‘There’s an Atmosphere of Fear.’ With Flights Banned, Russians Are Fleeing By Train for Europe
Three protestors waited on the Helsinki Station’s Platform 9 to welcome the train from Saint Petersburg. The one holding the poster with Russia Kills Children, was draping in Ukrainian flag. Other women clutched images of Ukraine’s destruction. Alexandra, a student at university who was leaving Moscow for a better life, got out of the train carrying her lavender bag and walked towards the station. The protestors stared at her. “It’s so annoying,” Alexandra said. “I mean, I understand where they’re coming from. But don’t they know that we’re the ones whose friends are getting arrested for opposing the war?”
Alexandra fled Russia, just like many others on the train that arrived in Helsinki. TIME did not ask any Russians to reveal their last names, as they were afraid of reprisals by the Putin regime. Since Ukraine was invaded on Feb. 24, the world’s attention has rightly been on the estimated 2 million Ukrainians forced from their homes by the violence. However, the conflict has led to a smaller exodus northward. A crackdown against dissent and harsh economic sanctions have convinced some Russians that the country should be freed as soon as possible. This is especially true for the section of the population that doesn’t support the war.
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They have few options. The only way to reach Europe is by land, as more than 30 countries ban flights that originate from Russia. Only a few bus companies offer services to Finland and Estonia. However, the Allegro train between Saint Petersburg and Helsinki (which currently operates twice daily) is the last option for rail travel. It seats 350 people. These trains started selling shortly after the start of war in Ukraine.
“About 70% of the passengers are Russian,” says Viktoria Hurri, director of Finnish-Russian Passenger Services for VR, the Finnish railway company. “It’s very difficult for us to say whether they plan to stay [in the European Union]. But they are bringing a lot of luggage.”
How to flee
Konstantin Sonin is a Russian economist at University of Chicago tweetedThis week, it was reported that around 200,000 Russians had fled the country since the outbreak of war. According to government figures, at least 80,000 have fled to Armenia while 25,000 are currently in Georgia. They also came in large numbers from Israel and Turkey. However, a steady flow of migrants is moving towards Finland. From there it will continue to Europe and further west.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only Finns and Russians are currently allowed onboard, and although tickets are not terribly expensive—they range from $43 to $175 for the 3.5 hour trip— the trip requires certain resources. Credit cards issued by Russian banks no longer work in the European Union, and anyone entering needs to show proof that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 with an approved vaccine—which does not include Sputnik, the one most commonly used in Russia. In addition, they must have an E.U. passport or residence permit (an estimated 700,000 Russians held them at the end of 2020), passengers will need to start the complicated and uncertain process of applying for political asylum, or seek a Schengen visa, the most uncomplicated of which–the tourist visa—still requires proof of insurance, financial resources, and accommodation, and only lasts for a maximum of 90 days.
(The European Parliament is considering proposals to ban the so-called “golden visas” that have allowed some wealthy Russians to take up residence within the EU, and the Commission partially suspended an agreement that facilitated visas for Russians, cutting off those with close ties to the Putin regime. However, ordinary Russians are still eligible for regular residence visas provided they comply with the standards of each member country where they plan to reside.
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However, leaving Russia requires some privileges. It also takes a lot of courage. Alexandra decided to leave Russia for France because she had dual citizenship after her internship in Moscow was cancelled. But she left behind relatives who she’s not sure she will ever see again. “I don’t know if I’m leaving for good. No one can predict it,” she says. “But I have family in Moscow who aren’t thinking of going, they’re just scared. And I’m scared for them.”
It’s a good thing. Russia’s economic situation is getting more complicated. Prices have already risen drastically, with the cost of basic foodstuffs increasing 2.2% in the first week of the war and discretionary items made in the West—like Apple Mac computers, which doubled before selling out altogether—going up even more dramatically in the wake of sanctions. The Russian sanctions are causing international businesses like Ikea and Starbucks to leave Russia. Minimum one Russian source is predicting that the country’s unemployment rate, which stood at 4.4% prior to the Ukraine invasion, will double by year’s end. People who rely on foreign currency also have their incomes frozen.
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Daria, a teacher who arrived in Helsinki Friday, is able to use both her Canadian and Russian passports. Due to the sanctions she couldn’t transfer money from her Russian accounts to her Russian account. She also had to purchase roubles from Canadian friends in Moscow to make ends meet. “Now I’m questioning if something goes wrong here or the economic situation worsens, how will I support my family financially?”
Crackdowns and divisions
But despite all her economic worries, her main motivation to leave was the suppression of dissent. Since the invasion, Russian authorities have suppressed protests and even made it a crime to refer to the war as a war, insisting instead that it is a “special military operation.” On March 7, Putin passed a law that punishes any public criticism of the military with up to 15 years in prison—a law that sparked many media outlets, foreign and domestic, to cease operating in the country. “There’s an atmosphere of fear with the introduction of new censorship laws,” says Daria. “People get arrested randomly on the days of protests.”
She also had her own sister. Even though she was only held for six hours after her arrest, it was still chilling to see the randomness of this incident. “She wasn’t even at a demonstration,” Daria says.“She was in a different part of the city, and they were just arresting people in different parts of the city that weren’t even central. So that didn’t make sense to me. But I think the general intention is just to scare young people off from doing this.”
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Greg was inspired by a completely different fear when he arrived at Helsinki in a bus that same day. He was born in Moscow and holds both Russian passports. He had lived in Moscow for his job, but the war erupted and he decided to return to Boston. However, the cancellation of flights made the trip more difficult. “I was afraid I’d be forced to fight,” he says. “Russia is saying that no conscripts are being sent to Ukraine, that they’ve all signed contracts to go. But that’s not exactly true. They’re forcing conscripts to sign the contracts.”
Others felt that Russia was retreating from the West and returning back to its earlier totalitarian past. Because of her husband’s job in Germany, Irina had been planning to relocate for a while, But the invasion—and the censorship it has brought inside Russia—forced her hand. Although she loves her life in Moscow, where she works as a teacher at an international school and enjoys an active social life, she has found the divide between those who accept the government’s line and those in her own circle too difficult to bear. “There are people who understand what is going on and can read between the lines, “ she says. “But the generation of our parents, they can’t. They believe [what they see on] TV, and they just don’t understand what’s really happening at all.”
She too has had friends who were detained or thrown in jail because they protested what she delicately describes as “some choices of the government” and she also worries that saying too much—even from the safe distance of Helsinki—will put her loved ones at risk. And as someone old enough to recall living under Soviet times, the memory of the country’s isolation also helped prompt her decision to leave. “I was reading the news about what’s going on, and I thought, there will be a moment when they might decide to close the borders,” she says. “Everyone is talking about it like it’s impossible. But I’ve lived in this country, and it’s the same country that has closed borders before.”
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VR is pushing for EU passport holders from other countries to be permitted on the St. Petersburg–Helsinki rail line. If that happens, VR will also increase the train fleet accordingly. Yet at the same time, they’ve noticed a slight slackening of demand among Russians in the past few days. Are those who have the means to flee already having this effect? Is it an indication that Russia’s curtain is closing again? Hurri, the rail company representative, didn’t want to speculate. “All we can say is that the situation has stabilized for now.”
Mark, a Russian businessman, stood at the station on Thursday afternoon trying not to make eye contact with anti-Russian protestors. He also waited for the train carrying his mother. She arrived at the station just after six o’clock in the afternoon with two suitcases and a tourist visa allowing her to stay for three months. Will she go back to Russia? For asylum or family reunion, you can apply in Finland. Mark smiled. “I don’t know…everything is so uncertain,” he said. “I just thought she should come now because it’s probably my last chance to see her. At least in the near future.”