February 24, 2023


Hey there, my name is Alex.

Today is the 24th February 2023. Exactly 1 year ago my country of origin, Russia, began a war with Ukraine: a war that has already cost thousands of lives, and brought immense sorrow to both nations, and the world around them.

Exactly 1 year ago too, I left my home. Sometimes I dream about returning to familiar landscapes one day, but it's ever more unlikely I will be able to do so.

This last year presented an opportunity for me to reflect on the last 10 years of my life: to observe how an interest in affairs became a concern; how the concern created caution — a growing sense of paranoia and suspicion — and later gave me an upper hand and determination to act quickly.

The text below isn't created for the sake of sympathy regarding everything I have lost. Your true condolences and support must go to the people of Ukraine, who fight for their lives and freedom as we speak. The reason I write now is to materialise this weird moment of my life, and to show the uncommon narrative of leaving Russia in the first days of the war, through my eyes.

Friends and colleagues who have heard this story orally, insisted that I write it down. I did this in Russian some time ago, and I feel now is the time to present it to an English speaking audience.


I usually don't include the information below when I tell my story to colleagues and foreign friends, as it’s only relevant to Russian citizens or those who have lived in Russia. However, it's worth mentioning here so the events I tell you about later on make more sense…

2011 onwards — I began participating in street actions against the Russian regime and election fraud.

2012 onwards — I became a polling station administrative committee member working at presidential, parliamentarian, municipal and other types of local elections in order to prevent fraud.

2013 onwards — I founded my own concert agency, focused on booking Western artists for Russian shows and tours. In 2018 I decided to dedicate my life to working for international cultural exchanges by organising concerts and A/V shows as a full-time job.

2015 - 2017 — I immigrated to Norway after Russia annexed Crimea.

2016 onwards — I began donating to the free media, anti-corruption and human rights organisations of Russia.

When the war just broke out it felt impossible to believe.

Equally strange was a later comprehension that I had been subconsciously preparing for something like this for a very long time. For me it didn't start in 2022, or 2014: it all started in 2011, when I first got detained after a street rally and spent a cold December night in a police bus.

Year after year, an intuition formed, a paranoia grew inside my brain; pushing me to make certain decisions the ‘future Alex’ would be grateful for. And when the time came, all of the mechanisms and precautions I had built up, worked exactly in my favour.

Life principles

Firstly, when I started my own business, I knew well enough how easy it was to get in trouble if I did 'too good’, or said something those in power didn’t like. Obviously, nobody gave a heck about a tiny concert agency that was barely breaking even. But still I consciously decided not to obtain any liability like running my own venue or even having an office. Our work at the business was completely digital and decentralised, making us adaptable to rapidly changing circumstances. Choosing not to have physical assets later spread across my entire life, and by the age of 32, I possessed barely three-to-four boxes of stuff, half of which were souvenirs.

Secondly, my personal relations with money were strange, as I always preferred saving over spending. I considered money as energy that could take any form; not necessarily a physical one. After working for 2 years in Norway as a programmer I had decent savings, yet didn't buy a car, apartment, or even a set of the latest devices. I was mostly investing into experiences like education and travel — anything that would widen my perception of the world. Like a dragon on a pile of gold I was wearing a wrinkled hoodie, dirty sneakers and carried a 5 year old phone. I gave zero fucks about what the consumer world had to offer. But when the time came, I literally bought my own future with money.

How it all began

My decision to leave Russia began with a completely unrelated event.

In November 2021 I was supposed to go on a leisure trip across Central America for about 4 weeks — all the way from Mexico to Ecuador. The trip was booked and fully paid for.

I was flying with Turkish Airlines, and after the layover in Istanbul, I was suddenly denied boarding and threatened with deportation at the boarding gate to Mexico City. The employees were rude, bossy and intimidating towards some passengers.

All the Ukrainians were let onboard, whereas all the Russians and Belorusians were asked to step aside and denied to go any further. That was the first time in my life where I felt misjudged on the basis of my nationality. A very nasty feeling, I must admit.

The airline's argument was that my documentation was wrong, and I didn't have the right to board in the first place. That was complete bollocks, as I have travelled my entire life, and I am insanely careful when it comes to having the correct documents. Also, their own employee had already checked my papers upon boarding the first leg from St. Petersburg to Istanbul.

I didn't fly to Mexico. I went back to Russia, contacted the Mexican embassy for clarification and eventually, threatening the airline with a lawsuit, got some of my money back. The rest of the trip was non-refundable and I lost about $2000.

But I didn't stop there. It's not an everyday thing to get kicked out of a country like that. And it couldn't be an anomaly to deny the boarding of 15 passengers. So I started to dig.

I reached out to friends and colleagues in Mexico. I wrote a post about what happened and gathered feedback from individuals and Mexico-based companies. And the truth was... unexpected.

The real reason why Turkish Airlines denied boarding to Russian and Belorusian passengers, was because a great number of them were illegally crossing the Mexico-US border. The US was pressing the Mexican government about it. So, if Mexican passport control suspected a passenger to attempt running through the border, he/she was denied entry, and the airline was obliged to fly them back to Turkey at their own expense. So, if the airline employees didn't like the look of someone, they didn't bother boarding them in the first place. The risk of having a lawsuit was cheaper than flying the denied back from Mexico. Just like that.

I kept digging further. I asked my contacts: ‘How bad is it? how many are running?’. The answer was: ‘Dozens try every day, sometimes hundreds a week’.

It was astonishing... I could easily understand the immigration waves coming from Central America or Cuba, countries that are not exactly famous for their living standards, safety and employment rates. There’s no wonder people would seek a better life in the US.

But Russia? At the time it gave me the impression of a country with a strong economy and job market. I lived right in the centre of it, and saw many opportunities every day. It’s like if I’d say that hundreds of your countrymen are besieging borders of, let’s say, China at this very moment! The least you’d think is I really need to check with a psychiatrist. And yet it was there.

If hundreds of people were running, that meant only one thing — they saw something that I didn't. So I asked my contacts again: ‘Why do you think they're doing this?’  And the answer was unified and simple: ‘After what happened in Belarus’.

What exactly happened in Belarus?

There were presidential elections in August 2020 that were completely rigged. Thousands of people went to protest on the streets. The police and army met them with immense brutality, killing a few people, detaining thousands, and torturing or raping others. Many more people simply just went missing.

Protests in Belarus 💔

Belarus is a country close to Russia — politically, geographically and culturally. It is also run by a dictatorship. Often it is perceived as a test polygon for the Russian regime to see how far the government can go with its brutality towards the dissidents and political opposition. The state strategy used in Belarus is often repeated in Russia a few years afterwards. Therefore, these episodes of mass detention and tortures happening on Russian soil, essentially, seemed to be just a matter of time. Some people recognised that. And preventively started to run.


To be honest with you, that wasn't exactly the information I was looking to receive from what began as a fun trip to Central America. Actually, quite the opposite of that.

During December 2021 I had a bunch of private conversations with my closest friends, family and colleagues, about whether or not that information made any sense. For most of them it didn't — ‘You're overreacting, Alex’, they said, ‘it's all gonna be fine’.

That felt like a total disconnection with reality. But I'd been so focused on building my own concert agency at the time, I didn't pay much attention to what was going on besides that, and neither analysed events properly. And now nothing felt alright, but almost everyone convinced me the opposite.

So I took a few days off to pause everything, look around with a clear mind and reflect on certain things. And here's what I found out.

For the past 10 years I constantly saw independent media in Russia being suppressed and closed, economy sanctioned, national currency steadily plummeting, activists houses occasionally searched, and opposition leaders being detained, imprisoned or even assassinated.

The political candidate I always supported, Alexey Navalny, recently survived a poisoning by Novichok and was recently tortured in a Russian jail.

Back in 2011 I was in a police bus full of teenagers just starting their careers in tech and law. We kept in contact and became good friends. I realised I was the last one of them remaining in Russia. I've also been through a few government-made financial crises and lost a lot of money with no state support whatsoever.

After seeing all this go down, what could make me think it's gonna go back up all of a sudden? Is a miracle awaiting? I recall zero miracles happening so far.

Ten years ago I started working at the elections committee. I knew that if there's no rotation in the government, sooner or later this government will do something immensely stupid or horrible, as there will be no internal political force to stop it. I participated in all the street actions that took place when I wasn’t abroad for work. Police often used facial recognition cameras there. I donated to organisations that recently were labeled unwanted or extremists.

Objectively, if the police would have a hypothetical ‘list’, I would either not be there at all, or at least be somewhere at the very bottom. I wasn’t a public figure, a journalist or even a leader of opinions, just a citizen of zero significance carefully minding his civil duties. But what I’ve learned from the history of the USSR is that once the repression machine is created, it will not stop until the ‘list’ is fully exhausted. And I really didn’t want to wait for that moment.

Then I looked at myself.

Still young, proficient in English, traveled the world, already lived in immigration for 2 years. Tried to make a living of international cultural exchange. Unlike many friends with local jobs I had some vague chances to make it in the West.

I was confident that something was going to happen in Russia eventually. I didn't know exactly what or when, I just had a feeling.

When this ‘something’ would go on, where would my presence be the most effective? Next to my loved ones saving them? Well, I was pretty sure they no doubt will manage fighting, hiding or fleeing, but the hardest part usually comes after. I knew it would be the most efficient if I'm already abroad, helping them with advice, knowledge and resources. Not to mention I was very afraid of what could have happened.

That's how I decided to make a second immigration attempt.

Global Talent

I made a fresh visa to enter the Schengen.

At the end of December 2021 I did research on different visa types that would allow me to immigrate to Europe as a freelancer or entrepreneur. I didn't really feel like being an employee again, though it seemed to be much more stable and safe to play, especially in the beginning. Neither did I want to go back to the tech industry and spent 8h days in the office coding.

One of the best options that I found was a Global Talent visa to the UK — the one given to workers of certain industries that are internationally recognised for their achievements. Despite the fancy name, after looking through requirements I suddenly realised I was eligible for this type of visa via the art route.

In the beginning of January 2022 I flew to Croatia to get vaccinated with Pfizer. Russian and Western vaccines were not mutually accepted, so I eventually I got ‘gigavaxxed' with 2 shots of Sputnik and 2 shots of Pfizer, to be let in either way. Without it I’d be trapped in Russia even if the other docs would be in place.

I sent out requests for recommendation letters to the international partners and slowly started to look through the list of required documents. The plan was to gently wrap this up by Fall 2022 and in case of a success — move to the UK at the end of 2022.

Well, those plans went to shit very quickly.

Anticipation in the air

It was the first week of February 2022 when the CIA reported large military forces concentrating close to the borders of Ukraine from Russia and Belarus' sides.

I completely ignored that news at the time, due to my insane workload. It was the time when the omicron variant of COVID spread around and was called ‘the last’ variant. Many countries lifted their restrictions afterwards, bands started to tour again, and I was extremely busy packing 2022 with live acts from Europe, UK and the States. After 2 years of not having any work this felt like a relief. Any person related to the event industries will remember those happy days.

The CIA announced the date of the invasion — Feb 16th. I didn't pay any attention again. This was old news — Russia occasionally muscle-flexed next to their neighbours borders and nothing happened afterwards.

But then Russia's officials reacted to these announcements with a joke-like response, something like ‘If you know the date already, could you please tell us the exact hour?’.

And that really caught my attention. Officials never pay attention or give comments on controversial topics in order to discredit the information. They did that all the time with the opposition and with some western leaders. Such a public and unnaturally ironic response to the CIA really looked like they were caught red-handed right in the middle of an affair.

This was the second time I paused everything, took some time to clear my mind and observe the situation as a whole. I tried to imagine all the possible scenarios, from best to worst, and decide what I would do in every one of them. Most included being outside the country when things start to happen.

Feb 13th 2022. I checked my passport and visas, printed both COVID certificates and got other documents ready.

Feb 14th 2022. I packed my bag with a necessary minimum of things. Knowing Russian national currency (RUB) may start fluctuating at any moment, throughout the years I collected a bunch of cash in USD, EUR and GBP. Like a squirrel hiding nuts, I stashed it all over my apartment. I collected it all, put it in a ziplock and then into the backpack. The legal customs allowance was the equivalent of 10K USD.

Feb 15th 2022. I exchanged the majority of my digital savings in RUB to digital EUR.

Feb 16th 2022. The date of the invasion, announced by the CIA. Nothing happens. I kept the bag packed, and it was watching me silently from a corner of a room for the next few days.

Feb 21st 2022. Russia officially recognises Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics — the regions of Ukraine that were destabilised and de facto controlled by the Russian military since 2014. For me that means they're finally doing it. The personal guess was they're gonna move the troops in, and later on annex the territories in the current borders of those so-called ‘republics’.

I also expected Russia to close the internal borders and announce military curfew immediately after. Then starting the conscription. Hence leaving as quickly as possible was no longer in question.

Feb 22nd 2022. I made a detailed list of all transportation options leaving St. Petersburg internationally — by air and by land. It had 3 major blocks for morning, afternoon and evening options, so once I heard something, I would just open the exact block and book a ticket, without doing the research all over again. I also warned a few friends who tended to stay up until very late, so they'd wake me up with a call if something happens during the night.

Feb 23rd 2022. It was a regular day and I went to bed around midnight. I didn't know at the time that day would become the last snapshot of Russia, and how I would finally remember it. Neither did I know this would be the last night I slept fully for the next 6 months.


Feb 24th 2022.

I woke up around 8AM from a call. It was Mom calling. She sounded very anxious and just quickly said: 'Son, the war has started. You have to wake up right now. And you have to get out’.

Still being sleepy, I opened the news and stared at Vladimir Putin's face announcing ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. There were tanks, explosions, air raid alerts, everything was confusing and very scary.

The system I created did not require thinkings, only the doings. Everything was already pre-planned.

I closed the news. Opened my list. Found the closest available option, which happened to be a bus to Tallinn, Estonia. Booked the ticket. Called my colleagues saying I'm leaving the country for 3 - 4 days until the situation becomes clear. Called my family saying the same thing. Called an event organiser in Estonia to send me an invitation paper for cultural activity, so I looked more legit for the Estonian passport control. I grabbed my bag and left the house.

The bus ride was about 3 hours, so I had enough time to dive into the news stream. There were exploding apartment buildings hit by Russian rockets. Regular bodies. Burnt bodies. Bodies with guts out. Severed limbs. Tanks rolling over people. Dead children. And many many more. I didn't know I was slowly getting an observer trauma just by looking at it, but I simply couldn't stop. Despite what the war in Ukraine is and will become, it is one thing for sure — the first war in the history of humanity available real-time in HD resolution.

Once again I felt a severe disconnection with reality. After watching this news I looked into a window, and nothing was showing the disturbance. People were running here and there minding their everyday routines. The merchants were shouting at a market. Kids going to school. Passengers on the bus chattered and giggled about something. Did they all know? Sure they did. Or am I the only one seeing this? Nothing made any sense.

In the meantime the bus arrived to a border crossing point at Ivangorod…

— We're sorry, sir, but we can't let you out.

At first I thought I misheard something. Started arguing with a border control lady. Said I had all the visas and vaccines in place; that I'm an artist invited to Estonia.

— Your Estonian documents are fine, you would be good to go there. But we won't let you out of Russia this time.

I saw the bus departing to Estonia, leaving me in an empty cold hangar with a bunch of Russian border police. It goes without saying — I was absolutely stressed out.

The FSB officer came out and explained what was happening. Apparently, according to Russia's latest COVID regulation, ground checkpoints had absolutely different sets of rules and required different documents compared to airports. It was only possible to leave Russia by land if I'd have medical treatment or residency in the country I'm going to. Roughly speaking, it was possible to fly to Tallinn from St. Petersburg, but not to drive there. Which from an epidemiological point of view didn't make any fucking sense. During 2 years of COVID I was only flying, so it didn't even come to my mind to check this nonsense prior to the trip.

The officer held my passport. At some point he opened it, and his expression changed — he found the US visa. He started asking me questions about who I am, where I supposed to go, why I have this visa, what was the last time I visited the US and many more. The situation has suddenly turned into a mild interrogation. I answered quickly and clearly so eventually he got satisfied and gave the passport back.

I asked him if he could give me any paper indicating I was denied leaving Russia, which I secretly thought of using for applying for a political asylum in the future.

— I can give you a paper, but that would become a documented case of illegal border crossing attempt. Do you need that record?

— I don't

— I guess no paperwork then! We have 1-2 people like you everyday, who don't know about these ground checkpoint COVID rules. So just grab your stuff and get out of here! Back to Russia!

It was already getting dark when I left the gates and re-entered Ivangorod. This tiny town was usually just a blurry point on the way to Europe, but now I was right in the middle of it. Grey concrete buildings, shitty roads, sketchy vibes. There was obviously no train or bus station. No hotel to stay overnight.

Ivangorod. Source: Varlamov

The only way to go was back to St. Petersburg, 150km away. So I tried to hitchhike a car. Nobody was stopping. A random very drunk guy walked past me saying "are you having fun standing here, you fucking idiot?".

It got completely dark outside. A group of young men left an off-license shop, opened beers and stared at me trying to get out of their lovely village. There was no one else on the street.

The situation was getting grim. I was dressed like a person from a capital, tired as fuck, and my backpack was full of cash, roughly 2 annual incomes of any of those guys staring at me. Not to mention all the documents I so precisely collected over the years.

I decided to call an Uber and it came really fast.

— What the hell are you doing here, mate?

— Trying to get home, why?

— Uber doesn't work in this area. I'm only here because I dropped a passenger nearby and was about to go back to the regional centre. You're fucking lucky I'm here!

I sure was lucky — taking a 150 km Uber back to St. Petersburg and paying a fortune for it. I came home, decided not to do anything, because my brain was completely fried. Passed out.

My first attempt to leave Russia was a complete failure.

Feb 25th 2022.

I woke up the next morning, opened my list again and crossed out all the options that required ground transportation — cars, buses, trains and ferries. Only the flights left. The cheapest option was a direct one to Zagreb, Croatia.

During that day European countries started to close their airspaces for Russian planes.

I came to the airport and read the news that Poland is going to close the airspace as well. And my route was exactly over Poland. I went to a check-in deck and asked the lady if we're gonna fly today at all. She didn't understand the question but assured me that if Poland closes it, we (the quote) ‘will fly around’. ‘Around what, the fucking globe?!’, I wanted to ask... All other countries around Poland had already closed their airspace.

There was no questions at passport control — a big difference to what had happened the day before. I got on a plane, took off. I was flying and praying not to get stopped midair and do the emergency landing somewhere in Kaliningrad. It may sound silly today, when we know Turkish, Serbian and almost all Asian airlines fly there regularly. But back then, in a fog of war, being lost in controversial news of Russian planes being stopped, turned around and arrested, leasing agreements terminated all over the world, I remember having a thought “this could actually be one of the last planes leaving Russia”. And eventually it was like that, but only for Europe.

It was all good, and I successfully landed in Zagreb. No questions at passport control again.

Later I figured out Poland was closing the airspace starting at midnight the next day, when I was flying over it around 10PM. About 2 hours after my landing the circle of countries with a closed sky around Croatia was complete, meaning the aircraft itself probably got stuck there forever.

First days

I don't remember them very well. I'd been absolutely stressed out and blown away by what was unfolding. I almost didn't sleep. Everything from this time is blurry.

Russia banned all the independent media, as well as a few western social media like Facebook and Instagram. It became harder to get and spread information.

I stayed at a hostel in central Zagreb. Some guests were playing Call of Duty on a TV in the living room. Blowing up buildings, shooting each other out, dying, respawning. This was very surreal to watch knowing and seeing what was going on in Ukraine at the same time.

Around the corner, on the main square, pro-Ukranian meetings took place. I didn't know what to think of them. On the one hand I wanted to go there and protest against what Russia did, to show solidarity with Ukrainian people. On the other — I wasn't sure I wouldn't be mistreated, bullied or even attacked by someone because I was Russian. I've heard cases like that happening in Czech, Poland and some Baltic countries.

Pro-Ukranian meeting on Zagreb's central square

The bitter irony of the situation was that I spent 10+ years working against the regime, trying to prevent bad things from happening. And now, literally overnight, I was put in the line with everybody else. Not wanted in Russia. Not wanted outside Russia. The best metaphor I've found was ‘being both a jew and a nazi’. Not like I was very surprised, just another thing needed to be dealt with.

So I stayed inside the hostel most of the time, helping my friends leaving the country at later dates. We were figuring COVID and visa regulations for the countries still allowing Russians, checking logistics, checkpoint situations, finding accommodation for the first time after arrival.

I also completed gathering the documents for the Global Talent visa, which were 50% ready before the invasion started. Just 4 days after arrival I finalised and sent it to the UK authorities for initial endorsement approval.

Closing the business

The concert agency I had built since 2013 was destroyed in 1 day.

We were already barely making it after 2 years of COVID, with all the travel restrictions and no shows happening. There was no state support for the industry they banned themselves, and I always had to wonder why. At least now I knew that the government needed to save the money for – the fucking war.

Show with fulldome visuals in Planetarium One in St.Petersburg, 2020.

Booking all 2022 with new acts eventually played against my favour, as many costs like flights, marketing and venue rents were non-refundable. Many artistic fees were paid upfront to the agencies, and even though everyone was very understanding and helpful, returning the money wasn’t that easy. Since the invasion started, many European banks banned all outbound payments to Russia, so we collectively decided the paid fees will sit there waiting until there’s another bank account to return them back to.

Suddenly closing the project of your life feels strange. Like finish reading a cool chapter of a book, turn the page and realising there’s nothing more.

I understood clearly that even if the war ended soon, no Western artist will be visiting Russia for many years due to related reputation and safety issues.

Myself, I didn’t want to pay taxes to the government that spends it on killing neighbours.

So that was it. I did the paperwork, gave golden parachutes to the colleagues to cope until the next job. We shook hands by Zoom. Good old Forest Booking was no more.

Collapse of the financial system

Money is funny. From apocalypse movies we all know that real world’s currencies are shoes, medicine, alcohol, canned food and ammunition. The rest is just a concept that exists only while the majority of the population believes in it. I’m glad I got this experience first hand.

On the first day of the invasion RUB nosedived and kept going down for many days after. I did have a small amount and went to a couple of exchange offices and banks to get Croatian Kunas (HRK) instead. They all said one thing: ‘we don’t buy rubles, we only sell’. That meant RUB stopped being a convertible currency and pretty much just turned into paper without any value. I had the physical money, just couldn't spend.

When your countrie's money are done

When it parabolically plummeted, I exchanged most of the digital EUR and USD I bought for RUB right before the war, back to RUB. That resulted in an instant 35-40% profit, which I later used to cover holes in my destroyed company.

Good time to sell

One night in the beginning of March me and a few other Russians were drinking wine in the hostel's kitchen, discussing our situations. Suddenly the news came out that Mastercard and Visa decided to cut Russia off. Drunk and anxious, we ran to the cold and empty streets of Zagreb, emptying all cash machines we could find around, withdrawing as many HRK as possible.

A few days later all our plastic cards stopped working.

Mastercard and Visa left Russia.

For 2022 I had dozens of flights booked, and since all of them got canceled, I requested refunds during the first few days of the invasion. These refunds took up to 20 business days to arrive, but none of them actually did, because there were no cards to come back to. It was a weird, unique situation, in which the payments actually left the airlines’ accounts, so technically the refund was executed. But since all payment systems stopped supporting accounts in Russia, those refunds got stuck somewhere in a digital banking purgatory, never reaching out to their recipients. I lost maybe 1000 USD worth of flights like that.

Then my bank got cut from SWIFT.

Then Apple Pay left.

Then Google Pay left.

Then PayPal.

Then Transferwise.

Then Western Union.

Eventually all the payment companies left.

This became a real game changer because I lost access to all of my digital finances while being abroad. There was no way for any family members to support me with any money in case I needed it. It’s hard to imagine when you’re so used to pay with your watch or phone all the time, just beep and go. Some of you who read this text probably never even lived in a world before plastic cards.

But all this fancy digital financing turned very ephemeral and from now on, I could only rely on cash reserves in my backpack. Cash-only guy in the cashless world. If it would get wet, lost, forgotten at a cafe or stolen, I would be so screwed. Fucked, big time.

I could of course ask a European friend to deposit some money on a personal card and send it to me by post. But getting in debt right after my digital balance literally hit zero didn’t sound like a very good idea.

And then ‘Alex from the past’ came to help. When I was leaving Norway in 2017, I didn’t close my local bank account. Actually, I left behind about 4-5 monthly salaries. Very good money. Those were also held in Norwegian krona, which was not affected by the ongoing crisis. Throughout the years I impulsively wanted to use them for something — there was enough to buy a car or put down a first mortgage deposit. But my intense paranoia always said: ‘hands off, don’t touch it! Alex from the future will be grateful for it’. And there was I, Alex from the future, in the middle of a war scenario, desperately in need of money. I was never more grateful to myself…

In the meantime, my first stage of the Global Talent visa application got approved. I cried from happiness — it was the first sign of hope and a light at the end of the tunnel. Now I had to apply and pay for the visa itself, healthcare surcharge and many more. Pay digitally, of course.

The problem with Norwegian money was the same — I had the money, but not the access to it. My plastic card expired years ago, and obviously a Norwegian bank didn’t ship a new one to Russia due to security regulations. So this pot of gold was just sitting there, inaccessible. I had to fly to Norway to be there physically to receive a new plastic card.

How would I book a flight, if I only had a bunch of cash on me, and no plastic? Well, there were a few options:

  1. Find a European person, give this person cash in exchange for the flight ticket. Or just add it to my debt balance and reimburse later.
  2. Go to the ticket office and stand in the line with old people who don’t know how to book flights online. The closest one was at Zagreb airport.

But I found the third, less shameful option.

There were a few flight options, including Ryanair which allowed Paypal as a type of payment. I recalled having a Norwegian Paypal account, which I completely forgot about. The password was forgotten too. From the third attempt, trying different passwords, sweating and swearing, I managed to successfully login and pass all the security questions. Paypal was a bit suspicious about the login attempt after 5 years of silence. For God knows what reason that account had money on it. Thanks again, 'Alex from the past'!

I booked the flight and flew to Norway shortly after.

Final dash

An important note that western people may not be aware of: for Russian citizens a visa is required to enter the Schengen zone. I already got one. That visa has limits for the duration of stay – no longer than 90 days. If a person exceeds this limit, the deportation and entry ban will follow. After some past travels I’ve had about 65 days balance left upon entering Norway.

I dropped by my friend's, called the bank and requested a new bank card shipped to the friend's address. Got it in 2 days. Paying for everything with a card again already felt surreal...

Paid 4000 EUR for the visa (hell yeah it’s expensive). Booked the appointment at the visa centre. Went there. Gave them my passport. Applied for the visa.

They said it would take up to 3 weeks to receive the decision, so I just chilled in Oslo. There were so many weird and beautiful stories from that time, but this post has already reached 15 pages, so I’ll keep it for another account.

Norwegian mountains

After 1 week nothing happened.

After 2 weeks nothing happened.

Now just waiting and having a lot of free time, I wanted to contribute and help the Ukrainian refugees flooding into Norway in great numbers. I instantly failed a background police check, as I was a person quite literally without a passport.

Then I tried to get there through some friends involved in volunteer organisations. They all said they appreciate the help, but not sure it’s a good idea for me to show up. I was a Russian male of military age, exactly like the ones these refugees just escaped from. My friends said I’d rather focus on myself as I was also affected greatly by the unfolding crisis. It was the same idea as when you’re told to put an oxygen mask first on yourself and only then help others. So eventually I followed their advice and stopped trying.

After 3 weeks nothing happened. It started getting delayed.

After 4 weeks nothing happened.

After 5 weeks nothing happened.

After 6 weeks nothing happened.

After 7 weeks nothing happened.

I became terrified and my brain completely melted. Not only is being in limbo for that long exhausting, but also the days of my Schengen visa were running out. I gave my passport away to the visa centre and couldn’t leave Norway because of that: I was trapped inside. If I overstayed, I’d be banned from entering Europe and that would pretty much end my career.

There was no plan B at that moment, and no turning back. All my attention, time, efforts and remaining resources were thrown at that UK visa. If I would be banned for overstaying in Europe and my passport eventually won’t have the UK visa in it… well, I tried not to think of what would happen afterwards.

The visa centre didn’t know where the passport was, because they sent it to a ‘decision making centre’ somewhere in Europe. It took them a few days to locate it in Berlin and send it back to Oslo. I was charged 100€ for that service, though it was them who kept my passport double the time that was initially promised.

I decided to leave Norway and fly outside the Schengen to wait for the UK’s visa decision. In this case I’d save some days on my Schengen visa. That would be enough to come back to Oslo again, glue the UK visa in and fly out again. If it was to be granted, of course.

I flew to Turkey with a short stay in The Netherlands during week 8.

On week 9 my visa was finally granted.

I flew back to Oslo and got the vignette glued in.

On week 10 I stepped onto the UK's soil.

In total I’d been floating for 3 months, bouncing around Europe and Asia. Not having anything to come back to and neither having a clear goal in the future fried my circuits completely. The planning horizon shrinked from 3 years pretty much down to 3 hours. Anything could have changed any minute.

A friend in the UK offered me a couch to crash on, which I did and refused to move for the next few months.

My rented apartment back in St. Petersburg was no longer relevant. We made a video-conference with a colleague, going through all of my stuff, deciding what should be packed and sent to me, what should be stored in a warehouse, or simply thrown away.

We laughed that she had all the chances to reveal some nasty stuff and my dirtiest secrets, because I left so urgently and wouldn’t have time to hide it. But eventually the most controversial stuff she found was Polaroid pictures of me getting drunk with friends in the Arctic forests. Seems like I live a boring, perversion-free life…

When I started to leave on Feb 24th, I thought the whole war should end very soon, like most of the Europeans did. So I left with just one cabin luggage – 6 t-shirts, 6 trunks, 6 pairs of socks, 1 laptop. That lasted for 7 months.

Later that summer I was buying baggage allowances for my friends leaving Russia at later dates, so they can grab my suitcases too. And then I was flying in and out of the UK picking out clothes, personal belongings, books and documents from Montenegro, Georgia, Armenia and Turkey. The strangest dialogue I ever had at a passport control (except the interrogation one):

– What’s your purpose for visiting, sir?

– I need my pants back!

By October 2022 that giant puzzle was completed and my existence started to look a little bit more like a normal life.


2022 was an awful year.

The above is obviously not even close to leaving Ukraine under Russian rockets and bombs, having your house blown up or loved ones lost. The year 2023 is not going to get any easier for those who live or lived there.

But it’s my story, and I wanted to write it down, that’s all.

Sometimes I dream of going back and visiting the familar cities. But, as aforementioned, that won’t happen in the foreseeable future. Not until a few years after the regime changes and legislation is reverted. And I don’t see any indication of it.

Having a background like mine and posting anti-war statements may randomly make me a criminal against the state. I sure don't wanna play Russian roulette upon entry and check if there’s actually a ‘list’ or not.

The country is now conscripting troops, and I happen to be a military age male. The last thing I wanna do is to kill or be killed.

My last 10 years of political and civil struggle gave no fruits. I truly did my best to prevent horrors from happening and it obviously wasn’t enough.

I lost.

It’s hard to truly let a thought in that years of my life had only led to a failure. Especially when I’m risen in the culture that worships power and insists that real men never lose.

Speaking of the “real men" losing — it’s also sad to think there’s nothing one can do about it but watch this burning train full of Russian soldiers speed up and crash. Only to wish it would take less innocent people with it.

I’m often asked: ‘What is Russia like at the moment?’. I actually have no idea! The trap of nostalgia is that you’re homesick for something that doesn’t exist anymore. It looks like it’s there, but it’s different now. The old Russia I knew on the evening of Feb 23rd 2022, before going to bed, is no longer there.

A lot of my friends left in the following months of the invasion, spreading across the globe and learning how to live a new life. Occasionally we meet here and there. I sure miss my family and those who decided to stay, but we still do video calls and meet on the third countries’ soil. So eventually none of us are alone.

For the record I should also mention that I never hid my nationality when directly asked, and never been mistreated back. Zero times. This gives me hope we’ll assimilate in the world peacefully and become truly cosmopolitan.

It still feels very strange to realise I lived the last 10-plus years expecting horrible things to happen at any time. And when the time came, I just pulled the ring and ejected. It was terrifying in the process, but felt like I already lived through that and knew exactly what to do. Everything was prepared.

That paranoia and suspicion indeed didn’t help to build strong social bonds and romantic relationships. It’s good that I was right this whole time once, but I don’t want to live like that anymore.

I choose peace over war, diplomacy over violence, growth over stagnation. I accept this loss. Now it’s time to close this chapter of my life and write the next one.

Thank you for reading this.


I'd like to sincerely thank all the people who helped me along the way in Croatia, Norway, The Netherlands, Turkey, the UK and remotely from Russia. Very likely I wouldn't make it without your kindness and support. Not sure if you'd like your names mentioned publicly, so just know that I love and care for you.

I'd also like to thank Charlie Holland for helping me editing this text.

My links: Telegram / Instagram