ALMATY -- Russians who have fled their home country are pointing to the Kremlin's repressive policies and its war against Ukraine as reasons for doing so.
There are no official statistics on the number of Russians who have left the country since Russia invaded Ukraine February 24, but evidence points to hundreds of thousands.
Speaking in Warsaw, Poland, on March 26, US President Joe Biden said, "200,000 Russians have all left their country in one month."
Many of them say they are fleeing unprecedented measures by the Russian government aimed at controlling and brainwashing its citizens.
Some of those who remain in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg told Caravanserai they were forced to "decorate" their offices and cars with the letter "Z" as a symbol of support for the so-called "special military operation".
Journalists have said that managers are checking their social media accounts to find out what kind of content they post or even what posts they have liked. Other citizens report regular police harassment.
"What's happening in Ukraine is like we are reliving stories about the war with Nazi soldiers, who attacked the USSR ... bombed cities, killed indiscriminately and took prisoners," said Vladimir Turov, 47, a taxi driver from Omsk who moved to Kokshetau, Kazakhstan, where his wife's parents live.
"But now 'Hitler' is our country. The whole world is against us. We're outcasts. People abroad are afraid of us," he said.
Inhabitants of Russia itself now live in fear, he added.
"You can't write 'war', or they can put you in jail. You can't correspond online about the war," he said.
"I'm not even talking about rallies, where people are immediately taken away to prison. It has reached complete madness -- in Omsk, [police] stop people on the streets and check their phones: whom have you been writing, what have you read, what did you comment on."
Turov said that police made him show his mobile phone twice while he was in Omsk.
The first time, the police told Turov that they would take him to the police station if he resisted.
"I had to pull out the phone. They poked around on it for about 10 minutes: they read my correspondence in WhatsApp, they checked my text messages and websites I visit. Apparently, they didn't find anything illegal or dangerous."
Turov's wife, who was in Kazakhstan visiting her parents when the war began, urged him to leave Russia immediately.
"Of course, my wife and I are worried about what will happen next ... but it is definitely calmer here than in Omsk," Turov said.
'End of the Russian economy'
Alexander Esmarkh, a Moscow resident with no relatives in Kazakhstan, arrived in Almaty on March 17.
Despite a draft exemption for information technology workers, Esmarkh -- who was working at state-owned Rostelecom -- still decided to leave over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"I've never been to Ukraine, but my friends who have travelled to Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Uman and Zaporizhzhia say only good things about their beauty, about the locals and their kindness [to visitors]," he said.
"What our troops have done and are doing to Mariupol, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Irpin, I consider a crime against humanity," he said.
Those suffering from the aggression of Russian authorities are not only Ukrainian civilians paying with their lives and property but also ordinary Russians, Esmarkh said.
In early March, Esmarkh and his coworkers learned of a new requirement to "voluntarily" transfer part of their monthly salary to the construction of Russian Orthodox cathedrals.
"The accountant directly told me that at least 5% had to be deducted, and that anyone who wanted to could contribute more," he said. "And since our company is state owned, this order came from above."
"And you do whatever you want, but a deduction from your salary is mandatory. Whom will you complain to? To a state court about a state order? Of course not," Esmarkh said.
Some reports have suggested that the funds from the deduction were in actuality going toward pro-Russian Ukrainian refugees who fled separatist-controlled Donbas.
"If I had just read about this on the internet, I would think it was fake. But I myself became someone from whose March salary a deduction was forcibly taken, allegedly for the needs of the church," he said.
That was the last straw for Esmarkh, who left Russia and quickly found a job in Almaty and then later in Nur-Sultan.
He is certain that he will not return to Russia anytime soon.
"In the long term, this is the end of the Russian economy. There will be no famine ... but economic growth from foreign investment won't happen any more," he said.
"Remaining there means sitting and waiting for poverty."
Rejection of Putin's 'toxic policies'
The flow of migrants from Russia will likely further increase, since Russia's prosperity can no longer be counted on, said Russian economist Georgy Surgayev, now living in Warsaw.
"Foreign corporations have left the country and are unlikely to return," he said. "First, by staying, they would lose customers in their main markets -- the United States, the European Union -- who will tell them, 'Sorry, you are operating in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's country, so we will not buy from you.'"
Second, foreign businesses no longer trust Russia because of Putin's "toxic policies", he said.
"Russian authorities announced plans to nationalise the assets of foreign companies that halted their business there because of the military aggression in Ukraine," he said. "And any investor now fears that if he works in Russia, he may at any moment lose everything he invests there."
"In other words, serious investments will not come to Russia until people are confident that this country no longer poses a threat, i.e., as long as Putin is in power," he added.
In six months, a thorough stratification will begin in Russian society, Surgayev predicted.
"Those close to the state will get rich, the middle class will become poor and the poor will become utterly impoverished," he said. "Many Russians don't yet understand this -- some out of naïveté, some out of fanatical patriotism."
"But for now, foreign corporations are paying their employees in Russia, even though they are not working, but when this stops, there will be a huge group of unemployed people who will be struggling to earn even something," Surgayev said.
Fear for their money and arses made them flee, not the Russian government's policy of repressions. Everything is excellent in Russia. Our President is the best in the world. Western media and traitors to the Motherland stoke fears; they never loved nor understood Russia and our President. Traitors to the Motherland will never say a single kind word about their Motherland. [Don't] listen to them anymore.Reply
They are the only ones with some "fortunes", which make them the middle class in the ordinary world - having a home, not living paycheck to paycheck, going somewhere on vacation, and upgrading gadgets more frequently than once in five years.Reply
Normal society hates "the best president in the world." Russian living standards are well visible if you travel a few dozen kilometres outside of Moscow or Petersburg: [there you'll see] ruins, impoverished people, and alcoholism. The standards of hopeless indigents are considered a good life while your politicians enjoy mansions and properties worldwide.
Let me remind you, people elect politicians so the people can live well, not be scared of and serve some gang to survive and avoid jail time.
So those who had enough brains and opportunities to flee were ones of the very few reasonable people in your doomed and barbarically dumb country.
A Russian friend of mine, who grew up there during Soviet times but then moved to the US in the 1990s, told a story that I used to think was just a joke, but now I'm more and more convinced it's real. We were once chatting about the legendary toilet paper shortages that we in the US heard about in the USSR. She laughed and said that such shortages were no big deal, since people would just use newspaper. BUT, she added, that piece of the newspaper you use better not have a fragment of a speech by Brezhnev or some other high-ranking party official. Again, at the time, I thought this was just a funny story, but Russia really does seem to be that paranoid and insecure.Reply
Now it doesn't seem like such nonsense after all, and soon we will hear about somebody arrested for something similar. The story will go like this: "An exceptionally patriotic woman from Saratov reported her mother to the authorities upon finding out that she took a newspaper for bathroom reading;" I wouldn't be surprised to find something about "a 70-year-old Nazi" added to the storyline since they love those sorts of things.Reply
There's a demographic abyss in Russia already; and now you can expect another wave of people fleeing from Russia because of Putin.Reply
There are so many Russians everywhere already. Moreover, the people who are fleeing are the ones who could somehow turn this landfill into something more or less decent - IT people and those who think more adequately. Only Vata [Putin supporters] will remain there, reveling in this poison about Nazism and patriotism and glorifying the Russian world, which is cursed by the whole planet.Reply