Since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression, numerous Russians have left their homeland. Many flee to Turkey, and Istanbul becomes an exile for Russians critical of the government. How are the Putin opponents coping in the Turkish metropolis? A visit.
When Irina Gaisina decides to leave her homeland, it is already too late for her friends. “The police first looked for Vadim, then for Olga,” she says. “Because of allegations of terrorism, there were also raids on their apartments, and that’s when I realized: I’ll be next if I don’t leave Russia immediately. So I packed my things and booked a flight to Istanbul.”
Gaisina puffs on her cigarette as she reflects on the events of the past few months. The fear of ending up in a Russian prison is gone. On a sunny day, she is sitting on the terrace of a café on Buyukada, an island in the Sea of Marmara that belongs to Istanbul. There are a good 2,200 kilometers between her and her hometown of Saint Petersburg.
The 39-year-old is one of thousands of Russians who have left their homeland in recent months to start a new life in the Turkish metropolis. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have already fled because the country became too dangerous for them or because they simply lost hope of democratizing Russia since Putin gave the order to attack Ukraine in February.
“We do not interfere in Turkey’s problems”
Until now, Turks had known Russians more as holidaymakers – they came to Istanbul for the shopping opportunities and to the Turkish Riviera for the beaches. Gaisina came because she does not need a visa for Turkey, unlike for entering Germany or other countries in the Schengen area. “Armenia, Georgia or Uzbekistan would also have been a possibility. I would have even fewer problems with the language there than here, but I think more and more Russians are fleeing into exile, and at some point the mood in these countries will change,” says Gaisina . Many millions of people live in Turkey, there are many tourists, “here we are less noticeable”.
The graduate psychologist worked in 2019 as a district deputy for the opposition Yabloko Party in Saint Petersburg. After the war began, she feared being jailed for taking part in anti-government street protests and signing anti-war petitions. Her husband and three children also came to Turkey, and since then the family of five has lived in an apartment on the Asian side of Istanbul. “Unfortunately I’m unemployed right now, I also have to take care of our children. But overall we’re still lucky. My husband is an app developer and can work from anywhere as long as he has a laptop.”
Gaisina finds it paradoxical that Russian government critics are seeking protection in Turkey of all places. After all, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been running Turkey with an iron fist for years, and human rights activists and opposition figures in the country are under constant pressure. “But for us it’s now about survival. Turkey’s problems aren’t ours, we don’t get involved, so we’re invisible to the Turkish police,” she says.
Three million Russians came
While EU countries have recently made it more difficult for Russians to enter the country, new Russian arrivals can stay in Istanbul as tourists for up to 90 days without any major problems. If you can show a valid rental contract, you can even get a whole year off from the Turkish authorities, and the deadline can be extended. Since Putin announced the mobilization of reservists, Russians who may even support the Ukraine war, but don’t want to be sent to the front themselves, have also come. This exodus at times drove up the price of air tickets between Moscow and Istanbul enormously.
Between January and August, three million Russians traveled to Turkey as tourists – it is unclear how many of them want to stay in Turkey permanently. Unlike in Armenia, Kazakhstan or Georgia, the Turkish authorities do not provide any further information. Meanwhile, Erdogan continues to position himself as a mediator between Kyiv and the Kremlin.
Eva Rapoport notices every day that Istanbul has long since become a new home for many Russians. One afternoon she is sitting in the Atatürk Cultural Center, a new building right on Taksim Square. Chat messages keep popping up on her laptop. She works as a coordinator for the Istanbul branch of Ark, a network that helps newcomers to Russia get started. “We help with language problems, with dealings with the authorities and also offer psychological counseling,” says Rapoport. “Above all, we also help by providing people with a bed in a communal apartment for two weeks free of charge.”
Even the rich need support
A few years ago, the 38-year-old taught philosophy at the Moscow School of Economics, but now she belongs to a team with a few dozen supporters. The Russian network is organized through a Telegram group. It explains, for example, where and how a Turkish bank card can be applied for. According to its own statements, the network has so far helped several hundred Russians with a place to sleep in one of the four rented communal apartments in Istanbul. Including the branches in Armenia and Kazakhstan, the “Arche” provides around 200 beds at short notice.
The network is financed by donations. Among the donors is the well-known opponent of Putin and ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “The press likes to mention his name, but he only donated money once at the beginning. Otherwise, he has nothing to do with us. We finance ourselves exclusively through crowdfunding,” says Rapoport.
When a man with a sporty figure comes up the stairs in the Atatürk Cultural Center, she recognizes him, they greet each other, and there is a brief chat. When asked, the man, who is probably in his early 30s, says that he was a top athlete in Russia more than ten years ago. Now he is about to move to Istanbul to set up a “hub for Russian start-ups” – words like war, flight or fear are not used. When he’s gone, Rapoport remarks, “We take care of people like that here too. He obviously doesn’t have money worries, but he needs a community, people to talk to here.”
Russians are pouncing on Turkish real estate
If you bring the necessary change to Turkey, you can at least make the start easier. Foreigners who buy real estate in Turkey with a minimum value of 250,000 dollars and then hold it for at least three years can get Turkish citizenship. A Turkish bank account with a capital of 500,000 dollars is also a door opener for citizenship. President Erdogan’s government hopes that this will bring fresh foreign currency into the country and thus counteract the extreme inflation of the national currency – in September the inflation rate was 83 percent, the highest in more than 20 years.
Russians in particular have rushed into Turkish real estate since the beginning of the war. In June, 1,887 properties were sold nationwide to Russian citizens – more than to any foreign group. Compared to the same month last year, this is an increase of 529 percent. According to the Turkish statistical office Tüik, Russians also led the list of foreign buyers in August with 1,238 property purchases, followed by Iranians and Iraqis. By far the most houses and apartments were sold in Istanbul and Antalya. How many of the buyers ended up applying for Turkish citizenship is unclear.
“Istanbul is now full of Russians”
This is not the best time to look for apartments in Turkey as a foreigner. The already tense housing market has recently been further strained by the influx of many Syrians, Afghans and Iranians to the 16-million metropolis of Istanbul. And with eight months to go before Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, the Turkish opposition never tires of harping on about this issue. Turkey took in around 3.7 million Syrians fleeing the civil war, more than any other country. Initially, the Turks were surprisingly open towards the refugees and for a long time nodded to Erdogan’s refugee policy. In the midst of a currency and energy crisis, however, the mood has also shifted among his supporters, and there have been attacks on Syrians and Afghans. The president, who is at a low point in the polls, recently announced that he intends to send many Syrians back.
In the midst of this tension, the Russians are coming. According to Rapoport, there are hardly any vacant and affordable apartments left in popular Istanbul areas such as Beyoglu, Besiktas or Kadikoy. If you need an apartment, it would be better to move to the outskirts. In general, however, Turks are open to the Russians. “I don’t like to say that, but the Istanbul housing market is not free of racism either. We have noticed that landlords prefer to rent to Russians than to Syrians or Africans.” She emphasizes that the “Arche” is helping with the search, but anyone who wants help must be clearly opposed to the Ukraine war.
Irina Gaisina does not rule out moving on to Germany at some point. But the children still like the Bosporus, the two older daughters are getting school lessons again, even if only online. “As far as the food is concerned, my children still have to get used to the fact that there is no pork in Turkish cuisine and the water is not sparkling,” she says with a smile. A few weeks later, however, she appears serious again in a Telegram message. The course of the war continues to have an impact, she writes. “Istanbul is now full of Russians who are fleeing the mobilization. It is difficult for these people to get an apartment in Istanbul. Some do not speak a foreign language and have little money.”