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Returning to Putin’s Russia: Why People Who Dodged Mobilisation for the Ukraine War Are Returning Home and Happy About it

When Putin tried to mobilise an army to boost troops in his war on Ukraine, some 700,000 people fled. More than two years on, many have returned home. Why?

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia on June 11. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy
Russian President Vladimir Putin on 11 June 2024. Photo: AP/Alamy

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Last weekend, Aleksey (not his real name) celebrated turning 33 in Moscow’s Hermitage Garden — a small and cosy city park in the centre of the Russian capital.

During the picnic-style gathering, he finally met the friends he hadn’t seen for almost two years.

Since September 2022, when Russia announced mobilisation for its war in Ukraine, Aleksey and his girlfriend Sasha (not her real name) – until recently – had been living in Argentina.

The couple, both in film production, had plans to relocate from Argentina to the US, where Sasha’s mother has lived for almost 15 years, but couldn’t find a legal way to obtain an American visa. The US Embassy in Buenos Aires declined the application due to a lack of necessary material assets and travel experience.

So, eventually, the pair returned to Moscow.

A woman takes shelter under an umbrella during the rain in the centre of Moscow on 11 June 2024. Photo: Nikolay Vinokurov/Alamy

Before the Ukraine war, life was good for the couple.

Aleksey had years of industry experience and, while work consumed all of his time, it paid well, and he enjoyed it. In Argentina, he struggled to get jobs – the market was smaller, there were fewer opportunities, and he spoke limited Spanish. The pay was also barely enough to support him, let alone Sasha, and within months he’d spent nearly all of his savings.

The couple also faced problems with their paperwork and starting over soon felt insurmountable.

Back in Russia, all of Aleksey’s ex-colleagues were continuing to work, evolve, and undertake new projects. So, after losing their last hope of starting a new chapter in America, the couple decided to return home to Russia in May – just short of 18 months after they left.

Securing a one-way ticket to Moscow gave Aleksey a feeling of relief and happiness. Even though it meant going back to the country he had fled, there was comfort in the familiar and the ability to make a proper living.

“A friend of mine in Argentina kept warning me that, as soon as I arrived in Russia, I would be immediately handcuffed,” Aleksey told Byline Times.

“So, you arrive at the airport after hearing all these stories, and what happens? A smiling border guard routinely checks passports. A security officer practically escorts us to the car-sharing parking lot. What I’m trying to say is that the media really exaggerates and stirs up the situation.”

People wave Russian national flags as thousands gather on Red Square to watch a concert dedicated to the Day of Russia in Moscow on June 11. Photo: AP/Alamy

Vladimir Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 upended the lives of millions of people – in both countries – and further isolated Russia from the West, presenting new economic and political challenges, and promoting a cultural revolution.

The last vestiges of freedom have been sealed off for good in Russia, with all mainstream narratives shifting to a conservative, nationalistic agenda.

The way people publicly express themselves, the way they talk, and even the way they dress – everything must conform to the new war-torn Russian reality. The Almost Naked Party is a prime example of this shift. The already sceptical attitude towards Western countries has become openly hostile. 

Sociologist Elena Koneva, who has been tracking public sentiment in Russia since the onset of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, categorises the returnees as “opponents of the war”, but notes that they are also likely to belong to the group of “silent” individuals – those who conceal their stance on the conflict, avoid questions, and refrain from active participation in public life, openDemocracy reported last July.

According to Koneva, there has been an “adaptation to personal risks”, with people beginning to hope that the war will not affect them personally.

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Putin Called on the Public – And the Public Fled

Russia’s failed invasion of Ukraine prompted the announcement of a mobilisation some seven months later, igniting one of the largest waves of emigration from Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

In October 2022, Forbes reported that approximately 700,000 people fled in the wake of Putin’s rallying call, with many enduring lengthy waits at airports and border crossings.

Determining the exact number of permanent departures is challenging due to a phenomenon known as ‘hybrid migration’. After spending several months abroad, some individuals chose to return, while others, like Aleksey, decided to extend their stay. 

The remains of a Russian Army armoured column in Bucha, Ukraine, on 1 March 2022 after they were attacked by Ukrainian forces. Photo: Geopix/Alamy

A third group prefers to live between countries, avoiding Russia but occasionally visiting it for medical appointments, paperwork, and to see family.

“Following numerous attempts to gauge the extent of emigration since the conflict began on February 24 2022, experts provided a rough estimate of 0.5–1 million people,” reported the Russian think tank Re: Russia.

Full-scale invasion and mobilisation brought about significant shifts in Russian every day life, but the initial panic gradually subsided, particularly after the military regained control on the front lines, and life in Russia resumed. Restaurants and bars remain open all night, while shops and boutiques are filled with clothing, food, and other goods – including sanctioned items.

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“When my friends abroad saw [on social media] that I was in Russia, they started messaging me, saying things like ‘beware, be careful, the situation must be terrible’,” Aleksey says. “But we walk around Moscow, enjoy ourselves, and everything is wonderful.”

Moscow is living as it always has. The only noticeable change is that there are more Chinese cars. The city has improved, with lots of new buildings, parks, and green spaces.

Aleksey on life in Moscow

This popular post in the Russian segment of X (formerly Twitter) captures the full contradiction of the immigration reality: “While I’m eating cheap fast-food noodles in exile, my friends in Moscow are posting pictures of steaks in restaurants. How did this happen?”

“I lived in a country with hyperinflation for almost two years,” Aleksey told Byline Times. “After Argentina, prices in Moscow are simply fantastic. They have barely changed during this time. Yes, some specific products or items have become more expensive, but I think that’s mainly due to the more complicated logistics.”


They Fled Home But Weren’t Welcomed Anywhere

Many of those who left Russia in 2022 are forced to return due to problems with obtaining residency permits and challenges with employment in foreign countries, Bloomberg has reported, citing Vyacheslav Kartamyshov, head of Moscow-based company Finion. According to experts, out of approximately one million people who fled, 40-45% already fall into this category.

In an article for the Russia.Post, sociologist Sergei Belanovsky highlighted that the primary challenge faced by Russian emigrants is financial instability, with those unable to secure work abroad returning home to do so. “Many return to their previous jobs,” he noted.

Living comfortably abroad is often reserved for top Russian opposition figures or highly skilled professionals such as IT experts or scientists. Some from elite circles also enjoy this privilege by acquiring foreign passports and properties. But, for regular Russians, life away from home can be a struggle, trapping them in a cycle of survival. As a result, many give up and return home.

“There are no ‘Z’ posters… maybe on three or four buildings,” Aleksey says. “Sometimes, you find small brochures. It’s not like there are military banners everywhere and people marching in formation. The feeling of being home outweighs all of that.”

The Russian authorities are trying their best to maintain an atmosphere of normality in big cities such as Moscow. So far, they have been reasonably successful, according to Aleksey, who had almost forgotten how nice and comfortable the Russian capital is.

Good transport and infrastructure, almost entirely digitised and accessible services, and the overall safety stands in stark contrast to Buenos Aires, where he found himself thinking twice before pulling out his iPhone. Plus, everything is in his native language.

Without scrolling through Western or anti-government news outlets – all of which are blocked in Russia – it is hard to detect that anything is wrong for Muscovites.

“When the initial wave of excitement passes, you start to notice – yes, people have gloomy faces, and no one greets you in the apartment building,” Aleksey says. “But overall, there’s nothing particularly scary about Moscow. It all depends on what you focus on.”

Yes, these are tough times. But, if something bad happens in life, it’s easier to get through it on your home soil.

Aleksey on returning home to Moscow

Coming Home But Keeping Quiet

That’s why more and more Russian emigrants are returning home. They are willing to undergo interrogations at border crossings, unfollow certain political channels on social media, and keep their opinions about the war within a tight and trustworthy circle.

But, there have been news reports about former emigrants being arrested and imprisoned upon their return. Authorities are taking a serious stance against those who demonstrate dissent or donate to Ukraine-associated funds – even for humanitarian purposes – and to ACF, the Anti-Corruption Foundation of Alexey Navalny.

The number of political prisoners in Russia is also growing. According to OVD-Info, starting from February 2022, criminal cases for anti-war positions have been opened against 938 individuals. Some of them received fines, while 271 were sentenced to years in prison.

There are more than enough reasons for prosecution in Russia, but Aleksey seems ready to take the risk and thinks that people who get caught just aren’t being careful enough, giving themselves away through donations or activism.

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While agreeing that the censure isn’t fair or normal, Aleksey stays out of harm’s way by not being politically active.

“I understand that there is a threat, but I just don’t think about it,” he told Byline Times. “No one knows what will happen and what won’t. If you recall all the predictions at the beginning of the war, about the economy collapsing within a year, and that the elites would start feuding and the system would crumble from within — it’s all nonsense.

“You could point these experts to their own forecasts now. But I understand how the media works. They need clickable headlines.”

Aleksey isn’t a supporter of Vladimir Putin — but nor is he a critic. He simply wants to live in his country, do his job, and start a family with his girlfriend, just like millions of Ukrainians who lost their chance to do so in February 2022.

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And at this point, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third year, he doesn’t understand what he or his friends can do to stop it: “In general, why suffer in emigration if everything is okay at home? Yes, maybe if I were in America, I would have more opportunities. I could achieve an even better standard of living for my efforts there. But since America didn’t work out, Russia it is.”

Anna Kuleshova, a sociologist at the Social Foresight Group, who interviews Russian emigrants, told Bloomberg in May that Russians who fled the country soon realised that “the world literally rallied against them” and they returned home with a “feeling of resentment and the feeling that ‘Putin was not so wrong after all. They really hate us’”.

And Maria Snegovaya, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told the Financial Times that, once the initial shock passed, “people are making long-term choices about…  where they want to be and [whether] they really hate Putin so much they’re willing to undergo some personal sacrifices for it — or not.”


‘Being A Guest is Good, But Being at Home is Better’

In the summer, Moscow’s Hermitage Garden is full of people spending time outside picnicking. At least 20 of Aleksey’s friends attended his birthday party, all dressed up in designer fashion brands. There was music, flowers, bags with presents, countless hugs, and bottles of Italian prosecco.

“Everyone asks if we’ve returned for good, and they are very happy when I say we have,” Aleksey says. “It warms my heart.”

Some of his guests had also been abroad after the mobilisation, but they have all returned. The reasons are pretty much the same. As the old Russian saying goes, “being a guest is good, but being at home is better”.

Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, and Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Centre in Moscow, wrote about the feelings of Russians towards the Ukraine war, observing that while most “might not identify with the regime”, they have “consolidated around the Kremlin, which they believe to be fighting tooth-and-nail against a West that is seeking to destroy Russia”.

“Despite the fact that such a depiction is at odds with reality, a great many Russians have accepted it as the most logical explanation for this protracted nightmare,” they noted.

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The war shows no sign of ending and there have been further talks of mobilisations.

The true extent of Russia’s losses in the so-called “special military operation” remains undisclosed, as the Ministry of Defence chooses not to divulge this information. The last official report on casualties was released in September 2022, indicating that 5,937 people had been officially killed.

However, according to independent Russian media outlets, which verify casualties using open sources, the country has lost approximately 50,016 military personnel. Journalists from Mediazona and the BBC Russian Service, supported by a team of volunteers, have already identified the names of 50,016 Russian military personnel who have died in the conflict since February 2022.


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