"It is so strange to me that in the 21st century we still have to deal with wars and fascism as if humanity never learned from its own mistakes."
Valentina, 23 years old, Russian. Bachelor of Arts and Sciences. Used to be a science worker.
"I first came to Istanbul in the last week of March 2022. I didn't come as a tourist, I planned to flee somewhere after a couple of weeks since the war had started. I had to leave my job, quickly prepare all the documents and say 'goodbye' to my partner and friends, who were very surprised about my decision. I kept on tolerating autocracy and hoping for a better future for too long. Starting the war with the country where I spent my childhood and where my relatives live was the last straw. I grew up in Vyborg, it's quite an old (and dying) town near Finland's border. For the last 5 years, I have been living in St. Petersburg. I graduated from a university there and then for the last six months I have been working at a science laboratory. I decided to quit my job because it was devastating for me to keep up with my working tasks and regular life in general while my relatives and friends in Ukraine were suffering. All of my colleagues were shocked as well, but somehow they managed to cope better than me. I could not eat and sleep so work definitely was not my priority. And in Russia, it was like nothing was happening from the very first day. But on the 24th of February, I realized that this war would be the final nail in the coffin of our country. When Crimea's annexation occurred (2014), I was too young to understand what exactly happened, but even then it seemed strange to me - coming to foreign territory and saying that now it is 'ours' because it has been ours for a centuries ago. I do not think that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was justified. And war is never the way to solve any conflict. It is so strange to me that in the 21st century we still have to deal with wars and fascism as if humanity never learned from its own mistakes. And this war became the point for me to find out more about all the cruels of my country in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Georgia where the same narrative happened. I am personally convinced that this war is the only way for Putin to stay in power because he is afraid of young people who (mostly) never supported him, so he decided to kill them in the war because the rest are already in prison, thanks to his policy and the support from the police for the last 10 years. Obviously, when things are too bad inside the country, autocracy creates outside problems like war, to distract people from poverty and other crises. For Russia, it worked very well, because only 30% of the population have a foreign passport that allows them to travel abroad - many people just never saw any other life. Russian official statement says that 70% of Russians support the war. I wouldn't say that you can rely on Russia's official polling institutions, do not forget that Russia is not a democracy, it is an autocracy, so every Russian institute is under propaganda and writes whatever they are being told to write. Secondly, imagine answering questions about politics honestly in a country where you can go to jail for having a different opinion. If some people are not afraid, the majority since the soviet times are accustomed to that (and in Russia due to the demographic crisis in the 90s the majority are people who are 40 y.o. and older). But, of course, there are people who believe the propaganda, and I met them even at my work. Some parents of my friends believe everything that is said on TV. Thankfully, my parents do not. Anyway, now it does not matter if you were against or for the war - all Russians will have to deal with the awfulness of killings, rapes, and other horribles of our military. Some people just have not realized it yet. And for many of us, for the ones who are against it, the burden of fault is too hard, because we do not deny war crimes from our side.
Unlike Ukrainians now, we are divided and too afraid. Opposition is in
jail, people do not have any hope left and just flee (if they can, of
course). I feel ashamed for not protesting in Russia, but it is like I
lost hope myself. I know exactly what will happen: I will be arrested
(in the best scenario) or beaten up, spend some hours or days in a
pre-trial detention center, get a fine - again in the best scenario, in
the worst - will have to take my clothes off and doing sit-ups because
some police officers order to do so as it happened with female Russian
activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I made the decision that it
probably would not help anybody in Ukraine or Russia, and my depression
at this moment was too severe, so I chose to flee and help from the
outside. But all Russian activists who keep fighting from inside need
much more publicity and help.
I understand that it might be dangerous for me to return to Russia, but honestly, I do not want to test it. Until our government changes and Putin is dead, I will not be a taxpayer to these people. Sure, there might be some problems for me even though I wouldn't say that I do much work as a volunteer and a protestor here, I just brought some humanitarian aid and participated in protests several times. But for the Russian government, I am already a criminal for doing that. I have never been in such a situation when the police come to my home for a raid, but it is enough to see Russian activists who have been arrested, and during the war, the arrests and raids are only rising. All my friends who keep going to antiwar protests in Russia are being arrested. It is not something we do not expect, it has already become normal. But it is not. And killing people is not normal too, we must remind ourselves about it every day.
Before my departure, I found some chats in messengers where Russians and Ukrainians share their experiences with crossing the Russian border. Some of them told about interrogations that lasted for 1-2 hours, where border guards were going through your phone and laptops, reading all the chats and especially searching for the messages, containing words like "Putin", "war", etc. So I was ready for it, my electronic devices were literally 'clean' but thankfully, it didn't happen to me. They just asked me about the cash, where I was going, and the purpose of the visit - I told them that I was going "on vacation" for 2 weeks.
Here I stay at a house of a very kind family who rents out some rooms. When I booked a room I didn't expect the host to live there, but they are very helpful and due to their age, they behave like real parents to me - with much care and attitude. But still, they do not perceive the news about the war as I do, so I feel like I am alone with my thoughts and feelings here, even though I have some of my Russian friends who also fled here. Because it feels like you were kicked out of your own home and you don't know if you ever will be back. I'm staying in Istanbul until the middle of April, then I will go to Georgia because it's technically easier as a Russian citizen to stay there (at least for now).
What is for my life here is quite difficult to tell something interesting. According to my contract, I have to finish my work tasks by next week, so mostly I just spend time in front of my laptop. Only then, I will "start a new life" which basically means that I will start searching for a new job abroad. With my little experience, I do not expect much, so I am as well hoping to find a master's program and get a scholarship because education always seemed a good way to immigrate. But nowadays - it is difficult to make plans even for the next week."