Anti-Putin Russians Are Leaving, With a Push From the Kremlin

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When Karen Shainyan opened his Facebook page one recent day, it was overflowing with messages reading “Congratulations!”, as if it were his birthday. There were also expressions of sympathy.

It took Mr. Shainyan, a Russian gay rights advocate and a journalist, a moment to digest the mixed messages: The Kremlin had just labeled him a “foreign agent” — a designation that many opposition figures take as validation of their work, but one that significantly complicates their lives.

The government uses the label to ostracize and diminish opposition figures and organizations — tantamount to branding them enemies of the state. More than 400 people or organizations have been designated foreign agents since the label first started at the end of 2020, with new names now announced virtually every Friday. There is no prior warning or explanation from the government.

Analysts and opposition figures say the designation is a way of ratcheting up the repression that is contributing to the surge in exiles.

Mr. Shainyan was, by his own reckoning, in good company. The seven other people on the foreign agents list that week included a prominent political scientist; a journalist with a wildly popular interview program; and a well-known cartoonist who consistently skewered President Vladimir V. Putin.

Some of those designated, like Mr. Shainyan, had already departed Russia, with the label seemingly meant to coerce them into staying away. “They want to squeeze the active people — not to kill them or to put them in jail — but to squeeze them out, across the border,” he said in a telephone interview from Berlin, where he had landed after fleeing Russia last month.

Those being pushed out joined an exodus of tens of thousands of Russians who have fled the country since the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, a flood of talented, highly educated Russians who have decided that they would prefer exile to living in an authoritarian state.

The exiles include many people not directly involved in politics — technology specialists, entrepreneurs, designers, actors and financiers — countless professionals either directly engaged with the global economy or who just wanted to feel connected to the wider world.

Tough economic sanctions and a sweeping withdrawal of Western firms from Russia are gradually strangling those opportunities.

“Russia is losing a lot of great people,” said Serob Khachatryan, 39, who had started a cryptocurrency business in Moscow right before the invasion and is now in Armenia, working with other IT professionals to find ways to both help Ukrainians and to undermine Mr. Putin. “It is going to end up being just the army with nuclear weapons and the oil and gas. That is what Putin wants. I think Russia needs more than that.”

Among those designated a foreign agent along with Mr. Shainyan was Ekaterina Schulmann, a political science professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, a rare private university and one with a reputation for being a liberal bastion. “Anyone can be on that list, so why not me?” she said. “This looks very much like an attempt to drive people out.”

Ms. Schulmann said in an interview that she had anticipated ending up on the list. Police investigators had recently demanded more information about her ties to the university. Six people connected to it have already been detained, including three charged with embezzling public funds, in a case that many consider politically motivated.

In addition, Ms. Schulmann, the host of a YouTube political talk show with nearly one million subscribers, had described the invasion as watching a “catastrophe” unfold.

Leaflets featuring her face and the wording “She Supports Ukrainian Nazis” were hung at one of her former residences. Ms. Schulmann had announced on her show just days before she was labeled a foreign agent that she was in Berlin under a yearlong fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy.

“Shortly it will be impossible to work as a professional in my field in Russia,” she said. She suggested that the length of the war will determine whether the political situation improves. “If it does not, you will probably see that the public sphere in Russia will be largely cleaned, purged of its liberal, humanistic elements.”

The Kremlin has long encouraged its critics to leave, and Mr. Putin made his scorn for dissenters amply clear in March, saying in a nationally televised speech that he considered those who identified with Western values “scum and traitors.” He threatened to remove them from society, while his spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said the “cleansing” would happen spontaneously as disloyal people moved abroad.

The law on foreign agents linked the designation to receiving funds from outside Russia, but the term has historically been associated with spies and infiltrators. The most recent additions to the list of foreign agents have been heavily weighted toward journalists and gay rights activists. But the circle of people targeted in recent months has widened to include any stripe of critic.

Ms. Schulmann once served on the presidential Human Rights Council. Alexei Venediktov mingled at receptions with all manner of Kremlin advisers for many years when he was the editor in chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station, a favorite of the liberal intelligentsia that was closed in February. A hugely popular rapper, known by his stage name, Face, was the first musician to be designated.

Those designated must put the label prominently on all their work — stigmatizing them — and file frequent, and onerous, financial disclosure forms.

For more than two years, Mr. Shainyan has used his YouTube channel to focus on L.G.B.T.Q. life, a fraught topic in Russia, where vaguely defined laws make it illegal to distribute “gay propaganda” to minors. He sought to encourage gay Russians to be less closeted as well as to promote greater acceptance among the Russian population.

Mr. Shainyan, 40, took his camera to provincial outposts like Kazan, Irkutsk and Vladivostok. “I don’t want to hide, I want to live freely,” said Ivan, a young entrepreneur among the dozen gay or transgender people featured in Mr. Shainyan’s “Queerography” program from Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal.

Mr. Shainyan always thought he might be labeled a “foreign agent” for that work, especially since he received financial backing from abroad, so the fact that it only happened now made him think that his more recent interviews with prominent critics of the war might have landed him on the list, and not his gay activism.

Russia seems to experience mass emigration with a certain painful regularity. An estimated one million Russians fled in the early 1920s after the Russian Revolution and civil war. Among the most famous were painters like Marc Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky, as well as the writers Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1991, the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted another wave of exiles, especially among scientists.

“It seems like in Russia, one or two generations grow up and then the latest revolution or war happens and then part of that generation leaves,” said Grigory Sverdlin, 43, who used to run a charity called Nochlezhka that had established roughly a dozen facilities for the homeless in St. Petersburg and Moscow. “It is clear that the departure of active, educated people is bad for the country’s economy, it is bad for the country’s culture, and by culture I also include political culture.”

But previous emigration waves extended over years, not months.

“It was not abrupt, there was nothing like this,” said Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist at the University of Chicago and Kremlin critic who left in 2015 after being fired from his university job.

Aleksei Skripko, 47, who ran a small simultaneous translation business, left with his wife and four children. They had avoided politics, but the sense of tightening repression was inescapable. He said he had been absolutely certain there was no chance the Soviet Union could be resurrected. “What I am seeing now tells me that I am wrong,’’ he said, “and that I have been wrong all my life.”

Mr. Sverdlin, now in Tbilisi, Georgia, decided to leave because he could not stay silent about the war and he had been warned that his one-man protests, although legal, had attracted attention from law enforcement. He called the decision the hardest of his life, quoting a line from an émigré poet who departed after the civil war: “There was this entire world; now there is not.”

Sophia Kishkovsky and Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

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