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Russian Émigrés In Central Asia: While Some Settle Into New Lives, Others Await Change In The Kremlin

Many Russians left for Central Asia after Russia invaded Ukraine. (file photo)

Timur, a graphic designer from St. Petersburg, was among tens of thousands of middle-class Russians who fled the country in March, seeking to escape the harsh economic and political fallout from the war in Ukraine.

Like many other tech industry professionals, Timur can work remotely, so he kept his job at a Russian company as he gets settled into his new life in the northwestern Kazakh city of Aqtobe.

“Before moving here I imagined Kazakhstan as a somewhat backward, not-quite-so developed country; something like a big village. But I was pleasantly surprised when I came here,” he told RFE/RL.

“Public services are more digitized here than in Russia. For example, even in this relatively small city of Aqtobe, you can pay for public transport with a QR code,” Timur said. “Food is cheaper here than in St. Petersburg, while the quality is much better. Many services, too, are two to three times cheaper here.”

Timur, 25, didn’t want to give his full name as he fears for the safety of his family members in Russia.

Kazakhstan wasn’t the first choice for Timur when he decided to leave Russia. Most of the Russians who left their country abruptly because of the war initially wanted to go to the West.

But because of a lack of visas, flights, tickets, and financial resources, many ended up in post-Soviet countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

“When I was in an Aqtobe bank to open an account, workers told me that an unbelievably high number of Russians have moved here and [have come to the bank since the war began on] February 24,” Timur said.

Russian is still widely spoken in many parts of Central Asia, a factor that has made Russian émigrés' transition to their new lives much easier, according to Timur and others.

Timur hasn’t yet sought a residency permit. As a Russian citizen, he is eligible to stay in Kazakhstan visa-free for up to three months.

But he hasn’t yet abandoned plans to move to a country in the European Union.

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Marina and her adult son -- also émigrés from St. Petersburg -- are already calling Bishkek their new, "forever" home.

“I don’t want to be in Russia anymore. Of course, I could go to protests, but they won’t change anything anytime soon,” Marina told RFE/RL.

Marina, 65, has rented out her St. Petersburg apartment for about $400 a month. The income from that easily covers her living costs in “the very affordable” Kyrgyz capital, where the mother and son rent a “wonderful, three-room apartment” in a decent neighborhood.

“We can use our Russian debit cards to withdraw money or purchase goods in shops,” Marina said. “The Internet is good, too.”

Marina has already applied for permanent residency and is looking for work. A children’s psychologist by profession, Marina wants to start or join a project that works with disabled children.

Wait And See

It’s not known how many Russians have moved to Central Asia since February. But the numbers were high enough to drive rent prices up in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and other cities in the region.

There were many highly skilled professionals among those fleeing Russia, which caused something of a brain drain in the country.

Just a month after the war began, the Russian Association of Electronic Communications said that up to 70,000 information technology specialists had already left and up to 100,000 others were on their way out.

Uzbekistan saw an opportunity to lure them in an effort to boost its own IT industry. Tashkent’s offer of expedited work and residency permits, tax benefits, and housing and child-care assistance attracted thousands of Russian IT workers within weeks.

“Russian IT specialists generally have better qualifications than the local specialists here,” said Eldar, a 30-year-old postgraduate student from Moscow. “There is a high demand in the Uzbek labor marker for tech workers and English teachers. These are among the high-earning jobs in this country.”

Many Russian tech workers have gone to Uzbekistan, where their skills are in high demand. (file photo)
Many Russian tech workers have gone to Uzbekistan, where their skills are in high demand. (file photo)

Eldar flew to Tashkent in March with a “plan to stay there for a short while,” as he thought the war wouldn’t last long.

But the military conflict didn’t end as quickly as he had hoped it would, and he still remains in Uzbekistan.

Eldar has found his life in Uzbekistan relatively easy so far, as there are not many cultural barriers, “everybody around” him speaks Russian, and he hasn’t noticed any anti-Russian sentiment that he felt in some other former Soviet countries.

“I had been to Tbilisi, where many young people don’t speak Russian and answer you back in English,” he said.

“In Uzbekistan, knowledge of Russian is considered an advantage when applying for a job. It’s not seen as the language of the occupiers, there are no negative connotations here.”

Even with the newly inflated rent prices, Eldar said “it is still possible to find a fairly good one-room apartment in Tashkent for $400 a month.”

Eldar doesn’t know what the immediate future holds for him. He has applied for a position at a university in Germany where he had studied for a postgraduate degree.

He wants to return home unless “developments in Russia turn out to be completely monstrous.” Eldar said he will wait and watch to see how the situation unfolds.

'We Must Treat People Better'

Maksim, a 35-year-old small-business owner, has already returned to his home city of Volgograd in Russia’s southwest after spending several weeks in Tajikistan.

Most of the passengers on the midnight flight that took Maksim to Dushanbe in early March were “anxious” fellow Russians fleeing a country that was thrown into uncertainty with the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

But Tajikistan was just a “transit” stop for them as many on the plane planned to move to a third country.

Maksim met more newly arrived Russians at a Dushanbe hostel where he spent the first few days of his “life as an émigré.”

“My first morning in a completely unfamiliar city, I had breakfast, read the news, and called my parents. I even cried a bit. It was sad and scary, and I had no idea where I would go from here,” said Maksim, describing his first impressions.

He said he felt better when he and several other Russians took a walk around the city and quickly saw a sign that COVID vaccinations were being offered for free at a nearby clinic.

Maksim said they decided to get Western-made vaccines that weren’t available in Russia, which relies almost entirely on domestically made Sputnik shots.

“We found the clinic, got Pfizer jabs, and were issued certificates. Absolutely no questions, no obstacles!” he recalls.

Maksim soon found out that he was almost the only one among the Russians he met in Dushanbe who didn’t have any clear plan in hand. Also, everybody else was still doing their work remotely. Within days some of them left for Turkey or Uzbekistan.

“It seemed that I had left Russia purely on emotions and did not know what to do next. And I started looking at return tickets,” Maksim said.

“Now, I knew what I wanted: In Russia, I have my family, my work that I enjoy, and my employees that I’m responsible for. Outside Russia, I have nothing.”

Maksim spent a few more days in Dushanbe and also traveled to the countryside, where he recalls being stuck in the middle of a mountainous road amid a snowstorm. He and the cab driver spent the night in a nearby village.

“In Tajikistan you can approach a stranger, ask them for help, and they will always help you,” he said.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Volgograd, Maksim said one of the lessons he learned during his brief spell as an émigré in Central Asia is that Russians should treat Central Asian migrants better.

“I felt ashamed, frankly. People from Tajikistan come to Russia for work, they work hard, but we don’t see them as our equals,” he said. “But when we went to Tajikistan we were treated with kindness.”

Written by Farangis Najibullah with interviews by RFE/RL’s Russian Service
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Russian Service

    RFE/RL's Russian Service is a multi-platform alternative to Russian state-controlled media, providing audiences in the Russian Federation with informed and accurate news, analysis, and opinion.