A week after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Oleg Yakovlev opened a flight booking site, frantically searching for a way out of Moscow.
The options were limited for him.
Due to airspace restrictions and strict visa requirements imposed after the start of the war, a Russian passport no longer allows people access to many countries.
Australia, for example, only issues visas to Russians in exceptional circumstances and there are no direct flights.
“There were system errors, I did it for hours with all available destinations,” Oleg told the ABC.
“I was scared, that’s why I had to move.”
Neighboring Georgia, Turkey and Armenia still allowed Russians entry, but the only country Oleg and his family could get plane tickets to was the island nation of Sri Lanka.
“I was looking at countries where I didn’t need a special visa…but the prices were crazy, tens of thousands of dollars one way,” he said.
Oleg had never been to Asia – let alone Sri Lanka – before deciding to settle there.
“It’s a good choice because it’s far from Europe,” he said.
He is one of at least 300,000 Russians who have left for political reasons since the start of the war.
About 15,000 went to Sri Lanka.
They are against war, fear conscription, or simply feel they have no job prospects in a country that has isolated itself from the rest of the world.
Vladimir Putin has described the mass exodus of his people as a “self-detoxification” of Russia.
But as well as being a haven for those he calls “scum”, Sri Lanka could be a convenient place for his would-be allies to hide their assets.
Even in crisis-ridden Sri Lanka, Oleg feels safer
Oleg was an anti-Putin campaigner in Russia before the war.
As a member of the LGBTQI community, he had spoken out about changes to the country’s constitution that banned same-sex marriage in 2020.
“I understood that it was very dangerous to stay in Russia because I was in opposition to the political regime, that’s why I decided to leave as soon as possible,” he said.
Oleg spoke to the ABC just meters from where protests are taking place every day in the capital Colombo.
For weeks, protesters have been calling for systemic change due to an economic crisis.
Some were tear gassed, but the protests were largely peaceful – a luxury that Oleg said would not be possible in Russia.
“When you compare the situation in Russia with that in Sri Lanka, I see how much freedom people have here, they can’t meet in Russia, it’s forbidden,” he said.
“For me it’s a lesson to see how people are trying to change their lives here, maybe one day the Russians will too.”
Young professionals spark Russian brain drain
According to limited investigations into the mass exodus from Russia, those leaving are mostly young professionals with the resources to get by.
Many work in the technology sector, creative industries or are freelancers like designers and journalists.
Polina, who did not want to use her last name, is a Russian filmmaker.
As Western companies began to pull out of Russia in protest, she felt she had no professional future in her home country.
She thinks that if she had stayed, her only option would have been to do propaganda material for the Kremlin.
“In recent years, the film market was growing in Russia, we were working with Netflix. But now Netflix has decided not to work in Russia anymore,” she said.
“We have two government foundations that provide film grants. Now we think they will only support patriotic films, including military films…it’s all just propaganda after all.”
When Polina and Dimitri finally boarded a flight to Sri Lanka, they said they felt a mixture of sadness and relief.
“It was a night flight, and I opened the map and waited to see when the plane crossed the Russian border and then I could finally sleep,” she said.
“Until then, I was so freaked out.”
At a meeting in March, Vladimir Putin spoke of the mass exodus of Russians since the invasion.
“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will just spit them out like a bug in their mouths, spit them out on the sidewalk,” he said.
“I am convinced that a natural and necessary societal self-detox like this would strengthen our country, our solidarity and our cohesion and our willingness to respond to any challenge.”
Ultra-rich Russians are also finding refuge on the subcontinent
India and Sri Lanka are among the countries in the subcontinent that refuse to join the West in financially blacklisting the Kremlin, turning it into a friendly place open to Russian visitors.
India receives billions of dollars worth of arms from Moscow while countries like Sri Lanka have always relied on Russian tourists and business ties.
Sergey Semenovich, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, follows the crackdown on the Kremlin.
“Putin and his supporters are saying ‘it’s no problem that the United States is sanctioning us, we have friends like China and India, they are the biggest countries in the world in terms of population’,” he said. he declared.
“Yes, these countries will help Russia, but they will help Russia only to the extent that it will benefit them.”
For now, the Russian oligarchs are taking advantage of the situation in South Asia.
Russian super-elite assets have been seized around the world and they have been blocked from their favorite vacation spots in Europe.
Oleg Deripaska is one of several Russian billionaires facing European and Australian sanctions imposed in March for his alleged links to Vladimir Putin.
The aluminum tycoon has already been blacklisted by the United States for three years amid allegations of money laundering, threatening business rivals and ties to Russian criminal gangs.
Deripaska strenuously denied the allegations and even spoke out against the war in Ukraine.
But according to ship tracking sites, a superyacht called Clio believed to be owned by Mr Deripaska made a strange journey across the Indian Ocean during the war.
Clio, which can accommodate up to 18 people and has a lift, sailed to Sri Lanka in the first weeks of the war.
He then set sail for the Maldives, which does not have an extradition treaty with the West.
“It provides various people, entities and businesses in Russia with a lifeline,” Semenovich said.
“But we shouldn’t overestimate whether it will save Russian companies.”
Regular Russians are not immune from sanctions
Fleeing to countries like Sri Lanka does not mean that these Russians can leave behind the effects of global sanctions on the Kremlin.
Visa, Mastercard and American Express are just some of the companies that have suspended all operations in Russia to protest the invasion, meaning customers cannot use their cards abroad or to make payments international online.
Oleg said the sanctions made moving to Sri Lanka much more difficult.
“My bank cards don’t work here in Sri Lanka because they disconnected Russians from international systems,” he said.
“Airbnb is not working because I have a Russian account so I can’t book an apartment.”
Another Russian exile, Polina Bykhovskaya, visited Sri Lanka just before the invasion of Ukraine and decided not to return.
She said basic services run by Western companies have now stopped working for her.
“Suddenly life has become very difficult…I don’t have my Apple Music anymore, I don’t have my Google Docs anymore, I don’t have my email anymore,” she said.
Polina Bykhovskaya said she loved what Russia once stood for but could no longer connect with what it had become.
“My initial idea was to go back to Russia by June because I have my mother there… but now I’m not going back to Russia because I’m not going to spoil the war,” she said.
“I love my culture, I love my language, I love Russian literature and we are very rich in it, but what is happening now crosses borders, I don’t know how to deal with it.”
Polina, the filmmaker, said that although Sri Lanka is currently struggling with power cuts and fuel shortages, she thinks it is better than staying in Russia.
“It’s a big decision to move anywhere, but we had to…when we got to Sri Lanka, we realized that life goes on somewhere in the world, and we were so happy,” said she declared.