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Thousands of Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine have settled down in Armenia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of Russians have left their country in opposition to the war in Ukraine. And with the conflict showing no end in sight, many are settling down in other countries for the long haul. NPR's Charles Maynes recently traveled to the southern Caucasus nation of Armenia to meet with some exiled Russians.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: In the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ivan Moshkin remembers arriving to his work at a Moscow bank and the shock that came next week.

IVAN MOSHKIN: (Through interpreter) All my male colleagues had already gone. The older people in the office said, are you an idiot? What are you still doing here? You're of military draft age. Get out now before mobilization begins.

MAYNES: With Moshkin short on money, the office pooled their cash to buy him a ticket out. That same evening, he was on his way to the airport and a new life in Armenia.

MOSHKIN: (Through interpreter) With little money and no work, I fell into a deep, deep depression.

MAYNES: For Russians who oppose the war, it's been a tough road. Repressive laws have made life dangerous at home, and growing numbers of countries are closing their doors to Russian immigration. Yet Armenia, once a Soviet republic, offers something of a refuge. Russians can travel here without a passport. Even Russian, the language, is widely spoken by locals. Moshkin, for one, says here, he's breathing easier.

MOSHKIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: He eventually found a job waiting tables in the capital, Yerevan. And with the war grinding on, he's now applying for his residency permit. And he's not the only one. At the Russian Svobodnaya Shkola, or Free School, in downtown Yerevan, a day of classes is winding down.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Shouting in non-English language).

MAYNES: Launched as a pop-up education program to accommodate a few dozen families who fled here last spring, the free school is another example of the increasingly entrenched Russian presence in Armenia.

ANNA CHEGOVAEVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Free School's founder, Anna Chegovaeva, says the whole thing started on a dare. Her friends knew she was a good organizer. What she didn't expect was to be running a full-fledged school, now with more than 180 students. The school even offers Armenian-language night classes for Russian parents.

CHEGOVAEVA: (Through interpreter) Of course, I'd love for everything to suddenly change in Russia. And together, we'd all happily go home. Then there wouldn't be a need for the school. But we decided our school will exist as long as we are in this position.

MAYNES: In fact, it seems everywhere you look in Armenia, Russians are not only making do but settling down, opening businesses and getting involved in the community. Government figures show Armenia's GDP jumped 14% after the Russian influx.

IVAN DIVILKOVSKIY: I try to become useful to the Armenian society, to become integrated.

MAYNES: Ivan Divilkovskiy left Moscow fearing he could be arrested for his past participation in Russia's pro-democracy movement. He says he's now engaged in causes important to Armenia's future.

DIVILKOVSKIY: I don't know if I can become an Armenian in the narrow sense, but I am a part of the Russian immigrant circle. And we are doing our best to become a good long-term guest, a good roommate.

MAYNES: And Russians are integrating in other ways.

DANA VERGILYUSH: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Dana Vergilyush is one of hundreds of Russian IT professionals who relocated to Yerevan, in her case from Southern Russia's Rostov-on-Don. Vergilyush says she arrived with her daughter, intent on finding people who share her progressive politics and passion for the environment. She's since launched a series of volunteer trash cleanups, much to her surprise, with buy-in and support from the Armenian authorities.

VERGILYUSH: (Through interpreter) In Russia, my activities were never welcomed or approved of by the government. Not once did anyone reach out to say, that's great what you are doing, or even just say thank you.

MAYNES: Yet gaining acceptance in Armenia comes with accepting that a return to Russia is unlikely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Last spring, Russian President Vladimir Putin demonized Russians who fled the country in the past year as scum and traitors. Even now, Russia's Parliament, the Duma, is debating measures that could strip property, perhaps even citizenship, from those expat Russians seen as openly disloyal.

DARINA MAYATSKAYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "After a year of war, it will take fundamental changes inside Russia, even the end of the Putin era, to lure these political emigres back," says Darina Mayatskaya (ph), a native of St. Petersburg.

MAYATSKAYA: (Through interpreter) I'll go home when either they get rid of all these repressive laws or the authorities are so weak they can't enforce them. I see myself going back when I'm sure I can cross the border and I'm certain no one will arrest me.

MAYNES: Mayatskaya runs the local chapter of Kovcheg, or The Ark, a support group that provides assistance to Russians settling into life abroad and often leaving trouble behind.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: On the night I visited, The Ark was hosting a letter writing campaign to Russian political prisoners currently in jail over their opposition to the war. Ivan Lyubimov knew the routine better than most.

IVAN LYUBIMOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Lyubimov says letters from people he'd never met comforted him when he was in jail for participating in opposition rallies in his native city of Yekaterinburg. In fact, Lyubimov says he left for Armenia only after authorities launched a criminal probe into his own anti-war activities, over which he has no regrets.

LYUBIMOV: (Through interpreter) The Russian government's policies won't change. The police won't behave any differently. The courts won't get any better. But it's still important and necessary to protest this war, to show that not all Russians support this aggressive annexation of Ukraine's territory.

MAYNES: As to what's next, Lyubimov says he'll stay in Armenia, at least for now. And with that, he started scribbling out a letter, a message intended for sender and recipient alike. It read...

LYUBIMOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Sooner or later, we might both find ourselves in a new free country, breathing the free air. Until then, hold on."

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Yerevan, Armenia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.