Russia’s pro-war lobby last week launched a new campaign against Russian citizens who left the country after the invasion of Ukraine. The speaker of Russia’s Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, proposed conducting checks on those that come back to Russia to ensure they showed no “desire for Nazi victory,” in his words, and had not provided financial support to Ukraine’s military while they were abroad. He also suggested charging them with high treason. Coincidentally, billionaire Mikhail Fridman, the wealthiest Russian businessman who had remained living in the West after the invasion, also announced his return to Russia last week.
- As the head of Russia’s legislature, Volodin has been a long-term campaigner for imposing new legal restrictions on Russians who oppose the regime. At the start of the year he proposed confiscating real estate belonging to those who have been declared “foreign agents”. That proposal went nowhere, but now Volodin has a new group in his sights: Russian emigrants.
- “Anyone who left the country and committed vile acts, celebrated shots fired towards Russian territory and wished Kyiv’s bloodstained Nazi regime victory must understand that not only are they not welcome here, but that if they return, Magadan awaits,” Volodin said on Oct. 10. Magadan is a regional center in northeastern Siberia, notorious for its brutal Stalin-era Gulags where huge numbers of prisoners died mining gold in minus 40-degree celsius temperatures.
- The following day, Volodin fleshed-out his comments, saying that on their return to Russia, emigrants should be investigated for high treason. “This behavior is covered under article 275 of the criminal code on state treason. If they are now starting to return, having previously made statements against this country and even financed the Ukrainian military, of course we must choose the best place to send them right away.” Several deputies followed up Volodin’s remarks with proposals of their own, such as creating a register of “unfriendly emigrants.”
- Following the terrorist attacks on Israel, propaganda outlets targeted prominent Russians who had moved there. For instance, state media dredged up Instagram posts from Maxim Galkin, a comedian who was dubbed a foreign agent, with RIA Novosti writing: “This showman, who repeatedly allowed himself to insult his colleagues in his performances and criticized the special military operation, ridiculing Russia’s actions, now sees no reason to join the Israeli army.” The former state reformer and one-time liberal icon Anatoly Chubais was another target. Telegram channels first shared photos of Chubais leaving Israel for Dubai (“abandoning his new home in its moment of need”), and then, after it emerged that Chubais had returned to deliverhumanitarian aid to the victims of the Hamas attacks, “patriotic” channels started complaining about how he had “never helped our people.”
- This new campaign against emigrants formed the backdrop to Mikhail Fridman, co-owner of Alfa Group, announcing his own return to Russia. Fridman ranks ninth on Forbes’ list of the wealthiest Russians, with a net worth of $12.6 billion. Lviv-born Fridman spent the better part of a decade moving his money to the West after he relocated to London in 2014. When he was slapped with sanctions last year, he fought back, actively working to recruit Russian opposition figures to help his cause. But those efforts haven’t paid off and this week Fridman announced he was returning to Moscow due to the Hamas attacks, having only just moved to Israel a week earlier.
- The pro-war lobby immediately pounced on Fridman’s return. Dmitry Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister and now senator for the occupied Zaporizhzhia region wrote to the Investigative Committee urging a probe into Fridman on suspicion of funding Ukraine’s military. Several Duma deputies wrote similar requests to the Prosecutor General.
- Putin himself even commented on the oligarch’s return. The president, who has often mocked businessmen who transferred their money to the West and then found their assets frozen under sanctions, said: “I don’t see anything immoral here,” and that everybody has the right to choose their place of residence. Pointedly, however, he added that if somebody has violated the law, they should be held accountable, and that accountability doesn’t stop with the letter of the law. “It is one thing to break a law, but another to violate some moral and ethical standards in respect of one’s homeland. If the overwhelming majority of citizens believe that somebody behaved immorally towards Russia, of course they will feel that when they come back here,” he said. These words could indirectly suggest that Fridman has committed no crime, but remains liable for public condemnation.
Why the world should care
After 18 months of war, the Russian authorities have yet to push widespread repercussions for people who left the country – but this may well be included in any preparation for further rounds of mobilization. Many Russian billionaires will be watching Fridman’s fate closely. If Putin visibly forgives him, it could encourage other wavering businessmen to join the pro-war lobby.