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Russia's Post-Invasion Migrants Relive Mass Relocation On Stage

Russians wait to register at a public service center in Almaty in September 2022 after fleeing their country.
Russians wait to register at a public service center in Almaty in September 2022 after fleeing their country.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Moscow's subsequent military mobilization triggered a mass exodus of Russian citizens to neighboring countries.

It also gave birth to a new term -- "relokant" -- used to describe the hundreds of thousands of Russians who moved to former Soviet countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia since the February 2022 invasion.

Russians fled their homeland to evade military service, escape an increasingly repressive political atmosphere, and find economic opportunities that appeared to be vanishing rapidly in their homeland.

The influx of Russians stoked heated debates in many ex-Soviet countries and had impacts even after some of the migrants moved on.

The experiences of these Russian migrants was the focus of a theater play -- Here.Almaty -- staged in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, on February 11.

Here.Almaty was staged by the 2act theater troupe in Almaty on February 11.
Here.Almaty was staged by the 2act theater troupe in Almaty on February 11.

The production by Russian troupe 2act was performed in the form of a series of monologues, which were based on interviews with Russian migrants, a Ukrainian refugee, and a local Kazakh.

The first monologue covered the experience of Tatyana, a Russian woman who fled to Kazakhstan by car with her husband after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a partial military mobilization in September 2022.

The order sparked scenes of chaos on Russia's borders as thousands of people tried frantically to leave the country by plane, car, or foot.

"To begin with, we went to Pavlodar," said Tatyana of their journey to the northeastern city in Kazakhstan where the couple first arrived. "People just kept on coming. For locals the number was unreal."

"Russians were running from ATMs to cash exchanges," she said. "We were met by volunteers. They gave us drink and food."

Her husband, in his 40s, had not expected a military call-up. But after military recruitment officers began going door to door in their village, located near the Russian city of Kemerovo, "we gathered our things in the space of an hour," she said.

Tatyana said their parents considered them traitors. But neither she nor her husband had any doubts that the war was wrong. "They just decided for us. They just decided to do awful things in our name," she said, referring to the Russian government.

Russians wait to register at a Kazakh service center in September 2022.
Russians wait to register at a Kazakh service center in September 2022.

Those unable to escape the recruitment drive became witnesses to a different kind of chaos.

Another monologue in the play was based on the experiences of a man who made the mistake of opening his door to recruiters and finding himself among the more than 300,000 men mobilized in Russia, before eventually finding a way to flee the country.

Drunkenness and confusion were rife at the military base where he was transported in preparation for his deployment to Ukraine.

"Often it was not clear why we were standing there for 45, 50 minutes at a time, just f***ing standing," said the actor playing the middle-aged man. "Every so often an officer would pass. Who is assigned to which platoon, who has what specialty? Eventually it dawned on me that I could have gotten the f*** out of there after two weeks at the training ground because I wasn't on any of the lists!"

Russians who moved to Kazakhstan found cities where they could speak Russian freely and a population that was largely welcoming.

But their arrival in Almaty, just like in cities in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia, sent the cost of living soaring. The rising prices soon became a source of local anger.

"Before I could rent a one-bedroom flat for 80,000 tenges or up to 120,000 tenges (less than $300). After the flood of refugees, it cost 200,000-250,000," complained a Kazakh man, Artur, whose monologue was read by the play's sole Kazakh actor.

Mixed Couples And Complex Identities

Artur, it transpired, had been born in Russia to ethnic Kazakh parents and moved to Kazakhstan, his historic homeland, later in life.

His views were in some ways colored by his experiences in Russia, where he said his uncle had been killed by Russian ultranationalists.

He had never felt welcome in Russia's largest cities, he said, and now demanded a "firm migration policy." The new Russian arrivals, he complained, could at least try to learn the Kazakh language properly.

The monologue format was interrupted on only one occasion, in order to recreate the troupe's interviews with a couple -- an anonymous ethnic Tatar from Russia and his Ukrainian partner, Maria.

The pair had met on Black Desert Online, an online multiplayer war game, where Maria joked that her future boyfriend "constantly killed" her.

But war became a reality when the woman's unnamed home city was targeted by Russian air strikes during the first weeks of the invasion.

"I didn't understand at first," said the actress who played the woman. "Then the explosions started. I was afraid. I either sat in the basement or hid in the bathroom."

The man moved to Kazakhstan first, where he waited for her. When they finally met in person, the couple settled in a resort town outside Almaty.

As a migrant, Maria was banned from working. Her partner relied on unsteady work as a freelance accountant for Russian clients. "But as the work was paid in rubles, I was earning less and less after converting [into tenges]," the actor playing the man said.

Their financial problems multiplied after they found themselves caught in a house fire in which they lost most of their possessions.

The owner of the flat demanded damages as well as the passport of Maria's partner by way of a guarantee.

He was happy to hand it over. "I just wish I could give up Russian citizenship so easily," the actor playing the man said.

Hopes For The Future

2act's interviews are frozen in time, and the director of the play, Vitaly Shengireyev, says that some of the interviewees have since moved back to Russia.

At the beginning of 2023, Kazakhstan tightened immigration rules, making it harder for Russians to stay in the country for extended periods of time without permanent residence, which can be hard to obtain.

Several of the Russians interviewed for the production also admitted to homesickness.

Nearly all of the interviewees expressed hope that Russia's war in Ukraine would end, although one said he could not fully support the idea of a Ukrainian victory. "If the Ukrainian armed forces win, [Russia] will be a defeated country, and there is nothing good in that," the actor playing the man said.

That kind of ambivalence has irritated some locals in countries where Russian migrants have moved. In countries like Kazakhstan, which has suffered at the hands of Russian imperialism, some activists have called on Russians take a tough stance against the Kremlin and address historical ills.

But in Central Asia, authoritarian governments under pressure from the Kremlin and sizable pro-Russian segments of society have been reluctant to tolerate anti-war activism by the new Russian migrants.

The play is just the latest produced by 2act, whose small theater is located in the back of one of Almaty's oldest malls. The troupe is headed by Shengireyev and his wife, who are both from the Russian city of Magnitogorsk.

The group says that local recognition of its productions -- sometimes comic, sometimes serious -- is now growing after a tough start.

But for one member of the audience, the harrowing stories in Here.Almaty proved too much. That spectator was a Russian migrant who said he had reluctantly made the decision to return to his homeland in the coming days.

Walking past Shengireyev during the interval, the man told the play's director, "Thank you for preparing me for my country."

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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