Twenty-fourth of February, the first day of Russia’s war on Ukraine, was bright and sunny in Moscow.
That Thursday afternoon somehow still felt normal in the capital, despite steady updates about the Russian army rolling across the Ukrainian border. A taxi driver shrugged off news of the war with the cynical apathy now so common in Russia. A trickle of employees from the nearby offices of VKontakte, Russia’s Facebook equivalent, trudged into my local bank to withdraw dollars and euros. Though the platform is state-controlled, these programmers were plugged in enough to see what was coming, even if it hadn’t yet dawned on the city at large. On the metro, the everyday hubbub continued, albeit with a few more people glued to their smartphones’ news feeds than usual.
For a while, my life as a foreign journalist in Moscow had felt like that of a frog in water being slowly brought to a boil. True, the regular drumbeat of Russian colleagues being designated “foreign agents” and often hounded out of the country was alarming; the occasional expulsion of foreign peers was even worse. But we were always able to delude ourselves that it wouldn’t apply to us. Moscow was too European, and our lives too comfortable.
Ironically, the first people to realise that Moscow had changed were the foreigners working at the state-funded broadcaster Russia Today. A mix of the clueless, the naive and the otherwise unemployable, they had perhaps sensed that lying to themselves about the nature of the regime wouldn’t cut it anymore. A few announced their departures on Facebook and Twitter, others quietly melted away. Murdered journalists, show trials and mass arrests could be explained away under the channel’s laughable “Question more” slogan, but not, it seems, full-scale war.
Moscow in recent years had attracted a slightly unsavoury kind of expat, the sort of person willing to enjoy a cosseted second adolescence making a lot of money at not particularly difficult jobs in teaching, banking and advertising. A few initially made dark jokes about how much more money their foreign salaries were worth now. Most have since left.
By the time the war entered its first full week, texts were already pinging back and forth between friends, foreign and Russian, checking who was still around and for how long. People began to research the relative merits of Armenia’s visa policy vs Turkey’s. Foreigners with Russian partners became experts on Georgia’s (quick, simple and unbureaucratic) marriage laws.
I went for dinner at an expensive Georgian restaurant with two British friends: one a curator at a flagship new art gallery funded by a gas tycoon, the other a tutor for rich Russian children. Both had decided to stay, even as they agreed that the Russia we had known was now gone. All around us, diners were very audibly discussing their own emigration plans. At the end of the meal, when I tried to pay my share, my British debit card was declined. The now-sanctioned bank operating the card machine could no longer process my payments.
That was the night I knew I had to leave. Halfway through dinner, my phone lit up with the news that Echo of Moscow, Russia’s iconic liberal radio station, was being closed for using the word “war” to describe the fighting raging in Ukraine. For years, Echo’s editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov had used his impeccable connections to make himself and his station a vital part of the system, befriended by Kremlin insiders and condemned as sell-outs by the opposition. Now, one tersely worded missive from the state censorship agency and it was all gone. If Echo wasn’t safe anymore, no one was.
My final few days in Moscow passed in a strange haze. Friends dropped by in tears as I packed what I could after five years in the city I had called home. By then it was clear that Putin’s initial plan for Ukraine had failed. Kyiv still stood, and Russian soldiers had not been met with flowers by a gratefully liberated populace. The West, for so long seen in Russia as an exhausted has-been, had imposed sanctions that would devastate the country. My phone was flooded with notifications via the messenger app Telegram, each carrying another gory video of Ukrainian soldiers picking their way through an eviscerated Russian convoy, invariably narrated in a stream of Russophone obscenity. You could hardly wish for a better rebuttal to the risible fantasy of Ukrainian oppression of the Russian language.
The stalling military offensive brought with it new, ugly rumours in Moscow. Well-connected friends and colleagues gossiped about the imminent imposition of martial law and the closure of the borders. Journalists, who now face up to 15 years in prison under a new law banning the spreading of “fake news” about the Russian army, have begun leaving the country. Tickets to Yerevan, Istanbul and Dubai – more or less the only cities still open to Russian aviation – were selling for £3,000 apiece on flight aggregators such as SkyScanner, which has since suspended operations in the Russian Federation. Russian friends began grimly referring to Tbilisi as the “new Constantinople”, a reference to the city where White Russians fleeing Bolsheviks had settled a century before.
In the end, I chose Bishkek. My flight to the little-known capital of the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan was full of fleeing Russians, affluent Muscovite families with children in prams and bohemian youths clutching their guitars as they dodged the feared draft.
Reports had circulated of interrogations on the border, with FSB officers forcing those leaving to unlock their phones for examination. But my border guard was kind. The young man with combed-over blond hair and military-style uniform asked how people like me were getting home, given all the closed airspace. As he handed back my now useless Russian work permit, I said I hoped I’d be back soon.
“I hope so too,” he said. “Safe flight.”
[See also: How Russia descended into authoritarianism]