Tens of thousands of Russian citizens who left their county in 2022, after Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, are returning to their homeland.
For some, this return is forced; the countries they migrated to denied them the right to stay. Others want to regain the standard of living they were used to in Russia, having found little success abroad. Often they struggled to adapt to their new lives – even in conversations with friends they’d fear being heard by Russian spies or authorities in communication with Russia.
Pyotr*, a 23-year-old marketer from Moscow, returned to Russia from Central Asia last June. He was among those who hastily left after the invasion. He did not last long abroad.
“When I received a draft notice by text message, I was frightened. It was one of the reasons not to return,” Pyotr told openDemocracy. “But I am a fatalist, and my love for Moscow – or of routine, perhaps, I can’t really say – outweighed the risks.”
“As for the general atmosphere [in Russia], I don’t give a damn. I have no fear and no hope. Everything in my soul seems to have dried out. I spent two weeks wondering whether I should leave [the country I was staying in] or not, before deciding to do it”, he said.
Since his return, Pyotr has led the same lifestyle in Moscow as he did before: he works, meets his friends, visits the same bars. His company pledged to exempt him from the draft, which makes him feel a bit safer. But he is still wary of risks and acts with increased caution.
“I don’t live at the address I’m [officially] registered at. I try to avoid free health clinics, because they record all your details. I won’t even cross at a red light to avoid any run-ins with the police. Walking down the street, I try to think ten times before speaking. I’m scared of saying something wrong, which could lead to a denunciation and being detained,” Pyotr told openDemocracy.
There are many thousands of people like Pyotr, who have returned to Russia after their initial swift exit.
Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday
According to the Russian security services, 9.7 million trips abroad were registered between July and September 2022. Sociologists, demographers and journalists independently calculated the number of people who left and obtained permanent residence in other countries, concluding it was at least a million people.
In June 2023, the Russian authorities claimed that 50 percent of Russian citizens who left the country at the start of the war have now returned. But no one knows for sure how many people have come back.
Relocated or emigrated?
Sociologist Lyubov Borusyak has been studying Russians who have left the country since the invasion in February 2022.
Last spring, the majority of those she surveyed would say they had “relocated” rather than “emigrated”, she says. Before the war, ‘relocated’ was used to describe Russians who had moved to another country with their employer, but it soon came to refer to the act of leaving Russia for a while but not for good.
This is exactly how the majority of those who left Russia wanted to see themselves: as professionals temporarily staying in another country, who still retained their usual salaries and standard of living.
Very soon, the reality of moving from Russia demanded new words and definitions. “‘Relocation’ is some kind of ridiculous euphemism for a situation where you spend all your savings, buy an expensive ticket and live in a foreign country in a hotel,” says Margarita, 40, from Moscow, who left Russia last year and has since returned.
She continued: “Actual relocation is when an employer helps you move from one location to the other because the job demands it, not when you are running from arrest, most likely imaginary.”
If the majority of those surveyed by Borusyak in spring 2022 said they had “relocated”, this had changed by the time she conducted new surveys in autumn 2022 and spring 2023, when many began to say they had “migrated”. Others said they had “temporarily left” or called themselves “immigrants” in a derogatory way. Some simply said they had “no name” for their situation.
The latter category perhaps best describes the situation of those who planned to leave Russia for only a month or two and figure out what to do next, but encountered domestic, bureaucratic and financial difficulties.
This was the case for 25-year-old Maxim: “I had only one idea: to get away from all the news, reboot my brain and start living and working normally.”
Maxim is one of 20 Russians who have recently returned to Russia, or plan to do so in the near future, whom openDemocracy interviewed between February and March 2023. Most said they hadn’t tried looking for another job in the country they had moved to – either working remotely for Russian firms or living off of savings – and were not ready to have their standard of living deteriorate.
For many Russians, ‘relocation’ ended in ‘re-relocation’ – a return to Russia with hopes of restoring their usual life. But for most of them, even this hope turned out to be an illusion.
‘Despair and confusion’
Vadim, 26, moved from St Petersburg to Batumi, Georgia, in September 2022 after the announcement of partial mobilisation in Russia.
He discussed the move with his parents and wifegirlfriend. “We thought that the threat of mobilisation outweighed the threat of losing one’s job,” he said. “It took us three or four days to decide. Then I bought an inexpensive flight to Kazakhstan, and then a flight to Georgia.”
Vadim’s wife girlfriend went with him; they were drawn to Batumi because of its seaside climate and affordable housing prices. Vadim lost his job immediately as his employer didn’t want him to work remotely.
“After that, I had only part-time jobs and a small freelance job of up to 35,000 rubles (£295, or €340 as of October 2023) a month. My parents supported me and my partner still earned a living. We got married in Georgia. We both decided to change professions,” he said.
Vadim said he decided to return to Russia because his wife had to quit her job in March and it seemed impossible to find work outside Russia.
“We decided that after the end of our [housing] lease, we would return to Russia to find new jobs, gain experience and then look for permanent well-paid jobs abroad. This might take a couple of years,” Vadim said.
“We’re focusing on our finances – if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have gone back. We’re also following the news about mobilisation. We are prepared for the fact it could resume in full and that we’d have to hide.”
Many people who rushed to leave Russia had high hopes that they would keep their usual jobs, working remotely – the only guarantee of stability in their changed circumstances. Many never even thought about looking for a job in a new place.
Tatyana Koval, an HR specialist working across the Central Asian and Russian markets, believes people leaving Russia can be roughly divided into two categories: those who left in a panic, and those who did so for political reasons. The second group, she says, has had more success finding work in a new country, while those who “left to wait out the crisis” tend to return.
“If an employer sees that a person has come to ‘wait out’ [the war], then they won’t get hired,” Koval said. “The reasons for returning, in my opinion, are that people are nostalgic and are unprepared and unable to adapt. Everyone who could and wanted to, has already adapted in a year: they have no desire to return. They understand the political context in Russia.”
The anti-war ‘silent’
Sociologist Elena Koneva, who has been monitoring public opinion in Russia since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, believes the returnees can be classified as “opponents of the war”. But they are also likely to be among the ‘silent’ people – those who hide their position on the war as much as possible, tend to evade questions and do not actively participate in public life.
Almost no one has managed to return to the life they had before they left Russia. The feeling of a constant threat hanging over themselves and their loved ones forces those who have returned to hide inside their own country.
The majority of returnees openDemocracy spoke with do not live at their place of official registration, fearing repercussions for having left the country or for things they have said about the war online. They say it is important not to draw attention to yourself in public places, and to avoid any places where there may be police officers. Many also monitor their digital security.
“I am LGBTQ+ and now I don’t go out in clothes that can arouse suspicion. I don’t put any make-up on. Otherwise, the rules are as follows: communicate more carefully, don’t live at the place you’re officially registered at, don’t tell anyone your exact address, even tell people you live on a different metro line,” said Alex from Moscow.
Plans for the future
Despite having returned to Moscow, Pyotr plans to leave Russia again in a few months, when he’s saved up money and strength.
Other interviewees openDemocracy spoke with also hope for a second departure when they are more prepared. But most said they have neither the money nor the strength to leave again, nor a desire to break with their usual way of life.
Borusyak’s research found that those who left Russia in 2022 are “quite successful people who are used to a relatively comfortable standard of living”. Among the ‘relocators’, there are many who already have “very large social and professional capital, and people are ready to lose it completely only in case of a direct threat to life”, she explained.
Departure from Russia has become a journey with unclear prospects – but the prospects upon return look just as unclear
According to Borusyak, the current situation is mitigated by the fact that many who have left are still working remotely for Russian companies or in the international offices of Russian companies. “I think that if this tap is turned off, there will be many returnees,” the sociologist said. Since winter 2022, the Russian government has been preparing a list of professions that cannot work remotely, but is yet to pass the legislation.
Unfulfilled hopes pinned on ‘relocation’ are accompanied by a general change of mood in Russian society. According to Koneva, in the past year there has been an “adaptation to personal risks” – people are beginning to hope that the war will not affect them personally.
Indeed, some of openDemocracy’s interviewees said they understand the risks of returning to Russia – the resumption of mobilisation and possible restrictions from the state. Yet many take the position of “trying to just get through it somehow” and “not run into trouble”.
The shock of moving and the shock of returning, the loss of one’s professional circle and of financial stability are only part of what the returnees experienced firsthand. For some, the attempt to move to another country has become one of the most important events in their life and has led to a complete change in their career path and plans for the future. But many fail to realise the significance of this experience in their lives.
Departure from Russia has become a journey with unclear prospects – but the prospects upon return look just as unclear. In the words of 30-year-old Daria, from Moscow: “On the whole, there’s a feeling that everyone has calmed down and forgotten about what is happening, and everything seemed to return to the old rut, only this time a bit worse.”