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Russia is losing thousands of outward looking young professionals

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Russia is losing thousands of outward looking young professionals

Yerevan, Armenia – At Lumen Café in the Armenian capital, Russians try to navigate a dwindling array of options as soon as they open doors, order specialty coffee, open their sleek Apple laptops and start their lives.

The background music and sunlit interior are calming counterpoints to his frantic departure from his country, in which he left behind parents, pets, and a sense of home, but all but missing when Russia invaded Ukraine last month. Have become.

“This war was something I never thought could happen,” said 29-year-old Polina Loseva, a web designer working with a private Russian IT company in Moscow, whom she did not wish to be named. “When it started, I felt that now everything is possible. They are already jailing people for some harmless words on Facebook. It was safe to go.”

Russia is bleeding outward-looking young professionals who were part of a global economy that has largely cut off their country.

According to officials, before the start of the war, only 3,000 to 4,000 Russians were registered as workers in Armenia. But in the two weeks following the invasion, at least the same number arrived almost every day in this small country. While thousands have moved to other destinations, government officials said late last week that around 20,000 remain. Tens of thousands of others want to start new lives in other countries.

The speed and scale of the escape is evidence of a seismic shift that the invasion began inside Russia. Although President Vladimir V. Putin repressed dissent, Russia remained a place where people could travel relatively freely abroad, mostly with uncensored Internet, that allowed free media, a thriving tech industry and a world wide Gave a platform to the class art scene. Life was good, the migrants said.

For new arrivals in Armenia, a sense of controlled terror is accompanied by the guilt of leaving their families, friends and homeland, as well as the fear of speaking out openly and the grief of seeing a country they hate.

“Most of those who left the war are connected to the world and understand what’s going on,” said Ivan, part-owner of the Cyprus-based video game development firm. He and several other Russian exiles interviewed in Armenia said they did not want to give their full names for fear of repercussions at home.

Ms. Loseva and her boyfriend, Roman Zhigalov, a 32-year-old web developer who works for the same company she works for, sat with their friends at a table in a crowded cafe, the place to live. were looking for. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, she leaned against Mr. Zhigalov, closed her eyes and placed his hand on his shoulder.

“A month ago, I didn’t want to move to another country,” she said. “But now, I don’t want to go back. This is not the country I want to live in anymore.”

At other tables in the small cafe, young Russians tapped laptops or checked their Apple watches. Some logged into Zoom meetings; Others sought out places where they could afford rent when their savings were inaccessible.

But the fall in the ruble, which at one time lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the US dollar, and rising housing costs in Armenia, which are priced in dollars, have left some people wanting to live in stylish apartments in Moscow. are considering. From budget hotels to cheap hostels with bunk beds and shared bathrooms.

Most of those visiting Armenia work in IT and other sectors that rely on unfettered internet and international banking links, the country’s economy minister, Vahan Kerobyan, told The New York Times.

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But those fleeing Russia also include bloggers, journalists or activists who fear arrest under the country’s tough new law, which also makes it a crime to use the word “war” in relation to Ukraine.

Some recent Russian arrivals in Armenia said they have contracts that will pay them to work remotely for at least a few months if they can find a way to get the money. Others have been relocated to Armenia by the US and other IT firms, who continue to pay their salaries. But many others have been left to access enough money to scrape together apartment deposits.

Visa, MasterCard and PayPal have severed all ties with Russia, except for the Russian Mir bank card, which is accepted for electronic payments in Armenia and some other countries.

Kate, 26, a project manager for a Russian aid organization, said the night before she and her boyfriend left Moscow, they went from ATM to ATM for three hours, trying unsuccessfully to withdraw dollars. At each cash machine, people with bodyguards would push to the front of the line and withdraw $5,000 at a time, until the machines were empty, she recalled.

“We can’t say anything because it felt really dangerous,” she said.

Tens of thousands of other Russian exiles have traveled to Georgia and Turkey. But Armenia, a former Soviet republic that has remained neutral in the conflict, has offered the softest landing. Unlike at the reception in Georgia, none of the Russians interviewed said they faced hostility. Here, they can enter the country without a visa or passport and stay for up to six months, and Russian is widely spoken.

For some, the pain of leaving their country is compounded by the feeling that the world is increasingly equating all Russians with its president.

“I don’t want to be with Russia, but with the rest of the world,” said web developer Mr. Zhigalov. “But we can’t be with the rest of the world because it seems that being Russian is now seen as a bad thing.”

Russian travel guide editor Maria, 30, who arrived in Armenia last week, was also concerned about hostilities.

“What do people in America think of Russians?” he asked seriously. “Do they hate us?”

Maria said she was involved in anti-government protests in Russia in 2018.

“I was so scared,” she said of her decision to move in with her husband, the manager of a sports training center. “I was afraid of being arrested if I went out to protest. And to be there and do nothing, I don’t want to live like that.”

Most Russians interviewed said they left because crushing international sanctions made it impossible to work with companies from other countries or with foreign customers, or because they feared Russia might close its borders.

Like many of the men who left, her husband, Evgeny, feared that she might be recruited into Ukraine and forced to fight. The couple scrambled to find a flight out of Moscow after most airlines broke ties with Russia, eventually spending almost all the money they had on tickets for a flight to Yerevan.

Many of those who left are entrepreneurs or freelancers in industries that depend on foreign clients, who have also severed ties with them to work outside Russia.

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“They just tell us, ‘Sorry guys. We hope to work together in the future but right now, we can’t,'” video game developer Ivan said of its European partners.

At another cafe, 35-year-old Alex, pulled back his blond hair with a hair tie and tattoos emblazoned with milestones in his life, said he spent four hours at the Moscow airport while his flight was delayed Was drinking gin and tonic.

“I got drunk at the airport just to get some guts,” he said. “I probably should have left earlier, but I love my country.”

Alex, who did not want to be told what industry he worked in, said he cried because he heard voice messages from Ukrainian friends who were called to fight.

“These people were sitting around, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, playing music,” he said. “The next day, he had to defend his country by carrying a gun. These were people who had never owned a gun before. it’s terrible.”

For many Russians, there is also the pain of a generational divide with parents and grandparents who grew up in the former Soviet Union.

Support group project manager Kate said, “My parents, my grandma and grandpa are watching TV and completely trusting the TV line, so it hurts to talk to them.” “At one point, I realized I loved them too much to argue. So I said, let’s not talk about it.”

“There’s no stable ground under my feet,” she said. “We are here now, but we don’t know where we will be in a week or a month or even tomorrow.”

Last week at Yerevan airport, Victoria Poymenova, 22, and her boyfriend, Bulat Mustafin, 24, from the Russian city of Mineralnye Vody, pulled out a tower of suitcases, backpacks and two small carriers holding their little rescue dog, Mishu . and their tortoiseshell cat, Kisya.

Mr Mustafin, an engineer, worked as a technician for film projectors in cinemas that are now unable to show films from Hollywood studios because they have severed ties with Russia.

Ms. Poymenova teaches web programming for an online school in Cyprus. His plan was to find an affordable apartment in Georgia.

“If we don’t find one, we’ll come back here. And if we don’t get one here, we’ll go to Turkey. And if there’s nothing, we’ll go to Serbia,” said Ms. Poymenova. “We just want a peaceful life, but it is very difficult when your country is facing such a disaster.”

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