A week after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Oleg Yakovlev opened a flight booking website, frantically looking for any way out of Moscow.
The options were limited for him.
Because of air space restrictions and strict visa conditions imposed after the war began, a Russian passport doesn’t grant people access to many countries anymore.
Australia, for example, is only issuing visas to Russians in exceptional circumstances and there are no direct flights.
“There were system errors, I did it for hours with all of the available destinations,” Oleg told the ABC.
“I was frightened — that’s why I had to move.”
Nearby Georgia, Turkey, and Armenia were still allowing Russians in, but the only country Oleg and his family could get plane tickets for was the island nation of Sri Lanka.
“I was looking at countries where I didn’t need a special visa … but the prices were crazy, tens of thousands of dollars for one-way tickets,” he said.
Oleg had never been to Asia — let alone Sri Lanka — before he decided to call it home.
“It’s a nice choice because it’s far from Europe,” he said.
He is one of at least 300,000 Russians who have left for political reasons since the war began.
About 15,000 have gone to Sri Lanka.
They are against the war, worried about conscription, or simply feel like they have no job prospects in a country that has isolated itself from the rest of the world.
Vladimir Putin has described the mass exodus of his people as a “self-detoxification” of Russia.
But as well as being a haven for those he calls “scum”, Sri Lanka could be a convenient location for his alleged allies to stash their assets.
Even in crisis hit Sri Lanka, Oleg feels safer
Oleg was an anti-Putin activist in Russia before the war.
As a member of the LGBTQI community, he had been vocal about changes to the country’s constitution that banned same-sex marriage in 2020.
“I understood it was very dangerous to stay in Russia because I was in opposition to the political regime, which is why I decided to move away as fast as I could,” he said.
Oleg spoke to the ABC just meters away from where protests have been happening in the capital Colombo every day.
For weeks, demonstrators have been calling for systemic changes because of an economic crisis.
Some have been tear-gassed but the demonstrations have been largely peaceful — a luxury Oleg said would not be possible in Russia.
“When you compare the situation of Russia with Sri Lanka, I see how much freedom people have here, they can’t meet together in Russia, it’s prohibited,” he said.
“For me it’s a lesson to see how people try to change their life here, maybe one day Russians will do it too.”
Young professionals trigger a Russian brain drain
According to limited surveys on Russia’s mass exodus, those leaving are mainly young professionals with the resources to get out.
Many work in the tech sector, creative industries, or are freelancers like designers and journalists.
Polina, who didn’t want to use her last name, is a Russian filmmaker.
As companies from the West started to pull out of Russia in protest, she felt she had no professional future in her home country.
She believes that if she stayed, her only option would have been to make propaganda material for the Kremlin.
“In the last few years, the film market was growing in Russia, we were working with Netflix. But now Netflix has decided not to work in Russia anymore,” she said.
“We have two government foundations that give grants for cinematography. Now we think they’ll only support patriotic films including military movies… it’s all propaganda in the end.”
When Polina and Dimitri finally got on a flight to Sri Lanka, they said they felt a mixture of sadness and relief.
“It was a night flight, and I opened the map and I was waiting to see when the plane crossed the Russian border and then I could finally sleep,” she said.
“Until then I was so panicked.”
In a meeting in March, Vladimir Putin spoke about the mass exodus of Russians since the invasion.
“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like an insect in their mouth, spit them onto the pavement,” he said.
“I am convinced that a natural and necessary self-detoxification of society like this would strengthen our country, our solidarity and cohesion and our readiness to respond to any challenge.”
Uber rich Russians also find refuge on the subcontinent
India and Sri Lanka are among countries on the subcontinent refusing to join the West in financially blacklisting the Kremlin, turning it into a friendly and open place for Russian visitors.
India billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from Moscow while countries like Sri Lanka have historically relied on Russian tourists and trade links.
Sergey Semenovich, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, is tracking the crackdown on the Kremlin.
“Putin and his defenders say ‘it’s no problem that the US sanctions us, we have friends like China and India, these are the biggest countries in the world in terms of population’,” he said.
“Yes, those countries will help Russia, but they’ll only help Russia to the extent that it’s profitable to them.”
For now, Russian oligarchs are taking advantage of the situation in South Asia.
Assets of Russia’s super-elite have been seized around the world and they have been blocked from their favorite holiday spots in Europe.
Oleg Deripaska is one of several Russian billionaires facing European and Australian sanctions imposed in March over his alleged links to Vladimir Putin.
The aluminum tycoon has already been blacklisted by the US for three years amid allegations of money laundering, threatening his business rivals and links to Russian criminal gangs.
Mr Deripaska has vigorously denied the claims and has even spoken out against the war in Ukraine.
But according to vessel tracking sites, a superyacht called Clio believed to be owned by Mr Deripaska, has been making a strange journey through the Indian Ocean during the war.
Clio, which can sleep up to 18 guests and features an elevator, sailed to Sri Lanka in the first weeks of the war.
It then set sail for the Maldives, which doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the West.
“This does provide various people, entities, and companies in Russia some lifeline,” Mr Semenovich said.
“But we shouldn’t overestimate whether this will save the Russian companies.”
Regular Russians not immune from sanctions
Escaping to countries like Sri Lanka doesn’t mean these Russians can leave behind the effects of global sanctions on the Kremlin.
Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are just some of the companies that have suspended all operations in Russia to protest the invasion, meaning clients can’t use their cards abroad or for international payments online.
Oleg said the sanctions made the move to Sri Lanka much harder.
“My bank cards don’t work here in Sri Lanka because they’ve disconnected Russians from international systems,” he said.
“Airbnb doesn’t work because I have a Russian account so I can’t book an apartment.”
Another Russian exile, Polina Bykhovskaya, traveled to Sri Lanka just before the Ukraine invasion and decided not to return.
She said basic services run by Western companies have now stopped working for her.
“Suddenly life became very difficult… I don’t have my Apple Music anymore, I don’t have my Google Docs anymore, I don’t have my email anymore,” she said.
Polina Bykhovskaya said she loves what Russia used to represent but can no longer connect with what it has become.
“My initial idea was to go back to Russia by June because I have my mother there… but now I’m not going back to Russia because I’m not going to mess with the war,” she said.
“I love my culture, I love my language, I love Russian literature and we are very rich in that, but what’s going on now is beyond boundaries, I don’t know how to deal with it.”
Polina the filmmaker said even though Sri Lanka is battling power cuts and fuel shortages at the moment, she believes it’s better than staying in Russia.
“It’s a big decision to move anywhere but we had to… when we came to Sri Lanka, we realized life continues somewhere in the world, and we were so happy,” she said.