Relocation Sociology

Sociologist Nika Kostenko: “Time works against the return of those who left”

Scientists do not yet have accurate data on the scale of emigration from Russia after the start of the war. But it was immediately clear that this is a phenomenon that must immediately begin to be studied in dynamics. At the beginning of March 2022, graduate students of the European University in FlorenceEmil Kamalovand Ivetta Sergeeva, political scientist Margarita Zavadskaya and sociologist Nika Kostenko launched an independent sociological project OutRush, during which they interviewed three waves of those who left. More than 10,000 people from 100 countries took part in the study. It turned out that more than 40% of new emigrants faced repression in their homeland. More than 50% still continue to fear reprisals coming from Russia. The vast majority have a high level of education and professional qualifications. And almost all of them trust each other. So who are these people? What do they do, what do they think about returning home, what do they hope for, and why do they often look like “long-stay tourists”? Nika Kostenko, a researcher at Tel Aviv University, spoke in more detail about the results of the T-invariant study.


Nika Kostenko is a sociologist and researcher of migration and gender. She graduated from the program of intercultural communication at St. Petersburg State University with a degree in Arabic studies, and in 2010 she completed a master’s degree at the European University in St. Petersburg at the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology. She worked at the Laboratory of Comparative Social Research named after. Inglehart at the Higher School of Economics, and was a visiting researcher at the University of Michigan. In 2017, she defended her dissertation on gender attitudes of Muslims in Europe. Since 2019, she worked at the European University in St. Petersburg as an assistant professor, then created and co-directed the program PANDAN (Applied Data Analysis for the Humanities and Social Sciences), was Dean of the Faculty of Sociology. After February 2022, together with her colleagues, she launched a survey project OutRush, exploring anti-war emigration from Russia . Emigrated to Israel in the fall of 2022.

T-invariant: Sociologists and demographers now do not like the question of how many people left Russia after February 2024. But do you somehow answer this question for yourself?

Nika Kostenko: This is truly an important question, although it is difficult to answer. Why? Because there is no complete accounting. The FSB, which is responsible for Russia’s border service, accounts for all border crossings. If, for example, you left and then went to Russia four times, then you will be counted as having left five times and returned four times, which, of course, kills the statistics. In addition, in order to be considered an emigrant in Russian statistics, you need to sign out and report to the embassy in the new country where you now live. Since almost no one does this, statistics and reality differ significantly.

T-i: Can we focus on data from host countries?

NK: It is possible, but they are always behind: sometimes by a year, sometimes even more. But in general, we have some idea of ​​which country accepted how many people, taking into account the fact that people may then go somewhere else. For example, at some point Armenia accepted about 100,000 people, but in fact, not all of them are in Armenia. Some stayed there, some moved on, and some returned to Russia. People continue to move.

Or, for example, we we know that about 85 000 people came to Israel from Russia alone. But a number of them received Israeli passports and returned to their homeland. Some, on the contrary, already had these passports before the war and decided to move to Israel right now. So, they are not included in these 85,000. Therefore, it turns out that all the numerical data are not entirely accurate.

Neverthelesssome countries give a more accurate representation. President of Georgia gives almost incredible figures about 700,000 who entered and 100,000 who remained in Georgia. Turkey reports about 153,000 who received a residence permit. Yes data on 150,000 citizens of the Russian Federation who settled in Serbia. Montenegrin Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that as of October 2022, almost 120,000 Russians entered the country. The authorities of Kazakhstan are about almost 100,000 citizens of the Russian Federation crossed the border. Accordingly, if we know that there are several such countries, we already have no less than half a million emigrants. In fact, there are still countries where not a hundred, but tens of thousands have gone, for example, Cyprus.

All this data makes us talk about a little over a million who left. And, according to our information, about 16% of them returned (the majority said that they wanted to finish things at home, “close their files” and finally emigrate).

T-i: Why did Russian citizens go to these countries?

NK: To go to Kazakhstan, Armenia or Kyrgyzstan, I was not you need a passport. For emigration to Georgia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey and Israel – a visa. Let me remind you that the war began at the end of Covid, and many people did not renew their visas or passports. Accordingly, accessibility – visa and epidemiological – was a decisive factor at the time of departure. And it was for this reason that Azerbaijan was not accessible, where the land border was kept closed due to Covid restrictions. Residents of Dagestan, who could have escaped mobilization, were unable to cross this border. And at the very beginning, while the European border was open, many who had visas left through St. Petersburg to Estonia and Finland. It was simple and cheap, you could get there by car.

The queue at the Verkhniy Lars checkpoint after the announcement of mobilization in the fall of 2022. Photo:

T-i: Mongolia showed an incredible example during the mobilization period, which accepted Buryats, Tuvans, Kalmyks.

NK: Yes, and this is no coincidence. Former Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj who called residents of the Russian territories bordering Mongolia to escape in their country, studied in Lvov. And 20,000 men took advantage of this opportunity. It was also possible to get there by car from the border regions.

T-i: Let’s now talk about the main characteristics of this wave. How politically motivated is this emigration?

NK: Almost completely. These are people who, for the most part, were civically active in their homeland, and even today in exile, 75% of them remain politically active. At the same time, they showed their position in different ways: they could collect money andsign petitions and go to rallies, and sometimes they just wrote posts on Facebook or other social networks. One way or another, all of them have followed and continue to follow Russian politics, and practically none of them trust the Russian government. Of course, their choice was determined by a political decision, and not an economic one. Most of the new emigrants lost a significant amount of money, since in their homeland they were qualified, highly paid specialists with high social status. They had something to lose.

T-i: Yes data Eurostat that 17,000 Russians applied for political asylum in Europe in 2022. This is a huge figure, significantly more than in the pre-war years. And it already speaks for itself: you can’t just apply for political asylum. This requires reasons. And this is further evidence of the political activity that characterizes this wave of emigration. But time has passed. Are you able to track how this political activity has changed over two-plus years? Do emigrants still keep it?

NK: Firstly, according to our data, 42% of our sample faced dangers, persecution and various types of repression. And these are, generally speaking, huge numbers. And this also takes into account the fact that those who received prison sentences were not able to leave at all, and therefore were not included in the group of respondents. Those. the real percentage of those who have experienced violence or pressure from the state is even greater in this stratum. Secondly, 54% are still afraid of reprisals coming from Russia. In general, 75% of exiles are politically and civically active. But at this point there is a dynamic that shows that at first involvement in politics is very high, and then it decreases slightly.

T-i: Because people in emigration have many difficulties and need to build a new everyday life?

NK: Of course. They, of course, try to support some accessible forms of manifestation of civic position. For example, many donated to Ukrainian refugees. But in general, direct anti-war protest has ceased to be significant.

It is quite difficult now to go to rallies against the war in Ukraine, because the war has been going on for three years now and it is clear that these rallies do not solve anything, do not influence anything. And it’s demotivating. Those who left showed by their choice that they were against the war. But then go to the Russian Embassy, ​​sign petitions – to whom, for whom? Do you want to say something to Putin from abroad?

Nevertheless, people continue to donate money and help those who need support.

T-i: Do you know in which countries emigrants from Russia are now involved in local political life?

NK: Participation in the political life of host countries is a difficult issue. Firstly, people cannot immediately understand the new political reality. For example, the vicissitudes of Israeli politics are a rather complex phenomenon that is difficult to navigate. Although we know that many new repatriates took part in rallies against judicial reform, against Netanyahu.

Protests in Tbilisi against the introduction of a law on foreign agents. Photo:

And in Georgia, emigrants take part in mass protests against the law on foreign agents, because they are well aware that it is copied from the Russian one. They are very afraid that the fate of Russia awaits Georgia. Although the Russians in Georgia have a difficult situation. Russia occupies 20% of Georgian territory. Therefore, participating in political action there is a difficult moral choice for many. Many are simply afraid of causing harm, since you still don’t fully understand how appropriate your activity is here.

T-i: We also know that the authorities of some countries do not hide their concerns regarding political involvement in local realities on the part of emigrants from Russia. For example, the authorities in the Baltic countries, Georgia, Serbia, and Turkey did not want the Russians to interfere in domestic politics. Even in Israel, we sometimes hear from some public figures that new immigrants shouldkeep silent. How reasonable is this?

NK: Advice to remain silent is always toxic advice. In addition, we must not forget that the authorities of many countries cooperate closely with the Russian authorities. And they, of course, do not support activism on the part of newcomers. For example, when Navalny died in prison, protests near the Russian embassies were banned in Turkey, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan.

Rally in memory of Alexei Navalny at the Russian Embassy in Lisbon. Photo:

T-i: Another important characteristic of this wave of emigration is education and professional spectrum. At what level did people leave the country?

NK: The educational level is very high. 82% of all those who left had higher education. Specifically in Israel – 87%. And about 90% are residents of large cities, primarily St. Petersburg and Moscow. That is, it is 80 to 10, let’s put it this way – the ratio of St. Petersburg and Moscow, a little from Yekaterinburg, a little from Novosibirsk, a little from Tyumen, a little from Krasnoyarsk.

T-i: And your occupation?

NK: As soon as the war began, almost half of the emigrants were IT specialists, management and the corporate sector in general. Moreover, these were not only international companies, but also employees of Russian businesses. These were real relocants because they were actually transported. Another significant part were employees of various NGOs, activists, scientists, journalists, theater workers, and cultural figures. This changed very quickly, literally in the first couple of months, but the term “relocant” existed for a long time.

T-i: How accurate is the idea that this wave of emigration is financially wealthy?

NK: Only partly. Since they were mostly professionals, they had some savings, but not very much. According to our data,about a quarter say they can buy a car. And the rest can afford, say, clothes, household appliances – but no more. They can rent an apartment. But the majority of material assets remained in their homeland. Let’s not forget that it suddenly became difficult to take money out of Russia immediately after the start of the war. In addition, some people had their savings in the form of real estate. But the real estate still needs to be sold and this money taken out. This is also a separate task, which is becoming more and more difficult, because now there are literally a couple of banks left, a couple of methods and a very strong restriction on the export of capital from Russia. Moreover, we still need to decide on this sale, because people got this property at a very high price. And selling an apartment is a psychologically difficult moment. She seems to be torn apart by the possibility of returning. It’s like cutting off an anchor. For many people, this is a more psychological problem than a material one. When deciding to sell your last or only apartment, you must admit to yourself that you will not return in the near future. But in reality it is difficult.

T-i: What do your respondents say about returning?

NK: Most of those who left think that they will return soon. Emigrants (especially political ones) live in the hope that now all the trouble will subside, everything will end and some wonderful life will begin to which they can return.

T-i: These are people who unite in projects like “First flight”?

NK: For example. After all, this is a very characteristic expression. Because at first most people say they will take the first flight back.

Those whom we interviewed in February-March 2022, and even those whom we interviewed in the summer of 2022, said that now either Putin will be killed, or the war will end somehow, and we will sit here and then go home . This is a rather dangerous thought because it slows down integration. But then six months, a year pass, and people begin to realize that no, nothing will end. And even if it ends, then with what?

In addition, we must remember that half of our emigrants have children. This means that the children are placed somewhere – in kindergartens,schools. To tear them out of the educational environment again means to once again enter a traumatic stage for families. And now, with the passage of time, the same respondents are already saying: “Even if life changes in Russia tomorrow, I will still think about returning. In my new country, my children already go to school, I myself am already learning the language, I have new things to do and connections here. I’ve already moved a business here or got a job here – I’ll have to see what happens there.” Of course, there are people who still continue to wait for the “first flight,” but their percentage is decreasing every month.

T-i: Because every successful integration step into local life leads to the fact that it will be increasingly difficult for a person to return?

NK: Yes – and not only your successful step, but any family member. A person may not even integrate himself, but his partner or his children do. Time works against return.

T-i: Let’s return to the qualitative descriptions of this wave of emigration and talk about the ability of the people who left to trust someone. There were some interesting ones in Russia researchon this topic, and It is traditionally believed that Russians have a very low level of trust in everything in general – in the authorities, in any government bodies, in each other, in neighbors, in colleagues. What does your data tell you?

NK: This is the most surprising part of our research for me, which theoretically was not predicted at all. Overall, today’s expats demonstrate incredibly high levels of trust in many areas.

T-i: And who do they trust the most?

NK: 93% trust emigrants like them. And these are absolutely unprecedented numbers. I have never seen such figures for any of the most trusting countries. And I think this is the most important part of our research. After all, this means that an emigrant trusts another person simply on the basis that he is also an emigrant and has made the same decision that he made. And it turns out that for this wave this in itself is already an assemblage point, it tells people that they have the same way of thinking. And then, on this basis, they can already agree on anything: do a joint business, organize leisure time for children, help each other fill the gaps in their children’s education – we can do anything together, because we understand the most important thing about each other for us .

And you are right, this is completely uncharacteristic of Russia. Previous waves of emigration were no different. That is, there were some communities that were organized according to the principle of the country of origin. For example, it was difficult for older immigrants to learn the language, and they tried to settle together and this is how areas in the spirit of Brighton Beach arose. But you and I remember the scene from the movie “Brother-2”: “We Russians do not deceive each other”. This is no longer the case. However, trust in fellow citizens who remained in Russia is not so great among those who left; it fluctuates around 50%. Although this figure is still higher than the population’s trust in each other on average in Russia within the country.

New immigrants take part in Israeli protests. Photo:

T-i: And how much do new emigrants trust the residents of the countries they moved to?

NK: At first, when they arrived, 80% of emigrants trusted local residents. And then this trust began to grow and already reached 86%. This is also a colossally high figure.

People had the expectation that no one would be happy with them. Moreover, in Russia the idea is constantly being promoted that there is hostility towards Russians everywhere. People come with fear, with the expectation of discrimination. And then the reality turns out to be much better than these fears.

They suddenly see that at the level of state and financial institutions there is, of course, discrimination based on a Russian passport, but people in the host countries turned out to be friendly, and in almost any country. The only country where people report experiencing actual discrimination from ordinary citizens is Georgia. There you can occasionally see announcements in the spirit of “Russians don’t go to this bar.” In other countriesRussian emigrants do not report discrimination.

T-i: But even with the kindest attitude on the part of a local baker or bartender, discrimination on the part of government agencies and financial institutions of host countries can create colossal problems in the first years of life.

NK: And our data confirms this. When people first arrived from Russia, trust in the government agencies of the host countries was at 65%, and then, when they encountered difficulties, it decreased by 15%. This figure reflects the level of real problems with legalization.

T-i: You gave a lecture on repatriation to Israel, which is commonly called “pumpkin” (after the “pumpkin latte” meme). According to your survey, how different is the “pumpkin aliyah” in Israel from those who have dispersed to other countries? After all, in Israel they became repatriates, full citizens, and even with certain benefits. Do their answers differ greatly from those who have now settled in Serbia or Spain?


Pumpkin Latte is a coffee drink made with milk, pumpkin syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. The coffee chain Starbucks first offered it in the fall of 2003. The reason for the meme of the same name was a post on Facebook published in October 2022 by a resident of Haifa, a repatriate from St. Petersburg, Tatyana Sheremet: “Shalom! Forgive me for a stupid question, but there is no Starbucks in Israel at all, right? Google invited me to follow him almost to Damascus. And if it really doesn’t exist, then the question for experts is: where can you find pumpkin latte in Haifa? For me, this is part of the fall tradition. I’m suffering a little without a pumpkin latte.”

High standards of consumption have become a reason for ridicule of new immigrants by old-timers in Israel. However, the newcomers quickly organized themselves into communities where people help each other in finding the necessary information and provide psychological support to the same new repatriates. This is how the Facebook group “Pumpkinlatte” was born, which today has more than 73,000 people. Now not only new Israelis, but also Russian-speaking emigrants from other countries are turning there. Moderators try to maintain an atmosphere of goodwill and mutual assistance in the community.

NK: No, not much. In general, the country of choice says practically nothing about the person. Because people went where they could. It is clear that it was easier for those with Jewish roots to leave for Israel. It was also much easier for them to move their elderly parents there. In general, slightly more married people left for Israel: about 67% versus 48% in the total sample. And more people with children. That is, about 50% of repatriates with children now live in Israel, while in the general sample this is 30%. And financially they are no different from other emigrants: the same 25% can buy a car.

A slight difference is visible in the fact that this is already 94% of residents of large Russian cities. And among the “new Israelis” there is a slightly higher percentage of people with higher education – 87%. And 12% have a candidate or doctorate degree, which in itself is unprecedented.

T-i: What happens? If we take 12% of 90,000 repatriates, then there are more than 10,000 scientists in Israel?

NK: About that. But we must make a reservation that we cannot build an absolutely representative sample, because we do not have data on the general population, no one can give it to us. But, on the other hand, we compare our data with colleagues who also conduct emigration research, and our findings are triangulated, that is, confirmed by other groups. We have no serious discrepancies, and this suggests that our quantitative characteristics are generally correct. And there are quite a lot of professional research teams working in this field, which we respect very much and with whom we are constantly in touch and speak together at conferences.

So, returning to the question of how many scientists came to Israel, it is obvious that not a thousand or two, but much more. And, in general, we must understand that this aliyah is quite different from the most massive aliyah of the 1990s also in that Israel has become one of many choices for these people. They could go to other countries, Spain or Portugal, get a Digital nomad Visa, a “digital nomad visa”, a talent visa to the USA and Britain, a humanitarian visa to Germany. They could go to some other places, because they often had enough professionalism and skills to do it. They can choose cheaper Serbia, Armenia, Montenegro, Georgia, where strong communities have already formed and many have friends, includingThis is the case if Israel is not suitable for them.

T-i: So their choice was determined by Jewish identity?

NK: Only partly. Firstly, the choice was determined by the speed and convenience of obtaining citizenship. In addition, do not forget the parental factor, because you can take your parents to Israel – unlike European countries or the USA. And regarding identity, we asked: who do you feel like now? And as of summer 2023, 29% said they already felt part of the Israeli community. This is a lot, much higher than in other countries. But 38% feel part of the community of Russians who left. And this is the most common answer in all countries.

T-i: Do sociologists now have a new entity – “left Russians”?

NK: Of course, it’s not for nothing that people from other countries are joining the “pumpkin latte” group.

This is the new identity – Russians who have left. Moreover, it did not take shape right away: in early interviews people did not know what to call themselves. The formation of this identity took at least a year.

Although in Israel, 66% still say that they feel in a stable position in all aspects: work, medicine, right of residence. And in all other countries this percentage is, of course, lower. Because practically no one has citizenship.

T-invariant: There is another important point: a significant part of the Russians who left speak English.

NK: Yes, this also greatly distinguishes this aliyah from the aliyah of the 1990s. This is what allowed people in Israel to not immediately rush to learn the language. Understandably, this irritates many Israelis. But English really saves everyone. And in the end, it turns out that for most emigrants, learning the local language in any country is not the first thing they need to grab onto. Therefore, new emigrants from Russia look a little funny and strange, like tourists who have stayed for a long time.

T-invariant: So this is not purely Israeli effect?

NK: No, of course not. We had a separate question in our study about languages. And, for example, in Armenia people say that it is not really necessary to learn Armenian, because everyone speaks Russian and speaks it with pleasure. That is, there is no feeling that you came with a colonial position and they are pointing this out to you. And, by the way, if someone is now deciding where to go, there are two countries where society accepts Russians extremely kindly: Armenia and Serbia. If you asked me where it would be most comfortable in terms of reception now, I would name these two countries. And also Montenegro.

T-invariant: Is it possible to somehow predict the fate of this wave of emigration based on the data that you received during the research process?

NK: Overall, we have a pretty good forecast. We also asked people about emotions, about what exactly they experience in emigration. At first everyone felt very bad. For almost everyone, the first six months are, in general, erased from life. Many have experienced real depression. And then, towards the end of the first year, many things begin to improve, people begin to have a sense of prospects, and a growing sense of optimism. And faster, oddly enough, in men than in women.

T-invariant: This is surprising, because traditionally, according to the experience of previous waves of emigration, including even the emigration a century ago after the 1917 revolution, women They integrate much faster, and many men break down.

NK: In our case, women look back longer. Women in Russia were much more involved in care; they had more people left to care for. And this feeling of being torn from the social fabric strongly pulls women back. Women are more sad and have depression more often. For men, as we observe, everything happens a little faster.

But in any case, after about a year of living in exile, we see changes in the emotional background, more readiness to move on, to build a life. And in general, these people have everything to build this new life. They are still quite young, but have already achieved a lot. They already have a higher education, a profession, they were privilegedin Russia (in terms of education, life in large cities, powerful social connections), they received a lot of things there, they can do a lot of things. And why don’t they now,having experienced this turning point in their destiny, build something new anew? Moreover, they have a very important additional successful feature: they find themselves in their community in almost any country, and they trust this community very much. Actually, we understand that in this environment, when you have nothing to lose, but something to build, and there are people around you with whom you are ready to make friends simply because they are the same as you, this is a very strong starting position and colossal resource. Therefore, I think that the first moment of adaptation will soon pass and the “Russians who left” will be able to positively influence the situation in the host countries and contribute to their development. These people are highly motivated to be active, they need to somehow survive – they can’t just sit there, they have to somehow spin, and this forces them to come up with something new. And when you have like-minded people around you, this leads to the creation of many interesting things, many cultural projects, NGOs, some social movements or businesses that are still difficult to imagine.

We will see the fruits of this emigration. Because a million people with such an active lifestyle and with such a level of education cannot simply disappear.

Text: Olga Orlova


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