Like tens of thousands of her compatriots, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Alyona (a 33-year-old Russian professional) left Moscow and flew to Istanbul along with G, her 7-year-old daughter.
It appears to be a case of historical déjà vu. It happened before in 1920, during the civil war. Opponents of the Bolsheviks fled Russia and found shelter in Constantinople. Today, opponents of Putin (including activists, journalists, and young middle-class professionals) are all fleeing to Istanbul.
Aside from the historical coincidence, Turkey is a welcoming destination for Russians. It is more welcoming, perhaps, than other more natural homes such as Armenia or Georgia. There, many still have unpleasant memories of another of Putin’s wars, the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict.
“After what happened on 24 February, living in Moscow became unbearable. What hurt me most was seeing people I love supporting the massacre of innocent people,” says Alyona, referring to her father.
She talks about a generation and gender gap that distances incredibly resilient Russian woman (as she describes them) from middle-aged Russian men. These men have never recovered from the humiliation inflicted on them by the collapse of the Soviet Union and, today, they see Putin as an opportunity for redemption. They are, themselves, victims of fierce nationalistic and imperial propaganda.
She says that she had been preparing to leave her country for some time. She studied the international banking system, with a view to being able to maintain liquidity in the event of having to take a flight abroad. It was therefore quite a shock when she she was unable to pay for her daughter's breakfast as a result of her Russian Mastercard and Visa credit cards being blocked. Aglaya, a Muscovite, has lived in Istanbul for twelve years. In recent weeks, along with her compatriots from the Russian diaspora in Turkey, she has done her utmost to help those who have recently arrived in the city. They have not just helped Russians but also relatives of Ukrainian friends.
Angelina is travelling alone. She is heading to Germany where she will try to get a work visa. She is a journalist and an academic from St. Petersburg. She is frightened for her own safety and worried about the future of her country. There is a new law being used against those who spread news considered to be false. Putin’s propaganda machine forbids the use of the word ‘war’. It must be referred to as a ‘special military operation’. Novaya Gazeta is the independent newspaper that published Anna Politkovskaya's articles and its current editor, Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. It has been forced to stop publishing.
None of these women compare their own difficulties with those of Ukrainian citizens who have been suffering since the start of the Russian invasion. However, their stories reveal that there are also people in Russia who are strongly opposed to Putin's war. Giving them a voice means avoiding over-simplification and the rejection of a polarized view of a conflict that is a danger to European stability and, indeed, to the whole world.