Anti-war Russians leverage ancestry and risk arrest to reach Europe
After fleeing Russia in the days following the start of the invasion of Ukraine, Mikhail entered the European Union illegally by crossing a river in Bosnia and Herzegovina and crossing the border into Croatia.
Its successful crossing follows three failed attempts to enter the EU.
“I was afraid of the police, bears, wolves and the lack of water,” Mikhail, 22, told The Moscow Times of his subsequent trip through Croatia, where he camped every night in a forest to avoid detection by the authorities.
“It was very hot. There are a lot of bears in Croatia and I saw their tracks everywhere,” he said.
Tens of thousands fled Russia after the Kremlin ordered troops into Ukraine in late February, fearing mass repression, conscription, border closures and economic hardship. Many are determined to travel to the West, where visa rules make entry more complicated.
Some, like Mikhail, took the extreme step of entering the EU illegally.
But others told The Moscow Times about various backdoors in the 27-member bloc, including the use of parents’ or grandparents’ ancestry for citizenship applications.
Mikhail first flew to Istanbul in Turkey in March after leaving his home in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don fearing he would be called up for military service.
However, he struggled to make ends meet in Istanbul and realized that the cost of applying for a residence permit in Turkey exceeded his monthly income.
Instead, he decided to go to Serbia and enter the EU illegally.
During his first attempt to cross into Croatia, he was arrested by Serbian police. “After staying in a border town for a few days, I tried to cross again but was caught even faster,” said Mikhail, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
Undeterred, he unsuccessfully attempted to enter Hungary.
Finally, he managed to cross last month from Bosnia and Herzegovina – which does not require a visa for Russian citizens – to Croatia, an EU member state.
While Mikhail’s case may be extreme, the number of asylum applications filed by Russian citizens in the EU exceeds double in March, the period immediately following the invasion and the most recent month for which data are available.
And an equally risky approach has been used thousands of miles away by Russians trying to enter the United States since the invasion. In particular, Russian emigrants flew to Mexico – a country for which they do not need a visa – and then attempted to cross into the United States to seek asylum.
Perhaps the hardest part of Mikhail’s journey was crossing the heavily guarded Croatian-Slovenian border. He figured he better look like a tourist, so he ditched his coat, tent, and clothes and pretended to take pictures. Then he fled on foot and found an open door in the border fence.
When the temperature dropped later, he regretted the lack of warm clothes.
“In Slovenia the weather was very cold and it rained a lot. It saved me from [police] patrol drones, but… I was without a coat and I was very cold and all my things were wet,” he said.
Despite Mikhail’s success, illegal border crossings are not the only way to try to enter the EU, with anti-war Russians discovering various other ways to enter. A popular strategy is to exploit European ancestry and apply for citizenship of an EU country.
Maria, 28, who also requested anonymity to speak freely, applied for Romanian citizenship in Moscow after the start of the Russian invasion – her father is Romanian – and is considering emigrating.
“When the war started, my world shattered,” she told the Moscow Times. “I will forever be Russian… but I can’t live in a state where I can’t have my opinion freely.
Maria’s candidacy was complicated by a lack of international courier services, which were among hundreds of other Western companies that stopped serving Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.
“I had to personally travel to Romania to collect my documents last month,” she said, adding that high demand meant her lawyer had asked her to bring documents from similar claimants back to Moscow.
Now that she has her Romanian passport, Maria plans to move to Ireland.
Although there are no precise figures on the number of Russians who fled abroad – or who are still planning to leave – following the invasion, the total is probably in the hundreds of thousands. . Some estimates suggest 30,000 fled to Georgia and 100,000 to Armenia in the South Caucasus, while at least 14,000 went to Turkey. Other popular destinations include Central Asia and some Middle Eastern countries.
Mikhail, 25, a barista from Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East who supports imprisoned Kremlin critic Navalny, left Russia for the first time after the invasion began.
“I don’t want to be in Russia because it’s uncomfortable to be there with people who don’t share my way of thinking,” he told the Moscow Times after arriving in Istanbul, asking the anonymity to speak freely.
The attack on Ukraine accelerated Mikhail’s plans to obtain German citizenship through his German grandmother, who was part of Russia’s population of Volga Germans forcibly displaced to the Far East during World War II. world.
However, German citizenship is only open to Volga Germans born before 1993 who are fluent in German. Mikhail is now encouraging his mother in her efforts to relearn German and apply for residency, which he hopes will strengthen his future candidacy.
“There is some success,” he said of his 64-year-old mother’s attempts to recall her German. “She remembers the rules, the declension, but doesn’t remember the words.”
In the meantime, Mikhail has obtained a Turkish residence permit.
“I would like to learn German myself, but I have enough difficulties as it is,” he said.
As the fighting in Ukraine shows no signs of ending and political repression in Russia continues to escalate, the exodus of Russians looks set to continue.
After crossing Slovenia and Italy, Mikhail, who entered the European Union illegally, arrived in France on Wednesday where he intends to file an asylum application.
“If there is a regime change, I expect to go back there. Russia has huge potential, but because of the corrupt regime, it cannot be unlocked,” Mikhail said.
Despite his long journey, he was optimistic about his future in Europe.
“The only thing is my family is worried,” he said.