On a street in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district, near the coast of the Sea of Marmara, a group of anti-war Russians wear blue and yellow ribbons and other Ukrainian symbols as they hand out flyers to advertise a fund-raising campaign for children’s organizations in Ukraine.
Nick, who didn’t want us to use his last name, had a Ukrainian flag tied around his neck when he took part in the rally on May 19. down a side street.
He returned a few minutes later when the officer was gone.
“This was a stressful moment,” he told CBC News.
The 18-year-old lives in Turkey without proper papers after his application for short stay was rejected by the Turkish government.
He is part of a group of Russians who left the country because they did not agree with the war and did not want to fight in it, but had limited opportunities to settle.
Nick, 18, hands out flyers promoting a fundraiser for an organization that helps Ukrainian children. He left Russia in the spring of 2022 and was denied a short-term residence permit in Turkey. (Briar Stewart/CBC)
Turkey has always been a top destination for Russians. Its warm weather and idyllic shorelines, along with visa-free travel for tourism and business have attracted seven million Russian visitors a year before the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russians moved there, or at least stay temporarily to escape the prospect of mobilization.
Nearly 150,000 Russians now live in Turkey with short-term residence permits, which are required for stays of more than 60 days.
Refusals of residence permits
Earlier this year, there were reports on social media and in Russian independent media that more Russians were being denied residence permits, which would allow them to stay legally for at least a year.
While no official information was released by Turkish authorities, the apparent rejections stemmed from public criticism of rising housing costs in Antalya, a city on the Mediterranean coast and a favorite destination for Russians.
An online petition, signed by more than 20,000 people, called for foreigners to be banned from the housing market.
According to government statistics, throughout Turkey, sales of homes to foreigners will increase by 15.2 percent in 2022. Russian nationals were the most frequent buyers, buying more than 16,000 homes last year.
Russians whose permit applications have been rejected are in disbelief and do not know what to do next.
“I was completely devastated…depressed,” Albert Sarkisiants said in an interview with CBC News on May 13.
Sarkisiants’ application for a residence permit was rejected in December, three months after he was flown out of Russia to avoid being drafted.
On the run from mobilization
He had booked a ticket from Russia for September 27 because he suspected the country would launch a mass mobilization campaign after annexing four Ukrainian territories.
But after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization on September 21, he bought a ticket to Istanbul and immediately flew away with only his backpack and his passport.
“As a person serving in the Russian army, I was at great risk of being mobilized,” he said.
Visitors, mainly from Russia, depart from the arrival terminal at Antalya International Airport in Turkey on September 22, 2022, a day after Russia announced a partial mobilization. (Kaan Soytürk/Reuters)
Sarkisiants served a mandatory year of military service where he said he was “not even allowed to use guns”. But now he says that wouldn’t stop him from being sent to the front lines.
He found an apartment and paid his rent for six months in advance, but his application for residence was rejected. Oddly enough, he says his wife’s application, which was almost identical, was later approved.
Sarkisiants, who was pursuing his doctorate in philosophy in Russia and currently earns no substantial income, lives on the money from renting out his apartment in Moscow.
“It’s not a pleasant experience living illegally,” he said, adding that there are no good options at the moment.
He will not be going back to Russia, as the country has now introduced an electronic draft system that prohibits men from leaving the country once the summons is delivered online.
Sarkisiants also says he was arrested twice for protesting in the days after Russia began its invasion, and if he returned and spoke out, he could face years in prison.
His plan is to stay in Turkey for the time being, but eventually move to Serbia. He knows that when he leaves the country he has to pay an administrative fine because he is staying there without the proper papers.
Sarkisiants says living illegally in Turkey creates all sorts of concerns about access to health care and other services. But he says that even licensed Russians still live with the uncertainty of how long they can remain separated from their families.
Subbotnik off the coast
CBC News spoke to Sarkisiants on an island off the coast of Istanbul, where he and a group of recent Russian emigrants were cleaning up trash as part of a social outing.
The event announced was a subbotnik, which refers to the Soviet tradition of volunteering on Saturdays.
A group of Russians who recently arrived in Turkey clean up a beach on the Turkish island of Kinaliada on May 13, 2023. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)
It was organized by Denis Agenorov, 37, who left his wife and dream job in environmental sustainability in Moscow for Istanbul, where he has been living without income for months.
He has applied for dozens of new jobs, but received only a few interviews and no offers.
He says he has found Turkey very welcoming and wanted to organize the coastal cleanup as a way to give back and help the Russians connect with each other as they grapple with the fallout from the invasion.
“I don’t think I’ve dealt with it mentally yet,” he told CBC News. “It will take many years to realize what really happened as a nation.”
Andrei Gamov, 35, is on May 13, 2023 on the Turkish island of Kinaliada. He left Russia to avoid being drafted, but his wife and young daughter remain there. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)
Alongside him picking up small bits of rubbish by the water was Andrei Gamov, 35, who left his wife and three-year-old daughter in Moscow along with an engineering job at Russian energy giant Gazprom.
He has a residence permit in Turkey and has found work outside his field, but says his future is full of uncertainty.
“It’s so stressful… to leave your homeland, to lose your language, your friends, your family,” he said.
“We are also victims, because we are forced to leave… But the Ukrainians are of course the main victims.”