Is Kyiv Becoming “Paris on the Dnieper” for Russian Dissidents?

1920s Paris looms large in the imagination of dreamers everywhere, the golden age of the City of Lights. This was a city renowned for its vibrant art scene and foreign notables; Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Picasso, a la Midnight in Paris, come to mind. Lesser known, however, is the central role that 1920s Paris served for distinguished refugees from the Russian Empire. A weak and bankrupt Soviet Union had recently emerged from the ashes of world war, civil strife, economic turmoil, and brutal repression.  Well over a million fled from the ruins of the former Russian Empire—supporters of the anti-Bolshevik White movement, political refugees, non-Russian ethnic minorities, and others. While the Russian émigrés settled all over the European continent, and some even farther afield, Paris was by far the most attractive destination for Soviet opponents from the monarchist right to the non-Bolshevik left.

It was Paris where anti-Bolshevik general Anton Denikin, Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petlyura, and other renowned political émigrés found their refuge. Parisian Russian émigré institutions-in-exile were established in opposition to Soviet power and with the purpose of preserving a Russian culture increasingly perceived as threatened. Now, the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv might be considered the “Paris on the Dnieper” for Russian opponents of the current government in Moscow. An increasing number of those who have run afoul of the Kremlin are choosing Kyiv over Putin’s Russia. As a new “Iron Curtain-lite” descends on the eastern frontier of the European continent, Kyiv might serve as locus for Russian political dissent against the policies of Vladimir Putin.

Like a century ago, significant numbers of highly educated and skilled Russians are once again leaving their homeland. According to estimates, roughly three million Russians have left their country for foreign lands in the last ten years alone. While the overwhelming number of emigrants are simply searching for a better life in Europe and elsewhere, more and more are leaving as Putin extends his control over political, economic and cultural life in the country. Russia’s most high-profile citizens-in-exile include Pavel Durov, the founder of VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social media platform, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch who was imprisoned for ten years after running afoul of the Kremlin.

A handful of journalists, intellectuals, and others have already found a new home in Kyiv. For a Russian émigré, Kyiv offers many of perks that would be unavailable in other destinations further westward. As the “Mother of Russian cities,” ancient Kyiv is the birthplace of Slavic Orthodoxy and architectural wonders that survived the Soviet period. It is home to the UNESCO heritage sites of Saint Sophia Cathedral and the Pecherska Lavra cave monastery, both of which loom large in the Russian imagination. It was the birthplace of Mikhail Bulgakov, whose house now serves as a museum on the alluring Andriivsky Uzviz (Descent).

Despite Moscow’s depiction of Ukrainian capital Kyiv as a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism and Russophobia, most Ukrainians in the city prefer to use the Russian language in their daily lives. Russians in Kyiv can enjoy their native language and broader Slavic culture with all its Ukrainian quirks. Kyiv’s low wages, especially compared to Moscow or Saint Petersburg, is at least partially offset by the city’s relatively affordable cost of living. Most important is perhaps Ukraine’s liberal cultural sphere; Russians in Kyiv are afforded a level of social and political freedom that is steadily becoming extinct in the Russian Federation.

A handful of prominent Russian journalists have already sought residence in Kyiv or other cities in Ukraine following years of Russia’s repression of the media and voices of dissent. Journalist Alexander Shchetinin was one of the first. “People were mystified when I said that I left Russia because of political repression,” Shchetinin said. “In 2004, when I made my choice, I told my fellow journalists that quite a lot of people from Russia would come here.” Now, especially after the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, no one is as surprised that journalists are leaving the country. One of the most well-known Russian journalists in Ukraine is probably Yevgeny Kiselyov, a former employee of TV-6 before the government took the channel off the air in 2002. He came to Ukraine in 2008.

Despite Kyiv’s obvious benefits, it may still be a stretch to say that this city of more than three million has assumed the mantle from 1920s Paris as a new hub for a Russian community-in-exile. Even though Shchetinin has gotten accustomed to his new environment—he even considers himself politically Ukrainian— he says that Ukraine is not yet ready for an influx of foreigners.  For one, Ukraine’s difficult economic situation (the value of the Ukrainian hryvnia is only half its value as a year ago), puts Kyiv at a distinct disadvantage compared to leading cities in Western Europe. Furthermore, many Russian liberals and other Putin opponents opposed Ukraine’s pro-European revolution and supported the annexation of Crimea out of patriotism. Leaving Russia for Ukraine might be perceived as an endorsement of a Ukrainian government that many Russians, rightly or not, perceive as anti-Russian.

Managing Ukraine’s inherited Soviet-era bureaucracy is another hurdle. At a recent roundtable of Russian ex-pats in central Kyiv, Russian nationals voiced their frustration with Ukrainian immigration authorities. Many complained of receiving expired residency cards or facing other bureaucratic obstacles to their permanent stay in Ukraine.  Andrey Teselenko, a blogger who was forced out of Russia after posting pro-Ukrainian statuses on social media, complained that the Ukrainian government had done little to assist him in the asylum process. “I’m deeply convinced that the Ukrainian state has the duty, that those who disagree with Russian leadership and those who suffer the repression of the Russian authorities because of their position on Ukraine, should be allowed a simplified procedure for citizenship.”

Kyiv may not be “Paris on the Dnieper.” Not yet, anyway. Ukraine’s complicated immigration laws have already caught the attention of Ukrainian politicians, some of whom hope to score political points for Ukraine in the confrontation against Russia. Borys Tarasyuk, a pro-European member of parliament and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, has promised to do more to simplify asylum procedures for Russians. “I’m deeply convinced that those who disagree with Russian leadership and those who suffer the repression of the Russian authorities because of their position on Ukraine should be allowed a simplified procedure for citizenship,” he told concerned Russian asylum-seekers.

As the satin curtain hardens into a new Iron Curtain between East and West on the fault lines of the Dnieper River, Kyiv may very well become a magnet for anti-Putin Russians in-exile. At the moment there might only be a handful, but as Putin’s stranglehold on Russia’s social and political life tightens, the movement of dissident Russians into Ukraine might become more than just a trickle.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center