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‘Every country has its problems’ Why are Western tourists and expats returning to Russia?

Source: Meduza

‘Every country has its problems’ Why are Western tourists and expats returning to Russia?

Source: Meduza
A woman walks in front of cadets from the Yunarmiya, a Russian paramilitary youth group the E.U. has sanctioned for its support of the war against Ukraine. Moscow. June 3, 2024.
A woman walks in front of cadets from the Yunarmiya, a Russian paramilitary youth group the E.U. has sanctioned for its support of the war against Ukraine. Moscow. June 3, 2024.
Yuri Kochetkov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA
A note from the editor: The following story from The Beet unravels why, with Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine now in its third year, Western tourists and expats are slowly but surely returning to Russia. Many of our sources for this report were hesitant to speak on the record due to strict wartime censorship and ongoing repressions in Russia, and we’ve changed the names of these individuals for their protection. (Meduza is still outlawed in Russia, after all.) The opinions these sources expressed are their own and do not reflect the views of our newsroom, which has firmly opposed Russia’s war against Ukraine from the very start.

New Year’s Eve 2023. My friends and relatives in Russia were dejected. Nobody felt like celebrating. It was my first time back since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the war fatigue was palpable everywhere. 

In 2022, few foreign tourists came from the West — except small numbers of curious “war tourists” who wanted to capture the Russian reality for social media. Official figures show that tourism fell by about 30 percent year-on-year, with the number of people entering the country on tourist visas dwindling to 200,000 (one tour operator estimated that organized tourism fell by 90 percent).

Businesspeople, cultural figures, and academics did not want to harm their reputations by being seen in Russia. Academics made noise on X, formerly Twitter, about never returning unless the war ended. Nevertheless, 13.1 million foreign nationals visited Russia in 2022 for tourism, work, studies, and “private trips.”

For most would-be visitors, the only way into Russia was a nine-hour bus or three-hour train ride from Finland or the Baltic countries. With Russian planes banned from E.U. and U.K. airspace, flying in from another third country remains equally tricky. Higher flight prices and lengthy detours are just the start. Russia is cut off from the SWIFT international payment system, making it possible to book tickets on Russian airlines only with a Russian MIR card (or a huge pile of cash).

I was the only foreigner on my flight from Istanbul in late 2022. Those who took the buses and trains told stories of hours-long queues, border guards searching phones, and even full-on interrogations. But when I got to the border, I waltzed through. 

Fast forward to 2023, and I was one of many Westerners standing in line at passport control at an airport in neither Moscow nor St. Petersburg. The border guards took the time to question each of us individually and search our phones, opening emails, messenger apps, and contact lists. I spent 40 minutes waiting behind visitors hailing from France, Switzerland, Spain, Turkey, Italy, and even Argentina. The interview itself took all of 10 minutes, but I was still two hours late getting home.

‘What’s not to like here?’ 

In 2023, tourism to Russia was up nearly 3.5-fold compared to the previous year, with an increase in tourist flows from practically every country. The total number of trips by E.U. citizens shot up 30 percent, with Estonians and Germans making the most visits. Though a far cry from pre-pandemic tourism levels, more increases are expected this year. Labor migration figures are less reliable as the different visa types make it hard to decipher who is checking in permanently. 

Yet, expats who stayed in Russia throughout the invasion say they are bumping into newcomers all the time. An old friend from the Vladimir region recently met an Englishman in Rostov-on-Don who had just moved there with his Russian wife and couldn’t speak a word of Russian. (The Englishman declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Some Westerners are coming back for purely practical reasons. Tony just flew into Izhevsk, the regional capital of Russia’s Udmurt Republic. He has to spend a certain number of days in the country each year to keep his permanent residency. A Colombian I met at a local mall said that he and his wife have nowhere else to go because of visa rules, but they expressed no regrets about staying in Russia. “What’s not to like here?” he asked rhetorically.

The moon rises over an equestrian monument to Russian Tsar Nicholas I in St. Petersburg. May 25, 2024.
Dmitri Lovetsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Western academics have started attending conferences again on the down-low. Some are even conducting bits of research — and indeed, it is still possible to visit the archives. Most academic institutions forbid their employees from traveling to Russia, but you can still visit as a private citizen. 

One Cambridge academic who has traveled here twice since 2022 told me, “Having Russian contacts is vital, especially now. Russians still have a voice, and we need to hear it.” The academic also encourages PhD students to try and visit because understanding the nuances of Russia and its culture is impossible without spending a certain amount of time here.

Many more of those returning have Russian spouses and families. (This was true of most people I spoke to in the line at the airport in late 2023.) Craig, a Californian, has a young son. His work visa expired after the start of the 2022 invasion, and so he had to leave temporarily. In his own words, the war had a “zero-percent” impact on his decision to return. 

“I missed my family. And things are just fine [here],” he said. “[The war] made certain things harder. There are more rules and visa requirements now, but to be honest my life has hardly changed. If anything, I make more money now than before.”

‘Western problems’

Raymond, back after a year’s hiatus, agreed. He is more in demand as an English-language teacher now because so many others left soon after Russia invaded Ukraine. But that’s not all he and Craig have in common. “A lot of the new arrivals from the U.K. and America are trying to escape Western problems,” Raymond explained. “The wokeness, the [political correctness], the entitlement.”  

Both he and Craig said they see Russia as a country fighting the “woke epidemic.” They do not see Russia as a savior of “traditional values,” as some claim, but rather as a bulwark against what they perceive as liberal values run amok. Russia, in their view, is not going down the rabbit hole over issues of gender identity, race, and policing language — and is much better for it. 

Of course, gender and sexuality are actually huge talking points. Russia banned the so-called “international LGBT movement” late last year, effectively outlawing all LGBTQ+ rights activism and visibility. Discrimination is rife, and rights have been curtailed, particularly for trans people. Police have raided LGBTQ+ nightclubs and bars and charged their employees with “extremism.”

Russia’s ban on the ‘LGBT movement’

Russia’s ban on the ‘LGBT movement’

Everyone interviewed for this piece, including those who spoke off the record, mentioned rightwing talking points about a “culture war” and the alleged decline of Western societies. Many said they feel “lost” in the West and blamed the political and cultural elites for “forcing” social change on millions of people without their consent. Craig said he felt unable to express his opinions when he returned to America, fearing that young people — who, in his words, are “too easily offended” — would unfairly and prematurely judge him.

It is tricky to assess the degree to which these views reflect the majority of Westerners still living in Russia. Somewhat ironically, though, most of the people I approached for interviews declined to speak on the record because they and their families were afraid of possible repercussions. 

These concerns are not unfounded. There are now stringent wartime censorship laws, and Russia has arrested and jailed several U.S. passport holders, including Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter accused of spying, and, most recently, Gordon Black, a U.S. soldier charged with theft. RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, a dual Russian-American citizen, faces up to 10 years in prison for “discrediting” the Russian military. Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is currently serving a 25-year treason sentence, is also a British citizen.  


‘When cracks appear, we’ll see people in the streets’ Evgenia Kara-Murza on her husband’s imprisonment and Russia’s future


‘When cracks appear, we’ll see people in the streets’ Evgenia Kara-Murza on her husband’s imprisonment and Russia’s future

Getting on with living

Despite fearing the Russian authorities, the Westerners I spoke to seemed unaffected by the war. For many, this sense of detachment was due to the fact that they and their relatives have no direct connection to the fighting. That said, where they stood on the war was often hard to gauge — and this isn’t a popular topic of discussion. 

Sarah, an American teacher at a prestigious Moscow school, said she ignores stuff that “bums her out.” “I don’t engage with anything negative anymore,” she replied when asked to comment for this story. 

Asked if he felt guilty or complicit in Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Raymond said the war has nothing to do with him. “It would be no different if I lived back home and opposed the war. What would be different? What would that change?” he asked rhetorically. “Every country has its problems,” he continued. “If foreigners here live a good, happy life without hurting anyone, just let them be. Let them get on with living.”

Being here, it is indeed easy to sympathize with my foreign compatriots’ feeling of normality. The dust does seem to have settled following the early panic in 2022. Yes, sanctions and inflation have increased the cost of living, but things are manageable. Most of our favorite local and Western products are still available. Our favorite places are still open. Sending money abroad and traveling have become more complicated but not impossible. People have adapted and feel smug about it. 

People walk past an army recruitment ad on an electronic screen at a Moscow shopping mall. May 11, 2024.
Getty Images

Moreover, Westerners who come to Russia for jobs or because of family members often live in a bubble. They do not engage in Russian politics and have little contact with society beyond a small group of people. They see a city like Moscow or St. Petersburg for all its splendor, not its sins. 

Nevertheless, the sight of people busy living ordinary lives provokes a sense of melancholy. Most foreigners here see the carefully maintained image of “normalcy” in Russia, with its wealthy megapolis and picturesque countryside. Too preoccupied with work and families, the fighting on the frontline and the repressions that capture headlines and draw so much attention on social media often feel far away.

Learning not to worry about the war and living in an alternative reality is something Western expats appear to have learned from the Russian population. The risks of speaking out are prohibitively high and deemed futile. Perhaps only naturally, both have switched their focus from war to their personal lives and the things under their control.

When asked what advice he would give to Westerners moving to Russia now, Craig said without missing a beat, “You’ve gotta have a thick skin.” He continued, “People can be prickly and very direct. Imagine that or the police stopping you for no reason at 7:00 a.m. in the middle of winter. If you’re easily upset, go somewhere else.” This image of Russia was prevalent even before 2022. In some ways, it seems less has changed than one might think. 

Hello, I’m Eilish Hart, the editor of The Beet. Thanks for taking the time to read our work! Our newsletter delivers underreported stories like this one to subscribers every Thursday. Like all of Meduza’s reporting, it’s free to read, but relies on support from readers like you. Please consider donating to our crowdfunding campaign.

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Story by Alex Mitchell for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart