Russian Exiles Struggle to Form a United Opposition to Putin

December 6, 2022

Historically, Russian emigrants have been reluctant to form exile communities and have tried to assimilate.

Lucian Kim, a global fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington and NPR’s former Moscow bureau chief, spoke with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Anastasia Burakova and others to find out how are the Kremlin’s exiled critics planning for a Russia after Putin.

Members of the local Russian diaspora in Krakow, Poland, demonstrate against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine on June 12. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When Anastasiya Burakova fled Russia a year ago, she sought refuge in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Burakova, a Russian lawyer, had been running an organization that gave legal assistance to people facing political prosecution in Russia. After the authorities in Moscow blocked her group’s website, Burakova realized that she herself could become a target of government persecution and moved to Kyiv. Three months later, she was on the run again when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine. Like many Russian activists, she found a new home in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

In the early days of the invasion, Burakova was flooded with requests for emigration advice from political activists and journalists in Russia who feared the Kremlin might close the borders and round up critics of the war. The number of flights out of Russia was shrinking as a result of Western sanctions, fueling a sense of panic among opposition-minded Russians. Within weeks of the attack, Burakova founded an organization called Kovcheg, Russian for “ark,” to help those who managed to escape Putin’s Russia. Kovcheg has since grown into an online clearinghouse offering everything from housing and legal advice to psychological counseling, language courses, and job placement.

“We try to help people integrate into the societies where they live because it’s a dead end to live outside of it,” Burakova said. “We try to get them to do what they can from abroad to stop the war and speed up the collapse of the Putin regime. We hope they’ll go back and become the backbone of a democratic Russia.”

The exodus out of Russia came in two waves: The first, in the immediate aftermath of the February invasion, was more politicized and included many opposition supporters; the second, following the Kremlin’s announcement of a partial mobilization in September, was less political, consisting primarily of young men unwilling to fight in Putin’s war. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have emigrated this year, scattering for the most part across Europe, Turkey, and Central Asia. Places such as Armenia and Kazakhstan, former Soviet republics that most Russians used to view as backwaters, suddenly became safe havens.

The new Russian emigration pales in scale to the refugee crisis that the invasion set off in Ukraine, where the United Nations estimates that more than 14 million people, or one-third of the country’s population, have been forced from their homes. But the wave of Russian exiles is significant because it includes some of Russia’s best minds and most politically active regime opponents.

The influence that political émigrés will have on the course of events in Russia remains to be seen. Putin prefers to have his opponents outside the country, where they are likely to lose contact with life back home and see their political credibility decrease as the Kremlin brands them as foreign stooges. In a March tirade, Putin disparaged those who left as “scum and traitors” Russia will spit out like flies in an act of “self-cleansing.”

A number of prominent Russian opposition politicians have refused to go into exile and now all find themselves behind bars: Alexey Navalny, who flew back to Moscow in 2021 after recovering abroad from an assassination attempt with a rare nerve agent; Vladimir Kara-Murza, who returned to Russia from the United States following the start of the invasion; and Ilya Yashin, a fixture in Russian opposition politics who vowed to remain in Moscow.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most well-known exile, has said that he spends 10 hours a day keeping track of what is happening inside the country from his home in London. An oligarch who ran afoul of the Kremlin during Putin’s first term in office, Khodorkovsky served 10 years in prison before being pardoned and released in 2013 into exile. In recent years, Khodorkovsky supported various media and civil society projects inside Russia before the government shut them down and prosecuted their leaders. After the invasion of Ukraine, Khodorkovsky co-founded the Russian Anti-War Committee, a group of exiled opposition leaders, and helped fund Burakova’s Kovcheg aid organization.

In a new book that has been published online in English, Khodorkovsky lays out his vision for the future, arguing that to avoid a repetition of Putin’s one-man rule and break Russia’s cycle of authoritarianism, the country will need to adopt a parliamentary model and devolve power to its regions. To get there, Khodorkovsky writes, Russians driven into emigration should form a “second front” to help bring down the regime.

“The new political emigrants are giving voice to the opposition because people inside Russia, if they risk speaking up, face serious repressions,” Khodorkovsky told Foreign Policy. He pointed out that independent Russian media, as well as popular YouTube channels run by Putin critics like himself, all work from abroad now. “A significant portion of these people will return. What their influence will be is another question,” he said.

Recent Russian history is full of examples of political emigrants, many dying in exile, a few returning home triumphantly. Vladimir Lenin was undoubtedly the most successful, sneaking back into Russia after the last tsar abdicated and leading the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The ensuing civil war created the first big wave of political emigration from Russia, with as many as 3 million people fleeing the new Soviet authorities.

Still, the current exodus is unprecedented in recent times, said Mikhail Denisenko, director of the Vishnevsky Institute of Demography in Moscow. “We’ve never had such a big annual outflow, not even in the 1990s,” he said, when 2 million people left Russia in the chaos following the fall of communism. Because much of the data on emigration is incomplete or unreliable, and it is difficult to distinguish visitors from emigrants in border statistics, Denisenko’s “cautious estimate” is that 500,000 Russians have left the country this year and not come back.

The case of political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann is illustrative of that ambiguity. When she left Russia after the invasion to take a one-year fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, Schulmann said she did not consider herself to be a political emigrant. But the Russian authorities have since designated her a “foreign agent,” a status that makes it practically impossible for her to continue her academic work in Russia. From her perch in Berlin, Schulmann has continued giving lively, erudite commentary on Russian politics and now has more than 1 million YouTube subscribers, most of them inside Russia.

Historically, Russian emigrants have been reluctant to form exile communities and have tried to assimilate, Schulmann told Foreign Policy. Large nations typically do not form diasporas, she said, and Russians abroad have been a disparate group lacking common symbols or traditions to rally around. What distinguishes the new Russian émigrés is that they are more homogeneous.

“Many people left in a short period of time. Socially they are very alike, and they left for very similar reasons. We see social structures emerging, but not political ones. Nobody has the political legitimacy,” Schulmann said. “A unifying force could have been Alexey Navalny, were he not in jail.”

Sergey Lagodinsky, a member of the European Parliament for the German Greens party, has known Navalny for more than a decade. “He just couldn’t imagine his work—his active political life—outside of Russia. That’s why he went back,” Lagodinsky said. What Navalny did not expect was that the Kremlin would wipe out his political organization in Russia, Lagodinsky said, effectively making any dissent a criminal offense.

Lagodinsky’s own family left Russia in 1993, when Germany was taking in Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He is now leading an effort to help Russian political emigrants obtain humanitarian visas throughout the European Union.

Russia’s democratic opposition has rarely spoken in one voice, with Navalny, Khodorkovsky, and others representing rival centers of gravity. Because of this diversity of opinion, Lagodinsky said, Russian émigrés do not need a political organization as much as a network that would help them speak to Western leaders. One idea, still unrealized, is for the Kremlin’s opponents abroad to establish an office in Brussels or Berlin.

Whatever splits exist in the opposition, Lagodinsky said their main problem is that the Kremlin has completely isolated Russia’s public space, making it impossible for Russian civil society to effect change inside the country. Therefore, the focus of Russian emigrants in Europe should be to prepare for the time after Putin, he said.

“It will be important—and challenging—to present a viable democratic alternative to a much worse alternative when things will be changing. We do need to take seriously an antidemocratic, worse-than-Putin alternative,” Lagodinsky said. “You need faces—strong leaders and politicians who offer themselves as alternatives.”

One such face may be Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally who became a protest leader three years ago after being barred from running for Moscow’s city council. She fled Russia last year when it no longer became possible for her to continue her opposition activism amid increasing pressure from the authorities. “After Navalny’s arrest and until my departure, not a single day went by that Russian law enforcement didn’t contact me, search my home, interrogate, or detain me,” Sobol said. She is aware of five criminal cases against her in Russia.

Long before he was imprisoned, Navalny mastered the use of social media to bypass state-run television and speak directly to supporters, and even now his exiled team keeps his Twitter and Instagram accounts active. Sobol said her job was to turn Navalny Live, a YouTube channel with 3 million subscribers, into the main opposition platform. “Our two goals are to reduce Putin’s legitimacy and increase trust in our democratic movement,” she said.

The political situation in Russia is currently marked by instability, said Schulmann, who foresees a free-for-all once there is a change in regime. “There will be a lot of political turmoil after Putin. Anyone will be able to take part,” she said. “But having the resources of a well-known name, media outlets, and followers is useful.”

Khodorkovsky, who was first jailed in 2003 and is now 59, said his potential role in a future government is diminishing the longer Putin hangs on to power. Khodorkovsky is resigned to the possibility that the Putin regime will endure for at least another three years. He cast doubt on whether he would be physically capable of taking on a leadership role because governing Russia, whose institutions Putin has completely gutted, will be a 24/7 undertaking.

Reforming Russia may very well be the task of a new generation. “We aren’t waiting for the fall of the regime,” said Sobol, who is 35. “We’re actively working toward it and want to get there as fast as possible.”

The report was first published in the Foreign Policy