The Turkish Magnet: Why do Russians Emigrate to Turkey?

Much has been put into words and film about Russians who leave for the West, but much less has been said regarding those who choose the East. In a special report for Gromadsky, Orkhan Jemal collected the stories of emigrants from the post-Soviet space, who, for various reasons, have come to Turkey.

“It’s time to head out”: this is a prevailing attitude amongst a number of Russians when talking about the situation in the country. Far from everyone is leaving, but many are. Some for political reasons, others because of economic considerations: entrepreneurs decide that it will be easier for them to do business abroad. And then there are those who aren’t terribly bothered by politics and economics. They are leaving simply for reasons of personal comfort: they are running away from where it is cold and often overcast to places where there is sea, sun and mountains.

Much has been put into words and film about Russians who leave for the West, but much less has been said regarding those who choose the East.

In a special report for Gromadsky, Orkhan Jemal collected the stories of emigrants from the post-Soviet space, who, for various reasons, have come to Turkey.


Political émigrés.

As in Europe, this is the most notable category. But they are set apart from the “Europeans” more than anything else by the fact that they have wound up here because of issues pertaining to religion, especially Islam. They’re leaving their homeland because they don’t want to be labelled as terrorists. In Russia, you don’t need to blow anything up or kill anyone for this to happen to you. As with Ali (Aleksey) Shakhin, simply taking part in a protest action is enough to make it so that you then are forced to run from the brand of terrorist.

Ali managed to leave Russia before any serious trouble, but he was sent a “black mark” at his new place of residence as well.

Ali (Aleksey) Shakhin is a Russian political refugee
Ali (Aleksey) Shakhin is a Russian political refugee

In Russo-Turkish relations, political émigrés in particular are examined as if under a microscope. Any little thing might affect their fates. In November of last year, Turkey and Russia’s conflict over the downing of a Russian warplane gave them reason to be optimistic: they hoped that political refugees from Russia here would maybe be treated even more liberally.

Contrary to these hopes, Russian and Turkish intelligence services continued cooperation. In the very beginning of this year, when the conflict was in full swing, Turkey handed seven Chechens over to Russia. This extradition led to a scandal in Turkey, and not in the émigré community, but in Turkish society itself.

Many here consider Russia to be a country with a questionable legal system. Usually, if a person arouses suspicion, he or she is simply encouraged to leave for any other country, but very convincing arguments are needed for extradition to Moscow.

After the scandal, Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan signed an order putting a moratorium on extraditions by Russian request. So far this order has not been annulled, despite the recent reconciliation between Erdoğan and Putin.

As was later revealed, the request for extradition was not for seven, but eight people. Along with the Chechens, the Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) demanded that one more Russian be turned over: Pavel Okruzhko, a convert to Islam. Unlike the Chechens, he didn’t answer the summons to the migration police, and as a result was not arrested.

Pavel Okruzhko (right)
Pavel Okruzhko (right)

Okruzhko showed us the materials from his own criminal case, which is underway in Russia. Some witness said that he met Pavel at the end of November, 2013 among Syrian fighters. But in reality, he couldn’t have done this. On November 27, 2013, when, according to the version of the Russian intelligence services, Pavel was fighting in Syria, he was registering his marriage – he has the corresponding certificate from the Russian consulate in Antalya, as well as a receipt for fee payment.

An important detail: the investigator know about the existence of this certificate, but simply refused to include it in the case. And the Russian officials sent their Turkish colleagues a message regarding the “iron-hard” evidence confirming that Okruzhko is a terrorist.

And it’s not only anti-government gatherings that can serve as cause for suspicion and even accusation. Totally harmless things can make a person into a political refugee.

Burkkhan Tembiyev is a wrestler from Karachaevo – Cherkesi
Burkkhan Tembiyev is a wrestler from Karachaevo – Cherkesi

Burkhan is a wrestler from Karachay-Cherkessia. Some time ago he accepted an offer to compete for the Egypt team. Now he says that, if he could have known that no sort of documentation would convince the Russian intelligence services that the only fighting he did was on the mats, he would have refused the offer.

The attempt at a military coup in Turkey on July 15 was met with exultation in Russia: both liberals and patriots were delighted.

Meanwhile, political émigrés from Russia, who only yesterday critiqued Erdoğan for his reconciliation with Putin, almost unanimously declared their readiness to come forth in support of the Turkish leader. For them, faced with all the tenuousness of their situation, the current president turned out to be the only guarantee of an extremely relative safety.

And it’s not only political refugees that have taken the government’s side.

Saslanbek Isaev didn’t run from anyone: twenty years ago, his parents sent him, and that point still a child, to Turkey for studies, far from the First Chechen War.

Having lived here for two decades, Saslanbek hasn’t acquired local citizenship, but nevertheless has an excellent understanding of the Turkish political landscape. He was one of the first to respond to the president’s call to come out onto the streets and support the police against those carrying out the putsch.

It should be noted that “political” Russians, who moved to Turkey in search of safety are far from the most numerous group. Here, as is known, there are many more “Russian” wives.

“Russian” wives.

The word “Russian” is not in quotation marks by accident: in Turkey, this term would seem to include women from all the countries of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). Olesya is a Ukrainian from Kiev, Yulia is a Russian from St. Petersburg. Olesya converted to Islam while still living in Ukraine. She intentionally sought out a Muslim husband for herself, and found him in Turkey. Yulya, on the other hand, was involved in shuttle trading, and she also married a Turk and stuck around to live in this country.

Olesya regrets the fact that, because of her children, she couldn’t come out to support Erdoğan on the night of the putsch. Whereas Yulya was in moral solidarity with the putschists, and is now frightened by the possibility of the Islamization of Turkey.

She doesn’t want to see women with covered faces on the street and is bothered by the fact that, in school, children are taught only the fundamentals of Islam. Her son is exempt from these lessons.

The economic migrants.

Another large group of those who moved from Russia are the economic migrants.

It would seem that, not long ago, Turkey was not considered the most developed country; but now, for those Russians who started a business in Turkey, their entrepreneurial experience in their homeland seems like hell.

Though an ethnic Azerbaijani, Zamir Kuliev grew up in Russia. He left for Turkey because of the growing xenophobia in Russian society. After getting his feet on the ground, he understood that thousands of other Russians also would like to get to Turkey, and that they might need help in doing so from an experienced individual. And that’s how Kuliev became a realtor.

Now, from the heights of his experience, he explains that corruption is everywhere: in Russia, in Europe, and in Turkey. In Russia they take bribes for that which they ought to do for free; in Europe, they take bribes for that which they shouldn’t be giving you in the first place. In this sense, Turkey is, of course, more ‘European’.

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