Young, tech-savvy Russians are fleeing Putin’s regime, igniting a silent exodus that could reshape Russia’s political and social landscape.
In this WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with journalist Paul Starobin, an expert in Russian affairs who delves into a less reported impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: the mass exodus of over 1 million Russians from their homeland — a phenomenon echoing the nation’s history of politically motivated emigrations.
Starobin, author of the book Putin’s Exiles, examines the dynamics of this modern exodus. He argues that the departure of these individuals, many of whom are young, tech-savvy, and opposed to Putin’s regime, is not only a form of protest but also a concerted effort to influence change in Russia from afar.
This generational revolt challenges the political status quo, and potentially undermines the oligarchs and the older generation that support Putin’s grip on power. These exiles, including many journalists, are ingeniously circumventing censorship to share truths within Russia and provide support to Ukraine.
In discussing the broader implications of this exodus for both Russia and the international community, Starobin highlights the complex interplay between the Russian government’s actions, the response of its citizens, and the long-term ramifications for the country’s future.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine certainly has had profound consequences outside of the country. But beyond the borders of Ukraine, perhaps nowhere more than in Russia itself, the repercussions are widespread, obviously affecting the Russian economy, its citizens’ call to service, but also, much to the surprise of the world, sparking a mass exodus of millions fleeing the country. The migration ignited by the Ukraine conflict and fueled by Putin’s actions is reminiscent of Russia’s historical pattern of exiles who later become instrumental in efforts to transform their government and the nation’s trajectory.
These are consequences that can truly change the world. These are Putin’s Exiles, the title of a new book by my guest, Paul Starobin, a journalist with a deep expertise in Russian affairs and a former Moscow bureau chief for Businessweek. Starobin captures what seems to be a generational revolt led by young tech-savvy Russians. These individuals are not just rebelling against Putin’s regime. They’re challenging the oligarchs and the older generation that has enabled Putin’s enduring grip on power. These exiles, including journalists, are creatively bypassing censorship to disseminate the truth within Russia.
Some of them are providing military or financial aid to Ukraine, and they share a unified vision: a Russia liberated from autocratic rule and living harmoniously with its neighbors.
As we approach the two-year anniversary of the Ukraine conflict, it’s imperative to understand the aspirations and roles of these exiles. Starobin has spoken extensively with exiles across Armenia, Georgia, Europe, and the United States, as he reveals their varied motivation. These individuals are more than mere refugees. They are actively shaping the destiny of their homeland.
It was Salman Rushdie who said that the most important thing an exile can do is tell his story. And these are the stories that Paul Starobin writes about in Putin’s Exiles: Their Fight for a Better Russia. It is my pleasure to welcome Paul Starobin here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Paul, thanks so much for joining us.
Paul Starobin: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Jeff: It is a delight to have you here. You write that over a million exiles have fled from Russia since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict. Why has this been arguably an underreported story?
Paul: Yes, I think that is a good question. Probably the first answer is that the invasion of Ukraine by Putin in February of 2022 focused, understandably, so much attention on Ukraine itself and what would be the consequences of this invasion. And the Western press got very caught up with the daily blow-by-blow. So I think the exiles were an easily overlooked story in that context. You also had a very large exodus of Ukrainians, the refugees that fled out of the country because their towns and cities were being devastated by the Russians. So that became a story as well.
Jeff: How much of the exile story and the way it’s been covered has been shaped by the fact that there’s always been an undercurrent, at least in US policy, that somehow the fantasy was to oust Putin? Certainly, as much as defending Ukraine, the idea of change of regime in Russia has always been an undercurrent here.
Paul: Yes, which I don’t think was really ever the case as far as I can tell. There’s always been a kind of backdrop of political opposition to Putin and in Washington that really recessed during the Trump years after Trump was elected president in 2016. And then in Biden’s time, it somewhat revived, and there’s been a kind of rhetorical focus on Putin. And on the sanctions, of course; the invasion of Ukraine triggered the sanctions.
But there really has been no sustained effort to oust Putin. I don’t think that has been seen as a realistic goal by policymakers in Washington. It’s one that the exiles certainly embraced, the Russian exiles, but I don’t think it’s been met with a commensurate response by the policymakers in Washington or in the European capitals that also oppose Putin.
Jeff: How have the exiles responded to the fact that, arguably, Putin has gotten stronger since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine?
Paul: Right. I think they would agree that he has become more entrenched. There was a brief flurry of hope when we had that mutiny staged by the warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, if you remember that; but it didn’t last very long. I think the exiles realize that this is a longer game, and Putin right now isn’t going anywhere. He’s a 71-year-old man who, in March, he’s going to be up for “reelection” again. He can be fully expected to win, but they’re fighting, as you alluded to in your introduction, more of a generational struggle against Putin, which is familiar to exile movements, not just in Russia, but around the world, really.
We’ve seen examples of that throughout history, so I don’t think there are any other illusions about any immediate threat to Putin. Although I do think they would say, and I would agree, that his rule has become more repressive, which also suggests a certain kind of brittleness to it as well. What is he feeling so threatened by?
Jeff: Is he being threatened by, or feeling threatened by, the exiles and by the potential of the exiles?
Paul: Absolutely. You can see this in the media battle that is taking place almost on a daily basis. The exiles — many of Russia’s best journalists and commentators, and news outlets — pulled up and moved their operations outside of Russia with the invasion. Some had done this beforehand. So in places like Riga in Latvia, and now Amsterdam in the Netherlands — where you have TV Deutsch, which is one of the leading opposition outlets — they are broadcasting in the Russian language, streaming in the Russian language back into Russia.
YouTube is an open channel in Russia still. Telegram and other social media are open. And the Kremlin is absolutely conscious of this and nervous about it. And you can see that just in their responses to it.
So that continues. I don’t think Putin— for all of the pervasiveness, let’s say, of the Kremlin propaganda machine, and it does control state-owned television, of course, there are many competing narratives in Russian discourse right now. So people, if they want, inside of Russia, have access to these counter sources that stem from the exile community outside of Russia. It’s basically Russians talking to Russians, whether they’re inside of Russia or outside of Russia.
And I think another point is about how it’s covered. It’s difficult, I think, for the Western media and the English language media in general to cover some of these things because it’s conducted entirely in Russian.
Jeff: To what extent is there a clear vision or lack of vision among the exiles in terms of what they want and how they want to go about it?
Paul: So, I think there’s an overall clarity of vision on the big issues, which are, number one, that Putin is an autocrat who is absolutely inimical to the long-term interests of Russia — which they would define as a society, a place that needs to become better integrated into the West and more in harmony with Western political and cultural values. I think the exiles very much broadly agree on that.
I think they also broadly agree on opposition to the war in Ukraine. Indeed, this invasion has caused a lot of guilt and shame on the part of the exiles, people who feel they didn’t do enough when they were inside of Russia to oppose Putin’s increasingly repressive regime.
So, there are broad agreements in terms of the vision. If we’re talking about divisions, then I would say it is more along the lines of strategy and tactics and, as is common to exile movements, conflicts in personalities or just in competition for who gets to be the most prominent voice in exile politics.
Jeff: One of the things that certainly has surprised, I think, the West, and I wonder how the exiles have responded to it, is that there was a feeling that the economy would collapse or at least get a lot weaker as a result of sanctions. And in fact, since the invasion in the past two years, the Russian economy has held up pretty well.
Paul: It has held up reasonably well, and I think there was, just as you say, a sort of overconfidence about the impact of the sanctions. I think President Biden at one point said that the ruble would be reduced to rubble, and that really happened. I guess the ruble hasn’t done all that well, but if you look at the broad economic picture, you’re right. One reason for that is that we still have a global economy that’s porous. Russia is able to import goods not only from China, which is helping Russia in lots of ways, although not really in direct military aid, but in terms of consumer goods, electronic goods, and things like that.
You also see former Soviet republics that have become basically trans-shipment points so that goods can flow from Turkey to the former Soviet republic of Georgia into Russia and so forth. In former Soviet Central Asia, you have the same thing, so it’s really hard to isolate an economy in this fashion.
Even with the oil prices, Russian oil continues to flow and it has buyers like in India, for example, where the Russian oil can be bought relatively cheaply compared to the global oil price, and then refined by India. And then it can end up in, for example, European markets that nominally are restricting imports of Russian oil. So you can see how complicated it becomes.
Jeff: You talked about the messages that are getting back to Russia, that Russians are talking to Russians. To what extent are the exiles talking to each other? What exists in terms of unified ways of communication or unified efforts of communication?
Paul: So, there have been occasional efforts to have congresses, for example, of exiles, like Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in London, who is the oligarch that Putin cracked down on, and then he got out of the country years ago. Those people, they’ve organized events, but they haven’t been uniformly attended.
And the key division probably is with the group associated with Alexei Navalny. Navalny is now in a sort of almost Gulag-type prison existence in northern Russia, but he has an organization that is based in Lithuania, in Vilnius, and it’s probably the most prominent of the exile groups. And they do quite a bit of political activism, investigations, and so forth, but they like to be on their own, and they have resisted efforts to cooperate with some of these other exile groups.
And there are also differences in tactics. Some of the exiles are more militant than others. Some of them are actively assisting the Ukrainian war effort, funding it, and even more than that. There are Russians who are fighting in Ukraine on behalf of the Ukrainian side. Other Russians in exile have basically disassociated themselves from that strategy.
So, it’s not an easy thing for people, a million or so, living in a diaspora, scattered across many countries. Yes, they can communicate on social media and so forth, but it is hard to bring them all together.
Jeff: To what extent did a lot of exiles leave because of fear of conscription?
Paul: There are at least three waves that we can consider. There were Russians who left before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Putin in February of 2022. Just people who were for various reasons unhappy with Putin’s Russia and who just saw prospects for a better life elsewhere. They were not all politically radicalized, but they were at odds with Putin. And if we can remember, this goes back a long way. Russia annexed Crimea back in 2014, and that’s something that a number of Russians inside of Russia objected to, and that was another spur to think about living elsewhere.
Then the big shock, the invasion in February of 2022, and that did spur quite a number of people to leave. At that point, it wasn’t clear whether there would be a mass conscription, a mobilization, or not. That happened, the conscription in the fall of 2022, and then there was a wave, and it was a broad wave throughout Russia, of people, many of whom were men, who were concerned about being mobilized as part of the war effort.
So, yes, absolutely, you do have those people who were basically war resisters. It’s a little bit similar to what we had during the Vietnam War in America, if you remember, when there were Americans who fled to Canada. Not quite in the same numbers, but also essentially to escape conscription.
Jeff: What is the concern of the oligarchs with respect to these exiles, and what might result from it?
Paul: The Russian oligarchs are really in a kind of a no-man land. The exiles, generally speaking — the person on the ground, so to speak — they’re not in sympathy with the oligarchs, most of whom have made their money, many in various nefarious ways, and who were, at one point, a number of them, aligned with the Putin regime. The oligarchs themselves are facing sanctions from Western countries in Europe and so forth, so they don’t find it easy to operate outside of Russia, where some of them are. And so some have returned, gone back to Russia because there’s not a lot that they see they can do outside of Russia.
Putin continues to have a group of cronies around him who are involved in the natural resource sectors of the economy, where so much of the money is made. And as far as we can tell, I think those people remain loyal to Putin. At the same time, and I think this is one of the things that the exiles would focus on, things in Russia can change. I don’t think there’s really deep loyalty to Putin. I think he serves the interests of oligarchs, at least some of them, but I don’t think there’s any deep loyalty to this fellow.
He has proven to be the one person who has been able to rule Russia during this time. But at some point, he’s in his early 70s, they’re going to have to try to find a substitute. And there’s probably going to be an enormous amount of turmoil when Putin goes, even if it’s at his death because there’s really no succession that’s been set up. Democracy itself has become a sham in Russia.
Jeff: Is there leadership? You mentioned Navalny before, and his influence. Is there leadership among the exiles?
Paul: No, I would say there’s dueling leaderships, and Navalny is number one because he has a certain moral stature that he gained. If we remember his story, he, within Russia, was leading the anti-Putin opposition. He’s a very charismatic figure. And unlike many of the other figures in the Russian opposition, he actually had people loyal to him on the ground in many cities throughout Russia, extending into the Far East. This is very unusual. So he had done a lot of hard organizing work. Then, if we remember, he was poisoned and nearly died and had to be rushed out of the country to Germany.
And it was determined, through a kind of a caper conducted by the Navalny people themselves, that the poisoning was essentially an operation of the Russian security services. So that created a certain amount of sympathy with Navalny. And at that point, facing a choice about what he was going to be doing, he decided to go back to Russia, which, in some ways, was a shocking choice because he knew they had tried to kill him. He was a wanted man. He knew that he would be put in some kind of a prison and that would be it, at least for a time.
And yet he did decide to go back, maybe as a measure of personal defiance on his part. It’s hard to say, but that has created, in Navalny, a kind of martyr figure that no other person in exile, in or outside of Russia, can approach. And Navalny, in a way, is a return to the exile prisoner, whether in Siberia or some far reach of Russia, who is also a venerable Russian character. We saw that during the Soviet period. So Navalny has that kind of stature that I don’t think any of the others in exile have.
Jeff: What does Russian history tell us about how this may play out?
Paul: Different things. In the 19th century, in the Tsarist time, we also had quite a number of exiles who were active politically abroad. One of them, Alexander Herzen, was the founder of a journal called The Bell, which managed to publish a lot of the crimes, the corruption of the Tsarist regime, and did, I think, have an impact. When Tsar Alexander II came into power — this is after the Crimean War of that time — there were reforms like the abolition of serfdom and so forth, that I think we’re at least informed by the critique and the vision that the exiles such as Herzen had.
Sometimes exiles just plow on without much influence. After the Russian Revolution, a huge exodus of the so-called “whites” from Russia, who for years fought to restore the Tsar, or at least some version of Russia that was absent, against the Bolsheviks, so that didn’t work out too well. But then, of course, we have the supreme example of Lenin and Trotsky, and the revolutionaries who fought against the Tsar for a very long time. Spent the better part of their lives doing that from places like Switzerland and in the United Kingdom and France. And in October 1917, they managed to do it. Lenin came back on a sealed train that Germany provided.
This was during the First World War, and he took power in what was then Petrograd, Petersburg now, and they managed the revolution. So, exiles, in that sense, can be historical actors. It’s difficult, but they’re keeping the flame alive.
Jeff: Putin has certainly showed no resistance over the years to reaching out beyond his borders, beyond Russia’s borders, to go after his enemies. Are there exiles that are concerned that Putin and his security forces will, in fact, reach out and eliminate some of them?
Paul: There’s definite concerns that they’re being surveilled, and I saw that myself, for example, in Yerevan, which is the capital of Armenia, one of the former Soviet republics. One of the exiles I was talking to down there referred me to some prominent building and all kinds of communication equipment around. He said, “Oh, yes, by the way, Paul, that’s the listening station of the FSB, the security services of Russia here. And they’re everywhere, and everyone understands that they’re everywhere.” My impression was, for the most part, they were more in a surveillance mode as opposed to an act to eliminate-this-person mode.
Oh, I think undoubtedly they would take that action if they thought that a person warranted it, but there’s lots of things that they’re concerned about. For example, I learned in Yerevan that there was a kind of underground network. There is one that, for Russian men who want to take the battlefield against the Russians in Ukraine, you can make your way from a place like Yerevan to Moldova, which is on the border with Ukraine, and try to get in that way. So I learned that Russian security services were posing as people who might want to make that move in order to understand how it was happening.
So there’s that kind of spy game that’s being played out, and you see the same thing in Georgia. I was in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, and it’s assumed that the exiles are there, and there are monitors, the Russian surveillance people, there as well, which as you could imagine, can lead to a certain amount of atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion.
Jeff: Is there regret that you found on the part of some of the exiles that they left?
Paul: I would say perhaps not so much regret as a sense of despondency — that it’s tough, once you’ve left your country, to re-establish yourself in a new place. And they face a lot of practical hurdles — whether in establishing a residency status or access to their funds, the bank accounts — in deciding really what is going to be the next phase of their life. I think initially people who left were not quite sure just how long they were going to be out for. And I think many people would agree that the war has gone on longer than initially anticipated.
And they still, for the most part, are Russian passport holders, and it’s not easy to establish a new residency status in some of these countries. At the same time, there is a kind of generalized opinion — in some countries more than others, in Eastern European countries in particular — against Russians. And there’s this idea that there really are no good Russians, whether they left to escape the war, or whether they’re political opponents of Putin. There’s still a sense among some in these local populations, their host populations, that these Russians are not really good actors, and they’re more tolerated than accepted. So that’s part of the status of being an exile. You’re in kind of an indeterminate station in life.
Jeff: And are the exiles still going on?
Paul: Not in the numbers, certainly before, no. I think a lot of the people that really felt that they needed to get out have gotten out. And I also hear stories that some have returned. I don’t know how big those numbers are, but they’re facing the kinds of conditions that I just described — that it’s difficult to make your life outside of Russia, and also, you’re not missing Putin, but you’re missing some friends that didn’t leave, families, in many cases, who are still there, and just to be in a Russian language-speaking environment wall to wall.
I think people miss those things, so, on the part of some, they’ll go back. But the thing is that I think for many of them, particularly the ones that have been politically active, it’s also a dangerous decision to go back because it’s there on your passport. Your name is probably already in somebody’s file because you’ve been surveilled. Is a future employer going to want you if you’ve been involved in political activities that the Kremlin would see as incorrect or worse?
So, there’s no easy decision here about going back. I think we could see another wave, another exodus if Putin is forced to remobilize and call up a new wave of conscripts, but we haven’t seen that yet.
Jeff: What impact, if any, are the exiles having on the war in Ukraine?
Paul: I think at this point not a great impact because the Ukrainians, their main safety valve — life valve, really — is the aid and the equipment that they’ve been getting from Western countries. And that’s so much what they’re focused on.
Within Ukraine itself — I was in Ukraine this past September — as you would expect, there are a lot of suspicions of Russians generally. They’re not really wanted in Ukraine for the most part. Some exiles have moved to Ukraine and one in particular, one of the more militant persons, has established, is running videos on YouTube and whatnot about how to make bombs and things that can be used against the Putin regime. But that’s pretty unusual.
There are also exiles, and I talk about them in the book— there’s one fellow in particular who, he’s a physicist, and with a Ukrainian physicist friend, he helped construct an air defense system, fairly primitive but still, in the early days of the war. And they put their heart and their soul and, on the part of the Russian physicist, his money into this project. And that was certainly much appreciated by the Ukrainians. In fact, he was awarded a medal by the Ukrainian military for his efforts.
There are also Russian exiles who are financing, giving money to the Ukrainian military to purchase drones and equipment like that. So that, of course, is appreciated by the Ukrainian military, but those kind of contributions are dwarfed by the aid, the equipment that Ukrainians are getting from the West.
Jeff: And where have the majority of the exiles gone, and how many have gone to the West?
Paul: The majority have gone to former Soviet republics. So, if we start in former Soviet Central Asia, we could talk about Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. All of those places have seen surges in Russian exiles, typically to the capital cities there, or the main cities there, whether it’s Almaty, Bishkek, or Tashkent. You’ve also seen a lot of exiles go to Georgia and Armenia, as I mentioned before. It’s relatively cheap in these former Soviet republics, so that’s an important factor for the exiles. You’ve seen exiles communities in Thailand — yes, Asia.
Some of the wealthier ones are in places like Dubai in the Emirates, and I would say a smaller number in what we think of as the West, as in Western Europe. And they’re not so welcome in the Baltic countries in Eastern Europe, although there are exiles there. There are exile media operations there as well, but it’s a lot more expensive to live in Munich, say, than it is to live in Yerevan.
Jeff: And to what extent has any of this created a brain drain in Russia, that many of those that have left the country were really vital contributors to the country, to various aspects of it?
Paul: Yes, no, I’m glad you asked me that because I think it’s fairly profound. A lot of technology workers, for example, left Russia shortly after the invasion, partly because of their politics but also because they are able to work remotely in various capacities. And so, as you say, brain drain, basically their asset is their brain. They’re not factory workers, workers like that, and I think that has hurt Russia.
Also, a lot of cultural figures, musical icons, people like that have left, and there’s now a kind of dueling. You have pro-Russian musicians and people like that inside of Russia who are singing their songs. And then you have prominent Russian pop stars, Alla Pugacheva and others, who have left, and Pugacheva going at Putin, at Russia, and anti-war from outside of Russia. But again, all of this is a conversation or a dialogue that’s taking place in the Russian language, and it’s difficult, I think, for people in the West to fully appreciate the intensity of this.
I was talking to somebody yesterday about Russian standup comedians who are outside of Russia, whose stock theme has to do with Putin and his policies, and so forth. So, yes, kind of a cultural resistance, as well as a political resistance, and then, as you know, some of the key knowledge-industry workers.
But that said, Putin, Russia have about 140 million people, and at most, maybe 1 percent or so of them have left, and he’s put the economy on a war footing. And churning out some of these defense products is not necessarily the most difficult task, so they are managing to get by.
Jeff: And finally, will it have an impact on Putin in the long run? Will it contribute to his ouster at some point, or will this just be a blip on the radar?
Paul: That’s the question. We really don’t know. I don’t think it’s just a blip on the radar. I think that even inside of Russia, among a silent, probably not-so-small number of people, there’s an understanding that Putin’s policies such as this, particularly this war in Ukraine, have not really done much for Russia.
I often say that change in Russia is like a thunderclap. You can go for long periods of time when things seem to be relatively placid, and then boom, all of a sudden. And it’s unfamiliar, that idea of change to us in the West. We’re used to, in America, four-year elections that usher in new change or not, as the case may be. But in Russia it’s not like that, it’s in longer waves, and so we’re just going to have to see. I think the exiles, though, are going to seed the ground for seismic change in Russia.
Jeff: Paul Starobin, his book is Putin’s Exiles: Their Fight for a Better Russia. Paul, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Paul: Thank you, Jeff. I appreciate it.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.