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Russian in exile over Putin's invasion of Ukraine: I hate this war

On the same day Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced his country had launched an offensive against Ukraine, Sergei* boarded a western-bound plane and flew out of his native Saint Petersburg. Three weeks into the war, Sergei, along with tens of thousands of his countrymen, is getting used to the idea that he may never go home again. "I hate this war," he told FRANCE 24.

Sergei left his home - and his life - in Saint Petersburg on February 24. "I literally left on the first day of the war," he told FRANCE 24 in English via an encrypted messaging service from a location he said would probably be wiser to keep undisclosed for the time being. "Because the [Putin] regime is changing things every hour," he said, pointing to the series of laws the Russian Duma is currently pushing through in order to quash any dissenting voices.

Self-employed Sergei describes himself as a "normal", low-key Russian - who, in contrast to his ageing, state TV-consuming father - staunchly opposes both Putin and the war in Ukraine.

"I have been against Putin ever since he first appeared 22 years ago," he said, pointing to the autocrat's complete lack of respect for the fundamental values that make up a free society, including human rights. "And I hate this unjust war against our Ukrainian brothers."

"My father," he said, "lives in a completely different world and thinks the Russian army is saving the Ukrainians from neo-Nazis. It's complete nonsense. I can't speak to him about any kind of politics."

'Who wants their children to grow up in country like that'?

Sergei had initially planned to go abroad for work later this spring, but as the rumours of an imminent invasion of Ukraine drew closer, he decided to fast-forward the departure date.

"I decided to fly out urgently because I was afraid the situation might become really difficult, really quickly, and that the borders might close," he said.

Sergei was right. Within days, the European Union had closed its airspace to Russia, and some of the only remaining means for Russian nationals to reach the West by air are now via Serbia, Turkey, China or the United Arab Emirates.

Sergei has now been away from his wife and children for more than three weeks, and although his plane ticket indicates he is soon due to return home, he is growing more and more doubtful he ever will.

"I've started working on getting my family out," he admitted. "For the past 20 years I've never wanted to leave Saint Petersburg. I love my city and Russian culture dearly. I'm really a great patriot. But it's starting to feel like it's becoming another North Korea or Iran, and who wants their children to grow up in country like that?"

Sergei is not alone in harbouring those feelings. "I have several friends who have either already left, or are talking about leaving," he said.

According to a March 8 estimate by Konstantin Sonin, a Russian political economist at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, more than 200,000 Russians had left their homeland since Russia started its war in Ukraine on February 24. Due to the lack of new figures, however, it is unclear how many more Russians have followed suit since then.

Is the FSB listening?

In the short time Sergei has been away, he said life in Russia has changed dramatically.

"The rouble has lost half of its value, and prices have gone up on everything that is imported from the West, like smartphones, washing machines and cars - they have already become 30-40 percent more expensive." But what is worse, he said, is the repression exercised by Putin's regime, which is getting more and more suffocating by the day.

"A year ago I went to march in support of [Kremlin-critic] Alexei Navalny. Back then, and as a first-time offender, you risked a small fine and if you were unlucky, up to 30 days in prison. But today they are arresting many more [people], and as a repeat-offender you risk about a year's salary in fines - at a minimum - and up to 15 years in prison. You can be beaten and tortured. Some heroic people still demonstrate, but I'm not that brave I'm afraid."

"And you've probably heard about the new law which makes it a crime to even call the war a 'war', right?," he asked, referring to the March 4 Kremlin bill that has made it illegal to refer to Russia's war on Ukraine as anything else but a carefully-worded "special military operation". Anyone breaching the law risks steep fines and up to 15 years in prison.

"But it is a war!" Sergei deplored, noting that although he in no way sees himself as a political activist, he and his anti-war Russian friends prefer to stay on the safe side and are now taking extra precautions when communicating with each other. Just in case.

"I don't really think anyone would be interested in listening to what I talk to my friends about - at the moment at least. But that could change quickly," he said. "So we don't call each other on landlines anymore, and we use different [encrypted] messenger apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. People say these apps aren't surveilled by the [Russian intelligence service] FSB, but who knows?"

Worrying stories from home

Sergei said the stories he is hearing from home are increasingly worrying.

"A friend of a friend of mine was very open about his anti-war sentiment in the first week of the war. He posted a lot of anti-war material on his Facebook page and stuff like that, and then [FSB agents] went to his home and questioned him. I don't know what happened after that."

Since the start of March, most social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, are no longer accessible in Russia after the government first moved to restrict and censor them, and when that failed, eventually blocked them.

"But you can still access social media via VPN. Most of my friends have installed that," Sergei said, explaining that the location-hiding technology is also allowing them to access independent and international news in order to read up on what is really going on - both in Ukraine and at home.

"What's happening in Ukraine is dreadful. It's really, really dreadful," he said.

"And I recently read that Russians who are leaving are being stopped in passport control and asked about their political attitudes toward the current situation. And then they have to open their telephones and show their Facebook accounts and so on". It's really scary," he said.

But Sergei's biggest fear if he returned home would be being drafted to fight a war he doesn't at all support. Putin recently declared that no Russian conscript would be sent to fight in Ukraine, but Sergei has a hard time believing him.

"It's now quite clear clear: He wants to recreate the Russian empire as far as possible," he said. "If Putin feels the war isn't going the way he wants, I think he will send conscripts. I've done the military service, so I could be sent. I would hate to fight against the Ukrainians whom I dearly support. I hate this war."

*His name has been changed for security reasons