The Russians Who Are Returning
Some Russian residents who left the country because of the war have returned home after a brief exile. Meduza asked readers who’ve done just that, whether they thought it was the right decision — and asked them to tell us how Russia has changed over the past year and a half. We received hundreds of letters in response, and are publishing some here. We believe these letters are an important record, and we hope they’ll be informative for those working to end the war, trying to change the ruling regime in Russia, and wondering how to deal with people whose minds may never be changed.
I flew to Turkey the day after the mobilization began [in September 2022]. I took out all my money (which was not much, to put it mildly) and left my wife and child in Russia. I returned a couple of weeks later. I found the feeling of separation from my family, which I was unable to take with me for economic reasons, unbearable.
Both decisions [to go back to Russia and not to go back] were bad. I chose a bad option, but at least I’m close to my family.
Immediately after mobilization was announced, I left with a few friends. The hardest part was that my wife (a civilian) did not want to go with me, so she ended up staying in Russia.
I came back in December . I couldn’t live without my wife. In May  we separated, but I am staying in Russia.
[I think the decision to return is the right one, because] something has to be done so that Russia can be free. I can’t say exactly what I am doing to achieve this. It is important that at the moment of the collapse of Putin’s dictatorship, active people with democratic views take responsibility for building a new Russia.
In January 2023, I left for Georgia: I gave in to the panic associated with the [possible] announcement of the second wave of mobilization. I returned in May because I exhausted my financial resources: there are no jobs in Georgia, prices are high, and it is impossible to get a visa to Europe with a Russian passport.
The decision [to return] is correct. You cannot do anything in life based on fear, on panic: it always leads to losses.
I left with my wife after the start of the war, but before the mobilization. It wasn’t hard to decide, because we were already thinking about leaving for a while.
My wife got pregnant unexpectedly. We had doubts about the quality of medical care in Serbia, and despite my colleagues’ and relatives’ entreaties, we decided to return to have the child in my hometown.
[I think the decision to go back was the right one], although in the end my wife had doubts and insisted I stay [in Serbia]. I communicate with the same people, I see the beautiful and clean St. Petersburg, I see my relatives. Russia remains the same [as it was before the war], many people hold the same views.
I left on September 22, 2022. I was in a panicked mood. I took a direct flight to Baku for 130,000 rubles, then flew to Belgrade, and then to France. I had to go back because my wife refused to move and I had sick relatives in Moscow.
I do not know if this was the right decision. Perhaps I will regret it. Before the war, [Russia] was one country, but after the night of February 24  it became something like a mixture of North Korea and Germany after WWI.
I left with a relative, thinking of traveling on a tourist visa from Russia to Europe and back. I did not support the war, but considered it relatively safe to be in Russia. Then, after the start of mobilization, he abruptly changed his mind and decided not to return, traveling to CIS countries with favorable rules for staying without a visa.
I came back in the spring to get a new passport and get a long-term visa to Europe without unnecessary complications, as well as to see my family and friends: I don’t know when I’ll see them again. I think it was a risky decision and one based on emotion. I think it’s not worth going back for a long time because of how dangerous the regime is for any citizen.
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I left right after mobilization started. It wasn’t my choice, I wasn’t planning on relocating, although my profession, video production, allows me to do so. But my family stayed in Russia. [In the end] I got tired of living out of a suitcase. One feels like a guest abroad, and the constant hints that Russians belong in Russia and that “good Russians” don’t exist only accelerated the process.
At the beginning [of the war], I was terrified: it wasn’t me and my relatives who made this mess, but we will obviously have to clean it up. [Now] Moscow is living in a familiar rhythm: the first shock is gone, many people have begun to adapt, to develop their businesses. In general, the mood is more optimistic than last year.
[I left] right after the mobilization was announced, and I came back six months later, this spring. My professional experience doesn’t translate into anything useful in other countries, and I cannot take my taxes away from Russia. My departure was more a manifestation of the instinct for self-preservation — and self-preservation is possible at home, too. The realization of this, of course, did not come to me immediately.
I don’t regret [coming back]. It’s my home, it’s not me who needs to leave.
Moscow hasn’t changed — it still sparkles with prosperity, in which flyers about employment in the army break in only occasionally. There is a sense that people are anti-war or apolitical, but everyone, of course, is very afraid. Some say that the capital has become like an unnatural setting for an escape from reality. It feels a little different in my home region, where horror seeps in: there are more swastikas and the things you overhear are more frightening.
When mobilization started, I went to Kazakhstan, leaving my family in Russia temporarily. Later, I came back for my family and we went to Turkey. We came back at the beginning of spring : we were denied a tourist residence permit in Turkey, and we haven’t thought about any further steps.
Life as a migrant (even with a job) turned out to be unsatisfying: you don’t want to settle into the culture and stay, you just want the war to end and to go home.
The decision [to go back] cannot be called right or wrong, nobody knows that. But I decided for myself that I would continue to fight from within. In Moscow, for most people the war [is] somewhere far away, and society tries to abstract itself as much as possible from what is happening.
I left after mobilization was announced. I had to leave my pregnant wife behind. The closer the birth came, the more I realized that I couldn’t miss the birth. It was very hard emotionally. I flew back in on New Year’s Eve.
I can’t say that [the decision to go back] was the right one. I don’t want my child to grow up in a country where they start instilling that war is good in kindergarten.
I left at the end of September 2022, when they announced the “mokillization.” I was afraid they’d close the borders and I would have to stay in Russia forever. I went to Italy, to my family. It was clear where to live, there was money, a supportive environment.
I came back in November 2022, even though by that time I had already, I think, found a job in Italy. My friends and, most importantly, my life’s work — my band — remained in Moscow. We tried to write music remotely and it worked, but when the time came to rehearse the material I got stuck. I had to go back because I was too far and it was too hard emotionally to make music. I didn’t have the resources to build it from scratch in Italy.
The Russia I left was full of talk about what was going on, and it was as if everyone was on edge. The Russia I came back to had come to terms with everything that was going on inside, and now it was just trying not to notice it. People are afraid to talk about it: I ride the subway and I see people turn their phones away quietly as they flip through the news. And the only people who aren’t afraid to speak loudly are the ones responsible for all this madness. Doom, gloom, and darkness. And before the war, the country was beautiful — only, to be honest, I didn’t notice it before, didn’t appreciate it, I guess.
I left four days after mobilization started. I did not return, but my wife and child [went back] for the summer.
Russia the day before the start of the war and the day after were exactly the same. For some reason the war happened. But Russia has changed a lot since I left.
I don’t want my child to grow up in the Russia we have today. For me it’s crazy that the police, officials, and teachers will persecute a family because of a school drawing. It’s crazy to me that there’s “patriotic” education in schools and universities. I don’t understand how to communicate with people who could potentially denounce you, your wife, child, or parents.
I left Russia with my wife and two small children right after the war began. Ticket prices were sky-high and I sold my car. We lived outside of Russia — in Indonesia, Turkey, the UAE — for almost a year.
Living in different countries is fun, but you get tired of everything being different quickly — everyday life, people. After half a year, I dreamed of going back, and I did in September , but when mobilization started, I left again — under pressure from my parents. Now I’m in St. Petersburg.
I think the decision to come back was the right one. Everyone who wants to leave must answer one question: are they ready to leave for a few years, until the war and the current regime are over, or do they accept the risks of living in Russia with the political situation.
There’s a strong tension in the information field, as if a new catastrophe is about to happen. Many have simply gone into internal exile for this reason and try not to bring up anything in the news. Others just go on with their lives as before, as they feel they need to wait it out.
In general, the country is the same, as if time has stopped here, the same problems and routines. Only overreach has become the legal norm. People are tired, even more desperate, and withdrawn.
When we returned, we immediately noticed advertisements urging people to go to war, flyers offering contract service on public transit and in stores, and banners with pictures of dead servicemen. People began putting pictures of their friends or relatives, apparently also killed in the war, on car windows. Before our departure I had not seen so many signs of war.
If you look at this from the outside, we have returned to a very different Russia. At the same time, there remain a large number of people in the country who do not support the war. Almost my whole circle who remained in Russia have kept their convictions.
On the other hand, many people around me still harbor feelings of insecurity and fear for their future. There’s no sense of security (which was present before the war); people have stopped making long-term plans. We have a hard time imagining how to live in the future.
Translation by Ned Garvey