Oleg, 20: Armenia
I have been in exile for half a year now. I am from [a small town in the European part of Russia]. I studied at the law college because I had to leave high school after the 9th grade [note: Full secondary education in Russia is eleven years. One can graduate earlier but can’t apply for higher education in that case]. I did not work in my profession. I mostly did manual work, such as a loader and car mechanic. I wanted to pass the Unified State Exam and get a bachelor’s degree. I also tried to develop in the arts. I was engaged in political activism.
In mid-March, the FSB raided my apartment, investigating me for organizing an extremist group and justifying terrorism. They started the case about leaflets with Zhlobitsky, who blew himself up in the FSB office in 2018. They considered a music group I was involved in an extremist organization. At first, I wasn’t planning to leave. The case went on for six months. They came to me for the second time with a raid in August. They told me: “You can’t get away with it now. You’ll go to jail,” and accused me of preparing a terrorist attack.
I got in touch with human rights organizations and my sister. We couldn’t find any better solution than leaving the country. I had thought I might have to emigrate, but I didn’t think much about what I would do abroad. I knew finding a job wouldn’t be an issue because workers are needed everywhere.
For almost six months, I worked in a gastro-bar that immigrants from Russia had opened here. First as an assistant, then as a cook. Yesterday I was fired. Our chef, who had assembled the team, is now leaving for another country and opening his own place. And the new boss didn’t like me. During those six months, I worked without days off, got burned out, and asked for a vacation. I didn’t make it to my vacation, though.
“They told me: “You can’t get away with it now. You’ll go to jail,” and accused me of preparing a terrorist attack”
I found the job entirely by accident. I met some guys who took me to a bar event. The chef of the place said they needed someone to paste posters. I agreed. Two weeks later, they asked me if I wanted to work as a cook. I thought: “Wow, I know nothing. I have some basic cooking skills, but being a cook is something else!” I got there. They taught me everything.
I didn’t have harsh working conditions. I was lucky. I earned a good salary, about 40 thousand rubles a month. But this is an exception, as far as I know. The working guys I talked to worked longer for the same wage. If their schedule was ok, their salary was barely enough to pay their rent. My pay was enough for me. I always share accommodation with someone. I’ve already changed three apartments. Now I can hardly get a job like that because all the good jobs are taken.
All this time, I was working illegally. Recently I applied for a social card. I was supposed to get an employment contract based on it. And then I could obtain a residence permit. At the end of February, my six months of allowed stay in Armenia ends. And in two days, my internal Russian passport expires [note: Russian citizens have a passport as an ID and a separate passport for traveling abroad. To enter Armenia, one can use an internal ID]. I didn’t have a passport when I left. I have now discovered that I can get a passport with an expired internal ID, and I am waiting for an appointment at the embassy. I have already made several appointments, but they turned me away. Processing documents is challenging here.
Compared with the last two years of my life, my situation has not changed much. I had to work most of the time. Now I have to work harder not to end up on the street. I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future. I want to continue working as a cook. The chef said I’m pretty good at it, and I like it in general.
I already know my way around here quite well. Many people speak Russian or English in Armenia, so I don’t have any problems with the language. There is a lot of solidarity among immigrants who have to earn their living with manual labor. When people found out I was unemployed, they offered to help me find a job. In the same way, I helped when others were looking for work.
“I had to work most of the time. Now I have to work harder not to end up on the street”
I would like to go back to Russia because my parents are there. I think I will go back if something changes there. But now, definitely not, because I will end up in prison.
Amina, 27: USA
We are from St. Petersburg but had lived in Moscow for two years before we left. I graduated from the State Institute of Film and Television. After that, I worked on a regional channel as a video editor for two years. Then I got a job at a pro-regime media organization. I was not involved in the content and news; I interacted only with the visuals and motion graphics. My husband worked as a manager for a state company. He was supposed to be an engineer and graduate at the end of June, but we left the country before that.
Overall, we were happy with our life, but many things bothered us. What we saw in Moscow when we moved was disturbing. I hated Moscow and the budgetary spending that was going on everywhere. We became politicized after the protests in Belarus. Then other events (the Duma elections and the demonstrations in defense of Navalny) also affected us. Before that, we were trying to get on our feet, and only after a while did we have a chance to look around and figure out what was going on. I was getting paid well at work, but I understood that this money was from my grandmother’s pocket, which wasn’t enough for dental care. I was at the lowest level of that structure, and it was hard to imagine what was going on up there and what amounts of money were circulating in that kind of media. I was also worried about the propaganda of “traditional values” on the channel. Even though many of my colleagues were members of the LGBT community, they continued to work there because of the good salaries. All of this hypocrisy started to bother me.
After February 24, we participated in protests against the war. Because of this and other political activism, the pressure from the security forces began. It was scary to go out in the street; we were constantly waiting for police raids and hiding all our electronic devices and passports. We realized that it wasn’t safe in Russia. We had never planned to leave Russia and only considered studying or gaining professional experience abroad. So we started googling, reading some Telegram chats, and somehow accidentally found an option with the United States. One can enter the US through Mexico, and Mexico does not require visas for Russian citizens. We also have distant relatives in the US. This fact also played a role in making the decision. We found some guides on Youtube and decided to take a chance. We didn’t think about what we would do or what everyday issues we would face. We just wanted to be in a safe place. Not that we had a very comfortable life in Russia, but it was still hard to leave our home.
“It was scary to go out in the street; we were constantly waiting for police raids and hiding all our electronic devices and passports”
We left in April. At the US-Mexico border, we applied for political asylum. After that, we were arrested. They kept us in small, cold rooms. There were only yoga mats and reflective blankets. From there, we were moved to immigration detention centers. I served three weeks there, and my husband served three months. They are large spaces where 80 people stay. My relatives acted as guarantors and contributed to our release. They only let my husband out on ten thousand dollars bail. He might have stayed there longer; some people served seven months. Then we came to San Francisco because our lawyer lived there, and the legal procedures took less time. Now we have a “Deportation” status until the immigration court decides our fate. The case will be heard in a year. We have the right to work but have yet to obtain an official permit. For that, we have to wait at least six months. The authorities took our passports. I had a second passport in my suitcase, but my husband has no documents at all.
We found a job fairly quickly because we had to provide for ourselves somehow, but it wasn’t easy. For two weeks, I walked around the city and knocked on all the doors, and no one called me back. I went to about 40 places. We were afraid we wouldn’t find anything while we needed to pay for an apartment and a lawyer. It is only possible to rent a house here with proper documents, but through an acquaintance, we found the only option with the condition that our relative would be listed as one of the tenants. After flying and crossing the border, we only had the money for one month’s rent.
I got a response from a dog salon, and now I wash dogs and, little by little, learn how to groom them. I work with Chinese and Taiwanese people, and most of them or their parents had immigrant experiences, so they are lovely and understanding. In Russia, there was an unpleasant atmosphere at work. There were a lot of toxic people. Even though we have just moved here and do not know the language well, the Americans treat us respectfully because they understand we are in a difficult situation. Emotionally, I feel much more comfortable here, despite all the problems.
My husband works at a house renovation company. There’s an international team there, too, a lot of Russian-speaking people. At first, he was shocked, going from sitting in the office to breaking down walls with a sledgehammer all day. But then he got used to it, changed employer, and the work started to interest him. Workers are well treated here; an electrician or a plasterer can earn decent money.
“We found a job fairly quickly because we had to provide for ourselves somehow, but it wasn’t easy. For two weeks, I walked around the city and knocked on all the doors”
In California, everyone is required to have health insurance. We pay for it, but it only covers medical emergencies. So we pull ourselves together and try not to get sick. We’re thinking about nutrition and brushing our teeth better.
I am still thinking about what I will do next and whether I will try to find a job in my specialty. Since life has given me a second chance, I might do something completely different. We’re still figuring out what life in the United States is like and how to reconcile our interests with what we need to do for a living. Right now, it’s hard for me to think about it. All my thoughts are about documents, money, legalization, and language.
I want to live in Russia, and I really miss it. But then I remember why we left. I’ll go back only when I’m sure I can be safe there.
Victor, 31: Germany
Before the full-scale invasion, I wrote poetry and short prose. I was nominated for the Arkady Dragomoschenko Prize twice. In 2017 I published my debut book Faded. I studied at a vocational school. I had different jobs, as a cook and salesman, for example. After February 24, I did not write anything for a year. When disaster strikes, it is hard to find words and connect with the outside world.
I was prosecuted under Article 318.1 of the Criminal Code [use of violence not dangerous to life and health against a representative of authority]. While walking through the city, I had a can of beer in my hand. The police officers stopped and asked me to go to the emergency room. A very unpleasant conversation happened there. They started making homophobic remarks, humiliated me, and I could not stand it and hit one policeman. After that, they put me on the floor face down and took me to the police station.
At first, I was on administrative trial for drinking alcoholic beverages in public, and the judge gave me 24 hours in detention. While serving my sentence, the police chief called me: “That’s it, Bagrov, the jokes are over. We have already started a criminal case against you.” After a while, I was told I had to undergo a forensic medical examination. For some reason, Petrozavodsk’s expertise did not satisfy them. They told me that I had to go to the village of Matrosy to an large-scale psychiatric clinic. I spent a month there and went through a bunch of tests. I was found sane, and they let me go. I was sentenced to one year in jail.
I filed a petition six months later, and my sentence was reduced. That allowed me to leave Kondopoga for St. Petersburg. Even before the full-scale invasion, my friends warned me: “Victor, you have to leave.” When Russia attacked Ukraine, I was living with a friend in St. Petersburg. I thought about leaving for a long time. I hesitated because of my father and mother. She was alive at the time. My acquaintances sent me the link to “Queer Svit”. In April, I wrote to tell them that I was ready to depart. They bought me tickets, and I went to Armenia.
“After February 24, I did not write anything for a year. When disaster strikes, it is hard to find words and connect with the outside world”
An unpleasant thing happened at the airport. I was stopped at Domodedovo by border police. They didn’t like my passport. The cover was a little loose, and they said, “We think you have a fake passport.” They took me to a separate room where they searched all my things. They looked through my phone, read all the correspondence, and wrote down some numbers. They saw a video from an antiwar demonstration in St. Petersburg and asked me: “Are you rooting for Ukraine?” They almost stripped me naked. They started to look at the tattoos on my body. It was a very humiliating procedure. But in the end, they let me go 20 minutes before the flight.
I came to Armenia and lived there for half a year until I got my passport. I found some temporary work, such as construct work doing odd jobs. The wages were not great, but I could provide for myself. It was not harsh work, but not easy either. There was no employment contract. I would see an ad: “We have work,” so I would show up. Overall, I had enough to eat but not to rent my own place. The rent was costly. I met my current partner in a shelter. The Ark Foundation helped us with housing. We lived at their accommodation for a long time. I am very grateful for their help.
In June, we applied to the German organization “Quarteera.” They supported us so we could get a humanitarian visa. Now we are in Germany. Here they are very fond of paperwork. There is a lot of bureaucracy. They assigned a social worker to us who helps with our case. He collects papers so that we can receive state financial aid. After that, we will be able to use medical services.
My partner has osteomyelitis. Despite his disability, he’s very independent. Sometimes he needs help, which I provide. We understood that we could get the necessary treatment only in European countries because Russian medicine could not provide it. The main thing for us now is to improve his health and move on.
I plan to learn German and think about what to do later: maybe I’ll study, but I don’t know yet. I feel free here. I can speak, speak out, and position myself as a member of the LGBT community. I feel safe for the moment. In Russia, I faced homophobia and violence all the time, and it was terrible. So far, I don’t regret anything.
“They saw a video from an antiwar demonstration in St. Petersburg and asked me: “Are you rooting for Ukraine?”
As far as I know, there are many Russian-speaking people in Germany now. Finding some contacts is relatively easy. Language barriers, of course, exist, but I think it’s not so terrible. Everyone goes through that. The history of previous emigrations shows that you get used to everything. I wouldn’t say emigration is difficult, but I miss my father. He stayed in Karelia. First, I would like to see Putin’s trial. I hope I live to see it. I wish someday, when Russia is freer, to revisit St. Petersburg because I like that city and associate many memories with it.
Yakov, 26: Israel
Before the full-scale invasion, I had two jobs. The first was news reporting for small municipal channels that work for the administration of different districts of St. Petersburg. At the same time, I was the manager of an entertainment project where people come to celebrate holidays (corporate parties, anniversaries, birthdays).
The perspective of the TV channel I was working at was bothering me, but it was a stable job at a budgetary institution, which is why I stayed there for so long. After February 24, based on my values, how the channel represented reality became even more difficult to tolerate. I resigned from journalism at the beginning of spring. But the event sphere also suffered. For obvious reasons, no one wanted to celebrate anything.
I left at the beginning of September. I now live in Tel Aviv. By right of origin, I had the opportunity to get Israeli citizenship. My life has been connected to Israel for a long time. Since childhood, I have been involved in Jewish life in St. Petersburg. I applied for citizenship almost immediately after the start of the full-scale invasion in early March. After that, I waited for an invitation. I didn’t pass the consular check the first time and had to bring more documents. It took some more time, and the situation only got worse.
Initially, my girlfriend and I decided to go on vacation and simultaneously get my citizenship in case something went wrong. And on September 21, mobilization was announced, and I received several call-up papers in my mail. So I decided not to go back.
“Initially, my girlfriend and I decided to go on vacation and simultaneously get my citizenship in case something went wrong. And on September 21, mobilization was announced”
Because I was initially going on vacation, there were no plans to work here. I had a significant advantage because I used to come here, and I have a lot of friends who work in different fields. I don’t know how I would have managed without them. Everyone was trying to help, and it wasn’t difficult to find a job.
I left the event field in September when I was already in Israel. My employer and I realized that the distant work format did not fit: you had to be on the spot to solve problems. Now I have two jobs here. I got my first job almost immediately, in restaurant food delivery. A friend helped me with the second job; he has a business renting apartments. My job was to structure all the processes for guests staying in our apartments.
I already have my citizenship here and the status of an individual entrepreneur, which my friends helped me arrange. I could deal with the tax office in Russia by myself, but I can’t do it here because I don’t know the language. I have to hire an accountant to do the paperwork, and my friends found me a Russian-speaking specialist.
I wouldn’t say my standard of living has gotten much worse. The main difficulty I encountered was the lack of language. Moreover, in Russia, I had a car and an apartment and didn’t need to ask someone for help. I could be an independent person. Of course, you can’t work as a courier for long. I think it’s a temporary occupation. It’s convenient to combine it with learning Hebrew.
The standard of living in Israel is much higher than in Russia. The salaries here are entirely different, but the cost of living is also higher. Working here in the delivery business, I can get the same wage as I used to get in an unofficial job in Russia. My girlfriend’s situation so far is more complicated. After our departure, she returned to Russia to put things in order and has not yet settled down.
“I had a significant advantage because I used to come here, and I have a lot of friends who work in different fields. I don’t know how I would have managed without them”
Unfortunately, I don’t see any scenario where I would return to Russia. Whichever way the war ends, it will be a difficult time for everyone. I now see uncertainty, emptiness, and the lack of a future there. I would probably return when “Russia is free,” but it is hard to imagine what needs to happen for that to come true.