“There is an atmosphere of fear.” With flight ban, Russians flee by train to Europe

On a recent Thursday evening, three protesters stood on platform 9 of Helsinki train station, waiting to greet the train from St. Petersburg. Draped in the Ukrainian flag, one held up a handwritten poster with the words Russia kills children. The others clutched photos of the devastation in Ukraine. When Alexandra, a university student who left behind her life in Moscow, got off the train with her large lavender-colored suitcase, protesters stared at her. “It’s so boring,” Alexandra said. “I mean, I understand where they’re coming from. But don’t they know that we are the ones whose friends are being arrested for opposing the war? »
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Like many on that train arriving in Helsinki, Alexandra was fleeing Russia. (None of the Russians who spoke to TIME would give their last name, fearing reprisals from the Putin regime.) Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the world’s attention has rightly shifted. title turned towards the 2 million or so Ukrainians driven from their homes. by violence. But the war also sparked a more restricted exodus north, as a crackdown on dissent, harsh economic sanctions and fear of possible martial law convinced many Russians, especially among the segment of society there. down that doesn’t support war, that they should get out while they still can.

Read more: The world is watching Russia invade Ukraine. But Russian media tell a different story

Their options are few. With more than 30 countries banning flights from Russia from their airspace, the only options for reaching Europe are by land. A handful of bus lines offer services to Finland or Estonia, but the Allegro train from St Petersburg to Helsinki, which currently runs twice a day and seats 350 passengers, is the only remaining option by rail . A few days after the start of the war in Ukraine, these trains began to sell out.

“Around 70% of passengers are Russian,” says Viktoria Hurri, director of Finnish-Russian passenger services for VR, the Finnish railway company. “It’s very difficult for us to say whether they plan to stay [in the European Union]. But they bring a lot of baggage.

Mikko Stig—Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty ImagesDemonstrators show their support for Ukraine by taking part in a demonstration against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Helsinki on March 5, 2022.

What it takes to escape

Konstantin Sonin, Russian economist at the University of Chicago, tweeted earlier this week that some 200,000 Russians have emigrated since the start of the war. At least 80,000 of them have gone to Armenia, according to the local government, and 25,000 of them are in Georgia. Turkey and Israel also received large numbers. But a steady trickle is heading to Finland and from there to the rest of Europe, or even further west, including the United States.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only Finns and Russians are currently allowed on board, and although tickets aren’t terribly expensive – they range from $43 to $175 for the 3.5-hour trip – the journey requires certain resources. Credit cards issued by Russian banks no longer work in the European Union, and anyone entering must show proof that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 with an approved vaccine – which does not include Sputnik, the more commonly used in Russia. And unless they have an EU passport or residence permit (around 700,000 Russians held them at the end of 2020), passengers will have to start the complicated and uncertain process of applying for political asylum, or apply for a Schengen visa, the simplest of which – the tourist visa – still requires proof of insurance, financial resources and accommodation, and only lasts for a maximum of 90 days.

(The European Parliament is considering proposals to ban the so-called “golden visas” that have enabled some wealthy Russians to settle in the EU, and the Commission has partially suspended a deal that facilitated visas for Russians, cutting off those with close ties to Putin’s regime. But ordinary Russians can still apply for normal residence visas, as long as they meet the standard requirements of the member state where they hope to live.)

Read more: What Ukrainian journalists look like reporting on the war in their country

But if leaving Russia now requires a certain privilege, it also requires a certain courage. Alexandra, for example, decided to leave for France, where she has dual nationality, when her internship in Moscow was cancelled. But she left behind loved ones she is not sure she will ever see again. “I don’t know if I’m leaving for good. No one can predict that,” she says. “But I have family in Moscow who don’t think they’re going, they’re just scared. And I fear for them.

With reason. Economically, life in Russia is becoming more difficult. Prices have already risen significantly, with the cost of basic foodstuffs rising 2.2% in the first week of the war and Western-made discretionary items, such as Apple Mac computers, which doubled before falling. sell out completely, rose even more dramatically in the wake. of penalties. As international companies like Starbucks and Ikea pull out of Russia, at least one Russian source predicts that the country’s unemployment rate, which stood at 4.4% before the invasion of Ukraine, will double by the end of the year. And those dependent on foreign currencies have had their income frozen.

Read more: How Russians Are Coping With an Internet Gone Dark

Daria, who works in education and arrived in Helsinki on Friday, for example, has both Russian and Canadian passports. Because of the sanctions, she could no longer transfer funds from her international accounts to her Russian account and, while still in Moscow, she had to buy rubles from her Canadian friends just to get by. “Now I wonder if something goes wrong here or the economic situation deteriorates, how will I support my family financially?”

Allegro train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki on March 9.
Mauri Ratilainen—EPA-EFE/ShutterstockThe Allegro train from Saint Petersburg to Helsinki on March 9.

Repressions and divisions

Yet despite all the economic concerns, his primary motivation for leaving was the repression of dissent. Since the invasion, Russian authorities have cracked down on protests and even made it a crime to call the war a war, insisting instead that it is a “special military operation”. On March 7, Putin passed a law that punishes any public criticism of the army with up to 15 years in prison, a law that prompted many media, foreign and domestic, to cease their activities in the country. “There is an atmosphere of fear with the introduction of new censorship laws,” says Daria. “People are randomly arrested on protest days.”

His own sister was among them. Although she was released after being held for six hours, the incident was chilling in its apparent randomness. “She wasn’t even at a protest,” Daria said. “She was in a different part of town, and they were just arresting people in different parts of town that weren’t even central. So it didn’t make sense to me. But I think the general intention is just to scare young people into doing this.

Read more: Russians around the world face abuse and harassment amid Ukraine conflict

Greg, who arrived in Helsinki by bus the same day, was motivated by another fear. Born in Moscow, he holds Russian and American passports. And although he had been living in Moscow because of his job, the outbreak of war convinced him it was time to return to Boston, even if canceled flights would complicate the trip. “I was afraid of having to fight,” he says. “Russia says that no conscripts are sent to Ukraine, that they have all signed contracts to go there. But that’s not entirely true. They force conscripts to sign contracts.

People get off the Allegro train from Saint Petersburg at Helsinki Central Station on March 9.
Antti Aimo-Koivisto—ShutterstockPeople get off the Allegro train from Saint Petersburg at Helsinki Central Station on March 9.

Others were motivated by a sense that Russia was turning inward, moving away from the West and returning to its more totalitarian past. Due to her husband’s work in Germany, Irina had been considering moving for some time, but the invasion – and the censorship it brought inside Russia – forced her hand. Although she enjoys her life in Moscow, where she works as a teacher at an international school and enjoys an active social life, she has found the gap between those who accept the government line and those around her too difficult to bear. “There are people who understand what’s going on and who know how to read between the lines,” she said. “But the our parents’ generation, they cannot. They trust [what they see on] TV, and they just don’t understand what’s really going on at all.

She, too, has had friends who have been detained or thrown in jail for protesting what she delicately describes as “certain government choices” and she also fears saying too much, even from a safe distance d Helsinki, do not put his loved ones in danger. risk. And as someone old enough to remember living in Soviet times, the memory of the country’s isolation also contributed to his decision to leave. “I was reading the news about what was going on, and I thought there will be a time when they might decide to close the borders,” she said. “Everyone talks about it like it’s impossible. But I lived in this country, and it’s the same country that closed the borders before.

Read more: How Putin is losing at his own disinformation game in Ukraine

At the Finnish railway company VR they are pushing for EU passport holders from outside Finland to be allowed on the St Petersburg-Helsinki line as well and if this happens they will increase the number of trains accordingly . Yet, at the same time, they have noticed a slight slowdown in demand among Russians in recent days. Is it because those who have the resources to leave already have them? Or is this a sign that the curtain, iron or otherwise, is closing around Russia? Hurri, the representative of the railway company, did not want to speculate. “All we can say is that the situation has stabilized for now.”

On Thursday afternoon, Mark, a Russian-born businessman who moved to Finland 6 years ago, stood on the quay, trying to avoid eye contact with anti-Russian protesters and waiting the train that carried his elderly mother. Just after 6 p.m., she arrived with two good-sized suitcases and a tourist visa that allowed her to stay no longer than three months. Would she go back to Russia? Applying for asylum in Finland or family reunification? Mark shrugged. “I don’t know… everything is so uncertain,” he said. “I just thought she should come now because it’s probably my last chance to see her.” At least in the near future. »


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