Russia: Why people are returning, despite the war in Ukraine

Hundreds of thousands of people fled Russia in 2022, after it invaded Ukraine and announced a mobilization. Since then, some have returned but not necessarily forever

Representative image of Russia (photo: DW)
Representative image of Russia (photo: DW)


When Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Kira traveled first to Georgia, then to Israel. Anna, left for Armenia at the same time. And Yuri left Russia for Kazakhstan in the autumn of 2022, soon after President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization.

All three of these DW interviewees are against the war against Ukraine — but they have decided to return to the Russian Federation. Their names have been changed for security reasons.

'The wounds in my soul still haven't healed'

Kira, who is 27, left for Georgia in the spring of 2022. "At the time," she said, "remaining in Russia seemed impossible to me."

From Georgia, she travelled on to Israel, where she went to university, lived in a dormitory, and was awarded a scholarship. However, her funds were heavily cut this summer, and she is not allowed to work in Israel — so she applied for a job working with an organization in Russia. "I want to develop professionally. I got a chance to do so, and I took it."

Though she returned to Russia for her new job, Kira is still enrolled at the Israeli university. "The wounds in my soul still haven't healed. I try not to go to big cities. I feel tremendous resistance to what's happening in Russia, and often I just want to turn a blind eye to it all. But Israel turned out to be a difficult country for me," she said.

'I was escaping from myself'

"Armenia was an impulsive decision on my part," said Anna, a 31-year-old marketing manager who left Russia for Armenia in April 2022. "Once I was there, I realized that it wasn't about me wanting to be in that country: I was just escaping from myself."

Though she was able to work from abroad, she decided to go home after just a few months. "It's about returning to Russia and admitting that we too have a responsibility," she explained.

"I don't want everyone to think and agree that war is normal. Someone might walk down the street saying, 'War is normal.' I'm a person who will respond and say, 'No. Are you completely crazy?'"

Anna admitted that she was plagued by worry, but pointed out: "You can't live in fear the whole time."

'My girlfriend more or less threw me out'

Yuri, a programmer, said he didn't panic when the war broke out, and he wasn't afraid of mobilization either. "My girlfriend was very worried, though. She couldn't sleep properly, and she more or less threw me out," he told DW. "I didn't know what would be in store for me. But we agreed that, while I could always return, it might only be possible for me to leave the country right now."

He spent several months in Kazakhstan, then a few more in Kyrgyzstan. "We thought the situation would soon resolve itself, and we wanted to wait until after the second mobilization. I rented an apartment with six other men. But even half a year on, nothing had changed, except that the ruble was still falling, the cost of living was rising, and some people I knew went back to Russia."

In winter, Yuri too returned. "I didn't miss Russia. But I wanted to go home, back to my own apartment," he said. After all, his parents and disabled brother were still in Russia, as was his girlfriend, with whom he has been for 13 years.

At least two waves of emigration

On the basis of statistics from host countries and information from government agencies, demographers estimate that between 500,000 and 800,000 people left Russia in 2022. There were two waves of emigration: one immediately after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, another after its announcement of a partial mobilization in September.

"Many people didn't get to the countries they wanted to go to. Most have changed countries at least once. The most I've heard of is a young couple who have been in six countries altogether," Lyubov Borusyak, a sociologist who lives in Moscow, told DW.

She said that many people ended up in countries they never thought they would go to, without the necessary paperwork, and with very little money. "Some of these people later returned to Russia, at least for a while," Borusyak explained.

According to OutRush, a research team that conducts surveys among Russian emigrants, 16% of those who left the country after February 24, 2022, have since gone back to the Russian Federation. However, two-thirds said they had only returned temporarily.

Where to next?

Yuri said he and his girlfriend had been thinking for a long time about leaving Russia, but didn't know where they could go. They are currently in limbo: "We would like to live in Russia. The problem is the regime and its politics."

Since going back, Anna is very sad that, for people in Russia, life just seems to be carrying on as normal. "I feel as if I'm in a movie where everyone is just pretending that everything is normal. I sometimes find it very difficult and very sad to see how things are changing for the worse," she said.

She wants to leave Russia within the year and hopes to go either to Berlin or Bali. Kira, too, is thinking about where to go next, and is looking at the USA, Canada, the UK, and Germany.

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Published: 07 Oct 2023, 1:58 PM