Within a couple of weeks, they had placed 40 Russians into three apartments. But this lay in an unplanned future.

Later that evening, when she returned home, her mother helped her pack, certain that her daughter had fallen prey to a temporary depression and would return in a couple of weeks. Alya folded her birth certificate and hid it in a chocolate box, between the cardboard casing and the plastic container holding individual treats. She worried about various documents and certifications, papers needed to establish her place of birth and her identity. Concerned she would be stopped if airport security suspected she was leaving permanently, she stuffed clothes into a small carry-on suitcase. She packed no winter wear for lack of space.

The following day, her father drove her to Vnukovo Airport in Moscow. In the car, she deleted Telegram from her phone. She wrote fake WhatsApp texts to her friend, Eva, announcing that she would be coming to visit her in Istanbul for a holiday to celebrate International Women’s Day in case immigration officers grew suspicious. The airport was quiet. Flights had been canceled. As they stood in the terminal, her father broke down and apologized to her for many things: The things he hadn’t said; the things he hadn’t done. They remained beside one another for what felt like a very long time. As she left, immigration did not ask her reasons.

On the flight, the enormousness of exile hit her. She had spent her life studying the interconnected nature of the world, the ways in which global trends touched even the most remote spaces in Russia. Her work centered on analyzing links and nexuses forged across distances, not ruptures and breaks. She opened that morning’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper and began to cry. The man in the seat beside her offered a smile full of solicitude. He explained that he was from Siberia and had recently renovated his apartment. He had chosen to leave everything behind. “You’re one of us,” he said.

Friends from abroad contacted us and yelled at us, “Fly out today!”
“There are no tickets for today,” we said.
“Then fly out tomorrow.”
And we did fly out the next day. It was like jumping out of a cage. Many who have left now think, “Well, I jumped out — hooray!” But you’re still in something resembling an aquarium: The walls are transparent and you can see freedom beyond them, but there are still walls. … I don’t regret that we left. It is what it is. Once we got out of Russia, these moods kept beating in my head: I had to do this or that. But these injunctions don’t help you survive. Today, we ate food. It’s fine. We’re moving forward. There is enough money for two more days. We’re moving forward.
(Interview Subject 21)

In Istanbul, Alya and her friend Eva began recording interviews with those who had left Russia. Alya had resigned from her position at Moscow State University, and this project allowed her to reclaim a sense of professional identity. The work grew as the number of interview subjects increased. Alya came to believe that her prior research on extractive industries would have changed little. No one had needed her work: not the companies, not the state, not the people whose lives had been altered in ways large and small by greed. If she had previously been an opportunist, receiving grants and studying what others had wanted, Alya believed this project could serve a purpose. She grew determined to build an archive of the exodus, a catalog of moments before departure, a document from the apocalypse. She started to see a beginning without seeing an end.

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