Russians’ struggle: Should I stay or should I go?

November 08, 2022 08:53
A Russian reservist bids farewell before his departure for a base in the course of partial mobilization of troops, aimed to support the country's military campaign in Ukraine. Photo: Reuters

It is not exactly clear how many Russians have left their country since the beginning of the war on Ukraine. Some say more than a million, some say less. But sheer numbers may be less important than the caliber of many leavers. They are among the most highly educated Russians: writers, computer scientists, journalists, filmmakers, musicians, academics, actors, and so on.

Some leave because they have no choice. Journalists who were critical of the war, such as Yevgenia Albats, editor of The New Times, had to flee to avoid being arrested for spreading “fake news” or being “foreign agents.” Others leave because they find life inside Putin’s Russia insupportable.

Olga Smirnova, prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet, moved to Amsterdam. She said that she “never would have thought” that she’d be “ashamed of Russia,” but that the war made it impossible for her to stay. Hundreds of thousands of young men fled ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s recent “partial mobilization,” rather than risk being sent to fight in a war they never wanted.

A friend of mine in Moscow told me that people who had a chance to leave and did now outnumber those who chose to stay. But some prominent figures who oppose Putin’s war are still there for all kinds of reasons: they don’t want to leave their families behind; they cannot see a way to continue working anywhere else; they want to bear witness to what is happening in their country. The independent journalist Dmitry Muratov vowed: “We will work here until the cold gun barrel touches our hot foreheads.”

Such choices are never easy. People in other times and other countries, such as Nazi Germany or Communist China, have faced a similar dilemma. If you leave, you risk becoming irrelevant in your own country, and an unwelcome guest abroad. If you stay, you could land in prison, or worse.

Leavers are often criticized as cowards, or traitors, while dissidents who stay are squeezed between foreign powers and their own government. Russians who love their country but hate the war are in the same position as patriotic Germans who loathed the Nazis. They have very few friends.

The choice between staying and leaving invariably provokes a great deal of self-righteousness on all sides. Those who are safely outside the country, shielded from the brutality of war and dictatorship, often insist that those who stay must demonstrate their opposition to the government. At a conference in Riga, the former chess world champion and political activist Garry Kasparov declared that Russians who want to be “on the right side of history should pack their bags and leave the country.” Those who don’t, he said, “are part of the war machine.”

The film director Kirill Serebrennikov was harassed by the Russian government for years, but he still refused to leave until the war proved to be the final straw. He put the problem of being a Russian who opposes Putin well: “This war is being waged by a president and politicians I didn’t vote for, but in the eyes of many, I am their unwitting accomplice.”

Thomas Mann, the most famous German writer of his time, fled Nazi Germany as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. With a Jewish wife and views that would have led to his arrest, he had no choice. His fierce attacks on Hitler’s regime were broadcast during the war on the BBC. After the war, Mann claimed that all Germans were tainted by Nazi crimes. He believed that writers who kept their heads down were tainted, too.

This triggered a sharp response from writers such as Frank Thiess, who was not a Nazi but had chosen to remain in Germany. It was he who coined the phrase “inner emigration” for intellectuals who kept to themselves to stay out of trouble. People like Mann, Thiess asserted, had been cowards, who had turned their backs on their suffering compatriots.

Thiess went further and claimed that those who stayed had shown more courage. He spoke for the many Germans who stayed and never quite forgave those, like Mann or the film star Marlene Dietrich, who left.

The bitter rift between people who should be on the same side but made different existential choices is one of the triumphs of oppressive regimes. It weakens the possibility of opposition even further.

Whenever the Chinese government releases a few well-known dissidents and allows them to move to the West, people are quick to hail such gestures as victories for human rights. In fact, this kind of banishment is an efficient way to get rid of critics who will soon be forgotten at home or dismissed as out-of-touch and irrelevant. The price of freedom abroad is often to lead lonely lives as bitter critics of people they left behind.

The exodus of Russia’s best and brightest might turn out to be a boon for scientific, artistic, and academic institutions in the West. And it will certainly harm Russia’s long-term economic prospects. But Putin probably won’t mind, as long as he can stay in power.

Russians who stay will suffer the long-term consequences of Putin’s militarism, possibly even more than the Ukrainians who are bearing the brunt of the war now. In the words of Ilya Kolmanovsky, a famous biology and science journalist, who finally left Russia because of the war, “with time, people will come to understand that Putin’s invasion was also an attack on Russia.”

Copyright: Project Syndicate
-- Contact us at [email protected]


Author of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit