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  • Writer's pictureTrack Two

CONFERENCE REPORT: The Russian Emigres Community Aspirations & Opportunities

Updated: Jun 18


A view of the coastline from The Lodge at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA. April 24, 2023 (Mariah Nimmons)


From April 14 - 19, 2024 Track Two & Esalen Institute presented The Russian Emigres Community Aspirations & Opportunities, the second conference in the Future Russia Conference Series.


Conference Summary


Over the last 2 years Track Two has encountered a wealth of opinion about the war between Russia and Ukraine, its causes, and with whom responsibility lies. We wanted to organize a conference that would help advance peace for both Ukrainians and Russians amidst the devastation caused by the war. How could we hope to engage in a conversation that would advance a peaceful postwar reality? How might we imagine and discuss a Russia that is forward-thinking, and contrary to the authoritarian spirit of the current leadership? We concluded that our many friends and colleagues in exile had much to offer to the discussion and visualization of Future Russia. The Russian "exile" is an important voice in the wake of this war. So we chose to turn to this group to see what insights they might share with us. 


Currently 2 million Russians live outside Russia across many states. The "diaspora" of Russia today is filled with intellectuals, scientists, artists, journalists and their families, representing at least some significant portion of Russia's intelligentsia. We ask whether these Russians see a way or hold a desire to return to their country. What might that require and how might our group help them? If that return is unrealistic, then how do Russian emigres and those in exile imagine a future Russia in the homeland or beyond it?

 

Over five days, in partnership with Esalen Institute a group of 34 individuals, more than two thirds of them Russian, offered their ideas for the future. Perspectives shared were primarily those of Russians in exile, whether forced or voluntary, and did not include reflections of exiled or "front line" Ukrainians.


 

Executive Summary 

Participants acknowledged the complexities surrounding the conflict in Ukraine, emphasizing condemnation of the invasion while also questioning the narrative of the "bad NATO." The mass exodus of over 900,000 Russians since February 2022 underscores a deeper dissatisfaction with the current government and raises questions about the prospects for return and reconciliation. Russian emigres expressed a spectrum of sentiments, from a desire for democratic reform in Russia to resignation as well as disdain about the current authorities. Despite widespread opposition to Putin's leadership, participants noted the challenges of organizing effective resistance within Russia. Discussions highlighted the stifling of independent media within Russia, with state-controlled narratives dominating mainstream channels. Russian culture, particularly literature, music and film, faces challenges of censorship and exile, raising concerns about the preservation of national identity, history and values. Environmental degradation emerged as a pressing issue. 

And yet, there was hope in the room – even with the profusion of bad news. Hope was expressed at this gathering by the formation of three groups committed to working together to build Future Russia: Global Commons - focusing initially on building leadership; Environmental Group - focusing on how to bring Russia and Russians back into solution oriented international climate activities; and Exile Group - creating an activist "incubator" and tools for activists.  There was also informed discussion about the potential for AI to positively contribute to designing the best options for the Diaspora. As we are almost programmed to do, we saw the capacity for citizen diplomacy to advance new practical projects.


 

Over 5,000 Russian immigrants line up outside the Russian embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, to vote on the 2024 presidential election day. 17 March 2024. (Dor Shabashewitz, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Full Narrative


Track Two opened the conference with our stated goal and purpose: to support the network of Russian exiles as they envision future Russia. In our first session we invited Track Two veterans to answer the question, how are you Russian today? Russia and the US demonize one another and Russians outside Russia struggle to express their positions - are they anti-fascists, pacifists, or something else?


Many participants joined the conversation which revealed concern and generated new thinking about alienation, discrimination, concern for the prevalence of fear and lies, statelessness and how that hampers freedom and safety, as well as a continued commitment to evolving a more democratic and open Russia in the future. Many commented that no return to Russia seems possible while Putin and his associates are governing Russia. Some participants are settled in new lives and do not imagine returning to Russia to live, though they are aching to see family members and friends who are still there or in Ukraine. For others, discrimination and economic realities abroad are driving them to consider how to return to Russia. 


For some in the group there are unifying opportunities for concerted activity in the arts and in science and particularly the environment. For others there are advocacy groups and reform spaces forming through Free Russia Foundation to develop leaders for the future and protect opposition leaders and their teams, across Europe, the UAE and Israel. Some had immediate tactical suggestions (a "Nansen" passport); others posed philosophical questions about life in exile. 


Someone asked why Russians are such survivors? One participant conjectured that trauma is rampant in Russian society and the whole society is wanting to heal from the trauma. Without healing, the endless cycle of authoritarian leadership continues. Survival of trauma is a Russian way and without the needed healing, the society never moves forward. Some referred to this as the "encyclopedia of the Russian soul" captured in the writings of Russia's great authors. 


As for opposition to Putin and his "gang", it is near impossible to coalesce. The sign for stating one's opposition was merely to "show up" to funerals, gatherings, parties. And there are real topics around which Russians can, and in some measure do come together, despite the risk of public gatherings. The Environment and its many causes have proven effective in mobilizing the Russian public - around wildlife, clean water, clean air, etc. Basically, Russians love their natural world.


However, mobilization is hampered by not only government measures to stamp out opposition but also by the fragmented nature of the Russian society and the enormous geography. Rural groups, indigenous groups, those far away from Moscow see a different Russia and their "opposition" takes a different form than the more centralized efforts at opposition. 


Beyond Russia's borders there is reason for hope that a Putin authoritarianism might end. New groups are forming and, while fragmented still, organizations like Free Russia Foundation are creating meeting spaces across the globe for Russians who have left home. Additionally younger groups are less inclined to follow the "leader". They are generally more empathic, they trust each other, they are internationally "aware," and they want freedom. Some such groups do work for Putin because they want to make money and the Kremlin is paying well. But there may in the future, be a groundswell opportunity for new leadership through younger Russians who oppose the Kremlin quietly or at very least seek a more "normal" future. 


As a reality check we heard reports of the polls conducted around acceptance of the war, leadership and political participation. Indications are that people "say" they support the war - 20% say they do not; 15% say fighting needs to be more aggressive.  It is important to understand that poll answers represent what people say to a pollster, not necessarily what they think - and this is a vital difference.  For now, most Russians are able to live their lives despite the war. They are encouraged to act apolitically and to not engage. The majority of those who live in Russia in a bubble of sorts and far from the war believe the war will last a long time. 


At the same time, today's reality in Russia appears to be moving towards repression almost as severe as that of the Soviet era. There is no independent judiciary; there is no independent press; there is no way to mobilize around an anti-government belief. The Putin "system" is great at "patching and mending" itself, despite its extraordinary errors. Using imprisonment, intimidation, and constraints on publishing, removing non-intrusion policies, applying indoctrination through media, schools, and other channels and through rewarding loyalty handsomely, the regime machine moves forward without obstacles. 


For many in Russia, they feel the government is finally attending to their needs - with better paying jobs, services and fairer treatment. These are rural Russians whose sons are the mobilized, who work in the factories now building the war machine. These families are better off today than they have ever been. On the other extreme, many Russian intellectuals have left because of the repressions imposed on their work and on them. But for those remaining, most Russians appear to accept, if they do not admire, Putin. 


For some, everything inside Russia is "well". Sanctions had some impact, but only in name; the economy is fine. Entrepreneurship is flourishing. Money is flowing. And yet, youth are less positive. By staying ahead of relevant social media channels, it is clear the current generation of youth is less happy. They carry huge debt. And while jobs are opening up as a result of the war machine, and there could be a huge wealth transfer imminent, youth are not feeling the expansiveness they felt before the war. 


The recent emigration of Russian intellectuals and youth is the 4th such wave of emigration in the past 200 years. New exiles are well equipped with skills, media outlets to access, communications capacity, and great participation in the arts and sciences. However, they have little capacity to influence anything inside Russia. 


And overseas there has been little assistance to the democratic Russian movement. In the US for example, there is still no Russian lobby! For some of the former Soviet states there are such lobbies; they are small and fragmented, but they exist. 


Russian investigative journalist and anti-corruption reporter Ivan Golunov in the Nikitin courtroom. Golunov came to public attention in June 2019 when he was arrested and charged with a drug-related crime by the Moscow city police; he was later released after widespread public outcry, which alleged that the case was fabricated to silence Golunov's investigations into corruption. (Evgeny Feldman‎, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Journalism and Media


Today, lies and propaganda prevail in Russian media and journalism. Even during the Stalin era there were other voices for the Russian people - western radio crept its way in! Today that is not the case, not for the population at large. The history of the current repression and removal of voices began in the 90s. During Gorbachev and Yeltsin's administrations, freedom of speech became highly valued. But Putin started early to shut down independent voices; now they are gone inside Russia.  Many operate outside: Novaya Gazeta - though they still have a Moscow office, PaperPaper, Meduza, Radio Liberty, Current Time TV, TV Rain (Dozhd), and many others operate from cities across Europe. But for those aged 45 and over, TV is king and that audience sees only Russian State endorsed media.  Russian language YouTube and Telegram offer no entertainment, so they are mostly ignored and there is no funding for entertainment on these platforms. Further, political journalism in Russia is dead. And while there is "media in exile" funded by Europe and the US, there is little to no demand for additional media in Russia today. YouTube and Telegram offer some media to those in the know - in the cities, with Internet access. These are not widely adopted; a suggestion from the group was to begin to offer entertainment via these channels in order to encourage more of the Russian population to watch them. 


Culture


Russian writers are highly critical of colonialization, imperial thinking and they call for action. Most are outside Russia. And writers write when things are most difficult. But Russia is dismantling its culture because of repression. There seems to be more culture outside Russia than inside at this time. The demonization of Russia is impacting everyone and must be a concern for all! We must activate our antennae!


Russia symbolizes the power of authoritarians. Navalny's death was felt around the globe, because he symbolized the fight against authoritarianism. His death had a profound impact on youth in China - who likely saw this opposition figure as emblematic of their own desires to fight oppression. The heroes become cultural icons just as the cultural context is lost. Questions raised: did we lose our depth? Is there any institution today that serves culture in Russia? Is there a body of "immigration literature"? Have our values been ruined? And those values, are they universal, cultural or local - in the face of philosophies from Dugin, Sorokin and others? 


Musicians are divided into several groups:

  • Complacent, pro-Putin war musicians primarily interested in earning money – they are shameless and a large group

  • Small, fierce group that is pro-war

  • Anti-war groups are located outside Russia

  • Grey zone - those who stayed in Russia but don't support the criminal leadership and remain quiet, unemployed, unable to do their work; no concerts, tours or recordings are possible. A large and silent group


Left: Russian popstar Yaroslav Yuryevich Dronov - better known by his stage name SHAMAN - a high profile artist who supports the war in Ukraine. (Okras, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Right: Alla Pugacheva, called "the queen of Russian pop music," spoke out publicly condemning the war and "useless deaths of Russian men." (Serge Serebro, Vitebsk Popular News, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

One opportunity for new cultural expression may come from stand-up comedy. And another channel for effective communication may lie in interactive online gaming where examples exist today of how this tool can impact hearts and minds across proverbial iron curtains. 


Culture also reveals itself in social media, so staying ahead of these channels is vital. It is clear there are at least two divergent cultural strains demonstrated in the music of the day: a nationalist drive within Russia, and the sober, wistful drive outside Russia. The former is fueled by high levels of government support, the latter by the sense of pain for Russia, for Ukraine and for humanity.  One participant asked if the collective "we" has lost its naivete? Another asserted how important outside connections into the Russian public are and will continue to be for the nation. Further, there is serious concern regarding the demonization of Russia in the West. 


A successful launch of the Bulava sea-based intercontinental ballistic missile, part of the state flight test program, was launched its full-time carrier - the Yuri Dolgorukiy nuclear-powered missile cruiser. 28 October 2011. (Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


The State of the Nuclear Threat


By way of context, during the 1960s and 1970s Russian-American collaboration around non-proliferation was ready and welcome and operated functionally. The two largest nuclear powers were aligned on non-proliferation, and several treaties supported this alignment.  Key negotiators were good friends; respect was mutual and formidable. In 2018, shared common views on non-proliferation ended, and the treaty system began to break down. 


Today there is no friendship and no cooperation. And there is no fabric for relationships at any level. When there are meetings on the few remaining treaties, Moscow sends only low-ranking officials to negotiations who have no agency. Russian behavior has evolved to undermine international law including nuclear-related law; seizing of public nuclear facilities and normalizing atomic and radiologic weapons use are just two facets of this circumstance. There are so many risks today, more so than ever before. Russia has 36 nuclear facilities, and each poses a threat should Ukraine wish to pose threats. Rhetoric from Putin's circle, including Dmitri Trenin, insinuates that use of nuclear weapons is actively considered for ground war by the Russian military. Threats of use are continuous. 


And threats come in many forms: a conviction that technology allows "better" use of tactical nuclear weapons; first strikes may not be followed by additional strikes and general cockiness about nuclear use. All are very dubious. Further, the breakdown of all communications suggests even an accidental detonation today like some in the past, would not evoke restraint, simply because the friendship fabric is no longer in existence. No one could trust or vouch for anyone else. 


To avert nuclear disaster and break the impasse permanently, a younger group of negotiators and leaders may be required.  Hanna Note and Sarah Brightwood have hosted such discussions and are hopeful about potential policy moves that may improve the current outlook. 


Some participants suggested linking nuclear activity with the environment which underscores the common values these causes share. The linkage offers hope for building movements. ICAN, which is gaining support and participation, offers a ready international structure to promote non-proliferation. Linking the environment with nuclear arms control could serve both interrelated causes well. 


This image, acquired by one of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites on 28 October 2021, shows the town of Chersky in the far north of Siberia. Chersky is a small town located a few kilometres from the Arctic Ocean, where temperatures often fall below -40°C in winter. The Northeast Science Station has been monitoring the permafrost on which the town was founded for over 30 years. According to Sergey Zimov, director of the observatory, the permafrost around Chersky will completely thaw due to climate change. (European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery, Attribution: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2021, via Wikimedia Commons)


Environment


Russians love nature and the only protests in Russia that are allowed to take place involve the environment. And yet, in its effort to satisfy disparate regional groups, the Kremlin is lifting many environmental protections in order to satisfy complaining regional groups who feel these protections hamper their business interests. Russia is leaving many international agreements and refusing to sign others. And there are those in leadership who believe in a self-determination that ignores the fragility of ecosystems.


The major environmental issues for Russia today are:

  • Permafrost meltdown

  • Biodiversity losses

  • Antarctic fish and krill stocks

  • Commercial seal hunting

  • Commercial whaling


Commercial mammal hunts are a mechanism by which the government creates jobs. Whale is not wanted in the market and jobs outside whaling are scarce.


In the 2000's public sentiment and organizing were strong in Russia; several species protections were enacted. Recently most international environmental NGOs have been designated foreign agents and only one continues to operate in Moscow and can do little. This is in part because their work is supported by the public. 


In Ukraine, war has created an environmental disaster - affecting wildlife, bats particularly, and pets, and adding highly toxic pollutants everywhere, especially in farmlands. Work is underway to almanac exactly what destruction is occurring. 


Today's Great Power competition has closed avenues for diplomacy. Russia has effectively closed down environmental NGOs, replacing them with GONGOs (Government Operated NGOs) which the government closely controls. This has profound impact on environmental policies and treaties. Little progress has been made in areas in which Russia plays a role (Antarctic, Arctic, oceans, etc.).


Still, the environmental movement has hope that it can mobilize action across borders. While environmental issues are clearly used as political tools, there are millions of youth who are focused on climate change and environmental degradation and want to act on these topics, within Russia and, of course, well beyond Russia. 


Non-state Diplomacy


There is a sense of "war fatigue" towards the Ukraine war in the West. In the US publics are more interested in improving America, than in fighting the Ukraine war. Diplomats sense a "dirty peace" will need to be negotiated. Solutions over-simplify realities in this war.  And in its aftermath, hatred will abound, in Russia and of course in Ukraine. 


The focus for the US Institute for Peace, for example, is on Russia now, after an initial post-invasion focus on Ukraine. Multi-polar world discussions are instigating lots of conflicts across the globe - Syria, Middle East, Iran - and the USIP sees the danger as critical and requiring non-state actors to engage. 


Discussion regarding a "Grand Bargain" negotiation was held; other scenarios were examined; and the prospect of an endless bloody war was offered. Some feel Putin has already "lost" strategically - in the international order, economically and in much of the world's disregard for his actions. In the end the group settled on thinking about how to "save" Ukraine. 


The creation of GONGOs in Russia - as in China - is not helping cross border relations and yet the West may need to find ways to extend collaborations to these government-operated groups in the interests of the causes they represent. This offers another opportunity for citizen diplomacy. 


Social Media


Today we often refer to social media as mass self-communication – self-directed communication by the individual into the masses using their chosen online channels (social network sites, YouTube, Substack, etc.) The phenomena is widespread and has the potential to reach global audiences of those who self-select for the content of the channel. 


With the exponential increase in AI-generated content, the authenticity of the individual voice becomes more and more valuable. The hope for mass self-communication is to give antennae for authentic voices. Mass self-communication becomes an important tool for citizen diplomacy. 


Artificial Intelligence


Another topic discussed was the impact AI may have on the current state of warring. One participant developed prospects for AI as a useful tool in diplomacy, particularly around the prevention of a nuclear event. Areas for further exploration included: using AI for generating options in conflict resolution and mediation; AI for simulation and scenario planning; AI as support tools for decision-making and to create early warning signals, thus enhancing nuclear deterrence; AI for global governance and coordination - in exploring new forms of governance and cross-border governance in particular; AI for communications and crisis management; and AI to identify and support international cooperation. The possibilities are nascent and immense.


Final Discussion - Armistice or Not


In the discussion, participants voiced support for arming and assisting Ukraine as much as possible, particularly between now and the end of summer. All Russia experts present agreed that US Aid to Ukraine was crucial and support for an offensive was high amongst participants, particularly one that had the potential to bring Ukraine and Russia to negotiations on more equal footing. Immediately following the Conference, increased US military aid to Ukraine was approved after months of congressional stalling. Support to prevent greater Russian gains along front lines was deemed key. And an end to killing was the resonant imperative. 


The sun sets over the main lawn at Esalen Institute. April 25, 2023. (Mariah Nimmons)


Next Steps


Having met for five days the Track Two conference group was eager to develop a variety of suggestions for the Russian émigré community. The group concluded that the war resulted largely from the impetus of one individual and his circle to gain more power and resources rather than as a response to Western incursions. A war of attrition would only continue to take lives, destroy the environment, and exacerbate the already formidable task of rebuilding Ukraine. The group concluded that a cease fire should be the goal for building peace. Efforts towards creating that opportunity were encouraged. Three groups were formed to explore next steps towards creating peace and building a lasting peaceful society. They began to work on a large list of suggested action items. 


Global Commons Group

  • form a learning network that is cross-border

  • Present Diaspora Cultures to a large network

  • Bring in the Global South to cross border discussions and activities

  • Create Track Two-style online conferences for young people that bring them together around vital topics

  • Search for new leaders and provide them with support and networks


Exiles Group

  • Create a journalist network

  • Provide/source exile passports to enable international travel

  • Prepare a toolkit for activists in exile

  • Support an exile project incubator


Environment Group

  • Form a network of ecologists and climate scientists, across borders

  • Connect youth on environmental issues

  • Spark an anti-nuclear environmental movement

  • Address Climate change and facilitate cross-border cooperation, activity, etc. 


The groups agreed to meet via a secure communications platform and discussions have already begun. 


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