The plight of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee their homeland continues to generate mountains of press coverage. But they’re not the only ones who must suddenly adapt to new surroundings. POLITICO asked Russian photojournalist Sergey Ponomarev — himself a recent transplant to Turkey — to tell the stories of five sets of parents who determined that life in Russia had become too untenable to raise their children.
THE PASHIN FAMILY
From Moscow, now living in Istanbul
Pictured from right: Leonid, 31; his wife Anastasia, 31; son Daniel, 7; and their cat, Asya, 11
In Anastasia’s words: The evening of February 23, we started talking about what we would do, what was possible. I wrote an Instagram post and talked to friends about what I couldn’t imagine, and how anyone could think about starting a war.
I asked people if they even remembered what war was. Do you seriously want this? Explosions? Deaths?
Three days later, my husband and I packed our suitcases in just four hours. We flew with our son to Istanbul.
It becomes morally challenging to stay in Russia, because you stop understanding how you relate to all of this.
When there were rallies protesting the poisoning of [Alexei] Navalny, I couldn’t go because I was working. But Daniel saw the news, and heard our conversations, and for a week he woke up every night crying, worried that the police would suddenly take him away, because he saw the riot police and the police vans.
It’s horrifying when this black cloud of men in body armor just appears in your hometown.
But there is no way to influence. The only legal opportunity to resist, to protest, is simply to vote in the elections, and results still end up being falsified. There is no longer any desire to fight and beat your forehead against the wall.
It’s either that or sit still.
But for us the time to rally had passed, and we had to pack our bags.
[Editor’s note: After Sergey photographed the family, he received a message from Anastasia expounding on her thoughts — and going into more detail than she wanted to share in front of her son. Those follow.]
Living outside Russia, we risk Daniel feeling like a stranger, perhaps facing rejection from his peers because he is Russian. But he can always get support at home: Mom and Dad are on the spot. And this can be addressed with therapy.
If we had stayed, we would have faced three more serious risks.
1. Military action. What is happening in Ukraine now: explosions, shelling, evacuation.
2. Arrests. Remaining ourselves, my husband and I would no longer be able to silently look at what the leaders of our country are doing. We would somehow express our disagreement. Which would mean we’re no longer guaranteeing our son that we are doing everything we can to be with him as long as possible.
3. Forced silence and humility. This is something we would never want for our son. Along with isolation, when you grow up only on the books, films and conversations allowed in your country, you get used to being quiet and afraid — and being afraid to think or speak differently. It’s almost as scary as the first two. He’ll need to adapt and assimilate to another country, yes, but those hurdles don’t even come close to having a lack of freedom in one’s own country.
Not even the deepest psychotherapy could heal the consequences of these scenarios.
Therefore, we are no longer in Russia.
THE SALAVATOV FAMILY
From Sterlitamak, Russia; now living in Gazipasa, Turkey
Pictured from left: Azaliia, 15; Rustam, 38; Alina, 36; Alzir, 7; and Almaz, 9
In Rustam’s words: After the annexation of Crimea, business was already lousy. I work in IT, and I could see that we would not be attracting any investment. I knew then that we should probably leave the country. But on the other hand, we had family nearby, and we lived in such a borderline state, it felt like we could stay or go.
On August 15, 2020, I took part in protests against the development of Mount Kushtau by the Bashkir Soda Company. I broadcasted live from the mountain. Many followed, taking photographs; I collaborated with the media. Alina stayed at home and helped with the broadcast. We were told that the police would likely come for us that night, so we abruptly packed our things and left.
After Kushtau, our struggle for clean air began. We fought with the local plant because there was a high incidence of cancer. And we saw that we could influence this, too. We were actively engaged: We installed sensors there, air devices, and again found ourselves under police surveillance.
We participated too in the 2021 election, too, as active observers. Again the police followed us. Feeling closer to Ukraine, I actively showed myself in the opposition, and I kept my account on Instagram.
When the war began, I started openly expressing my position — my disagreement. The FSB sent an officer to visit me at the university; he said there was no need to spread this “fake news.” I realized this was confirmation that they were following me, and something had to be done. Two days later, we flew to Istanbul.
The FSB officer didn’t scare me. He just wanted to talk. I asked him what he needed, he told me not to post these “fakes” anymore, and that was it.
We left not just because they could recognize us as enemies of the people, but also to show that we disagree with what Russia is doing.
And you can’t protest.
Sterlitamak is a small city, just 300,000 people. When there were rallies to support [Alexei] Navalny, there would be 20 or 30 protesters… and 40 or 50 police officers.
If you go to a rally, you will be detained, and that’s it.
THE DIACHENKO FAMILY
From Odesa (by way of Moscow); now living in Antalya, Turkey
Pictured: Ukrainian national Oleksander, 33; and his Russian sons Andrey, 5; and Fedor, 3
In Oleksander’s words: In 2015, my wife Antonina and I moved to Moscow. She’s Russian, so the kids also have Russian passports. We’d been thinking of leaving for some time, but her work (in public relations and video production) always kept her going. I’ve always supported leaving.
Once the war began, it only took two days to see clearly that we could not stay in Russia. We have relatives in Ukraine: My parents are in Odesa with my grandmother; she has brothers in the Zaporizhzhia region. And I was physically scared because I have a Ukrainian passport. Any policeman who stopped me and checked my Telegram channels could jail me.
So I didn’t go to rallies. But my wife did, and she was detained. I could no longer be a part of this society. We had to go.
At the airport, the FSB interrogated me for two hours, playing good-cop/bad-cop. It’s all so straight, though. My wife had already passed with the boys, but they detained me when they saw my blue passport. Same for all the other Ukrainians. The flight had already been delayed for seven hours; they were in no hurry.
We knew that Turkey had made getting a residency permit easier for Ukrainians, but of course the consulates are all overloaded now. We have grandparents from both countries, and the kids are missing them, so we’ll probably be here for a year or so.
But Turkey is not our country. The refugee will never be able to get used to anything but his place. For children, it’s easier to find a middle ground, and we are thinking about Canada now. It seems to us that we can be more socially protected there; it would be easier for the children to assimilate.
They’ve simplified obtaining visas for Ukrainians, and offer immediate employment. [Oleksander works in IT, engineering smart-home networks.]
I just want this to end as soon as possible, so we could come back to Odesa.
THE SEVERINOFF FAMILY
From Rostov-on-Don, Russia; now living in Istanbul
Pictured from right: Nikita, 31; his daughter Charliz, 6 months; wife Marie, 30; Severin, 5; and Slevin, 3
In Marie’s words: Six months ago, we moved to Moscow because I was pregnant. We wanted to gain a foothold.
The baby was born and shortly before the war, we tried to move my grandmother there, so it would be more manageable.
But then war came.
The morning of February 25, we woke up late. We had missed calls from everyone; it was all over the news. War was everywhere.
I could not stand it. Recalling my roots in the Parnassus party, I ran out to join an anti-war rally. Because I wanted to say no to this nightmare. I went alone because, by law, children cannot attend a protest. My husband stayed home with them, and we talked on the phone from the rally on Pushkinskaya.
I just stood in the crowd with a girl next to me. I remember that the police wanted to move us, I didn’t understand what was happening … and then I woke up in a police van.
In speaking to the policemen, I had the feeling that they already knew me.
I was an activist in Rostov. I even wanted to run for the Duma, but I couldn’t manage it together with the family and children.
We had a good life, a nice apartment, a robot vacuum cleaner. We were thinking about getting a car. The children were preparing to go to school near our home.
We both have relatives in Ukraine. But for some time, we decided not to speak about the war; not to check the news. Secretly, though, we both saw what was happening in the world — not just what Russian media told us was happening.
We didn’t want to let the negativity in. We wanted to leave, but we worried about our relatives. My sister called from Ukraine and told me she could have been killed — there had been a bombing, and she had been under fire. But the Russian media was saying they were only targeting military units near Kyiv.
Children hear and see war. It is simply not in our power to hide it from them. Severin and I talked about what was happening as Russians attacked Ukrainians.
We spoke for a long time, explaining what war is, that it’s not as fun as they show at the parade. That there are missing people; there is death; there are consequences. He cried.
He asked why we weren’t doing anything about it if we were against it. I explained that I went to protest, but I was not allowed to do anything more. And that the people who came out against it are heroes. But people have children to worry about, mortgages, dependents … and so society is silent.
I decided to send a letter to world leaders. It was like a silent scream. We wrote a letter to Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, the chancellor of Germany and the pope. Nobody answered us.
By the middle of the March, strange calls began. First to our acquaintances, then to my husband at work. Some strange people were asking about us. I got a phone call, asking why I had written a letter.
I consulted with a lawyer. As a Russian woman, a juvenile justice could step in and take my children for a month — immediately.
On March 24, there was pounding on our door. Someone was shouting, demanding we open up for the police.
We hid behind a crib in our flat as someone used a flashlight to see through the window. It was horrifying. We had to leave, so we headed for Belarus.
It was complicated. At customs in Russia, we were stopped and questioned. My husband had been a junior reserve sergeant in MANPADS, an air-defense unit now used in Ukraine.
They interrogated him for a long time and told him that the motherland did not forget him. He said we’d planned a vacation before the war. We spent the night at the Minsk airport. Ten hours. The children slept on chairs — they are heroes for enduring it.
When we got to Istanbul, we stopped. We could exhale.
THE RUDNIK FAMILY
From Mozyr, Belarus; now living in Gazipasa, Turkey
Pictured from left: Nadine, 10; Sofia, 6; Maria, 33; Emilia, 3; Oleg, 26; Mia, 8; and Milana, 14
In Maria’s words: Our city of Mozyr is now very famous — there are a lot of Russian soldiers. We share 40 kilometers of border with Ukraine.
After the recent Belarusian election, the people were against the results. We started protest rallies. I was an activist, and so I went on stage at one and read out a letter from our country’s citizens to its leadership.
The authorities didn’t like that.
When they started jailing activists, we left. I was the organizer of all women’s marches in our city, and they were looking for organizers. They were sentencing them to long prison terms. I got some phone calls and realized we had to leave.
We illegally fled Belarus through its closed border with Russia. We drove through the forest for 10 hours in winter with all the children. It was terrible.
We thought we would fly to Turkey, though we didn’t know anyone there, nor anyone else who had fled there. But we had Russian airline tickets, and were denied boarding. They said we had no reason to be on the territory of the Russian Federation.
So we flew Turkish Airlines.