Russians fleeing war and repression seek solace in Istanbul
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has prompted thousands of people critical of the war to leave Russia. Istanbul has proved a popular choice, either for transit or a new home.
In an elegant patisserie on the Asian side of Istanbul, I am waiting for Irina Gaisina to come back from the immigration office. The 39-year-old psychologist and politician left Russia for Turkey in early March, leaving behind her three children and husband.
The reason was her work in politics — she was elected to the municipal council of St. Petersburg from Russia's opposition Yabloko Party in 2019. Gaisina attended rallies for jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny and signed anti-war petitions after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
"The last demonstration I participated in was at the end of February. I was not arrested but some of my friends were," she says. "I woke up and read news about my friends accused of terrorist activities. Their homes were raided. I was next."
Her husband agreed to stay with their children and told her to leave Russia. The next day, she took a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul where she knew a journalist friend from St. Petersburg who was already there. For Gaisina, Turkey had been a frequent destination for business and leisure until the war in Ukraine began.
She went directly to a shelter managed by "The Ark," a support group for Russians fleeing their country in the wake of the war, in the conservative Istanbul district of Fatih.
"I really got along with people there because we were coming from the same background, sharing the same political opinions," Gaisina told DW Turkish. "It is nice to be in touch with people who are in the same situation as you and speak your language."
With international financial companies suspending operations in Russia and cutting off transactions, her credit cards are blocked. Only the debit card works from time to time.
Gaisina has a Turkish bank account now, and managed to find her own apartment with the help of a Turkish friend as she waits for her family to join her in Istanbul. Since her children don't speak Turkish and private Russian schools are expensive in Istanbul, they will attend online school after arriving Turkey.
But Gaisina hopes to return to Russia when the war is over and Putin leaves office.
"I got a one-year residence permit," she said. "We want to move to Europe, preferably Germany. I will miss my friends. Some already left, some are in jail. We fell apart and it is not going to be restored. This is so sad."
'Most Russians want to go to Europe'
Eva Rapoport, photographer and cultural anthropologist, is one of the coordinators of the "The Ark." They have helped hundreds of Russians since March, providing temporary shelter and psychological support in the Armenian capital Yerevan as well as Istanbul.
"We ask people to fill out an online application form to confirm their political background," Rapoport says. "We have to make sure everybody is safe in shelters and no one has a hidden agenda."
Rapoport, who has been living in Istanbul since 2020, left Russia when she decided not to pursue her career in a country that she says has "no future." She estimates that around 3,000 Russians moved to Turkey after the war.
Some had to leave Turkey soon after they arrived because of financial problems. "For Russians in exile, it is quite difficult to survive financially," she says. "Most people want to go to Europe to seek political asylum. It is not easy to find a job in Turkey. Integration is not easy too."
'When we moved to a nice apartment here, it felt like home'
Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey have been the three main destinations for Russian political exiles after the war. Russians in Istanbul connect on virtual chat groups, organizing events and sharing experiences about how to build a new life in Turkey. Thousands of people join Telegram groups to ask each other about how to rent a cheap apartment and open a bank account in Istanbul.
Anneliya Garifulina and Ruslan Bobrik also moved to Istanbul after the war. They already had plans to leave Russia, but the war accelerated their flight.
"The situation was getting worse and the future was not bright," Garifulina, a model and blogger, says. "When the war began, we did not want to be stuck in Russia. I was also afraid Ruslan would be enlisted in the army."
She was in a wheelchair with a broken leg at the time. When she was asked at the airport about their plans, the 35-year-old-said they were leaving to get treatment in Turkey. They left Moscow with their three dogs.
The Russian couple signed a lease for a year in the Sisli district, a commercial area in downtown Istanbul. They are both taking Turkish classes right now.
"When we moved to a nice apartment here, it felt like home. Ruslan is here, my dogs are here and I feel safe," Garifulina says now. "I won't be going back to Russia until big changes happen. But I don't see a possibility of change in the foreseeable future."
'We say 'save it for the dark day,' and the dark day came'
When the beauty blogger posted on her Instagram account "maquillage_diary" that she had left Russia because of the war using the #MakeLoveNotWar hashtag, she says she lost around 1,000 followers. She wanted to share that post before leaving Russia but her husband stopped her.
"At (airport) security, they were checking phones," she says. "Some people were deleting their messages and social media posts. I didn't feel safe in Russia because of the free speech situation. It is not safe to say you are against the war."
Ruslan Bobrik, a 43-year-old finance and IT consultant, defines himself as a digital nomad, and he worked in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before moving to Moscow.
"After moving to Istanbul, I realized that I miss Moscow. It is actually surprising because I am too rational to miss something," he says.
The two say they didn't have any negative experiences as Russian citizens while looking for a place through real estate agencies. The high inflation in Turkey hasn't affected them much, though they have grown used to surging prices since March.
"The economic crisis was coming so I made some savings for the future. Our savings saved us," Bobrik says.
"We say, 'Save it for the dark day,'" Garifulina adds. "And the dark day came."
'I felt so good leaving Russia'
Olesia Bessmeltseva studied IT engineering and German literature and was a curator in St. Petersburg. She got a new job just two days before the war started.
Feeling depressed, 36-year-old Bessmeltseva had already wanted to leave because of the deteriorating political situation. Moreover, her critical works made it harder to make money as an artist. In March, she left Russia for Istanbul with a political activist friend who was in danger.
"At St. Petersburg airport, I shot a video of myself to show my friends I am actually okay and it is still possible to feel better. I felt so good leaving Russia," she says.
Putin's decision to invade Ukraine brought her to a point in her life when political activism no longer felt useful. Unlike most Russian exiles, she is planning to stay in Turkey instead of going to Europe. And she does not miss her homeland.
"Wars ruin lots of people's lives. If you can't save people, you can save yourself and still keep doing something for people in need," Bessmeltseva says.