The Putin Apostates Come Home

Putin. Photo: Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
June 21, 2022

Like so many other Muscovites, Katya learned about the Russian invasion of Ukraine from an early morning text. “The war has started,” a friend wrote to her at 5 a.m. on February 24. Katya, whose name I have changed to protect her identity, had a full body response. She began to shake and hyperventilate and thought, for some reason, that the bombs were about to start falling on her home in Moscow. Her husband calmed her down enough for her to go back to sleep, but in the morning, the reality struck her with renewed force. 

There were rumors that Vladimir Putin would close the country’s borders and implement a draft, and Katya’s phone was full of frantic messages from friends and family who were scrambling to flee Russia. She went to a nearby hipster cafe to get coffee, and every conversation she heard there was about how to get out. She went to see her parents. Her father took her by the hand and said, “You have to leave though it is possible we will never see each other again.” A friend living in America called Katya in tears, begging her to leave Russia because she was sure there was going to be a nuclear bomb dropped on Moscow.

Within days, Katya discovered that even the friends who had been saying they would never leave Russia were gone. “I was in a state of total panic,” Katya told me. “You were scared of absolutely everything. You feel like you’re flying in an airplane that’s being piloted by an insane terrorist. I had this feeling of being in a place where it was dangerous to be, a place that had stopped functioning according to any kind of reason or common sense, and I felt that I needed to get out of here, to a place that was safe.”

So Katya too decided to leave. She bought tickets for herself, her husband and their three children, cleaned out her phone of all her messaging and social media apps—there were reports that the F.S.B. was stopping people at the border to search for any evidence of dissent—and boarded a plane for Israel, joining the hundreds of thousands of people who fled Russia in the first two weeks of the war. Many of them were independent journalists who feared arrest under the Kremlin’s harsh new military censorship law. Others feared an even broader political crackdown on the opposition. Still others worried about being called up to fight in a war they vehemently opposed. And they all felt like the walls were closing in, that the system of authoritarianism that they had figured out how to live with had turned totalitarian overnight. They were all desperate to reach safer shores.

Katya had been building this lifeline, her life boat, since 2014, after Russia first invaded Crimea, and Russia was seized by a paroxysm of an aggressive, jingoist fever. Like hundreds of thousands of other liberal, globalized Russians, she realized that Putin had started Russia down a very different path and began the process of acquiring citizenship elsewhere, just in case she felt she needed to flee his madness. She settled on Israel because she and her family had Jewish roots and the process of getting a passport there was easier—and cheaper—than obtaining one somewhere in the European Union. 

Katya and her family had visited Israel many times, but when they arrived in early March, they found that being immigrants was far different than being affluent tourists. The number of Israeli citizenship applications from Russians nearly doubled in 2014, and now all those lifeboats were coming ashore in Israel. Housing was scarce and expensive. Katya paid $3,000 cash for four days in a shabby, run-down apartment just as Visa and Mastercard announced that they were discontinuing service in Russia. Now Katya and her family were blocked from accessing their accounts, and were left with whatever cash they had managed to take out before the shutdown. 

That quickly ran out, too. Life in Israel is expensive, especially when you have no access to money. Katya’s husband, a doctor, decided he would return to Moscow: he had patients who needed him and someone had to support the family. Suddenly, Katya was alone with three children whom she had yanked out of school. Neither she nor they spoke any Hebrew, and she couldn’t imagine sending them to local schools—nor did she have any idea how to even start the process. A new life began to take shape before her eyes and she was horrified by it. The lifeboat she had spent years building had brought her somewhere inhospitable and she realized that, no matter what, home was the big sinking ship that she had fled on this little raft.

So, in March, she decided to take her kids and move back to Moscow. 

What she found was that Moscow—or Mordor, as she jokingly called it—hadn’t changed at all. Much has been written about the mass exodus of liberal Russians in the first weeks of their country’s invasion of Ukraine. They fled en masse to Yerevan, Tbilisi, Istanbul, Tel Aviv and Berlin, anywhere their legs could carry them and anywhere they had a valid visa. 

But in the months since, as the conflict in Ukraine has settled into a grinding war of attrition, thousands of these Russians have been quietly returning home. Some are returning temporarily, to tie up loose ends, like renting out an apartment or selling a car, or getting more cash out of the bank. If you can come back without fear of immediate arrest because you’ve learned to be careful on social media, it’s a good time to liquidate your assets. Real estate prices in Russia are booming because there’s nothing else to invest in. Used cars are selling for the price of new ones because the import of foreign cars has stopped. 

But many others, like Katya, are coming back for good. “This is my home,” Katya told me defiantly on a Zoom from her Moscow kitchen, which she had just finished renovating before the war broke out. “And not just this apartment, but this city. I love this city. This is my home. My parents live here, so do my friends. Why should I leave?”

Moreover, much of the urban population’s initial worst fears didn’t come to pass. No national draft was announced, the country’s borders weren’t closed, and life, at least in the capital, continues on as normal. “I don’t know how Putin has managed to make it so that there’s no war in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but he has,” one friend told me recently. “My world has been totally destroyed and when I think about it, I want to cry. And then I go outside, and it’s a glorious Moscow summer. The cafés are full, the sun is shining, there’s music playing. It’s like there’s no war.” 

Another friend told me, “Moscow is just like it is every other day. If you don’t know what the huge Z on a building in the center means, you’d never understand what’s going on. Because life is going on as usual. Restaurants are fully booked. It’s impossible to get a taxi on a Monday night.” 

“Everyday life goes on as before,” another Moscow friend, who has stayed put the entire time, told me ruefully. “The war is only on TV.’

If the West was counting on sanctions to create enough economic pain for the Russian population to rise up, sweep Putin from power, and end the war, they have, so far, been wildly unsuccessful. Putin has managed to maintain a surreal sense of normalcy in Russia, at least in the big cities. My friends’ unanimous descriptions of a city untouched by a gruesome war their government is waging just a few hours to the south, reminded me of America during the years of Iraq and Afghanistan, when, for most city elites, the wars also existed only on TV. And as long as Putin can shield his population from the geopolitical and economic fallout from the war he started, he can stay in power—and wage war in Ukraine—as long as he has enough men and supplies to do so.

For now, he has succeeded. Prices have risen somewhat, but the ruble is stronger than it has been in years and the stores are still full. There is food on the shelves and, as one female friend noted archly, the make-up emporia are still filled to the gills. What shortages there are affect only the people who never liked Putin much to begin with. There’s no more Apple Pay in Moscow, one of the first cities in the world to adopt it nearly universally. Now Muscovites have to walk around with wads of cash. But it’s a minor inconvenience that won’t send people out into the streets. There are fewer Spanish and Italian red wines in the stores, one friend noted sadly, “but how many customers are there like me? Most of the population drinks vodka.” 

Others have complained on social media that, due to E.U. countries closing their airspace to Russian planes, it is much harder to fly to Europe or even Turkey. Tickets are exorbitantly priced and flight times are much longer: now a flight from Moscow to Italy requires an overnight stop in Dubai. “I’ve suffered from the sanctions because Russian planes don’t fly to the U.S. anymore,” the wine connoisseur friend told me. “But how many people does this affect? How many Russians used to regularly fly to Europe? Twenty percent? The rest haven’t gone anywhere before and won’t go anywhere now.” In the wake of these closures, domestic Russian tourism has boomed. Crimea is an especially popular destination—if you can find a ticket. 

And though Moscow’s white-collar class misses their Apple stores and their Marks & Spencer, there are already rumors that many Western brands are planning on returning to the Russian market. Several people told me about a post on Telegram that Zara and Massimo Dutti, two Spanish brands beloved by Muscovites and which closed up shop right after the invasion, will reopen this summer. Retail employees at the luxury fashion houses like Prada are still receiving salaries and telling their friends that their bosses promise a return to Russia in the near future. Many of the contracts drawn up by Western firms selling their Russian property to locals apparently include clauses allowing them to re-buy and re-enter the Russian market in four-to-five years. And many Russians—with the help of European middle men—have found work-arounds. Katya told me that she recently discovered that she can now use SDEK, the courier service that Russian soldiers used to send home looted goods from Ukraine, to order clothes from her favorite departed retailer: H&M. 

There is talk of more trouble on the horizon. Some economists and market watchers are predicting a severe contraction in the fall. The autumn, they say, is when the sanctions will really hit. But few people in Moscow believe them. In the spring, those same talking heads said that the full force of sanctions would descend on the Russian economy in the summer—but that hasn’t happened yet. They predicted that the coronavirus would destroy the Russian economy. Nor did that come to pass. “I don’t know what to believe,” a friend told me.

Even if the economy does collapse in the fall, it wouldn’t necessarily do much to Putin’s standing, which has only been strengthened domestically, both by the war and by Western sanctions. Even Katya, who has always hated Putin and attended opposition protests as long as I’ve known her, is angry more at the “hypocrisy” of Western corporations and governments. She believes that their responses have only buttressed Putin’s power. “Whom do these sanctions really hurt, anyway?” Katya asked indignantly as she lit a slender cigarette. “Does Putin go to IKEA and H&M? No, it all hurts ordinary people.” 

Another friend, a European who has been living in Moscow for more than a decade, explained the resilience of Russians to me this way: unlike Americans, Russians don’t expect things to get better and better. And when things inevitably get worse, Russians are neither surprised nor furious. They had always expected as much. “Russians can live in a five star hotel one day and under a bridge the next day with no problem,” this friend said. “Because they’ve experienced everything in their lives and they know that they can have everything one day and lose everything the next. This is the majority.” He added, “And the person who knows this perfectly is Putin.”