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Westerners who stayed in Russia find a home transformed by war

When the Kremlin sent troops to Ukraine in late February, many Westerners living in Russia began looking for an exit.

“When it started, we were shocked because we honestly didn’t think it would happen,” said an American and longtime resident of Moscow.

“We were getting a lot of messages saying we had to leave, it’s dangerous. Then there were also rumors that the internet would be cut off, that there would be martial law, the borders were going to close,” said the woman, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

But some have chosen to stay – despite warnings from embassies, pleas from friends and family, and political and economic risks.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine passes the 100-day mark, Western residents of Moscow described a exhausted city, where they were afraid to speak their minds, but where life – perhaps surprisingly – continued more or less normally.

“We would be the last to leave because we really feel that Moscow is our home,” said the American, who remained in the capital with her family.

None of the Westerners in Russia interviewed by the Moscow Times said they had feared for their physical safety since the start of the war. Nor did they report any instances of hostility from the authorities or ordinary Russians.

But the military campaign has undoubtedly darkened their relationships with others, making them more cautious when expressing opinions.

The “Z” symbol that indicates support for the war in Ukraine on the Oleg Tabakov Theater in Moscow.
Moskva News Agency

“I think everyone has to be careful what they say around strangers,” said an American teacher in Moscow who also asked to remain anonymous.

“I’m much more careful about what I say than I ever have been,” the American said, adding that the atmosphere has made it harder to find like-minded people.

“It’s true that politics has been arousing a lot of interest lately: on the one hand it’s divisive and you have to be careful what you say, on the other I’m delighted that people are doing their own research” , said Léo Pigot, a French cheesemaker based in the St. Petersburg suburb of Gatchina.

Meanwhile, Western sanctions have almost completely isolated Russia from the global financial system and made it virtually impossible to transfer money between Russian and non-Russian bank accounts.

“I manage a life in two countries that have blocked financial flows from each other…Keeping an eye on currency fluctuations and limitations imposed by banks in either country has become a bigger part of my life than it has ever been,” said a Dutch national. Kaj Vollenhoven, director in Saint Petersburg of the logistics company Ahlers.

Westerners who stayed in Russia find a home transformed by war

Analogs for popular western soda brands which are much harder to get in Russia.
Denis Voronin / Moskva News Agency

Other European and American citizens in Moscow complained that financial isolation made it difficult to access private health facilities, while noting rising prices for basic commodities and airfares.

A Western diplomat who requested anonymity described what he called the “deinternationalization” of Moscow.

“It’s gone from being a city with mostly international brands, foreign language services, etc., to becoming more and more provincial,” he said.

According to research per NielsenIQ, the variety of consumer items, including personal care products and groceries, in Russian stores has dropped dramatically since the start of the war.

Sanctions have also weighed on Western-run businesses.

British national Helene Lloyd, head of the tourism, marketing and intelligence consultancy in St Petersburg, said her business felt the economic crisis immediately.

“We lost the vast majority of our customers because we had a lot of European customers and because our business is related to tourism and travel,” she told the Moscow Times.

Westerners who stayed in Russia find a home transformed by war

Alexander Avilov / Moskva News Agency

While she said her company plans to stay in the Russian market, she added that it is also opening an office in the more neutral location of Kazakhstan.

“In reality, I don’t see great opportunities [in Russia] for at least five years, as it will take time to resolve the currently very strained relations,” she said.

While the changes have been significant, many other aspects of daily life in Russia remain – at least for now – largely untouched.

“The shelves are still full of products, public transport is still running and many services that I used before are still [working]”said Dutch manager Vollenhoven.

For the American, who has lived in Moscow for more than 30 years – through the 1993 coup attempt, the wars in Chechnya and the coronavirus pandemic – today’s events are just another historic storm to face.

“Nothing lasts forever, and somehow things will change,” she said. “What’s tragic is that this was a situation that…shouldn’t have happened.”

Vollenhoven said he plans to stay and adapt to whatever happens next.

“Russia is not going back to how it was anytime soon. The consequences she faces now are there for the long haul. I’m not trying to predict if things will get better or worse, or when. I believe it’s just impossible to predict,” he said.

“I trust the eternal persistence and adaptability of the Russians.”

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