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Belgrade's Russian Emigres Grapple With New Lives In Serbia, The Ukraine War, And What Comes Next

Yulia Semyachkina (left) and Svetlana Putro are among the thousands of Russians who have moved to Serbia since the start of the war in Ukraine.
Yulia Semyachkina (left) and Svetlana Putro are among the thousands of Russians who have moved to Serbia since the start of the war in Ukraine.

BELGRADE -- Polina Prokofeva had only been back in Russia from holiday for one day when President Vladimir Putin sent Russian tanks rolling into neighboring Ukraine and launched the largest war in Europe since World War II, but she knew she needed to push back somehow.

Like many other young Russians from her social circle in St. Petersburg, the 25-year-old Prokofeva took to the streets to protest the Kremlin’s February 24 invasion, joining other Russians in opposition to their country’s aggression. Like most of the demonstrators against the war, she soon found herself arrested and sentenced to 12 days in jail.

“There was a feeling of fire inside all of us who protested at that time, we were so angry,” Prokofeva told RFE/RL. “Myself and others had been politically active for years and we knew what Russia had become, but for most of the country, it was the invasion that finally opened their eyes.”

Upon her release, she faced a difficult decision: stay and face more repression at home or flee. Tough Western sanctions instituted in early March had effectively eliminated her marketing job, which relied on international brands as clients. With few prospects and worried about persecution for her anti-war views amid a deepening government crackdown, Prokofeva joined the hundreds of thousands of other Russians who fled the country -- ultimately settling in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

Prokofeva admits that Serbia was not her first choice.

Like other Russians, she found herself restricted by visa policies and a travel embargo that cut Russia off from much of the Western world. Initially, she first joined the exodus who left for neighboring Armenia, which has become a center for middle class Russians due to its proximity and visa-free entry. But Prokofeva felt she needed to keep moving, later going to Istanbul -- another visa-free destination that has become a hub for Russians since Moscow’s invasion – until finally joining the thousands of Russians attracted by Serbia’s open borders who made the Balkan country their transient home.

Polina Prokofeva, who was arrested in St. Petersburg for protesting against the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, in Belgrade on September 5.
Polina Prokofeva, who was arrested in St. Petersburg for protesting against the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, in Belgrade on September 5.

Fleeing the weight of sanctions, repression, and -- since the Kremlin’s September “partial” mobilization of reservists -- conscription, the Serbian capital has become an unlikely home to a growing community of Russians who have found themselves navigating the struggles of immigration, their identities as Russians, and issues of guilt and responsibility for the horrors of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“There are days when I feel guilty about leaving,” Prokofeva said. “It’s hard to watch your country burn down from afar and become like the Soviet Union again.”

Welcome To Serbia

In many ways, Serbia is an unlikely destination for opposition-minded Russians like Prokofeva.

Serbia has not joined Western sanctions against Russia and in Belgrade T-shirts featuring Putin's face are sold at souvenir kiosks, while the letter “Z” -- which has become a Russian nationalist symbol for the Ukraine war -- is spray-painted on walls across the city.

Cultural and historic ties between the two predominantly Slavic and Orthodox Christian countries stretch back centuries and Serbia is also home to a right-wing religious segment of society who often uphold Putin as a standard-bearer for conservative values.

Protesters in Belgrade on August 28 march in opposition to planned LGBT celebrations while carrying Russian flags and a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and controversial Serb World War II General Dragoljub Mihailovic
Protesters in Belgrade on August 28 march in opposition to planned LGBT celebrations while carrying Russian flags and a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and controversial Serb World War II General Dragoljub Mihailovic

The NATO-bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 during the war in Kosovo is also still a bitter wound for many and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine -- which Moscow has increasingly portrayed as a standoff with NATO and the United States -- has become a mirror for many Serbs.

According to a July opinion poll by the Belgrade-based rights watchdog Crta, two-thirds of the population say that they feel “closer” to Russia, with three-quarters of Serbians also believing that Moscow was forced into war “due to NATO's intentions to expand.” The poll also found that 40 percent of Serbs were in favor of dropping the country's long pursuit of European Union membership and allying with Moscow instead.

“I think that Serbs don’t actually know very much about Russia and what it’s actually like there,” Yevgeny Aleksandrov, a Russian IT engineer who relocated to Belgrade after the invasion, told RFE/RL. “For those who support Russia or criticize Ukraine, it’s because it all goes back to NATO. That’s all they see.”

Kremlin propaganda has found a willing audience in Serbia, where anti-American and anti-NATO rhetoric continues to resonate. Few independent media outlets remain in the country, with much of the country’s media coming under pressure during the rule of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Despite these close bonds, the Serbian government has sought to keep some distance from the Kremlin amid the seven-month war, with Belgrade recently saying that it won't recognize the votes in Russian-held parts of Ukraine that Kyiv has called “sham” referendums.

A New Community

It’s difficult to know the exact number of Russians who have come to Serbia since the beginning of the war.

According to data from Serbia’s Interior Ministry obtained by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), nearly 45,000 Russian citizens have entered Serbia since February. But it’s unknown how many have remained in the country.

Air Serbia is the only European carrier besides Turkish Airlines to maintain direct flights to Russia, and Belgrade has also been a transit stop for Russians to move on to other locations in the Balkans and beyond.

According to the same data published by BIRN, only nearly 4,000 Russians who arrived have applied for residence permits, although many who remain continue to leave the country for neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina or Montenegro and quickly return in order to reset the 30-day visa-free period that allows them to legally remain in Serbia.

A mural of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the word 'Brother' written on it, which has been vandalized with red spray paint, in Belgrade.
A mural of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the word 'Brother' written on it, which has been vandalized with red spray paint, in Belgrade.

Aleksandrov said that he remains one of the “lucky ones” whose international employer was able to help arrange a work visa and residence documents for Serbia. Many others left Russia with little money available and have picked up freelance or under the table work in Serbia or navigate complex remote work arrangements with their Russian employers.

“If I were to move abroad, I never planned for it to be in Serbia,” Aleksandrov said. “But I feel safe here and, besides, going back to Russia is no longer an option.”

Georgy, a chemical engineer from Chelyabinsk who asked that RFE/RL not use his last name in order to prevent persecution from the authorities toward his family in Russia, says that Serbia has been a welcoming home with a thriving Russian community, but adds that he believes that Russians should be more introspective and willing to take on more responsibility for their government’s war crimes and abuses in Ukraine.

The 38-year-old moved to Belgrade with his wife and they have since sold their apartment back in Russia and used the money to buy a home in Serbia. He says they had previously dreamed of moving to the EU and starting a new life there, but newfound visa-restrictions have made that unlikely. Instead, he said the couple plans to stay in Belgrade and obtain Serbian citizenship.

“I understand why Europe doesn’t want us. We deserve it,” he said. “For me, the war killed many of my dreams, but it also opened my eyes. Now I can’t close them.”

Looking For A Voice

For Russians who have settled in Belgrade, the move to Serbia has provided relief, recovery, and a sense of safety amid the upheaval brought over the last seven months. But others remain haunted by the death and destruction in Ukraine and the future direction of Russia.

Those concerns look set to grow following the Kremlin’s recent mobilization announcement, which looks to escalate the war and usher in a dangerous new phase that some analysts have said could potentially see Moscow enlist all military-age men for the war effort.

Inside Russia, public opinion is difficult to discern.

The last vestiges of independent media and opposition politics have been pushed out of the country and state media has broadcast a steady drumbeat of nationalist, pro-war coverage. Some polls, such as those from the Levada Center, long-considered Russia’s most credible pollster, show a majority of support for the invasion, but that support may be largely passive. Moreover, the government’s current mobilization drive to send some men to fight in Ukraine has sparked protests across the country and even seen some attacks on recruitment centers.

The mobilization announcement also set off another wave of emigration from Russia, with snaking border lines to countries like Kazakhstan and Georgia full of fleeing Russians looking to avoid conscription, as well as flights to visa-free destinations – such as Belgrade – selling out until mid-October.

Grappling with these ramifications has been the focus of a Belgrade-based group called Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Serbs Together Against War. The loose organization of like-minded residents meets weekly to discuss the war and developments inside Russia. It has also organized a series of small-scale anti-war rallies since the invasion and helped arrange aid for Ukrainian refugees in Serbia and elsewhere in Europe.

“There isn’t much of an anti-war voice in Serbia and there is lots of propaganda here about the war,” Peter Nikitin, one of the organizers of the group, told RFE/RL.

Originally from Moscow, the 41-year-old Nikitin moved to Belgrade six years ago and works as an interpreter. He says that the group originated spontaneously following Russia’s invasion as people began to organize on social media.

“One of the messages was to show that we -- Ukrainians, Belarussians, Russians -- can build a community together and that we all have a common enemy [in the Kremlin],” Nikitin said.

The Future Of Russia

Despite the Kremlin’s escalating war effort in Ukraine and erosion of rights at home, uprooting and leaving Russia is not a decision taken lightly.

While some have settled in Serbia, others like Prokofeva, the activist, have used it as a stopover while trying to settle in the EU. After months of interviews and bureaucracy, Prokofeva was granted a political-humanitarian visa and will soon be moving to Germany.

For Yulia Semyachkina, 33, and Svetlana Putro, 34, that decision also meant moving their children – Semyachkina’s son is eight and Putro’s son is six – far away from family and the familiar surroundings of their Moscow neighborhood.

But the two friends said ultimately they decided to move abroad in order to provide better opportunities for their children, especially as the Russian education system became increasingly nationalistic and pro-war amid a drive to create more “patriotic education” following the invasion.

Russian Schools Launch New Patriotic Courses Amid War In Ukraine
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“I don’t want my kid to become indoctrinated and be some new version of Jojo Rabbit,” Putro told RFE/RL, in reference to the 2019 film about a young German boy who is enchanted with Nazi propaganda during World War II. “I hope that we can raise our kids right and maybe the next generation will be different.”

Integrating into Serbia has not always been straightforward, but both boys are now enrolled in Serbian schools. Semyachkina’s ex-husband remains in Russia and most of her marketing contracts have been blocked or shut down due to sanctions, but she has mostly managed to supplant her income with new clients. Putro’s husband, who she is separated from, is Serbian, which has made the adaptation process simpler, she says, but working remotely and accessing money from Russian accounts have proved difficult.

While both Semyachkina and Putro say they remain cynical about Russia’s future and its “imperialist” tendencies, they say they often fantasize about what they will do when Putin and the system he created is no longer in place.

“One day this empire will end and I have a plan to put on my best dress and celebrate with a glass of something fancy,” said Putro.

“I don’t know when this will come. Maybe it’s soon or maybe it’s when I’m 60,” Semyachkina told RFE/RL. “My biggest hope is just that this rotten system doesn’t find a way to replicate itself.”

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.