Russians fleeing war and repression seek solace in Istanbul | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW

In an elegant pastry shop on the Asian side of Istanbul, I wait for Irina Gaisina to return from the immigration office. The 39-year-old psychologist and politician left Russia for Turkey in early March, leaving behind her three children and her husband.

The reason was her political work – she was elected to the Saint Petersburg city council by the Russian opposition party Yabloko 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 in which I participated dates back to 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 being charged with 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 was a frequent destination for business and leisure until the start of the war in Ukraine.

She went straight to a shelter run by “The Ark”, a support group for Russians fleeing their country in the aftermath of the war, in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district.

“I got along really well with the people there because we came from the same background, sharing the same political views,” Gaisina told DW Turkish. “It’s nice to be in contact with people who are in the same situation as you and who speak your language.”

Psychologist and politician Irina Gaisina waits for her family to join her in Istanbul

With international financial companies suspending operations in Russia and cutting off transactions, his credit cards are blocked. Only the debit card works from time to time.

Gaisina now has a Turkish bank account and managed to find her own apartment with the help of a Turkish friend while waiting for her family to join her in Istanbul. Since her children do not speak Turkish and private Russian schools are expensive in Istanbul, they will attend an online school after arriving in 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 to Germany. I will miss my friends. Some have already left, others are in prison. We fell apart and it will not recover. It’s so sad.”

“Most Russians want to go to Europe”

Eva Rapoport, photographer and cultural anthropologist, is one of the coordinators of “L’Arche”. They have helped hundreds of Russians since March, providing them with temporary shelter and psychological support in the Armenian capital Yerevan as well as in Istanbul.

“We ask people to complete an online application form to confirm their political background,” Rapoport said. “We need to make sure everyone is safe in the shelters and no one has a hidden agenda.”

Rapoport, who has lived in Istanbul since 2020, left Russia when she decided not to pursue her career in a country she says has “no future”. She estimates that around 3,000 Russians moved to Turkey after the war.

Some had to leave Turkey shortly after arrival due to 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 either.”

Eva Rapoport

Eva Rapoport is a photographer and cultural anthropologist who helps Russian dissidents arriving in Istanbul

“When we moved to a nice apartment here, we felt like home”

Georgia, Armenia and Turkey were the top three destinations for Russian political exiles after the war. Russians in Istanbul connect on virtual chat groups, organize events and share experiences on how to build a new life in Turkey. Thousands of people join Telegram groups asking 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 had already planned to leave Russia, but the war hastened their escape.

“Things were getting worse and the future was not bright,” says model and blogger Garifulina. “When the war started, we didn’t want to be stuck in Russia. I was also afraid that Ruslan would be drafted into the army.”

She was in a wheelchair with a broken leg at the time. When asked at the airport about their plans, the 35-year-old said they were going to Turkey for treatment. They left Moscow with their three dogs.

The Russian couple signed a one-year lease in the Sisli district, a commercial area in downtown Istanbul. They are both taking Turkish lessons at the moment.

“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 go back to Russia until big changes happen. But I don’t see any possibility of change in the foreseeable future.”

“We say ‘save it for the dark day,’ and the dark day has come”

When the beauty blogger posted on her “maquillage_diary” Instagram account that she had left Russia because of the war using the hashtag #MakeLoveNotWar, she said she lost around 1,000 followers. She wanted to share this post before leaving Russia but her husband stopped her.

“At (airport) security, they were checking phones,” she said. “Some people were deleting their social media messages and posts. I didn’t feel safe in Russia because of the free speech situation. It’s not safe to say you’re against the war. “

Ruslan Bobrik, a 43-year-old finance and IT consultant, describes himself as a digital nomad, and he worked in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before settling in Moscow.

“After moving to Istanbul, I realized that I miss Moscow. It’s actually surprising because I’m too rational to miss something,” he says.

Both men say they had no negative experiences as Russian citizens when looking for accommodation through real estate agencies. High inflation in Turkey has not affected them much, although they have become accustomed to soaring prices since March.

“The economic crisis was coming, so I saved for the future. Our savings saved us,” says Bobrik.

“We say, ‘Save it for the dark day,'” adds Garifulina. “And the dark day has come.”

Olesia Bessmeltseva

Artist and curator Olesia Bessmeltseva says she felt good leaving Russia and plans to stay in Turkey

“I felt so good leaving Russia”

Olesia Bessmeltseva studied computer engineering and German literature and served as a curator in St. Petersburg. She got a new job just two days before the war started.

Depressed, Bessmeltseva, 36, had previously wanted to leave due to the deteriorating political situation. Additionally, his critical works made it more difficult to earn money as an artist. In March, she leaves Russia for Istanbul with a political activist friend in danger.

“At St. Petersburg airport, I shot a video of myself to show my friends that I’m fine and it’s 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 where political activism no longer felt useful. Unlike most Russian exiles, she plans to stay in Turkey instead of going to Europe. And he doesn’t miss his homeland.

“Wars ruin a lot of people’s lives. If you can’t save people, you can save yourself and keep doing something for people in need,” Bessmeltseva said.

Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar

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