Dispatch

Russia’s Great Reverse Migration

Central Asians used to flee the Soviet empire’s periphery for Moscow. Russia’s mobilization has sent escaping Muscovites in the other direction.

An encounter with the local authorities in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
An encounter with the local authorities in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
An encounter with the local authorities in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Oct. 17. Evan Pheiffer photos for Foreign Policy
By , a freelance writer who has lived in Istanbul since 2016.

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan—There’s something fitting about the fact that former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin is usually credited with coining the phrase, “They voted with their feet.” Although he was referring to tsarist soldiers who abandoned the front lines after the outbreak of Russia’s revolution in 1917, the same could be said of the estimated million or so Russian men who have fled their country since late September.

From the streets of Istanbul to the train stations of Tashkent, there’s hardly a place between the Bosphorus and the Chinese border that hasn’t seen an influx of fighting-age Russians. I hesitate to say young because it’s not always the case. With conscription papers being handed out to tens of thousands of men in their 40s and 50s, this is not Vietnam in 1967 nor even Afghanistan in 1979. “My 49-year-old uncle got his orders last week,” said Nikolai, a Muscovite in his mid-30s who fled to Uzbekistan in late September who wishes only to use his first name. “He stayed in Russia but immediately went into hiding.”

“Everyone with an internet job has left,” Nikolai added. “The only ones who stayed behind are those who have kids or can’t work remotely. It’s tough, you know, taking your family on the run.” Even if Nikolai is a childless internet worker, his wife is a stage actress in Moscow, bound to the capital if she wants to practice her craft.

A friendly encounter with the local authorities in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
A friendly encounter with the local authorities in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

An encounter with the local authorities in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Oct. 17. Evan Pheiffer photos for Foreign Policy

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan—There’s something fitting about the fact that former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin is usually credited with coining the phrase, “They voted with their feet.” Although he was referring to tsarist soldiers who abandoned the front lines after the outbreak of Russia’s revolution in 1917, the same could be said of the estimated million or so Russian men who have fled their country since late September.

From the streets of Istanbul to the train stations of Tashkent, there’s hardly a place between the Bosphorus and the Chinese border that hasn’t seen an influx of fighting-age Russians. I hesitate to say young because it’s not always the case. With conscription papers being handed out to tens of thousands of men in their 40s and 50s, this is not Vietnam in 1967 nor even Afghanistan in 1979. “My 49-year-old uncle got his orders last week,” said Nikolai, a Muscovite in his mid-30s who fled to Uzbekistan in late September who wishes only to use his first name. “He stayed in Russia but immediately went into hiding.”

“Everyone with an internet job has left,” Nikolai added. “The only ones who stayed behind are those who have kids or can’t work remotely. It’s tough, you know, taking your family on the run.” Even if Nikolai is a childless internet worker, his wife is a stage actress in Moscow, bound to the capital if she wants to practice her craft.

Although traditional Russian haunts—such as Turkey, Montenegro, and Thailand—have seen an influx since February—and a veritable explosion since conscription went into force in September—the more interesting story is the exodus of Russians into parts of the former Soviet Union, chiefly the Caucasus and Central Asia. “There are 594 Russians in my Telegram chat group for Bukhara,” Nikolai said about the Silk Road city where he’s spent the past month. “And 1,900 in Samarkand.” For 20 nights, he shared a hostel room with 10 other Russians. “Ten Russians and a Swiss!” he added. “Though even the Swiss was married to a Russian.”

Not everyone was a computer programmer from Moscow. “They were regular guys from everywhere,” Nikolai said. “Yekaterinburg, Rostov, [St.] Petersburg, and Vladivostok.” Although Nikolai has a good job with a start-up, whose 41-year-old Russian founder is now in Dubai, his choice of Uzbekistan wasn’t entirely random. “It was the cheapest place I could find a ticket to,” he admitted. “And my wife had given me one order: ‘Leave! I don’t care where you go!’” But Uzbekistan is also where his mother was born, in Fergana near the border with Kyrgyzstan.

“She was from a typical Soviet family,” he said. “Her father, a Soviet officer, was a Ukrainian from Zaporizhzhia,” which, home to Europe’s largest nuclear reactor, produced around half of Ukraine’s electricity before the war. “Since my grandfather was stationed all over, they lived in Fergana for five years. Though she can’t remember it, I vowed to find my mother’s childhood home.”


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Monument in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Monument in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

A monument to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Oct. 14.

Across the former Soviet Union, Russians are returning en masse to countries they had slowly been leaving for 30 years. After an abrupt end to a century and a half of imperial adventures, settler colonialism, and social engineering of one kind or another, 25 million Russians found themselves outside of the Russian Federation in 1991. As their comparative Soviet-era privileges disappeared, so did they. In Kazakhstan, for example, Russians fell from nearly 40 percent to around 15 percent of the population between 1991 and 2021.

If Russians are far from universally beloved in the former Soviet republics, then their arrival en masse since September has been considerably well received. “Everyone’s been very kind,” Nikolai said. “And everyone speaks Russian, too, young and old alike.” If Uzbekistan switched to the Latin script long before most of Central Asia, the country still boasts nearly 900 Russian-language schools, barely down from its late Soviet peak of 1,100 such institutions. Advertisements are often still in Russian, and most business transactions are still conducted in the language.

Some of the current goodwill may have to do with money. “There’s zero industry here,” said Nurbek, a taxi driver in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek who doubles as a seasonal cargo shipper between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan. “And no jobs either; all this country has is water and gold. That’s why everyone goes to Russia or Turkey.” His sister, for example, has been in the Siberian city of Irkutsk for the past decade while his wife cleans houses in Istanbul. They’re hardly alone: Out of 6.8 million people, 750,000 Kyrgyz work in Russia, and 2 million Uzbeks from a population of 34.6 million do as well. Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, some of these rubles now come to them.

Indeed a historic reverse migration is underway, as hundreds of thousands of men flee from the core of the former empire to its deepest periphery.

“The official media say a million Russians have fled. But it’s at least double that number. Half the people I know have left.”

“The official media say a million Russians have fled. But it’s at least double that number,” Nikolai said. “Half the people I know have left. When the call for conscription came up, people responded very differently,” he added. “One kind completely panicked and ran to the border without packing a sandwich. These were the ‘tsunami people’—the ones who tossed everything and ran before the storm. Others had cooler heads; they thought things over, spent a day or two deciding where to go and how to get there.”

The wreckage of the tsunami could be seen across many borders. Dima, a 46-year-old furniture manufacturer who fled to Istanbul via Tehran, has one friend who abandoned his car at the Georgian border. “The line was so long that people left their cars and started walking,” he said in amazement. At the Russia-Kazakhstan border, where pedestrians are barred from crossing, many people traded their automobiles for bicycles and electric scooters to get across before it was too late, Nikolai said.

And it’s not only those with limited funds fleeing to Central Asia. Pyotr, for example, is a Moscow native who fled to Tashkent to live with his wife’s family. Although he played varsity golf at Boston University, speaks flawless American English, and worked for Coca-Cola for the last five years until the company pulled out of Russia, he too is on the lam. “Where are you from, bro?” he asked me outside an Irish pub in Tashkent. “The U.S.? I just took my wife to Boston for our honeymoon in July. I had to show her where I came of age.”


Russian-Kyrgysz youth practice martial arts in Oak Park in central Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Russian-Kyrgysz youth practice martial arts in Oak Park in central Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Russian-Kyrgysz youth practice martial arts in Oak Park in central Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Oct. 14.

The irony of this exodus can hardly be overstated: first, because brain drains, the most speciously apolitical of mass migrations, are not supposed to go from the center to the periphery. Smart and ambitious kids migrate from Almaty to Moscow, not vice versa. The fact that Russia’s best and brightest are clamoring to get to Samarkand is not just an affront to Putin; it’s a reversal of history since 1991. The only equivalent brain drain in living memory is when Central European intellectuals fled capitals like Vienna and Berlin for American campuses in places like Ithaca, New York, and Chicago in the 1930s. Sometimes they perished, like novelist Stefan Zweig in Petrópolis, Brazil. Others, like the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse, bent the arc of Western culture.

Most human relations revolve around language and money, which the draft dodgers bring in spades.

If newspapers and think tanks have been quick to highlight Russia’s declining influence in post-Soviet Central Asia since early 2022, then they miss a key point. Most human relations revolve around language and money, which the draft dodgers bring in spades. And unlike in the early 1920s—when white Russians fleeing the revolution set up shop in Istanbul en route to Paris, New York, and California—Europe and the Americas are now off-limits. Today’s Russians may be staying in Almaty and Tashkent for much longer than Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky did in Turkey or even Mexico.

“It’s funny when you think about it,” Nikolai said. “For the past few years, I’d been dreaming of leaving Moscow and traveling somewhere. I thought to myself: maybe Italy, maybe Greece. I never thought it’d be Uzbekistan!” He smiled. “But it’s not so bad. Sometimes, life forces you into taking a little trip.”

Of the 10 people in Nikolai’s company, five have left Russia in the past month alone. Most of his friends are scattered among Thailand, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the United Arab Emirates. “Nearly everyone I know is against this madness,” Nikolai said with regard to the war. “The Ukrainians are our brothers.” Although unreciprocated, he utters it in good faith.


A statue of Lenin in Osh, Kyrgyzstan
A statue of Lenin in Osh, Kyrgyzstan

A statue of Lenin in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, built in 1975 is the largest surviving statue of Lenin in Central Asia.

All across Russia, 30 years of globalization seem to have gone up in smoke. “None of our cards work anywhere,” Nikolai said. “The entire place is cut off. Overnight, we’ve gone back to Soviet days.” For those who remain in Russia, this is hard to deny. For the ones who have gotten out—those who speak English and overwhelmingly have so-called internet jobs—a strange new chapter is just beginning.

Physically, they’re in a curious post-Soviet space, speaking Russian but eating Kyrgyz KFC, Instagramming loved ones, and Telegramming fellow exiles about finding the best plumber. It’s a richer, freer, American-flavored world for those with the skills or education to enjoy it. For this lost generation of Russians, globalization hasn’t ended; it’s merely been amputated. They are its severed limb, lumbering back to Tashkent. If not what they imagined for themselves in January, it still beats dying in a ditch in Donetsk.

Economically, they also inhabit a gray zone, earning rubles online but paying rent in Uzbek som, Kyrgyz som, Georgian lari, and Turkish lira. As a result, their immediate impact is on inflation. Since February, the influx of Russians has caused housing prices to spike across Turkey, from Istanbul to every major town on the Mediterranean Sea. In Uzbekistan, hotels have been overbooked and overcharging since September. “It’s been a gold rush,” said Ansar, who runs a flophouse in Samarkand.

“They should have stayed put and fought the regime back home,” an American diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “If they had stood up to Putin instead of fleeing, this war would be over by now.”

On the positive side, the mass arrival of Russian internet workers is creating new cultural possibilities. In Istanbul, two of the leading comedians on the English-language circuit are Russians who perform to sold-out crowds of Turkish youth. More than 3,000 miles away in Bishkek, both co-working spaces and classical concert halls are packed with Russians. In Samarkand, the cooler cafes are back to using Cyrillic menus. With the remains of independent Russian media now largely based in Latvia, even Riga’s reliving its cosmopolitan glory days.

Granted, not everyone is sanguine. “They should have stayed put and fought the regime back home,” an American diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “If they had stood up to Putin instead of fleeing, this war would be over by now.” Turkish nationalists make a similar argument against Syrians. “If they were real men,” goes the refrain, “they would have stayed and fought for their country.”

Therein lies the rub of the Russian exodus: It complicates all our notions of who should die and for what. “There are 200,000 Russian speakers in Berlin,” the diplomat said. “How come you never see them protesting in the streets?” A century after Stalinists and Trotskyists duked it out in the streets of the German capital, today’s Brandenburgers might relish their Russian neighbors’ comparative quiescence. Internet workers of the world might not unite, but nor do they fight to the death.


The biggest practical question is whether these Russians will affect the political landscape in Central Asia. On the one hand, capitals like Kazakhstan’s Astana owe their survival to the Kremlin, which helped put down some of the largest protests in the country’s history in January. On the other hand, who can refuse the transfer en masse of Russia’s middle class, along with its culture, knowledge, and cash? It’s a strange world when Central Asian manual laborers send remittances from Russia while the AWOL Russian internet workers whose homes they clean in Moscow and St. Petersburg now compete with their own families in Samarkand and Bishkek for housing, food, and transportation.

If Central Asian states tend to veer autocratic for locals, then they’re less hands on with the Russians so far. Indeed, neither taxes, censorship, nor conscription seem to apply to this amorphous new community.

Despite being at the mercy of broader forces, Russians across the former Soviet space still have options. “I’ll probably go back to Moscow in a few weeks’ time,” Nikolai said, “since conscription has stopped for now.” And what if the army comes knocking? “Run straight for the border.”

Lenin would have been proud.

Evan Pheiffer is a freelance writer who has lived in Istanbul since 2016. Twitter: @EvanPheiffer Instagram: @shomradnikov

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