It was already noon on a spring day when Oleg Chernousov arrived at the Black Mustache, the arts and fashion bookstore he runs with his wife, Sasha, in Istanbul. She was both anxious and excited. Oleg had woken at the crack of dawn that morning to go to the airport for a meeting with a man he didn’t know, to pick up a special Russian delivery. After a quick handover, Oleg rushed back to the bookstore in the trendy Moda neighborhood on the Bosporus waterfront. His wife could barely contain her enthusiasm about the contents of the package; the couple had waited so long for this moment.
Inside the bag Oleg was carrying were a dozen copies of Moloko Plus, an independent, Moscow-produced counterculture magazine. Founded in 2015 by anarchist journalist Pasha Nikulin, its name, which literally means “Milk Plus,” refers to the drug-laced cocktail in Anthony Burgess’ novel “A Clockwork Orange.” It focuses on different aspects of violence in society (in the book, the protagonist downs the cocktail before embarking on a night of violent acts). The Chernousovs had ordered the latest issues of the magazine, which look at prisons and war. But getting the copies into Turkey was not easy.
“When the magazines arrived in Turkey, the customs office sent them back to Moscow without any explanation,” Oleg tells New Lines. “Then we asked our anarchist friends in Russia to help us. They found someone who was coming to Istanbul and who was willing to deliver the magazines to us. We had to pay for the excess luggage, but now we finally got them.”
When the next issue of Moloko Plus comes out in the summer, the Chernousovs will again rely on the Russian anarchist community for a stealth delivery to avoid being rejected by customs. “We do not understand why they sent them back. The magazine is very difficult to find in Russia because only 600 copies of each issue are printed and it is not available in mainstream bookstores, but it is not an illegal publication,” explains Oleg. Even so, the publishers are wary of the Russian government and its restrictions on what can and can’t be printed. The magazine’s ninth issue on war, for example, does not have a title. Its all-black cover has no words on it; instead, in its center, are nine white swords. According to Oleg, the publishers decided to use symbols instead of any written reference to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of last year.
“It is very brave to keep publishing this type of work after 2022,” Sasha says. “It is a revolutionary act and we are proud of selling it here. It is our way to support independent journalists and to do something for our country.” She spreads copies of Moloko Plus across a table already full of books on art, design and fashion; these comprise the core business of Black Mustache. The store’s name is a play on words, a literal translation of the couple’s last name. Black is everywhere inside, from the paint on the store’s walls to the black-and-white checkered floor.
The pair left Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, in March last year along with their 11-year-old daughter, shortly after Russia’s invasion. They fled to avoid the mass conscription of men but also because it was increasingly likely that they could be jailed for their opinions. Before the invasion of Ukraine, they both worked in the arts. Once in Istanbul, they found some solace in setting up their bookstore, where they can connect with others who share their views, and create a place of freedom to express new ideas.
“I have always been an activist, but with the war it is even more important not to remain silent,” explains Sasha. Oleg, sitting beside her, nods in approval. He points to a poster showing eight women recently arrested in Russia for political activism and for joining anti-war demonstrations. Next to each photo is some information about the portrayed subject’s personal life and legal case. The youngest, Viktoria Petrova, is a 28-year-old, clad in a blue suit and sporting a long brown ponytail. Until her arrest for opposing the war in the spring of last year, she was working as a business manager in St. Petersburg. Now she is in custody awaiting trial and could serve up to 10 years in prison.
Recent months have seen increasing crackdowns on dissent in Russia, with chilling echoes of the country’s Soviet past. Russia has detained around 20,000 people for political and anti-war protests since the invasion of Ukraine began, according to the Russian human rights group OVD-Info. Most of them were only held for a short period and sentenced for a minor offense, but if they are arrested again with the same charge, they risk spending up to five years behind bars. In April, opposition politician and dual British-Russian citizen Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in jail, a term described by Russian rights defenders as Stalinesque in its severity.
“Since December we have organized three events to discuss the dire condition of Russian jails where these political prisoners are detained, and we have invited everyone to write a letter of support to them,” explains Oleg.
In a corner of the bookstore, on a coffee table, there are free postcards for anyone who wants to write letters to political prisoners. The Chernousovs will gather them up before handing them over to a Russian woman in Istanbul who works for Uznik.Online (Prisoner Online), a volunteer project created in 2020, which offers moral support and solidarity. Because phone calls and visits are limited in Russia’s prison system, the letters have become a valuable way for those behind bars to communicate with the outside world, as well as for the outside world to offer them some comfort. As the number of political prisoners in Russia has crept up since the war in Ukraine began, interest in writing letters to them has also risen. RosUznik, another project that sends messages to political inmates, processed at least 2,500 letters last year.
This is not the first time Russian exiles have made Istanbul their home. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, around 200,000 czarist White Russians fled to the city, then called Constantinople — and ultimately constituted around a fifth of its total population. Most were aristocrats fleeing Russia’s civil war and included the future novelist Vladimir Nabokov and a niece of the writer Leo Tolstoy. Once in Turkey’s imperial capital, they opened painting studios and patisseries, initiated mixed-sex beaches and introduced the city to ballet. Some White Russian landmarks have survived to this day, including a restaurant named “1924,” where one can find beef stroganoff and borscht.
Today, the actual number of Russians is similar, though as a smaller proportion their presence is not as influential as it was a century ago. “Today the city is so big that they just melt in, but this new Russian presence has already made an impact on the cultural life of Istanbul like in the past,” Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst and Russian history expert tells me, adding that local restaurants have begun accommodating the Russian expatriates with familiar dishes.
According to figures from Turkey’s Interior Ministry, as of April 2023, 154,817 Russian citizens have obtained short-term permits, which allow them to stay in the country for at least a year. Despite its membership in NATO, Turkey is one of the few countries in the world to keep borders open to the Russian diaspora: there are a slew of daily flights between the two countries, although this influx could be slowing. “Since mid-December … a growing number of requests have been rejected,” says Eva Rapoport, local coordinator for The Ark, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) helping emigrants who left Russia because of the war with Ukraine and political persecution by Putin’s regime.
The official reason given for the refusals was the lack of certain required documents, but these bureaucratic restrictions were undoubtedly political moves in advance of the mid-May presidential election. One motivation may have been the increasing number of complaints from Turkish citizens about the skyrocketing rents in areas where Russians have settled.
Reading a book, discussing the political meaning of a painting or expressing a personal opinion out loud about a war they want no part of can be powerful acts of resistance, and the first steps for exiles who are realizing that life can be different, not only in Turkey, but also in their home country.
The Ark organizes similar events to those at Black Mustache, hosting social meetings, sometimes with a political and anti-war program. It also provides temporary shelter, language courses and legal and psychological assistance in both Istanbul and the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
These initiatives are not easy to organize in a country like Turkey, where there are strict rules on public demonstrations and the activities of NGOs are closely controlled. But living with a low official tolerance for politically minded meetings and navigating legal obstacles and challenges are not new for Russians.
Rapoport has also thought up other ways to raise awareness about the condition of political prisoners in Russia. In April she organized a screening of the Oscar-winning documentary “Navalny” in the cinema belonging to the sprawling Ataturk Cultural Center. It was a success: The movie, about the poisoning and imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was sold out, with many viewers staying on to discuss contemporary political issues in Russia.
Among them was 45-year-old Olga Sinyaeva, who attended the event to spread the word about her new Russian and Ukrainian organization that raises funds to support Ukraine. According to her, Russians who join anti-war demonstrations organized by the Ukrainian community in Istanbul have lately been ostracized and viewed with skepticism and suspicion, so she and other members of the Russian-speaking diaspora created a new space for discussion and participation. “Everyone is welcome to join us,” explains Sinyaeva, showing pictures of the last event on the organization’s Instagram page. For her, getting involved in this project was also a way to overcome the shock of the war and to start healing from the depression she felt during her first few months in Turkey. “We can do so much from here against the war, starting by reconnecting Ukrainian and Russian people,” she adds.
The same motivation led Saniya Galimova, who is Russian, to open a bookstore last December called “Poltory Komnaty,” meaning “A Room and a Half” in Russian. She co-founded the store with a Ukrainian man, who has asked to remain anonymous for reasons of safety. The bookstore pays homage to the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, whose 1986 essay “In a Room and a Half” describes the small, communal Soviet apartment he grew up in with his parents in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad), which, as an adolescent, he stuffed with books. “Girls and friends, however, grew in quantity more slowly than did the books; besides, the latter were there to stay,” he wrote. A large, multicolored mural of Brodsky, painted on cement, graces the entrance to the bookstore, which is nestled in the central Istanbul neighborhood of Beyoglu, just a few yards away from the Museum of Innocence established by the Turkish Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk.
“When we had to leave Russia, we also lost small things like libraries and the communities that live around them, or the possibility to read in our mother tongue,” explains Galimova, seated on one of the vintage sofas placed at the center of the store. The front door sports a neon sign in (the mother tongue’s) Cyrillic letters.
Currently, Poltory Komnaty only sells Russian-language books, but soon there will also be titles in Ukrainian, to serve the part of the Ukrainian diaspora that sees the bookstore as a place to reconnect to their motherland as well as to the Russian community. “Some Ukrainians prefer not to come here because they do not want to create any tension with the Russian customers, but for others it is important to spend some time here, to talk and discuss what is going on within our two countries.”
In late March, the Ukrainian anti-war band “Nemnogo Nervno,” meaning “a little bit nervous,” played inside the bookstore to a Russian audience of around 50 people, who crowded in to listen to its folk melodies. Only the corner where the band stood was lit, by dim, warm light bulbs hanging from shelves full of books.
Poltory Komnaty holds a constant stream of events for new members of the diaspora, many of them familiar to the Western-leaning educated elite in Moscow and St. Petersburg — from a recent talk by Pavel Kotlyar, founder of the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Museum in St. Petersburg, to plays that were once performed in Moscow fringe theaters, to anti-war talks on the dangers of nuclear attacks. A recent art exhibit examined the mass immigration of Russians since the invasion of Ukraine and incorporated the belongings they brought with them to Turkey.
The trauma of the war is a recurring subject among people who fled Russia and Ukraine. “We thought every man would have been enlisted,” Galimova recalls. “I was afraid for my husband. Dying in a war is worse than just dying, because you are forced to fight: you become an invader and a murderer, and just after that you die.” Within nine days of the beginning of the invasion, Galimova, her husband and their 10-year-old daughter left Russia for a foreign country and started a new life they had not planned to start. They are now waiting in Turkey to see what will happen in Russia. “My husband and I think that Ukraine will win the war and the Russian regime will fall, but after that we expect a civil war,” she predicts.
But Istanbul is not the final destination for everyone in the Russian community. Ilya Solntsev is 25 and also works in Poltory Komnaty. He came to Turkey after spending a few months in Armenia and Georgia and wants to continue his studies, perhaps in Paris or Belgium. He turns on some chillout music that plays through the bookstore’s loudspeakers before telling me his plans. If he manages to obtain a humanitarian visa and overcome the restrictions imposed by European countries against Russia and its citizens, his EU university dreams could come true.
Anya, who just turned 18, is planning to study logistics engineering in the Netherlands. Speaking over the din of the pouring rain outside, she refrains from giving her last name for reasons of privacy. “Ironically, the war gave me new chances,” she says. “It took away my old life and forced me to start over.”
In the meantime, Galimova is working hard to make Poltory Komnaty a home for the Russian and Ukrainian diaspora, inspired by those who embarked on similar projects before her, such as Istanbul’s three bookstores run by and for the embattled Uyghur community, which have managed to remain open despite pressure from the Chinese government, or Al Saqi Books, which served the Arab diaspora of London from the late 1970s until its closure at the end of last year.
Oleg and Sasha hope that Black Mustache too can soon become a landmark in the Moda area. “We did not plan to move to Istanbul, but now we want to stay. We are responsible for this place and for the community that we are creating around it, thanks to the capacity art has to connect people,” says Sasha, her gaze moving from one shelf to another inside the small bookstore.
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