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Meet the Russians who are fleeing — not the war, but their own government

Left to right: Alexey Voloshinov, 20, Nastasya Dubovitskaya, 23, Leonid Kabanov, 30, and Lev Kalashnikov, 35, are all Russians who are living in Tbilisi, Georgia, after leaving their country in recent weeks.
Claire Harbage
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NPR
Left to right: Alexey Voloshinov, 20, Nastasya Dubovitskaya, 23, Leonid Kabanov, 30, and Lev Kalashnikov, 35, are all Russians who are living in Tbilisi, Georgia, after leaving their country in recent weeks.

TBILISI, Georgia — Earlier this month, 20-year-old Alexey Voloshinov packed a bag and made a split decision to leave his home country of Russia, possibly forever.

Voloshinov flew first to Armenia, where he planned to stay for a week or two. But after just a few days, his father called him — the police were looking for him in Moscow. Voloshinov is a political journalist and has worked for opposition publications. A new law introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin after the Russian invasion of Ukraine means that Voloshinov could face up to 15 years in prison for even calling the war a war.

After he hung up the phone with his father, he packed his bags again.

"That day, I decided to leave Armenia and move to Georgia because there is no extradition from here," he remembers.

Alexey Voloshinov, 20, was afraid to stay in Russia as a young political journalist. He moved to Georgia because there is no extradition.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Alexey Voloshinov, 20, was afraid to stay in Russia as a young political journalist. He moved to Georgia because there is no extradition.

Voloshinov is one of tens of thousands of Russians who have fled their own country since the war in Ukraine began one month ago. Many have come to Georgia, a small country that shares a large land border with Russia and where Russian passport holders can stay for up to a year without a visa. But there are tensions between the two countries — most notably the bloody and violent Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 — and the sudden influx of Russians has left some locals wondering if it will encourage Putin to turn his gaze here if he's successful in Ukraine.

This exodus is very different from the one unfolding in Ukraine, where millions have left. Russians are fleeing not war, but their own government. And they say they can't go back — it's not safe, they can't work, or they are angry at what their country is doing.

For Voloshinov, he felt like he didn't have a choice. He was both afraid of arrest — or worse — and also afraid of being drafted to fight in a war he says he fundamentally disagrees with.

"I would be a terrible soldier," he says with a wry laugh. "It would be just one bullet to the head."

He says after he left Russia, it was the first time in weeks he could sleep and eat normally, he was so worried about what could happen to him there. But he says he hopes to return someday.

"The first possibility after Putin's regime falls, I will come back — like, the next day."

The Mother of Georgia statue looms over Tbilisi, welcoming visitors with a jug of wine in one hand and a sword in the other.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
The Mother of Georgia statue looms over Tbilisi, welcoming visitors with a jug of wine in one hand and a sword in the other.

Nastasya Dubovitskaya, 23, bartender

Nastasya Dubovitskaya has already been arrested in Russia once, when she spent seven days in prison last year after attending a protest.

"I wanted to go to rallies as well after the war started, but I knew that it would be more dangerous," she says, figuring that if she got arrested again, she'd face a much harsher sentence.

Nastasya Dubovitskaya, 23, was detained in Russia last year after attending a rally. Now, in Tbilisi, she works as a bartender and is saving to donate money to the Ukrainian army.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Nastasya Dubovitskaya, 23, was detained in Russia last year after attending a rally. Now, in Tbilisi, she works as a bartender and is saving to donate money to the Ukrainian army.

So she left Russia — and all her family and friends — behind, and fled to Tbilisi just one week ago. She's already found a job bartending at a Russian expat bar tucked away down the tiny, winding alleys of the old city. She says she's been saving up some of her earnings to donate to the Ukrainian army.

"I just decided to go here because I knew that I can help Ukraine and Ukrainians here better than from Russia," she says.

But leaving hasn't been easy. She went to see her dad on her last day in Moscow and had a long talk with him.

"I've seen him crying for the first time in my life because he was so worried," she remembers. "He said that there's no future in Russia, so just run. Find something new out there."

Tbilisi's "Ploho" bar, which means "bad" in Russian, serves as a place where Russian speakers can gather to socialize.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Tbilisi's "Ploho" bar, which means "bad" in Russian, serves as a place where Russian speakers can gather to socialize.

Lev Kalashnikov, 35, tech entrepreneur

Lev Kalashnikov came to Tbilisi on March 3, but he's already a mover and shaker in the growing Russian community here. In the past few weeks, he's created around a dozen channels on the Telegram messaging app — basically, chat groups — for Russians who have come or are planning to come to Georgia.

He tells the story of his second day here. He was standing in a huge line, trying to buy a SIM card, and he noticed there were dozens of Russians both in front of him and behind him in the line, all trying to do the same thing, all asking the same questions. So he created a QR code for a new chat and started sharing it with the people around him.

"When I left, it was like 30 people in the chat. And later that day, it was 200. The next day it was 700," he remembers.

Now, that chat has more than 5,000 members.

Kalashnikov is constantly fielding questions and messages, usually only sleeping a few hours each night. He says the emotional toll sometimes gets to him — there is just so much anxiety around leaving home and worry about people in the war.

"Every single message that I get is a tragedy," he says.

A pro-Ukraine shirt hangs in the window of a souvenir shop in downtown Tbilisi, Georgia.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A pro-Ukraine shirt hangs in the window of a souvenir shop in downtown Tbilisi, Georgia.

Leonid Kabanov, 30, IT specialist

Leonid Kabanov left Russia with his girlfriend the day after the invasion began. It was clear that he was no longer going to be able to do his job anymore — with the instability brought on by sanctions and unpredictable access to the internet.

"So our company just decided to relocate us somewhere from Russia," he says. "They told us buy a ticket, anywhere you like — we'll buy for you — but run, just run.

"So we run."

Leonid Kabanov, 30, was relocated by his IT company since working in Russia was growing more difficult due to slower internet connections and the effects of sanctions.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Leonid Kabanov, 30, was relocated by his IT company since working in Russia was growing more difficult due to slower internet connections and the effects of sanctions.

His story isn't uncommon. IT and tech professionals are abundant among the Russians who have left.

Kabanov hopes to someday go back to Russia — he left his whole family, his cat and dog and a home he'd worked for years to build by hand. But he says Russia has a lot of work to do before he'll be ready to go back.

"Even if we imagine that Putin disappears, we will still have problems in Russia for a long time," he says. "The Ukrainian people will hate us. All the world hates us. And that's really a problem."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Graffiti on a street corner in downtown Tbilisi, Georgia, shows Russia crossed out and the flag of Ukraine next to it.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Graffiti on a street corner in downtown Tbilisi, Georgia, shows Russia crossed out and the flag of Ukraine next to it.