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'Feeling of Helplessness': State Propaganda Forcing Russians To Leave Country

Russia’s war on Ukraine made Andrei, and several other Russians, decide not to go back.

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar

“The illumination on this ceiling looks like air-raided lights, don’t you think?” Andrei Grudinin joked to his friends while staring at the ceiling of their rented flat in Tuzla, Bosnia. They planned to spend the pleasant morning of 24 February exploring the beautiful town of Tuzla.

Little did they know that Russia had other plans in store which would change everything for them.

“I was shocked and disoriented,” Andrei recalled his reaction to the notification of Russia invading Ukraine. Only one thought kept recurring – the war had started.

“I could not believe it,” he added.

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Enduring Learned Helplessness in Russia

For Andrei, Russia’s war on Ukraine was an added testimony to the fractured system of the country.

“I have no confidence in the country’s future,” Andrei explained. “I have grown up feeling helpless amidst the sea of propaganda in Russia.”

Andrei, Konstantin Ignatushchenko, and two of their other Russian friends had decided to settle in Turkey for an indefinite number of months. However, the plan did not go ahead. One friend decided to seek asylum in the Netherlands. The other friend went to Georgia. Konstantin went to India, and Andrei chose to go to Vietnam.

“I was definitely not going back to Russia for sure,” Andrei said. “I don’t feel comfortable staying in a country that wages war,” he added.

Russia’s war on Ukraine made Andrei decide not to go back. However, he constantly desired to live out of Russia and choose a better life for himself, even before the war.

“The government always lies to you. Be it Russia’s war in Georgia and Crimea or questions about the economy’s progress, the government will never tell the truth. They will only say what convinces us to believe in them and support their power,” Andrei said.

Konstantin adds some context to Andrei’s feelings. “There is an emerging group in our generation who is wary of the government and sees themselves as globally conscious and connected people,” he explains.

“They care about rights and privileges and are not okay with censorship and surveillance. They make up an active minority against the war and are leaving the country indefinitely.”
Konstantin
Russia’s war on Ukraine made Andrei, and several other Russians, decide not to go back.

Russia’s war on Ukraine made Andrei decide not to go back.

(Photo Courtesy: Andrei Grudinin)

According to different estimates, about 150,000 to 776,000 people have left the country. The OK Russians Project notes that this number is likely higher since it does not include emigrants from Belarus and Kazakhstan. If the numbers are to be believed, this is the largest wave of emigration that Russia has seen in recent years. The OK Russians project is trying to make sense of Russia's forced migration, which is less visible and difficult to understand.

Konstantin told this writer about why the Russian emigration is on a rise and why “learned helplessness” in Russia is a big challenge.

“Be it before Stalin, after Stalin, as a part of the USSR, or post the cold war, Russians have always felt enslaved in some way or the other,” Konstantin expressed. He further noted, “We have been trapped in a cage for so long that even when we are out of it, we do not feel so.”

“We keep hoping for better things, but the regime has been oppressive for centuries, not even decades. Hence, hoping for a bright future is futile. We have learned to be helpless and to live with no say,” Konstantin added.

Konstantin illustrates a kind of “mental slavery” in Russia, where people feel powerless to decide anything. They can just live their lives and hope to not involve the state; in other words, they stay away from politics and build their “own tiny world”. If they get involved with the state, they will surely be crushed.

"We are a part of the ‘Russian normal', a fractured moment. We saw some glimpses of freedoms and new technologies of the 21st Century. But, the totalitarian regime took no time to reinstate itself,” remarked Konstantin. “And because we saw what it could look like to be free, more people were able to break away from the Russian normal,” he added.

It took Konstantin some time to realise that politics is not necessarily a bad word. Being “political” and voicing one’s views, especially against the government, is unacceptable in Russia.

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“The government repeats a cycle of frustrating its citizens repeatedly, so much so that some of us have just decided to leave and not come back,” he said. “It is better to leave than sponsor the war by paying taxes or staying silent.”

“You can survive well in Russia if you shut your mind. But alas, some people cannot do that,” he concludes with a laugh.

Andrei agreed with Konstantin’s explanation. “If you do not watch state-sponsored news and know how to use a VPN, maybe you can understand that it is all propaganda,” he said.

A generation of Russians, like Andrei, has chosen to travel the war out. They are uncomfortable with their money going to tax funds that will be used for war and propaganda. And they do not have any plans to go back soon. Some of them hope to go back if the political picture changes. But for Andrei, this is unlikely.

“The general narrative in Russia is, ‘if not Putin, then who?' They believe that a strong opposition does not exist to counter him. But a strong opposition has not been given a fair chance to compete politically in the first place," Andrei explained.

“I had money, I was out of the country, so I chose to stay out of the mental agony of being unable to do anything," said Andrei, adding, “It was time to fulfill some nomadic dreams."

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Stepping Out of Russia & Into the World

Andrei first visited Vietnam in 2020. Konstantin had been pressuring him to get out of Russia and see the world for a long time. And Vietnam was cheap. It was convenient and visa-free, and he had nothing to lose. So he set off.

“I think I felt a strong cultural shock,” Andrei recalled his first experience in Vietnam. “It was a completely different culture. The roads were different. The traffic was different. The food was different. The people were different. And somehow, it all felt so good!” he exclaimed.

Russia’s war on Ukraine made Andrei, and several other Russians, decide not to go back.

A generation of Russians, like Andrei, has chosen to travel the war out.

(Photo Courtesy: Andrei Grudinin)

For Andrei, getting out of Russia meant exploring a new world with different cultures and possibilities. In January 2022, when he was fired from his five-year-old job, he decided to pack his bags and hit different borders.

“I just packed one small backpack and decided to make the most of this opportunity,” he said. He had planned to come back to Russia, until the war changed his plans. He is now hopping from country to country, bearing the expenses and trying to make the most of it.

“It is tough and expensive to travel internationally as an unemployed person living off his savings. But I would rather do that than return back,” Andrei said. Like many Russian emigrants, he fears mobilisation for the army and for his life. These emigrants also do not want to go through the feeling of helplessness. However, the life that they have chosen comes with its own challenges.

Russia’s war on Ukraine made Andrei, and several other Russians, decide not to go back.

For Andrei, getting out of Russia meant exploring a new world with different cultures and possibilities.

(Photo Courtesy: Andrei Grudinin)

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What If Andrei Was In Russia During the War?

“I honestly did not know if I could have left Russia,” Andrei said. Russian airports were swarming with a sea of prospective emigrants trying to leave the war-waging country for a place that could ease their helplessness a bit.

Because of flights being overbooked, there were last-minute ticket cancellations and flight prices were soaring high.

“In such a situation, I do not think it was financially viable for me to leave Russia,” Andrei said.

While young people were leaving the war, many left their families behind. Andrei remarked it was mostly because, “when one is old, there is less possibility or hope of changing life outcomes.”

Russians like him chose to travel to other countries instead. A sizeable population decided to stay in places in India like Manali and Goa.

Sergei is one of the many such Russians who decided to stay in Vashisht, Manali. A small village with natural hot springs and a casual, laid-back atmosphere, Vashisht is the perfect place for him to chill, no questions asked.

Hence this tiny village is now sprawling with Russians. A foreigner-friendly atmosphere, already established cafes with western food, and the orientation of locals towards Russians supported his decision.

“Right now, I want to relax and unwind,” Sergei said.

“Anything that helps ease the unnerving helplessness and disillusion,” he added.

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Challenges as a Russian Emigrant

The biggest concern of Russian emigrants escaping the country is their finances. Andrei, for example, is unemployed right now and is running out of money. The surveys conducted by the OK Russians project echo similar observations, noting that many emigrants are currently unemployed.

Visa and Mastercard suspended Russian cards in March 2022. This meant that Andrei could not access his existing money. He did withdraw all his money from several ATMs in Herceg Novi, Montenegro, in the wee hours of the morning post the notification.

While he could open a domestic bank account in Montenegro, he can currently only withdraw cash from it and cannot send or receive money.

Russia’s war on Ukraine made Andrei, and several other Russians, decide not to go back.

The life that the new generation of Russian emigrants has chosen comes with its own challenges.

(Photo Courtesy: Andrei Grudinin)

Russia’s war on Ukraine made Andrei, and several other Russians, decide not to go back.

The biggest concern of Russian emigrants escaping the country is their finances.

(Photo Courtesy: Andrei Grudinin)

Andrei can also not legally “settle” in any country. He needs to keep travelling from country to country except if he gets a work visa or a job, which seems “unlikely.”

He is also facing a peculiar challenge owing to his Russian identity. He meets many people in East Asian countries and India who support Putin and the war. Indeed, he has come across many narratives declaring Putin’s move as correct and necessary to keep the United States at bay.

“I got free coffee from Putin’s supporters in Thailand. In Leh, I met a Kashmiri who said he appreciates Putin and the army. I don’t want to call their mindset wrong. But as a Russian, I don't feel right about the war, and I am taking actions I deem fit. People have different takes; they are fine with other people being killed in the war. But I don’t accept this,” Andrei said.

Andrei feels that there is “no sense to the war.” Six months have passed, and there has been no clear directive on what Russia will achieve with the war. No coherent goals have been established.

“They (Putin’s government) say it is all going according to a plan. But what is the plan? No one knows. They are just bombing cities on frivolous reasons, backed by no proof,” shares Andrei.

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The Kremlin has provided quite a string of reasons for declaring war, all of which have been empty claims at best. From assertions of “denazifying Ukraine,” to claims of protecting its borders against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) advancements, there have been many explanations issued by the Russian government.

“No one knows what should happen for the war to end. Putin said, ‘we haven’t started yet.' So what has all this been? There is no meaning, goal, and reason behind this war,” Andrei said.

Andrei concludes by saying, “Russia has made my life senseless. I am just putting some sense back by travelling in whatever way I can.”

(Nimisha is a freelance journalist and content creator based in Himachal Pradesh. You can find her on Instagram here.)

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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