BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Russian entrepreneurs Yulia and Ilya Kuleshov have been hard at work transforming the large house they rented in the Kyrgyz capital into a center for creative volunteering projects after moving from St. Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But, when President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial” mobilization in late September, the two-storey house of the Kuleshovs, where they also live, became a temporary refuge for their Russian compatriots.
“We’ve been overwhelmed with requests for people to crash somewhere for at least a night or two,” Kuleshova told The Moscow Times from the eight-bedroom home she and her husband dubbed “Red Roof.”
The chaotic exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russians of military age triggered by the Kremlin’s month-long project has radically reshaped former Soviet nations like Kyrgyzstan, driving up property prices and giving a major boost to local economies.
Cities like Bishkek, where Russian is still widely spoken, have become popular destinations for fleeing Russians, who had few options to leave the country due to Western flight bans, border closures and the rising skyrocketing in the cost of flights to the few destinations available.
Building on a decade of live at the head of charitable startups, the Kuleshovs quickly organized a team of volunteers in late September and rented a separate house to provide short-term living space for newcomers.
At one point, Kuleshova said Red Roof was hosting up to 20 Russians who had left the country to escape mobilization.
“People were sleeping three to a room and on couches in the hallways,” Kuleshova said. “The people of Bishkek responded to our call to donate mattresses and sheets so that we could install beds on the floor.”
Nearly half a million Russians arrived in Kyrgyzstan in the first nine months of this year, according to official Kyrgyz figures, more than double the number recorded during the same period last year. While many have since left, tens of thousands are believed to have settled in the country in the medium to long term.
Alexandra Litvinova, an activist who fled the high-tech city of Innopolis in Russia when war broke out, had planned to move in with the Kuleshovs. Instead, she found herself finding beds for Russians who had just arrived in Bishkek.
“I and almost everyone I know from the first wave had couchsurfers living with them,” she told the Moscow Times at an orientation event for Russian newcomers at a Bishkek bar. .
Litvinova has also volunteered to help run a chat group on the Telegram messaging app providing information to Russians arriving in Kyrgyzstan.
She said the chat’s administrators were “in absolute shock” as the number of subscribers increased more than fivefold after the mobilization was announced and they started receiving inquiries from Kyrgyz journalists.
While the Kyrgyz reaction to the arrival of so many Russians has been overwhelmingly positive, some tension has been raised by the wealth of many newcomers (purchasing power per capita in Russia is six times that of Kyrgyzstan, according at the World Bank).
In particular, Kyrgyz landlords have traveled rents – some up to 100% – and there have been instances of local tenants forced out in favor of the Russians.
Litvinova said she often sees anger over the overheated housing market among the 23,500 Russian Telegram chat members she helps manage.
“Everyone is scared,” Litvinova said. “But he is a cat that offers help and does not stir up wars. So we had to ban 2,000 accounts.
Some Russians have faced rental scams and attempts by airport police to extort money, according to Litvinova, but she noted such incidents were rare.
“The negativity is more immediate and visible, although the positive experiences here far outweigh the negatives,” she said.
Rising prices in Bishkek have also forced newly arrived Russians to disperse to more remote locations across the landlocked, mountainous country of 7 million people.
A Russian woman who requested anonymity to speak freely told the Moscow Times that her family’s limited savings led her to move to Jalal-Abad, a town of 120,000 people in the fertile and multi-ethnic Fergana Valley, in southern Kyrgyzstan.
“We left in a rush and panic, so we chose a route that best suited our financial situation,” she said.
“It was a random choice, but we are grateful to fate, to the country and to its people.”
While those who fled Russia at the start of the war were mostly computer scientists or other specialists with significant incomes, the Russians fleeing Putin’s mobilization campaign were far more economically and socially diverse, according to migration researcher Yan Matusevich.
Post-mobilization emigrants include “small-town kids with no money” and ethnic minorities from Siberia and the Far East with “absolutely no resources,” Matusevich said in a Twitter thread posted in late September. “Most of them are completely shocked and bewildered, having left with just a sports bag.”
This lack of preparedness, coupled with Putin’s announcement last month that Russia’s “partial” mobilization was complete, means that some Russians who fled in September have already revenue home, easing pressure on rents in cities like Bishkek.
But many others intend to stay abroad, fearing that the mobilization will resume.
Litvinova even predicted that Kyrgyzstan would soon face a “third wave” of Russian emigrants. “It will be wives and children who will join their husbands after concluding their business in Russia,” she said.
The growing pains caused by the arrival of so many Russians also came with economic opportunities.
Kyrgyzstan’s economy grown up 8% in the first eight months of this year, compared to just 3.6% in the whole of 2021. Other popular destinations for Russians on the run have also seen economic booms, with the South Caucasus nations of Georgia and Armenia now waitingrespectively, 10% and 13% economic growth this year.
Economists to predict the arrival of specialists and potential investors from Russia, as well as multinationals like Apple relocating their staff to Bishkek will bring a tangible boost to the Kyrgyz economy.
“I really hope that at least some of the money they [Russians] bringing and paying here will make its way into the country’s budget,” Litvinova said.
“I really want this wave to benefit Kyrgyzstan.”
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