ZOiS Report 3/2023

Russian Migrants in Georgia and Germany: Activism in the Context of Russia’s War against Ukraine

Placards on a rally organised by Demokrati-JA on 24 February 2023 in Berlin: ‘Freedom For Political Prisoners!’ / ‘Stop Putin! Stop War!’ Tatiana Golova

Executive Summary

Russia’s war in Ukraine has uprooted millions of Ukrainians, with many fleeing abroad and others displaced within Ukraine. The war also prompted a new wave of migration from Russia. After 24 February 2022 and after the announcement of a partial mobilisation in September 2022, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens left their home country for various countries, including former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia and European countries. While not all of these migrants are politically engaged, a vocal minority has long-standing experience of civic and political activism and saw migration as a way of escaping repression and continuing their oppositional activities remotely. Others with little or no previous experience of activism have been mobilised in the context of the war. And in countries with pre-existing Russian migrant communities, sections of this population have also engaged in humanitarian and anti-war activities.

This report analyses how politically and socially engaged migrants from Russia (re-)organise themselves at a critical time. We focus on Georgia and Germany as prominent host countries for this migration. Despite differences in migration regimes, the numbers of Russian migrants taken in, and attitudes to these newcomers, we observe more similarities than differences in migrant activism in Germany and Georgia. Drawing on in-depth interviews with Russian migrants in these countries, we examine a variety of grassroots projects, focusing on anti-war and related fields of activism. Many observers and activists are chiefly concerned about the extent to which activists can influence developments in Russia from abroad. Yet the activists’ political and civic engagement, while motivated by these developments, is not directed solely at the home country. We focus in particular on the four main audiences activists address: 1) civil society and the general population in Russia; 2) the host society and its institutions; 3) Russian migrants and their networks abroad; and 4) Ukrainian refugees in the host countries and Ukrainians in Ukraine. This qualitative research sheds light on a less visible, de-centralised form of migrant activism and its possible effects in a transnational context.

These are the key findings:

  • Migrants remain closely attuned to developments within their country of origin but direct their actions towards diverse audiences in different countries and contexts. Activists and initiatives may address these target groups simultaneously through different and sometimes even the same actions, which can create tensions.
  • In the context of war and war censorship, addressing audiences in Russia becomes especially challenging not only for anti-war activists within the country, but also for migrant activists. Homeland-oriented engagement covers a wide spectrum of activities ranging from disseminating independent information to the Russian population and solidarity with civil society actors who remain in Russia. Activism also entails providing help with legal issues, psychological support, and practical tools to exit for those individuals and their families who are critical of the political regime in Russia and want or have to leave Russia.
  • The relationship of Russian migrant activists with potential audiences in the two host societies differs significantly. Politically engaged Russian migrants in Georgia have little contact with Georgian society and its civil society organisations. They are conscious that their presence in Georgia can be associated with Russian imperial behaviour. The current Georgian debate on visa restrictions for Russian citizens and a generally cautious attitude towards newcomers may limit the scope of migrant engagement in the future and confirm migrants’ doubts about their long-term prospects in Georgia.
  • In Germany, the situation is different, partly due to the involvement of more established Russian migrants in anti-war and pro-democracy activism, and partly also to the different character of the war-induced migration there. Compared to their counterparts in Georgia, Russian migrant initiatives in Germany engage more with their target audiences, and their interactions with local civil society and political actors are more diverse. They make concrete demands on German politics, calling for support for Ukraine and an unequivocal distancing from the Russian state. Furthermore, regime critics value the freedom of assembly and other favourable conditions for political activity in Germany. At the same time, the periodic pro-war mobilisation of other Russian-speaking migrants is a source of conflict.
  • In both countries, activists share a common goal of supporting newcomers from Russia, community building, and establishing networks for civic and political engagement on-site and transnationally. There is a humanitarian and a political dimension to community building in this context: the activists aim to increase their numbers in their host cities in order to position themselves more visibly against the Kremlin regime. The goal is to counteract the social and political isolation of the newcomers and to encourage political engagement among those migrants who were previously rather apolitical. The latter has, however, proved more difficult than anticipated.
  • Supporting newcomers in Germany is considered by activists among the more established migrant community as a way of consolidating the pro-democratic Russian diaspora. However, there are disparities in social and cultural capital between newer political migrants and activists who have lived in Germany longer, but were not necessarily engaged in politics prior to the full-scale Russian war against Ukraine. This makes cooperation and integration into existing initiatives challenging.
  • In Georgia, providing informal social spaces and practical assistance for immigrants is important because it encourages networking and strengthens mutual trust between different segments of the migrant population.
  • Providing humanitarian relief for Ukrainians, including refugees and displaced persons, has become an important field of engagement among Russian migrants. Here, direct interaction with Ukrainians remains possible to some degree, while cooperation in the area of politics is far more problematic.
  • Germany’s migration regime vis-à-vis Russian citizens is far less restrictive than in some other European countries, but it is more restrictive than in Georgia. This has shaped the character and extent of war-induced migration from Russia to Germany and also made lobbying for a humanitarian solution that prioritises people at risk of repression a viable field of activism for Russian migrant networks.