With no outlet for political dissent, those who disagree or come into conflict with official power often have no choice but to leave.
The phenomenon of Russians emigrating for political reasons or to escape persecution has a centuries-long history. Political opposition in Russia has mostly been seen as a state threat which must be suppressed. With no outlet for political dissent, those who disagree or come into conflict with official power often have no choice but to leave.
Prince Andrei Kurbsky is widely considered the first political emigre after he fled Russia, then known as Muscovy, in 1564 during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. He is best known for his subsequent correspondence with the czar, in which he attacked Ivan for his autocratic rule and cruelty.
The beginning of the 19th century saw a wave of emigration as intellectuals escaped the stifling autocratic atmosphere of Nicholas I’s Russia. Writers and revolutionaries such as Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin fled to the West in search of an outlet for their political activity.
Perhaps the most famous political emigre of all was Vladimir Lenin, who lived across Europe for several years at the beginning of the 20th century, before returning to Russia in 1917 to lead the October Revolution.
That Revolution set off a wave of departures of so-called White emigres, opponents of the Bolsheviks, who fled Russia from 1917 to 1920. These included members of the imperial family, commanders of the White Army that fought the Bolsheviks such as Pyotr Wrangel, political figures like Pavel Miliukov and writers such as Vladimir Nabokov. Historians estimate that between one and two million left the country.
The Soviet period saw a steady flow of political emigres, including the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was exiled in 1974 after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a biting indictment of the Soviet prison-camp system.
The rise of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency in 2000 set off a new wave of emigration. Oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky fled as the new president clamped down on his opponents. Refugees from Chechnya have also grown in number as the Putin-backed regime of Ramzan Kadyrov has brutally cracked down on its political opponents.
The Russian authorities have frequently been accused of not stopping at simply driving opponents out of the country.
In 1940, Leon Trotsky was killed in Mexico with an ice pick by a Soviet agent. He had been deported as Josef Stalin consolidated power.
More recently, Alexandr Litvinenko, a former KGB agent turned whistleblower, died of radiation poisoning in London, but not before accusing Russian Prime Minister Putin of ordering his murder.
Chechen exiles have also been hunted down. Umar Israilov, who claimed to have witnessed human rights abuses by Kadyrov, was gunned down in the street in Vienna, Austria, last year. This was followed a few months later by the murder in Dubai of Sulim Yamadayev, a rival of Kadyrov. Dubai police alleged Russian government involvement.
Chechens make up a large proportion of the Russians living in Ukraine. Others are members of the National Bolshevik Party, such as Olga Kudrina, as well as journalists who ran afoul of the Kremlin’s censorship.
Two of the most high-profile figures to come to Ukraine from Russia in recent years have been Savik Shuster and Yevgeny Kiselyov, hosts of political television shows who were squeezed out as the Kremlin took tighter control of the airwaves.
Kiselyov does not consider himself an emigre, as he came for professional reasons and spends some time each month in Moscow. But he says that Russia has a very different attitude toward political opposition than Ukraine.
“[In Russia,] if you do not support Putin, that is next to being an enemy of the state, an enemy of the people,” Kiselyov said. “I’m not trying to idealize Ukrainian political life. … But I tell my Ukrainian colleagues that it’s perhaps a blessing that the country’s elite is divided. That’s why you have a political system of checks and balances.”