The Kremlin's friends, foes and countrymen abroad


As Russian nationalism continues to varnish foreign and domestic policy motives, diaspora loyalties take on fresh significance both at home and abroad. 


Alexandr Litoy
7 May 2015

After the defeat of the protest movement in 2011-2012, many Russian citizens left the country. Some left for fear of prosecution and possible imprisonment, others because they opposed government politics or feared a possible economic collapse. The numbers have only continued to rise after the annexation of Crimea and military action in the Donbas.

Amidst the 10 million Russian citizens living abroad, there are certainly tens of thousands of opposition-minded people to be found. But the number of ‘ideological expats’ is difficult to estimate. People use various procedures to legalise their status in other countries (some opt for refugee status, others – residence permits). Many just find a job for a few years or transfer a business without taking a final decision on where they want to make their permanent home. But once abroad, they have a surprise in store.

Crimea is ours

‘Despite the fact that they don’t see themselves returning to Russia, Russians here in Finland – businessmen, women married to Finns, and so on – are generally pro-Putin,’ says Jenny Kurpen, a civic activist forced out of Russia following the ‘Bolotnaya Square case’, the campaign of repression against people involved in demonstrations against Putin’s inauguration as president in 2012.

In response to the situation, Kurpen set up a human rights NGO, Human Corpus (link to Russian language site), which helps Russian political émigrés resettle in the West. ‘They see leaving Russia as a solution to their personal problems, which shouldn’t detract from Russia’s greatness. For them, Putin is the man reuniting Russia’s territories after the breakup of the USSR.’


Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow became a major protest site in 2011-2012. (c) Maria Pleshkova / Demotix.

‘I know of literally a handful of opposition-minded Russians in Sweden,’ Filipp Galtsev, another activist forced to leave Russian over the Bolotnaya Case, tells me. ‘And they have no organisational structures of any kind. The vast majority of émigrés support Putin’s policies in Crimea and the Donbas.’

The vast majority of émigrés support Putin’s policies in Crimea and the Donbas

‘I’ve travelled a lot in the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany’, says political expert Aleksandr Morozov, who spends an increasing amount of time in Europe. ‘The ratio of pro- to anti-Putinists is the same as in Russia. 85% support the annexation of Crimea and believe that Russia is unfairly maligned.’

European values – no thanks

This situation can be explained by the lack of integration of Russian expats in European life. According to Galtsev, Russians living in Sweden have a generally negative attitude to Swedes and their culture. ‘They go there because of the high salaries’, Galtsev tells me. ‘They don’t assimilate, they don’t learn the language. They don’t feel as if they’ve left their homeland’.

Morozov paints a similar picture. ‘People haven’t been leaving Russia for the different political system, the different values in Europe. They are attracted by more mundane things. They say things like: “It’s a good place, the Czech Republic/Germany; it’s just a pity about the Czechs/Germans”. It’s a joke, of course, but it tells you a lot. They get hung up on the negative aspects of life in Europe, feel slighted, become xenophobic, and anti-migrant. They really believe they are surrounded by gay marriages.’

‘It’s a good place, the Czech Republic: it’s just a pity about the Czechs.’

There are people doing well in IT or finance, speaking several languages and well-integrated in European life. But, according to Morozov, they represent no more than 15% of the total.

One indicator of the Russian diaspora’s mood is the fact that many émigrés continue to watch state television via the internet. In Russia, that’s strange: active internet users here watch very little TV, and if they do, they avoid the news.

Examples of expat U-turns are not hard to find. Artists Oleg Borotnikov and Avdei Ter-Oranyan, who had to leave Russia to escape prosecution, welcomed the annexation of Crimea and are now pretty pro-Kremlin in their views. Vladimir Linderman, the publisher of the USSR’s first erotic newspaper, Yeshcho (‘More’), which was also amongst the first to argue for the repeal of Soviet legislation criminalising homosexual relations, is now one of Latvia’s leading pro-Russian politicians.

Linderman recently attempted to initiate a referendum to impose a ban on ‘gay propaganda’, along the lines of current Russian law. And Aleksei Belov, guitarist in the legendary hard rock band Gorky Park, which during Perestroika was at the forefront of developing cultural relations between the USSR and the West, has returned to Russia after many years abroad. He is now involved in the support campaign for the separatists in the Donbas.

‘Russia after Putin’

Aleksei Sakhnin, another rights activist who left Russia due to the ‘Bolotnaya Case’ and who now lives in Sweden, has tried to form an anti-Putin movement in the West, but has failed to arouse any interest in his fellow political émigrés.

However, more and more expats are still either active in opposition activity in Russia or are funding it. Economist Sergei Guriev, for example, wrote Aleksei Navalny’s economic programme when he stood for election as mayor of Moscow. Chess giant and political activist Garry Kasparov finances the opposition news website Kasparov.ru, currently blocked In Russia. And prominent oligarch and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky has set up and finances ‘Open Russia’, a platform for the developing opposition media, and a rights organisation, which supports numerous civil initiatives.

More and more expats are either active in opposition activity in Russia or are funding it

In Russia, Sakhnin was a member of Left Front, a left-wing opposition grouping, as was Ilya Ponomaryov, the only Duma deputy to vote against the annexation of Crimea. Ponomaryov now lives in California after being banned from re-entering Russia (where he is also threatened with prosecution) while on a business trip in the USA last year. In November 2014, Ponomaryov announced his plan to create ‘Russia after Putin’, an association of expat business people, political activists, and Russian citizens seeking democratic reform in their country. He has not, however, as yet produced any concrete ideas about how it would function.

According to Ponomaryov, the US’s Russian diaspora is deeply divided. The White Emigration – whose families left Russia after the 1917 Revolution – is 80% pro-Putin. The Jewish emigration of the 70s and 80s, on the other hand, is mostly anti-Putin, but, in general, has little in terms of strong opinions on Russia in. These are people who left the Soviet Union after its border was opened to allow Jews to emigrate.

Officially, they emigrated to Israel in order to be reunited with family members, but many used the opportunity to settle in other countries. They don’t want to be associated with Russia and many of their children do not speak Russian. Likewise, Russians who have come to the USA since the late 80s tend to have no love for the Kremlin. Going back to Finland, Kupren tells me that ‘re-patriated’ people – Karelian Finns who have left Russia – are often very patriotic when it comes to Finland, and feel little attachment to the ‘southern neighbour’.


Russians protest at UK Parliament against vote falsifications in Russian parliamentary elections. (c) Pete Riches / Demotix

A fair number of Russian émigrés do support the opposition. Vladimir Putin won 63% of the vote in Russia in the presidential election of 2012, but often less than 50% of the expat vote. In London, for example, Putin failed to win at all. Over the last three years, Russians – at home and abroad – have changed, but there hasn’t been another chance to test them.

Anti-Putin émigrés note the extreme sensitivity of political discussion in the diaspora. Conflicting opinions on Ukraine can split families – as they can in Russia itself. But even opposition activists in the West report an increasingly strained relationship with Ukrainian expats, who have set up an enormous number of anti-Russian aggression initiatives abroad. The ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor’s share of the vote in Ukraine’s 2014 Parliamentary Elections was minuscule at home, but 8% in the diaspora.

Compatriot congresses

For any country, good links to the diaspora are important. After 1991, 25 million people who identified themselves as Russian were left living in former Union Republics, but it was only in 1999 that Russia passed its ‘Law on Compatriots’, creating the basis for relations between the Russian state and Russians abroad.

In 2001, the first World Compatriots Congress took place, bringing together coordinators of diaspora organisations, and, in 2006, this was followed by the unveiling of a programme for voluntary repatriation, providing financial support for Russians wishing to return home.

Compatriots’ Congresses have now become central to relations between most Russian organisations abroad. Through a combination of direct government grants and funds from quasi-state grant-giving bodies, Russia has plans to bankroll them to the tune of 23bn roubles (£300m) in 2015. Germany’s Russian Compatriots Councils’ central body represents 300-400 local organisations all over Germany, running joint projects, conferences, and forums. A similar Coordination Council exists in the Czech Republic, and if you look at these councils’ websites, you will see that their comments on world events are virtually identical to those of the Kremlin.

‘We have been going for three years now,’ writes a member of the Russo-Italian youth organisation, RIM Giovani Italo-Russi, on its Facebook page. ‘We usually get 20-30 people at our events, but we have had 150. We love Russia and everything we do is aimed at not losing our identity. We can help Russians become more Russian.’

Everything we do is aimed at not losing our identity

Until recently, the young Russo-Italians had close links with Young Guard, a pro-Kremlin youth organisation founded by United Russia. But Young Guard (named after a Soviet novel about wartime youth resistance) has now more or less given up on international projects. In general, political connections to the diaspora are now handled through less-official organisations.

Russia’s National Liberation Movement, the Great Fatherland party and the left-patriotic Essence of the Time movement (run by patriotic firebrand Sergei Kurginyan) all have branches in Western countries, often with members from the local population as well as expats. ‘Here in Finland, they’ve been turning up at rallies for peace in Ukraine,’ says Kurpen, ‘with their St George ribbons and DNR flags, trying to tear Ukrainian flags out of demonstrators’ hands.’

There are also Western-led initiatives. The European Front, for example, which counts both Russian expats and Europeans among its members, is involved in providing a range of support to the Donbas separatists. A video made by the Voice of Germany pro-Kremlin You Tube channel, whose support comes from the diaspora, has had 2.5m hits. Some descendants of Russian aristocrats recently published a collective statement in support of the Kremlin’s Ukrainian policies on behalf of their Russian Bridge association.

Ilya Ponomaryov believes that all these trends are favourable to Putin’s foreign policy. The old White émigré families still have links to the European upper classes and the US establishment, creating channels of communication to European and American politicians loyal to Putin.

During the Cold War, of course, White émigrés were active in anti-Soviet groups across Europe and America. Now, as fate would have it, their interests are the same as the Kremlin’s.

Standfirst image: Ukrainians, sympathisers protest outside Russian embassy, London, March 2014. (c) Hubert Libiszewski / Demotix.

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