‘Putin’s Exiles’ Review: The Voices of Those Who Left

Since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, many Russians have fled for other countries. Are they the seeds of future change?

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Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, some one million people have fled Russia for Europe and the U.S. “Putin’s Exiles” tells their story.

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Putin's Exiles: Their Fight for a Better Russia

By Paul Starobin

Columbia Global Reports

126 pages

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Paul Starobin, a former Moscow bureau chief for Businessweek, presents a colorful and disparate cast of Russian refugees and dissidents—including physicists, entrepreneurs and anarchists—who share little in common beyond their determination to rid their motherland of Mr. Putin’s autocracy. These exiles, Mr. Starobin optimistically suggests, could be the next agents of change in Russia.

The author finds historic parallels in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when long-exiled leaders such as Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia. Today’s Russia, Mr. Starobin argues, has never come to terms with its imperialism and Soviet oppression. Under Mr. Putin, any efforts to contemplate the crimes of the past have been stifled or banned. But the mass flight involving some of the country’s best and brightest following the 2022 invasion shows that there may be a critical mass of people who refuse to be complicit with crimes of the present. Guilt and shame, the author reminds us, have transformed other aggressive societies in history.

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In his search for dissident exiles, Mr. Starobin journeys to Georgia and Armenia, countries that have taken in large numbers of newcomers from Russia. He interviews subjects ranging from a senior-cleric-turned-taxi driver to an entrepreneur working on hypersonic passenger jets. Oleg Batov, a priest who presided over a 16th-century church near the Kremlin, left his flock and moved to Georgia in protest against the war in Ukraine. He will only return, he says, once Mr. Putin is gone.

Mr. Starobin’s engaging reportage showcases the ingenuity of these dissidents. Exiled media outlets use digital innovations, including smartphone apps, to circumvent bans and censorship and to reach audiences inside Russia. Physicists help devise a cheap aerial-defense system to shield Ukraine from Russia’s deadly rain of missiles and drones.

There is, however, another historical parallel. Like the White Russians who fled Lenin’s revolution, Mr. Putin’s exiles, too, are divided into bickering clans that can’t act as a unified political force. Some are pro-Western democrats, others are Christian nationalists and yet others are mere opportunists.

Still, the advanced ages of Mr. Putin (he’s 71) and of those who prop up his rule offer hope to those who escaped. Once he’s gone, Mr. Starobin argues, they might return to become the change they are committed to.

Mr. Pancevski is a reporter for the Journal based in Berlin.

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