Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov
It is the middle of June 2022 and the fourth month of the war in Ukraine. We are writing this at a café in what used to be the BBC headquarters, now part of King’s College.
Four years ago, when we began working on a book about Russian political emigration, we lived in Russia. Back then we felt a little bit uneasy about the theme of the book because nobody from our families had emigrated. Although some of our relatives were victims of Stalin’s oppressive measures — some lost all their property, others were killed — our families never considered leaving Russia for good.
In the introduction to the first edition of this book we wrote: “We are Russian investigative journalists based in Moscow. (Full disclosure: Although we have traveled extensively, including while researching this book, we have never lived abroad for more than a few months.)”
That has now changed. For many months we were wary of the word “emigrant” when describing ourselves. But that is what we are. We emigrated from Russia, and there are few options to return.
We’ve been writing about Russia’s security services for more than 20 years, but two years ago the Kremlin effectively banned any writing on the subject. When the war started, our website Agentura.ru was blocked by the Russian authorities — not once, but twice. And in June, we learned that Andrei had been added to both Russia’s domestic and international wanted lists —on criminal charges of “spreading false news about the Russian troops in Ukraine” — the charges the Kremlin has been using extensively against those who spoke against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We left Russia in September 2020, and the next year many Russian investigative journalists followed and moved to Europe. They did so because they couldn’t keep working in the country anymore: many of them were put under criminal investigation or placed on the list of “foreign agents” — a special derogatory term the Kremlin has used against its critics, stopping short of an outright accusation of treason (that would come later.)
When the war started, the Kremlin made it a crime to call the war a war. The government attacked social media in an attempt to have a full monopoly on information in the country. Almost all liberal media, or what was left of it, either closed or stopped their operations as they faced the very real threat of their journalists ending up in jail for reporting on the war.
Hundreds of reporters fled Russia. They moved to Georgia, Armenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Some ended up in Turkey and Israel or elsewhere. They were just a tiny part of a much bigger wave of Russians leaving the country in droves. The ghost of general mobilization forced more than 100,000 IT specialists out of the country. Long known for its engineers and computer scientists, Russia is one of very few countries in which local internet platforms can compete successfully with global platforms, such as Google and Facebook. Before the war, many of these professionals were employees of American and other Western companies; others ran their own companies and did work for foreign clients. After February 24, 2022, however, it became clear that this kind of international work would no longer be possible. The sweeping Western sanctions hampered access to Western technologies, and many tech workers were unable to be paid by their Western clients or even connect to the servers of their companies. Moreover, many were young people in their mid-twenties to forties who feared being drafted into the army if they stayed.
They were joined by the liberal intelligentsia of big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg — professors, researchers, and historians. Until then, they had been employed by universities, museums, or other research organizations. Many worked on projects supported by Western foundations and had previously pursued their work mostly free from the Kremlin’s shadow. Many also had ties to Western universities. But in today’s Russia, this kind of independent work is seen as unpatriotic. The fleeing intellectuals did not think that their lives were in danger, but their careers were, and many of them lost their jobs because of their liberal views.
Finally, there were businesspeople and managers of big corporations, including state-owned companies, as well as Russian banks. These Russians no longer felt comfortable in a country that was closing its borders and isolating itself from the outside world, and many of them had been working for companies that were subject to Western sanctions or might become subject to them in the future. When the war started, many of these people abruptly left their jobs and fled to Europe and the United Arab Emirates.
Nearly all of the new émigrés had three things in common: a high level of education, a metropolitan background, and a liberal outlook. The war also forced most to develop an interest in politics. They understood that their hope to return was only possible with a regime change.
These émigrés didn’t want to sit and wait for that change to happen. At the time of writing, the journalists and intellectuals in exile have already achieved dramatic success — they have kept their connection with the Russian audience alive, thanks to globalization and the internet. Since the start of the war, the intellectual and liberal part of Russian society has been relying on them in their daily consumption of uncensored news.
In a nutshell, the new exiles are the brain of the nation, eager to have a say in the fate of the country. And that makes, we believe, the new emigration essential to Russia’s future — the promise the previous waves of Russian exiles have failed to fulfill.
Russia’s diaspora is the third largest in the world, exceeded only by those from India and Mexico (China is fourth), according to UN statistics. That didn’t start recently. Russians began leaving the country in large numbers in the late 19thcentury, fleeing pogroms, tsarist secret police persecution, the Russian Revolution, then Stalin and the KGB. This exodus created a rare opportunity for the Kremlin. Moscow’s masters and spymasters scored their biggest successes — recruiting among the Western establishment, stealing the secrets of the American atomic bomb — through networks of spies, many of whom were emigrants driven from Russia. During the 1930s and 1940s, dozens of spies were in New York City gathering information for Moscow.
The history of Russian espionage is soaked in blood, as Russian agents proved themselves ruthless and efficient at killing their fellow emigrants abroad. The Kremlin had learned well that to ensure political stability, it was not enough to have people inside the country under control; the émigré communities had to be brutally policed too. After all, the mighty Russian empire had been taken down by a bunch of emigrant revolutionaries who, at the end of World War I, had seized the opportunity to return to the country. Their descendants in the Kremlin had good memories, which they put to good use.
Did that story end with the collapse of the Soviet Union? No.
Mikhail Gorbachev opened the borders, and in the 1990s, Russians started to leave the country in much bigger numbers. Emigration remained a golden opportunity for Russian spymasters but also a challenge. Post-Soviet Russia lived without politically motivated emigrations for only 10 years. When Putin came to power, he immediately returned to the practice of forcing his enemies out of the country.
We are Russian investigative journalists now in exile in London. For more than 20 years we have been focused on researching the ways in which the Kremlin controls the Russian people. Our first book, The New Nobility, was about the secret services — Moscow’s traditional means of “running a tight ship.” In our second book, The Red Web, we described the Kremlin’s desperate attempts to bring the internet to heel. So it seemed like the next natural step was to look at another serious challenge to the Russian authorities — the people who have moved outside Russia’s borders—and to explore the ways in which the Kremlin is dealing with them.
In this book, we tell the story of how, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, the Kremlin has considered the presence of Russians in Western countries — particularly the United States — both its biggest threat and its biggest opportunity. Successive regimes in Moscow sought for years to use the Russian émigré community to achieve their goals. But they also sought to neutralize any potential dangers posed by Russians abroad, experimenting with tricks and methods that would also come in handy closer to home.