Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Russians who voluntarily went into exile because of their opposition to Putin’s war

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“I won’t be able to return to Russia until this is over,” says Elizabeta, one of thousands seeking refuge elsewhere

Elizaveta Miller and her husband Leonid Dzhalilov compare themselves to burning amphibians.

“They say if you put a frog in boiling water, it has this reflex to jump out,” said 38-year-old Miller, until last month an assistant music professor at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory.

“But if you put the frog in cold water and start heating it up, it doesn’t have that reflex and it boils.”

On February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, “that was the boiling water reflex.” The couple booked the first available flight from Moscow and fled to Armenia on March 1 with their three young sons, aged between two and seven – leaving behind their apartment, car, Miller’s prized collection of instruments and Koshka, the house cat.

They are among an estimated 250,000 Russians who have fled the country since the outbreak of war. Within a week of the invasion, Google searches “How to leave Russia?”. hit a 10-year high.

Russian economist Konstantin Sonin has described the brain drain as a “tragic exodus for a century” – at least since the wave of Belarusians, named after the anti-Communist forces, who left after the 1917 revolution and civil war.

In 2022, some have fled for fear of forced military service and a declining quality of life as international brands leave the country and sanctions begin to take hold.

But for Miller and her family, who now live in Montenegro after a brief stay in Georgia, it was moral principles that prompted their exile. she said I that when she woke up on February 24, “and I read the news and I knew the war had started, my first reaction was that it was like September 1, 1939”. The world had changed irrevocably and she found herself and her country on the wrong side of global events.

On the same day, her 43-year-old husband, a Russian Orthodox deacon and math teacher, was first arrested while taking part in an anti-war demonstration. After a night in jail, Miller said, “It was obvious he was going to be fined. And then we started counting what fraction of a big bomb that penalty would mean. We would actually sponsor the war. The fact is, even if you protest, you are contributing to what is happening.”

She added: “We thought that if we go into exile, at least we share the exile that the people of Ukraine did not choose. I saw that as an act of solidarity.”

Miller and Dzhalilov became increasingly uncomfortable with their superiors’ direction of policies to be presented to their classes. She said, “I couldn’t lie to my students.” Another fear was that her children would become “victims of propaganda” and “will end up telling me, ‘Mom, you got it all wrong, and actually our government is right. ‘”

Instead, the family faces other challenges. Her tearful two-year-old kept saying he wanted to go home but couldn’t remember where that was. “He tried to describe his home with colors. That was pretty painful. Eventually he stopped talking.”

The concert musician, who teaches fortepiano, harpsichord and chamber music, says she now wants to volunteer with Ukrainian refugees in Montenegro, where her husband has landed a part-time job at a school: “When I was in Russia, I definitely couldn’t do much do to help the people of Ukraine without going to jail.”

But the end of the war may not be enough for the family to return. “It’s a difficult realization. It came gradually. When Putin is gone, I’m afraid it won’t get any better. There are some people who are even more extreme, if possible, and who have a lot of power there.

“I will not be able to return to Russia until this is over. That’s obvious because I think I’ve said enough for a few sentences.”

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