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Artur Levin's column

Run, Forrest, run! Why are Russians leaving their homeland? Emigrant's monologue


In 2010, my husband (then just a friend) and I went to Europe (Germany/Czech Republic) for the first time and saw how life could be and is possible. This trip started our family and thoughts about emigration.

Then there was a lot of travelling: a Euro wedding tour (Finland/Belgium/Portugal/Spain/France), the Canaries, Israel, Vietnam, Cambodia, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands and even Guadeloupe. We experienced life in different countries.

What did we see almost everywhere? People full of dignity, smiling, beautifully dressed. I wanted to live in that feeling and environment.

When we returned home, for another week, we emotionally walked around with a smile on our faces, saying hello even to strangers.

And then this fervour was trampled by Russian realities: dirt on the streets, judgmental glances, crime reports and so on.

My husband and I have much the same outlook on life and moral issues, we try to live as ecologically as possible: we sort rubbish for a long time, we don't pass by those in need; we do our job well. With a lot of fellow citizens, the principles of life were markedly different.

And at some point the world seemed to begin to shrink: insane laws, angry and aggressive people pumped full of propaganda; impunity for those in power and their entourage, savage homophobia, total insecurity for women, children and the elderly...

There was an overwhelming sense of injustice about what was happening.

For a couple of years we had been reading the forums on different countries and different ways of getting a residence permit. We wanted to go to Spain (we used to go there most of the time), but eventually we chose Portugal. We were once in Porto and were delighted with the local colour and people. In July 21’ it was decided that I would quit my job, return from Moscow to St. Petersburg and sell my flat.

We chose the option of internal business legalisation, found a company through which to do the paperwork later, and bought the tickets.

The whole time we spent preparing passed in a very nervous state; I kept getting the feeling that we were literally jumping on the last wagon. On the 19th of January 2022 we flew to Athens (firstly, the Schengen was Greek; secondly, logistically it was the most convenient). When we flew to Lisbon on the 24th of January, Athens was hit by a very severe snowstorm that blocked airports in the region for several days.

Well, everything worked out! Hello Portugal! We got a nice flat, got a local TIN, opened a bank account, IP. We even found friends in the form of a family from Kupchino.

We wanted to celebrate our month in emigration on February the 24th by going to a restaurant. We woke up that day, read the news... and for half a day we just fell into our phones.

Waking up to the news, my husband quickly started transferring money from the sale of the flat from my Tinkoff account to a Portuguese account, suspecting that things would now get very complicated. I wrote to everyone in Ukraine: two friends with their families in Kiev, an aunt and her brothers in Chernihiv. Everyone is alive!

For a few days my husband and I communicated only with the exclamation "f*cking hell", no other words came to mind and were inappropriate.

On February 27th, we woke up a bit and went to a rally that the Ukrainians had put together on Ploshchad Kommunitsiya. They just pestered people there, asking what we could do to help.

They shouted "Glory to Ukraine!", "Death to the enemy! And then I was so overwhelmed! Tears came down like a hailstorm, my whole body was shaking, because it turned out that I was the enemy!

Then we went to a rally at the Russian embassy. There were so many Ukrainians, Portuguese and also Russians timidly holding up signs saying "No to War", "Russos com Ucrânia", "Russians Don't Want War". It was scary that photographers would accidentally take pictures of us and there would be consequences.

Ukrainian protest in Portugal

We bought food and medicines, which the volunteers trucked to Ukraine. It felt like we weren't doing enough, but at least we were able to take our minds off the stream of thought. Then we spent some time volunteering with Ukrainians at a humanitarian aid collection point. We saw Portuguese people dropping off clothes and food in trucks. Elderly women were hugging volunteers and crying. How sensitive they are, these locals!

Then there was the audio of my aunt from Chernihiv "Olechka, we survived!", "Olya, you know that it was not us who bombed ourselves? The rest of our relatives don't believe us!".

Once a fighter jet flew over near Lisbon, it was very loud, I intuitively crawled under the table in terror. I had never experienced such animalistic fear!

And then there was Bucha... At that moment I realised that a whole year of psychotherapy had just been wasted. I was completely burnt out inside. I took a session with a psychologist, then another, and another, and another. And little by little I was able to come back to a more or less balanced state.

My parents believe the propagandists, so once we got into a fight we decided not to talk about the war, so that we could keep in touch.

Among my friends there is only one who sees sense in the Russian invasion. I cannot communicate with him yet, we get into a heated argument, but I would hate to lose him, my friends are few and far between, and I appreciate them all.

There is a family of friends who are getting ready to emigrate to Georgia. The others don't have an opportunity yet. But all of them are against what is going on.

In general, of course, nowadays a lot of great people are leaving, this cannot but affect future of the country. But the policy of the state is such that it's better for these people to leave than for them to be unscrewing the crease in their homeland.

I am sincerely trying not to judge, but I absolutely cannot accept the fact that people who have loved ones in Ukraine have allowed themselves to be zombified so easily.

Once I read on a forum the phrase that by emigrating a person is not trying to become someone else, he is trying to become themself. For me this is true.

In Portugal you can be a bearded guy in a pink skirt, you can be a tattooed girl, you can be a Childfree, you can have a prosthetic leg, you can be Russian or Angolan - no one will judge you.

You feel safe walking home at night here. And you always get a smile in return for a Bom dia. There's an ocean and delicious food, friendly people, a spirit of freedom in the air. People are living, not just surviving.

Lisbon, Portugal
Photo: Mira

There are a lot of elderly and very old men here, which you don't see in Russia. Here at 40 and 50 you are still a young man with a lot of prospects. In spite of certain moments, of which there are plenty everywhere else, I have found what I was looking for here.

We are not working yet, as we came with money to spare for a period in which we won't have a regular income, so we can study. I'm studying to be a 3d visualizer and my husband is a Python programmer. We really need the Portuguese language, we are planning to take courses. For the time being we speak English.

We are not planning to return to Russia. The scary thing is that now it's easy to become a traitor if someone is interested in you or has denounced you. We are watching how things develop...

In any case, while the legalisation process is underway, we cannot leave the territory of Portugal for at least another 1.5 years. We hope very much that friends and parents will be able to visit us during this period.

Anyway, that's how it worked out for us - we jumped on the last pre-war wagon.

It will be my birthday on the 24th of July. My relatives are asking me, as usual, what I'd like to get as a present.

I really want the war to be over as soon as possible, that would be the best present I could get!

Big dreams come true, I know that for sure now. I hope that this one will come true in the very near future.

Olga Kurteeva, 38

Recorded by: Arthur Levin

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