Democracy in exile? The political action of anti-war Russian migrants facilitates possible democratization

2022 has seen the biggest exodus from Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although Russian migrants may create tensions, they do not pose any major security threats. Many continue participating in civic initiatives in their new countries.

About one million Russians have fled their country since February 24, 2022. About 300,000 people fled soon after the Russian government launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, followed by at least 700,000 in the autumn, immediately after president Vladimir Putin announced ‘the partial military mobilization’.

Why bother about these migrants? Although Russian migrants may create tension, they do not seem to pose any major security threats. They differ from the average Russian citizen: they are more educated, better off and share a strong anti-war stance. Most crucially, they remain politically active, continuing to participate in civic initiatives in their new homes.

Escaping the Russian political and legal system allows these individuals to communicate freely without taking precautions and self-censoring, as well as transmit alternative media narratives back to Russia in the same way that USSR dissidents were spreading forbidden literature and news from abroad.

This we know from the surveys that our group of researchers at the University of Helsinki and European University Institute in Italy have carried out with more than 2000 Russian migrants.

Alternative image and political project for the homeland

World history provides plenty of examples of political migrants and diasporas actively participating to create alternative imageries and political projects for their homeland. Some former politicians in exile, such as Estonia’s first president Lennart Meri and Valdas Adamkus from Lithuania, succeeded in becoming  indispensable parts of transition, and even the forming of new democratic governments.

The Ukrainian communities abroad provide another prominent example, demonstrating solidarity and serving as one of the pillars of Ukrainian persistence during the war.

The fact that new migrants are politically active and capable of maintaining social ties with those who remain in Russia inspires us to look at anti-war migrant communities more closely and attempt to estimate their political potential.

Among the first set of emigrés who left for Georgia, Armenia and Turkey immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are leading experts in top-notch industries including the IT sector, as well as representatives of non-commercial sectors, science, and education. The second wave that began after the announcement of partial mobilization in the autumn differs in terms of geography, profession and income.

Nevertheless, there are two aspects that unite these migrants: they oppose the war in Ukraine and they clearly do not want to fight.

Active political engagement, but in new forms

What drives political engagement when an individual has already escaped an oppressive regime? What we have learnt from previous studies is that under an extremely repressive regime, political protest may take the form of emigration. Before the war in Ukraine, Russians who emigrated between 2014 and 2022 were found to be actively involved in fighting corruption, advocating for fair election, actively involved in human rights and environmental protection, fighting propaganda, and anti-war activities.

Our survey data suggest that previous experience of political activism predicts political activism after emigration: exposure to the regime’s dark side makes certain individuals rethink their political stance and, in a sense, resocializes them into politics.

Despite the challenges of emigration, Russian migrants remain politically active. The format of political engagement, however, has changed significantly. The share of those who participated in illegal rallies decreased from 49% before emigration to 26%. This is partially because migrants are scattered across multiple countries representing various political regimes. In Russia, any disloyal collective action is prohibited, while in Armenia or Georgia peaceful protests are a normal part of political life. At the same time, the share of migrants volunteering in favor of their compatriots and Ukrainian refugees increased from 10% to 32% and from 4% to 29% respectively.

The survey also suggests that women are more likely to donate, to take to the streets and to help Ukrainians as well as Russians.

The new anti-war communities serve as a school of civic society aiming at providing tools of political empowerment that Russians lacked back home. Tbilisi, for instance, became a hub for hundreds of Russians who immediately launched a series of anti-war initiatives, humanitarian aid, charity activities and political protests. We observe very similar activities in Turkey and Armenia – two other of the most popular countries for migrants.

Different from the general population

Large-scale migrations unavoidably leave deep traces in domestic economies and the political landscape, including in the countries of destination. The first set of Russians leaving Russia immediately after the invasion of Ukraine are better educated, enjoy higher income per household, and are capable of sustaining themselves in a short-run and medium term than the general population in Russia.

They are likely to have mobile and competitive professional skills and access to social networks and global markets. According to various estimates, a third to almost half of them are employed in the IT sector.

The September wave of migrants – those escaping the draft – do not seem to enjoy similar privileges but nevertheless differ dramatically from the rest of the Russian population. Altogether, the 2022 migrants have sufficient means to stay afloat: 27% can afford a car while as opposed to only 4% of Russia’s population; more than 80% have completed higher education in contrast to only 27% in of Russia’s population.

Such a massive exodus may cause or intensify a series of tensions: a political divide between those who fled Russia and those who stayed behind, growing pressure on the job markets and economy of destination states, and even inter-ethnic clashes in host countries. It is, however, unlikely that they pose any tangible security threat in terms of possible Russian military aggression.

Vis-à-vis the rest of the population, these Russians are well informed about the political situation and do not conceal their interest in politics. They are more politicized, tend to trust one other and not those Russians who stayed behind, and share a common experience of the trauma of departure. This is remarkable as, usually, Russian as well as all post-communist migrants share distinctively low levels of mutual trust.

These features may prove conducive to building horizontal networks and civil society structures abroad, as well as strengthened links between pro-democratic emigrés and those in Russia through providing reliable information, securing support from the international community, and offering safety nets for the opposition inside Russia.


This opinion piece is based on the collective research together with doctoral researchers at the EUI (Florence) Emil Kamalov, Ivetta Sergeeva, and Nika Kostenko, former professor of social science at the EUSP (St. Petersburg).