11.01.23 Expertise

The Russian Rhizome: A Social Portrait of New Immigrants

Nika Kostenko
Migration researcher, Haifa
Margarita Zavadskaya
Senior Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), Helsinki
Emil Kamalov
PhD candidate at the European University Institute (EUI), Florence
Ivetta Sergeeva
PhD candidate at the European University Institute, Florence

In terms of its scale and social impact, the new wave of emigration from Russia is comparable to the 'white' emigration that occurred a century ago as people fled the Revolution and Civil War. The core group of the new wave of emigrants consists of representatives of Russia's most modernised, educated, and socially successful class. The simultaneous departure of at least half a million members of this class represents a considerable relocation of human capital, significantly altering the balance of power in Russian society. 

Will this group become a detached and contained diaspora like those who left in the white emigration wave? Or, as with the waves of emigration in the 1970s and 1990s, will these people be absorbed into their new societies, retaining only weak private ties to Russia? Or, conversely, will it be able to play a significant role in future social transformation, influencing the course of Russian history? At this critical junction in the road towards Russia’s future, the answers to these questions will determine the path forward. It is for this reason that the social dynamics of this new wave of emigration, as well as everything that happens to this group in their new social and country-specific environments, attracts such keen interest.

The study published here by Re: Russia is perhaps the most comprehensive attempt to describe the specifics of the new emigration wave, its main characteristics, the dynamics as these new immigrants' attempt to adapt to their new social environment, and the nature of the new diaspora's internal ties and connectedness. 

The current ‘military’ emigration wave is unlike those that occurred previously. Emigrants' ties to Russia, including relatives and acquaintances, remain strong. According to the findings of this study, notions of strained relations or even conflict between the new diaspora and those who remain in Russia appear to have been exaggerated. 

The general preliminary conclusions of this study have determined the following: this wave is characterised by a high level of trust; they are ready and willing to shift their focus to the agendas of their host country, to participate in charitable activities and social initiatives. Many emigrants prefer to think of themselves as ‘relokanty’ — those who relocated rather than emigrated. Despite this, many will never return home. Their potential for social mobility and solidarity is high, but their belief in the possibility of positive change in Russia is currently low.

A story about pumpkin spice lattes recently went viral among Israeli Russian émigré circles. In a Haifa emigrant chat, Tatiana Sheremet, a new resident, journalist and theatre blogger from St. Petersburg, asked where she could find a pumpkin spice latte. She was met with a barrage of angry comments, many of which came from those who had arrived during previous waves of immigration. This reaction was provoked by the fact that she appeared to be attempting to maintain her usual levels of consumption and comfort despite the context of her emergency emigration. People who had arrived during previous waves faced a  much steeper decline in living standards — for example, professors were forced to work as janitors. Although this example may appear comical, it illustrates one of the key differences between the current wave of Russian emigration and previous waves, bringing them into sharp focus. 

While it may be difficult to estimate the exact number of Russian emigrants who left after February 24, 2022, even official Russian figures suggest the number to be in the hundreds of thousands. Their departure is a problem for both society and the state, but nonetheless the Russian exodus continues. Fluctuations in this outflow are linked to rumours of border closures and the first, and now second, wave of mobilisation. Peaks were recorded in late February/early March, early May, and late September 2022; rumours of a new phase of mobilisation would suggest that another peak is likely to be recorded in January 2023. 

The 2022 wave of emigration is the largest in thirty years, and many observers have already noted its difference from previous waves. First and foremost, the emigrants of this wave are heavily politicised, this is particularly the case for those who left before September. They are better educated, younger, and more prosperous than the average Russian citizen (see our portrait of the Russian emigrant). Thus, on average, emigrants in 2022 have more social and material resources at their fingertips than the emigrants in previous waves. 

At the same time, the voices of recently emigrated Russians are rarely heard. In internal Russian debates, their voices are frequently replaced by those of a small group of well-known emigrants, the majority of whom did not even depart Russia during the most recent wave. As part of our OutRush project, which combines surveys and interviews, we began a large-scale survey in late February 2022 in an attempt to determine the plans, hopes, and views of the new emigrants. We conducted a second wave of research in August and early September 2022 (before the announcement of the ‘partial’ mobilisation) — we re-interviewed respondents from March 2022 and also invited new participants to take part. We interviewed a total of 2,176 people who had left, 611 of whom we interviewed twice, once in spring and once in autumn. By re-interviewing the same respondents, we were able to draw conclusions about the dynamics of their expectations and attitudes toward those who had decided to stay in Russia, those who left, Russia itself, and their new host countries.

In this text we will discuss their ties to Russia, and their host countries, the independence of these new emigrants from the old diaspora, new emigration plans, their psychological state, and, finally, the structure of emigrant communities and their mutual support mechanisms. 

Emigration, both old and new

According to the data we gathered, there is a mismatch between the established Russian diasporas and the new wave of emigration, even when the pre-existing diaspora and this new group share an anti-war stance (which is not always the case, in particular due to their media consumption habits). 

Intergenerational tensions in the emigrant community are growing and have the potential to become increasingly politicised. Many within this new wave of emigrants believe strongly in a feminist agenda, LGBT+ acceptance, openness to ethnic and racial diversity, and decolonisation but these issues are less important for older emigrants, potentially widening the gap between older and younger generations of Russian emigrants. 

Russia needs to decolonise. I don't mind crossing as many borders on my way from St Petersburg to Moscow as long as it ensures that Bologoye, Tver, and Torzhok have a higher standard of living, developed business, science, and culture, and are open to the rest of the world (anonymous response from a September survey).
There is definitely nowhere you can go [from Russia] while still holding on to this imperial consciousness, with this attitude that you are our younger brothers, you are our former colony and you should speak to me in Russian (manager, Tbilisi). 

As evidenced by the quotations above, some new emigrants identify the Russian imperialism woven into Russian cultural narratives as one of the causes of the war and are attempting to personally rid themselves of these ideas. This anti-imperialist agenda includes the popular desire to learn the languages of their host states. 

New emigrants also prefer grassroots initiatives to vertical structures and are much more likely to self-organise and network horizontally. They are generally much less concerned about the debate over the organisation of Russia's opposition abroad and the issue of its leadership. Another significant difference between new wave emigrants and previous waves is a higher level of generalised trust, including trust in fellow emigrants as well as those who have remained in Russia. 

Because of their preference for horizontal structures and the translocality of new Russian emigrant communities, they are more likely to have a networked, decentralised structure than a single leader or a single organisation that functions to bind the community together. 

These new migrants have already demonstrated their ability to organise themselves, and they may be a source of alternative images of what Russia represents. It is in this environment that it may be possible to find new visions of Russia's future, as some members of the opposition have declared an agenda that excludes the majority of ‘bad Russians,’ while others, such as the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, Russia's most prominent grassroots anti-war network, insist on inclusive social structures. Based on the data we have collected, it is clear that solidarity is becoming an important pillar for the Russians who have fled. 

Psychological state and ties to those left behind

The new emigrants are finding it difficult to cope with the conditions created by the war. To put it in the broadest terms, people are struggling. Many of them have been forced to reappraise their previous experiences, living and working in Russia, as a result of their current situation. Respondents' descriptions of their psychological state are dominated by feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, helplessness, empathy, and fear. The more recent the departure, the stronger these feelings were:  over the course of the previous three months, 39% of respondents reported feeling depressed most of the time or nearly all of the time. 55% had felt sad the majority of the time or nearly all of the time. These feelings were heightened for those who had relatives or loved ones in Ukraine, which accounted for 60% of those polled. In the three months prior, 44% of this group reported feeling depressed most or all of the time, this was 10% higher than those without relatives or friends in Ukraine. 

Who do Russian emigrants trust? % of people who trust someone

Anxiety for the wellbeing of loved ones was a major motivator for the continued contact between those who left and those who remained in Russia during the first months of the war. This was despite the fact that their opinions could be diametrically opposed or significantly different, while unexpected changes in circumstances and plans caused many conflicts within families and between friends. Nonetheless, and contrary to popular belief circulated in the media and on social media, trust in Russians remaining in the country remained high in March and even increased by 7% over time, from 50% in March to 57% in September. This growth may be attributed to the fact that Russian emigrants continue to maintain close contact with their relatives: nearly half of emigrants talk to relatives and friends who remain in Russia every day or nearly every day. 

Furthermore, we noted a reduction in the conflicting nature of these interactions. Acute issues appear to have been discussed or isolated, and many people have decided to sustain family and friendship ties despite differing political views. Furthermore, these positions may be shifting as, among those who remained, support for the war decreased significantly following the declaration of mobilisation and the Russian army's military failures. As a result, rather than severing family and friendship ties, we have witnessed a desire to maintain these ties. 

How frequently do Russian emigrants communicate with their relatives back home? 

As a result, emigrants have continued to maintain close emotional and personal ties to Russian society, to participate in the political agenda, read the news, discuss what is going on with friends and relatives, and to transfer money across the border. 

Our data does not suggest a growing polarisation between those who have left and those who stayed. The bonds are strong; emigrants share the same discursive space as those in Russia, and the longer the war lasts, the more people share, or can imagine, the translocal experience of others. However, political forces are taking advantage of the schism between those who left and those who stayed. This polarisation threatens to undermine efforts by those abroad to campaign and inform those who they left behind.

At the same time, those who left are generally younger, better educated, wealthier, and more urbanised than those who stayed, and they have more access to resources. However, this does not imply that all anti-war Russians have fled the country. 

Gone for a long time

Even if Russian is spoken in the host countries, new emigrants believe it is necessary to learn the local language. They have also brought with them approaches to social and political activism that were not common in previous waves of Russian emigration. 

For many Russians, their departure was abrupt, and they did not believe that it would last long. It is quite typical for emigrants all over the world to believe that they are leaving ‘for a couple of years’ and will return home soon. 

Actually, when I was coming here, I had a hard time deciding whether I was going for a long time, like... stuff like that. I thought it was important for me to stay here so that if I were to return to Russia and realise that everything is completely ***, that it's becoming dangerous even for someone who doesn't do anything super activist, I can.. (online-education specialist, Tbilisi). 

It is only many months later that they come to the realisation that the situation is unlikely to change in the near future. This is exactly what we are seeing now among those who left at the start of the war. Many are beginning to settle down, severing economic ties with Russia and establishing new ones abroad, enrolling their children in kindergartens and schools, and making new friends. At the same time, people who left after September 21, 2022, as a result of  mobilisation, are much less sure about the long term nature of their departure; some have returned, while others continue to closely monitor the situation, believing that as soon as ‘everything blows over,’ they will go home. However, this aligns with the sentiments of many of those who left immediately after the war began, particularly in late spring and summer. For example, in March, only 43% of survey respondents said they would stay in their host countries for the next three months. In September, however, 70% of participants said they were very likely to remain in their host countries for the next year. One of our informants cracked the following joke: 

I'm not here on a residence permit; I'm here on a 'While Putin is Alive' Permit — as long as he lives, I'll stay away. That's the way I see it. I mean, I may visit my parents or grandparents during the summer, but I do not intend to return to Russia in the coming years (male, 25 years old, programmer, Tbilisi).

Although 16% of our sample has returned to Russia, the majority of this group describe their return as temporary and necessary to set their affairs in order. Those who left in the spring wave are curious about what life will be like in Russia ‘when everything blows over’ — will it meet their expectations and standards? Many come to a negative conclusion. Around 35% of those surveyed believe that positive change in Russia is impossible or unlikely. In September 2022, approximately 7% of those polled expected positive change. It appears evident that the vast majority of emigrants will not return to Russia. 

It is worth noting that those who left in the spring wave of emigration have become much more optimistic about their own lives. In September, 30% believed that their lives would improve slightly or significantly in the coming year. Only 12% thought this in April. The proportion of people who expect their lives to deteriorate or become significantly worse has dropped from 37% in March to 15% in September. This improvement in their prognoses for the coming year may be due to their ability to adapt to their new circumstances, including finding work, settling down in a new location, and reducing their stress levels. A young programmer in Tbilisi describes his vision for the future as follows: 

For my part, I am fairly certain that I will be fine. Everything should be fine as long as there is no nuclear war. Given that I was forced to leave, things were as normal as they could be. At the very least, I was not driven out as harshly as others. I'm not concerned that if I lose this job, I won't be able to find another. I have many friends who live in other countries... I know how the world works. I do not feel so completely helpless, that I am lost somewhere and thinking what do I do now.
Indicators such as a willingness to learn the host country's language can speak indirectly to the new immigrants plans for integration. In March 2022, 60% of respondents said they were willing to learn the local language. In September 2022, 48% said they were already learning it. Furthermore, economic ties with Russia are growing weaker: many emigrants retained their jobs in Russia by working remotely during the first six months of their stay abroad, but after that, emigrants began actively to transfer to international and local companies, freelance work, or started their own businesses. 5% of respondents chose to study, while only 2% of those who had been working previously had become unemployed. 

According to our data, many migrants have left for good and will seek integration into their host societies. As the conflict in Ukraine rages on, they are likely to refocus their activism on their host societies. According to our September survey, 60% of respondents had become interested in the politics of their host countries. For example, in the autumn, 12% of respondents expressed an interest in the local NGO scene and had begun donating to local organisations and initiatives. We can see from the data that there is a direct correlation between the level of political activity prior to emigration and the activity of these migrants in their new location. 

I used to go to protests, and getting detained at one in 2021 probably made me more political. My family is generally sceptical of the authorities' actions, and there isn't much patriotism... I used to watch Navalny's videos in school... But, in general, I feel like I'm still a part of Russian society, so I'd like to assist those who organise (programmer, Tbilisi). 
I have a Master's degree in journalism and have always been interested in social issues. Besides, I began to go to protests in 2011, and I took part in some protest actions, so I've been interested since then. If, for example, I was a stupid patriot in high school, then I later become much more involved in a number of socially active events (researcher, Tbilisi, 2022). 

Many of those who left in February were professionally involved in some form of political activism. They included coordinators of non-profit organisations, human rights activists, investigative journalists, artists, and educators. They have accumulated unique experience in their many years of activity in Russia: on the one hand, they were well acquainted with Western management systems and grant support, and on the other, they were able to survive within Russia's hostile environment. Leaving Russia may be an excellent opportunity for these active and competent people to develop new projects and to build their networks. Supporting emigrant activists and non-governmental organisations  makes strategic sense, especially now that the Russian regime has intensified the repressive measures it uses against the opposition abroad. They can make a positive difference in host communities as well as within Russian society after the regime changes. 

Who do Russian emigrants send money to? % of respondents

Rhizome: new migrants' and communities' cross-border connections 

Migrants create grassroots translocal horizontal structures, linking diasporas not just within their host countries, but also between them. 

Many of these new emigrants are successful volunteers, business owners, or politicians from Russia. This experience has allowed them to rely on their already established networks. Furthermore, as evidenced by cross-country studies, any experience of activism is associated with a higher level of trust in those around them. Thus, for many emigrants, any significant losses in social status, financial stability, and psychological comfort are at least partially offset by support networks, on which they can rely anywhere in the world. This is especially the case in countries with dense communities of new emigrants. 

Not only are old friends and colleagues valuable resources for new migrants, but so are ‘casual’ acquaintances, friends of friends, and other fellow countrymen. If emigration in the 1990s was characterised by strong atomisation, the current wave of emigrants has continued to maintain relationships with Russia, their host countries, and their friends and relatives who have relocated to various new locations. Constant communication through messenger software, phone calls, meeting up in easily accessible cities, and visits to each other's homes for important events such as weddings, provides more than just psychological relief. These contacts also assist when determining where to settle (for many autumn emigrants, this question has yet to be resolved), how to arrange the necessary documentation, find housing or a job, and so on. Translocal networks have become an important source of psychological support and help when deciding where to go next. The vast majority of respondents do not intend to return to Russia, at least not until the war is over, but many are yet to decide their final destination.

Emigrants typically create shared country chats in Telegram and other messenger apps, as well as separate chats for each city and town they visit. These general group chats are used to discuss legal issues, local politics, and culture. In local chat rooms, emigrants discuss their lives in specific cities, share information about kindergartens and schools, look for jobs, offer their services, organise shared business ventures, or plan active leisure. These communities' high level of interpersonal trust strengthens this type of mutual support. 

The rhizome, as conceptualised by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's, serves as a good metaphor for the new wave of Russian emigration. A rhizomatic structure is a network that is unorganised, hierarchical, multiplying, and constantly changing. Migrants are dispersed throughout the world, but they continue to send signals, coordinate with one another, and communicate with friends, relatives, and even strangers, both abroad and in Russia. This network's rhizomatic structure provides a powerful source of mutual support, as well as the necessary flexibility to maintain coordination between the new ‘nomads,’ who have lost their former lives but are unsure where to begin a new one. 

Not emigrants, but relokanty 

Soviet-era emigrants could not even hope to return home, let alone maintain meaningful contact with their loved ones who remained behind. Despite all the obstacles, emigration in 2022 implies more opportunities for information transfer, communication with relatives, and even the ability to return across the border for those who are not in immediate danger. Indeed, some Russian families have now found themselves on different sides of the border as it has been especially common for men to leave to avoid mobilisation, while their wives and children have remained in Russia, waiting for the men to establish at least the basic necessities of life in a new place. 

Returning to the pumpkin spice latte story, we can consider what is truly at the heart of the conflict between different generations of Russian emigrants. It is evident that the new emigrants are distinct from previous waves. They have lived a comfortable life and have more resources than both those who remain in Russia and previous waves of emigrants (at the time of their departure from Russia). They find it difficult to accept their new status, which is why they prefer the term ‘relokanty’ to ‘migrants,’ ‘emigrants, or ’refugees.’ At the same time, we should not assume that they are most concerned with maintaining their consumption habits. On the contrary, almost all have lost their status, familiar surroundings, and income. The majority of new emigrants regard the war as a tragedy, sympathise with Ukrainians, and support refugees and the NGOs that remain in Russia. They are reflective and well-informed individuals with values and beliefs similar to those of young people in developed European countries. Their most distinguishing characteristics are a developed sense of trust in others, a sense of solidarity, and a desire to maintain both cross-border and local ties, while also attempting to forge new ones.