In 2022, about 800 thousand people left Russia. Someone made a decision after careful preparation, others had to do it in a matter of days and hours, in a hurry, with a suitcase and a cat, leaving the car right in the Caucasus Mountains or the Kazakh steppes.
Many have the feeling that the attitude towards those who left among the opponents of the war who remained in Russia is deteriorating day by day (about those who are “Za”, everything is clear - for them those who left are unambiguously “traitors”). You can often hear remarks in the spirit of “what are you doing there in your (Tbilisi, Riga, Berlin, insert the right one) you understand.” But if we turn to the history of Russian emigration over the past century and a half, it turns out that these frictions between those who left and those who remained are a well-known phenomenon, along with a whole range of emotions towards each other.
XIX century: from sympathy to misunderstanding
In the middle of the 19th century, when emigrants from Russia generally appeared as a phenomenon - and the number went at least to dozens - the attitude towards them at home was sympathetic. After all, they fled from "stuffy" Nikolaev Russia, so as not to go under arrest, like Turgenev for an obituary to Gogol, or to hard labor, like Dostoevsky - for a copy of Belinsky's letter.
Alexander Herzen, the most important figure for Russian socialists of that time, fleeing tsarist repressions, settled in London in the 1850s and began publishing the radical magazine Kolokol, on the pages of which he spoke directly and without censorship about the plight of Russian serfs and openly criticized the government. The Bell was immediately banned in Russia, however, it spread very successfully underground, and Herzen himself was respected both among the revolutionary-minded layers and among the elites.
There was no paradox here yet. Most of the emigrants were also part of the elite (the same Prince Kropotkin, for example). Therefore, there was no total gap between those who left and those who remained, as it would be later in Soviet times. Moreover, many representatives of the Russian nobility had strong European ties - they often traveled or lived in the West and kept in touch with emigrants in the largest European capitals: London, Paris and Geneva. Well, on the “waters” they sometimes crossed paths with those who were wanted by the police in Russia, and often quite kindly exchanged greetings.
In the middle of the 19th century, most of the emigrants were also part of the elite
But already in the 1860s the situation changed. Attitudes towards emigrant radicals deteriorated sharply. Moreover, what is especially important, among the moderate opposition. Liberal intellectuals in Moscow and St. Petersburg turned their backs on Herzen and his "party" when the Bell supported the Polish-Lithuanian uprising in January 1863. Many Russian liberals at that time discovered in themselves imperial sentiments - and regarded this position of Herzen as an act of betrayal.
Another interesting example from this era is Ivan Turgenev. A liberal thinker and famous writer, Turgenev was, so to speak, an emigrant by 90 percent. After he spent a month under arrest in 1952, the writer preferred to live in Paris. He came to his homeland only on short visits, increasingly moving away from his readers after a series of successes of novels in the 1850s (the last in this series was the textbook Fathers and Sons. This detachment from Russian realities increasingly provoked cross-criticism both from the side of radicals who Turgenev was considered too pro-Western, and by conservatives, who considered him too liberal.Only towards the end of his life, in the late 1870s, the writer began to be considered a lifetime classic.
By the time of Turgenev's death in 1883, the landscape of emigration had changed dramatically - first of all, the number of political refugees - socialists, revolutionaries and anarchists - fleeing persecution or Siberian exile, grew exponentially. Representatives of the upper strata of society were replaced by raznochintsy and students. Yes, for the most part they aroused sympathy among compatriots, but the attitude was no longer so unambiguous.
XX century: from rejection to romanticization
The Russian Revolution of 1905 caused a new wave of emigration and rather increased sympathy for those who had left. The attitude of the public as a whole was empathetic; people saw them as obvious victims of political repression. Among the famous emigrants were outstanding intellectuals, for example, the best-selling writer of that period, Maxim Gorky, and the fashionable poet Konstantin Balmont. But the borders at that time remained transparent; people moved back and forth, driven by political events, amnesties (for example, during the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913), and personal reasons. Hardly anyone thought in those years that he was leaving forever.
All these ebbs and flows were covered by a real tsunami - after the First World War, the revolutions of 1917 and the civil war that followed it, which gave rise to a large-scale exodus of "white emigration". This time, people who had ties with the overthrown tsarist regime or who fought against the Bolsheviks in the civil war were hastily leaving the country. From generals of the stature of Anton Denikin and Pyotr Wrangel to politicians like Pavel Milyukov and writers like Ivan Bunin, this group was initially branded as unambiguous enemies in young Soviet Russia. This was not just reported by state propaganda; awareness of this then permeated all aspects of society. The presence of relatives abroad in the questionnaire could put an end to a person's career, and in the 1930s and become a reason for being sent to camps.
Relatives abroad could be a reason to be sent to the camps
In parallel, emigrants became the subject of jokes. Most often evil, but there were exceptions. The most famous is "The Twelve Chairs" (1928) by Ilf and Petrov, whose main characters are Ostap Bender, who dreams of Rio de Janeiro and the "father of Russian democracy" Kisa Vorobyaninov).
After the Second World War, the attitude towards those who left has changed. The older generation of emigrants gradually began to be treated almost sentimentally. In the 1960s and 1970s, an amazing cultural shift began in general: white émigrés began to be romanticized in Soviet cinema. Films such as The Run and Two Comrades Were Serving portray former white officers in a sympathetic light that seemed impossible a decade earlier. But half a century has passed since the civil war - and now it has become "possible".
And almost immediately after, in the 1970s, a new wave of emigration began - Jewish. They left in search of a better life and freedom, not wanting to put up with the almost formal anti-Semitism that, alas, persisted in the Soviet Union. A characteristic joke of that time was: "A Jewish wife is not a luxury, but a means of transportation." This wave of emigration was often looked upon with envy by those who remained, and dreamed of a better life and access to Western goods (from jeans and Cola to household appliances and cars) - goods that were impossible to obtain in the Soviet Union.
This mood rather persisted throughout the 1990s, when the borders finally opened and many Russians took the opportunity to leave. "Success stories" like a neighbor's daughter who married a German, or an acquaintance who got a job in America, evoked a mixture of envy and admiration. As the country struggled with the economic hardships of the Yeltsin era, emigration often seemed like an escape from poverty and unemployment, but in reality, most people never did anything to leave, reconciling themselves to their more modest reality.
Our days: political emigrants 2.0
In the 2000s and 10s, the attitude towards emigrants changed again, and in many ways it laid the foundation for today's day. If we look back at the century and a half history of emigration, this decade is reminiscent of the "Turgenev period". The very concept of emigration seemed to be a thing of the past. There are more relocators for work or study. Someone left for IT startups in California, someone simply preferred to work from Thailand for six months.
But the war in Ukraine that began in 2014, which escalated into a full-scale one in 2022, turned that page as well. If before that only a few were literally political emigrants who really could not (and did not “want”) to return to Russia, now there are many times more of them, and the number is growing every day. And the attitude towards those who have left is changing before our eyes - it goes up and down. Until more down.
However, it is too early for newly minted emigrants to worry. The extensive historical panorama created above with broad strokes clearly shows that the perception of emigration and emigrants has always been nuanced and mobile. It depended not only and not so much on the emigrants themselves, but on the internal conditions and narratives that prevailed in Russia at every historical stage. From admiration to betrayal, from sympathy to indignation, from nostalgia to envy, Russians' views on their emigrant compatriots have changed over the years, reflecting the country's political, economic, sociocultural transformation.