It could have been another busy day at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, if not for the number of large suitcases and pet dogs. These passengers were not just going on vacation.
Tickets to cities like Baku, Azerbaijan, and Istanbul, Turkey, were sold out. Everyone had a reason to leave: One young woman said she didn't want to be trapped inside the country; a young man said he feared being conscripted to fight in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. “I hate this war,” he said.
Yulia, a Ukrainian citizen who had lived in St. Petersburg for more than 10 years, was afraid she wouldn't be able to see her family in Ukraine if she didn't get out.
“I thought that I would be [there] until the end in Russia, because everything was good,” she said. “But everything changed in one day. Nobody could believe that something like that could happen.”
No one wanted to give their full name, in the hope that they would be able to return home to Russia at some point.
After Moscow invaded Ukraine and was hit with harsh new sanctions, many Russians began leaving the country. The numbers have only grown as the government has cracked down on any and all criticism. Internet searches for “leave Russia” have more than tripled, and popular sites are running news stories with headlines like “Where to move from Russia, how to bring a pet abroad and what to consider when relocating.” On Monday, the economy minister of the tiny neighbouring country of Georgia said between 20,000 and 25,000 Russians had arrived in recent days.
Although there are few statistics about how many are fleeing, and much of Europe is closed to flights from Russia, Turkish Airlines has begun flying three times a day from St. Petersburg to Istanbul, rather than two. Russia’s national carrier Aeroflot has moved its flights to Turkey on to bigger planes to accommodate hundreds more passengers, and the number of flights to the Armenian capital of Yerevan is also reportedly up.
“I just couldn’t breathe the air in Moscow, where people keep on talking about their plans, watching films, discussing art and going to exhibits and debuts while people are killing and being killed in Ukraine,” well-known film critic Anton Dolin wrote in a post on Sunday announcing he had left Russia. “Every minute of such an existence confirms the obvious, that you are an accomplice.”
Expats have been trying to leave Russia as well. The team of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed last week that Moscow was planning to implement martial law, which would mean Russia could close its borders, draft people into the military and “intern” the citizens of hostile governments.
The Kremlin has denied this claim, but few have been calmed. While foreigners have been expelled from Russia for minor infractions or posing a “threat,” as correspondents for the BBC and de Volkskrant were last year, this was the first time there was a risk they would be locked in.
As Russian troops shell and occupy Ukrainian cities, the Russian government has launched a final attack on free speech. Calling the violence in Ukraine an “invasion” or “war” has been banned. That was why Russian publication Novaya Gazeta, whose editor was awarded the Nobel peace prize in October, was forced to delete its articles about it. Liberal radio station Echo of Moscow was taken off the air in the middle of a broadcast. At least 150 journalists have left Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine.
After the website of the independent TV Rain or Dozhd TV, which has been forced to broadcast only online since 2014, was blocked last week, many of its journalists fled the country. The authorities accused it of calling for extremism and violence, possible grounds for criminal charges, and editor Tikhon Dzyadko said several staff members have received threats.
“I want to go home. At the same time I understand now it's dangerous to be in Russia as a journalist,” said a TV Rain correspondent who has fled. VICE World News has chosen not to identify them. “It’s not possible to work, and it’s not clear when this will change.”
While activists have been jailed and media outlets have been shut down before in Russia, the crackdown on freedoms has been unfolding at an unprecedented speed and extent since the incursion into Ukraine.
On Friday, Vladimir Putin signed legislation that makes spreading “false information” about the Russian operation in Ukraine punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The BBC said this would “criminalise the process of independent journalism” and suspended the work of all of its staff in Russia. Several other foreign media followed suit.
The Kremlin’s goal is to completely destroy independent journalism, said the TV Rain correspondent who left Russia.
“There is one party policy, one version of events by the authorities, and that’s the only one that can be right,” she said. “What's going on now is Orwellian, it's surreal, they’re really saying 'war is peace.’”
But there is no real anti-war movement, and no major public outcry against the crackdown. Those leaving are in a minority. About two-thirds of Russians support the “special operation” in Ukraine, according to recent surveys. As VICE World News spoke with people on the streets of Moscow, most conceived of the invasion as state television presents it: A defensive campaign to protect Russian speakers against “Nazi” forces. Even those against the war didn't believe there was anything they could do to help end it.
“A lot of people think that people here are brainwashed by propaganda and the news,” said an IT worker who was arrested protesting the war. “They want to be brainwashed. It’s easier that way.”
“For now Vladimir [Putin] has not destroyed Ukraine, which is holding on and fighting back,” wrote Ilya Barabanov of the BBC's Russian service, who went to cover the events in Ukraine and now can't return. But, Barabanov wrote, “He has destroyed the Russia we once lived in. And none of us have the slightest idea what land we will come back to.”