Maxim (17) from Moscow has been talking about the same question with his parents for days: can he still study in the Netherlands? Maxim, a boy who likes to build his own video games, has been admitted to the game designer course at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences after a long process. In the coming months, he has to finish high school in Moscow. With his diploma, he can then apply for his visa to start his studies in September.
But after the Russian attack on Ukraine, some European countries have already said they will no longer issue visas to Russian citizens. The Belgian Minister of Immigration proposes to end visa procedures throughout the EU. It is now too late for admission to a Russian university. If Maxim cannot show that he is going to study in July, when he turns 18, he has to join the Russian army. “My parents are very worried, or rather, they are terrified,” says Maxim from Moscow.
The city is beginning to feel the effects of international sanctions. The week started with lines at ATMs. Foreign companies are withdrawing and the ruble is suddenly worth thirty percent less. Young Russians in particular want to leave. Google has seen a high spike in the use of the keyword ’emigration’ in Russia over the past two weeks, especially in liberal cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow. But leaving is quite a task.
Tanya, a social media manager and mother of a 7-year-old son, was just able to get to Spain with her partner. She already had plans to move there, because Russia is not a nice place for a family with two mothers. Last weekend she left with no more than a few bags. She was still able to board a plane to Qatar, now that European airspace is largely closed to planes from Russia.
This way she was able to travel to Barcelona with a big detour. For now she has a tourist visa, but she too fears that Europe will no longer welcome her for a long time because she is Russian. “We have to make a decision in two or three months. We think it’s better to stay here, because when my son gets older, he’ll be in the military too. Never that!”
Tanya’s friends also want to leave, she says. But that is not easy. Dollars and euros are no longer available in Russia, and many Russian accounts abroad are blocked. Not everyone can continue to work remotely, as she does, and not everyone has a visa. “They are afraid of leaving their families behind and don’t know how to do without money.”
Maxim is not the son of a Kremlin strategist or an influential oligarch, but he also fears that he will no longer be allowed to enter Europe and will be at the mercy of conscription. Ukraine distributes images of very young Russian prisoners of war. The Ukrainians tell them to call their mother to tell them that, contrary to what Russian TV suggests, she is indeed waging a real, brutal war in the neighboring country.
Maxim tries not to think too much. He ‘of course’ does not watch Russian state television and follows the news to a limited extent, he says, ‘out of fear’. “It’s really hard for me to imagine, me in the army with a gun. I can’t kill a fly, let alone a human.”
He doesn’t like politics, but at school this week it was all about the war. Most classmates, teenagers aged 17 and 18, think it’s a disaster. “They think there should be no war at all, and I can agree with that,” says Maxim. “Maybe two or three thought it was okay, but the majority didn’t like it.”
Russians who watch state TV sincerely believe, Tanya notes, that Putin is liberating Ukraine. There are also protests in Russian cities, but many critical Russians are cautious for fear of being arrested for anti-war reports. Maxim and Tanya also prefer to keep their surnames out of the media. “I really respect those people,” Tanya says of fellow townspeople who take to the streets. “But it is so, so dangerous. People don’t matter in Russia, they just throw you in jail. I don’t think I would dare. It means nothing to the government, but you can lose everything.”