As Putin terrorizes Ukraine, Russians like me flee his totalitarian crackdown at home

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin began a devastating war by sending troops across the border into Ukraine, he simultaneously launched a war against my country, Russia.

While millions of Ukrainians are escaping the horrors of war and fleeing for the European Union, thousands of Russians are trying to escape, too. Young and educated Russians, in particular, are fleeing what Russia is about to become: a totalitarian police state with a devastated economy.

Concerns are rising that Putin could soon impose martial law. People are panicking.

Many will choose to stay and protest bravely. They should be praised and supported. Many others, including me, will choose to save themselves and their families by leaving. Those who want to make this choice need to be allowed to do so – especially the young men who do not want to serve in Putin's army and participate in this horrific war.

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Calls to expel Russian students from their universities in the United States and elsewhere are worrisome. Russians should not be locked inside their country in hopes that they will overthrow the dictatorial regime. Not only would that be inhumane, it would also be useless and hurt the long-term cause.

Russian freedoms are fading

Even though Russian borders are still open, getting out is incredibly hard. Visa and COVID-19 restrictions leave just a handful of destinations for Russians who flee.

Friends tell me it is impossible to buy a ticket to depart anytime soon. Prices have skyrocketed, and ticketing systems lag under the pressure of high demand and new restrictions. Many are stuck because they cannot withdraw their savings. Transferring money in and out of the country became largely impossible due to sanctions on the banking system. As the ruble's value hits record lows, people’s life savings are worth little abroad.

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Despite the costs, we choose to leave because we understand the true inhumane nature of this war and the consequences sanctions will have for the Russian economy. We fear the country will face a humanitarian crisis. Most important, we understand that to maintain stability in times of war and economic devastation, Putin will turn Russia into a totalitarian police state. It is just a question of time.

The steps toward totalitarianism have already been taken. What little independent media the Russians could access have been silenced. Social media platforms have been restricted. Spreading news about the Ukrainian war that the Russian government deems "fake" is now punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

Protesters rarely oust autocrats

Political science research says the overwhelming majority of dictators are overthrown as a result of a coup, not a popular uprising, so the idea of Russian protests as an effective tool for regime change is questionable at best.

Consider the protests of 2020 and 2021 in Belarus. Despite their massive scale, they were unable to overthrow Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Putin is significantly more popular and better prepared for an uprising than his Belarusian counterpart.

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Terrified and paranoid about the possibility of a democratic revolution in Russia, Putin has spent years preparing for this exact scenario. The opposition has been decapitated preemptively. The "Rosgvardiya," or Russian National Guard – the militarized police subordinate to Putin – was created in 2016 to address potential internal unrest. Public protests have been suppressed. Technologies have been implemented to tighten control of online communications.

Demonstrators hold signs "No war!" in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 24, 2022.
Demonstrators hold signs "No war!" in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 24, 2022.

When I was in downtown St. Petersburg as anti-war protests erupted Feb. 24, I saw more police than demonstrators. The protests have grown since then, but it remains incredibly difficult for people to participate. More than 13,500 protesters have been detained across Russia.

These protests are especially unlikely to succeed because they represent such a small proportion of the overall population of 144 million. Those who believe Russia is fighting a just war will cling to their version of reality for as long as possible, not only because the state propaganda machine has been so effective but also because accepting the truth is just too painful and world-wracking.

Evgenia Olimpieva, who is from Russia, is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago. She studies politics of authoritarian regime consolidation and survival.
Evgenia Olimpieva, who is from Russia, is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago. She studies politics of authoritarian regime consolidation and survival.

The revolution in Russia, if it is even possible, will happen only when Putin’s core supporters finally realize the extent to which they have been lied to and betrayed by the regime.

Russian refugees make strong allies

The Russians who are fleeing today are the West’s closest allies in their confrontation with Putin’s regime.

Protest in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 27, 2022, against Russia's attack on Ukraine.
Protest in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 27, 2022, against Russia's attack on Ukraine.

Can it make a difference? In Russia, thousands defy police threats to protest Ukraine invasion

In the short run, the brain drain will hurt Putin’s regime and will compound the effect of sanctions. In the long run, the Russian refugees the West receives will be the very people rebuilding this country following the post-Putin desolation and defining the new age of Russia’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Police in St. Petersburg, Russia, detain a demonstrator on March 2, 2022, during a protest against Russia's attack on Ukraine.
Police in St. Petersburg, Russia, detain a demonstrator on March 2, 2022, during a protest against Russia's attack on Ukraine.

Ukraine and Ukrainian lives must be the world’s priority right now. But the West should also consider the other war Putin is waging against Russia's own people.

Restrictions related to COVID-19 vaccination that prevent so many Russians from fleeing need to be lifted. Countries like Georgia and Armenia that could see a surge Russian refugees must be supported. Visa rules should be eased rather than restricted. Deserters must be granted asylum.

Lives should be saved on both sides of this horrifying war.

Evgenia Olimpieva, who is from Russia, is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago. She studies politics of authoritarian regime consolidation and survival. Follow her on Twitter: @EvgeniaOlimp

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russians like me are fleeing Putin's totalitarian crackdown