No one knows the exact number of Russians who have left the country since the all-out war on Ukraine was launched just over a year ago, but the numbers are huge. According to the data it could be anywhere between several hundred thousand and 2 million.
Many regime opponents fled at the outset, but an even larger wave was triggered by a mobilization announcement at the end of September, which saw 700,000 people leaving in just two weeks. It is not known how many of these people returned or plan to return, but there is now very clearly a substantial Russian emigrant community scattered across the world who do not want to live in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Which makes them traitors, or something close to that in the eyes of the regime and many ordinary Russians. Surveys by the Levada Center show that more than half of Russians condemn fellow citizens who left the country to avoid mobilization. Some 51% of respondents have a negative view of them while only 10% view positively their decision to leave. It’s interesting to note that despite this, 11% of the remaining population would still like to leave Russia. This is half the per-war number and may suggest that many who wanted to go have now done so. Most of those saying they want to go are in the younger age groups, the March 7 survey showed, including 23% of 18–24-year-olds.
Political scientist Dmitriy Oreshkin called these results, “the sociology of despair.” In his words, most people find it unbearably difficult to admit to themselves that they had made a mistake in supporting the war. Putin, as Oreshkin notes, will continue to fan propaganda hysteria, directing popular anger against the “traitors” and thereby reinforcing “political psychopathy.”
Apparently, propaganda has been largely successful in convincing Russians that the West is the real aggressor and even that the West had inexplicably attacked their homeland. Thus, anyone who leaves the country, especially to the West, is considered an enemy agent working on someone else’s orders. It wasn’t by chance that a month ago pro-Kremlin Telegram channels boasted that support is rising for the shamelessly repressive law on foreign agents, “under conditions of geopolitical confrontation and the special military operation in Ukraine, this parameter is considered a necessary instrument of state policy.”
Besides channeling popular anger by demonizing those who have left, the Kremlin seeks to achieve three things.
First, denoting emigrants as traitors and foreign agents make many people automatically distrust anything they say. Even if the authorities’ internet censorship can be easily bypassed thanks to virtual private networks (VPNs), it is much harder to overcome the psychological blockage of mistrust.
The second motive is financial. Many of those who have left were relatively prosperous and had to leave immovable assets in the country. This opens numerous opportunities for self-enrichment for officials and others in a country described by critics, with good reason, as a kleptocracy. Proposals to seize the assets of the departees are now frequently voiced by senior parliamentarians, who suggested the law might be amended to enable this.
Meanwhile, in December, the head of the Federation Council Committee on Legislation, Andrey Klishas, announced that a bill to limit remote work from abroad will soon be submitted to the State Duma. Shortly afterward, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin announced that parliament was also developing a bill to increase the tax rate for Russians who left the country.
Even experts loyal to the Kremlin were critical of this proposal, noting that many tech workers are remotely employed and that this would harm their businesses (IT firms have been especially badly hit by emigration.)
The ideas continued to flow from parliamentarians nonetheless. Vice speaker of the State Duma, Anna Kuznetsova, proposed the housing of orphans in the properties of those who “betrayed their country.” Such ideas seem to have the backing of a plurality of citizens. The Levada poll showed 49% of respondents to some extent supported the idea of seizing assets from emigrants who criticize the authorities from abroad.
The Kremlin’s third concern is the anti-war activity by Russians now abroad. In practically every country with a large Russian diaspora, resistance to the war has developed. Emigrants not only protest against the war, they also actively assist Ukrainian refugees; collect money to buy generators and warm clothing for Ukrainians deprived of power by Russian missile attacks; cooperate with the indigenous people of Russia; and inform their new hosts about what is really happening in their homeland. The latter deals a significant blow to Kremlin propaganda, especially in those countries where Moscow’s influence is traditionally strong.
Serbia is a clear example. The majority of Serbs consider Russians to be “brothers,” often taking at face value their interpretation of the Russo-Ukrainian war. For these people, the phenomenon of “anti-war Russians” is a shock and challenges their accepted view of the world. It’s no accident that Serbian radicals closely associated with Moscow fear that the refugees “are doing much more that all the Western propaganda and money invested in spreading Russophobia in Serbia.”
Understanding this, some Russian propaganda resources in Serbia have already declared their determination to ensure “opposition to liberals from Russia.” Pro-Putin Russians describe such anti-regime emigrants as not truly Russian. For this, they use neo-Nazi arguments, for example suggesting that the anti-Putin Russians are in fact Jewish, or others “closer to ‘Western values’ than to the Russian tradition.”
Regardless, the fact is that there are now substantial émigré groups with continuing ties to Russia and with continuing influence there. This worries the Kremlin more than many in the West realize. Russia’s embassy in Vietnam went into some trouble, for example, to persecute and force the expulsion of a Russian ex-journalist who was apparently doing no harm at all. For those it deems serious threats, that is those with influence and reach, the Russian authorities appear to be remembering with fondness the days of Stalin. As Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov have noted, “The Kremlin wants politically active exiles] to feel the crosshairs on their backs.”
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, has called for “so-called members of the intellectual elite” to be assassinated, as have others who cited Stalin’s notorious assassin-in-chief, Pavel Sudoplatov. The Kremlin is unnerved. Everyone needs to take its threats seriously.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.