“You can’t go back to a normal life after going to war. I wasn’t expecting them to call people like me to the front, so I left before they could send me,” Ivan says, his wide and sad blue eyes framed by the thick, tropical vegetation surrounding his house.
After the September draft, between 700,000 and one million panicked Russians fled, mainly to Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Dubai and countries in Central Asia. It was easier to get to Eurasian Economic Union countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan), which did not require a visa for three-month stays.
The mobilization was announced on a Wednesday. By Saturday, Ivan had landed in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. “The city was literally invaded by Russians. Finding a hotel was very complicated. Owners were kicking out Kyrgyz clients from their room to rent them to Russians fleeing the war for twice the price,” he remembers. “I was very scared. I had no idea what I was going to do next.”
After two weeks in Kyrgyzstan, Ivan bought a one-way ticket to India. The number of Russians exiled in Goa is not comparable to the 150,000 Russians who settled in Istanbul, nor with the 100,000 in Tbilisi, Georgia. But there are now at least a few thousand who have settled in the Indian tropics.
Fine sandy beaches
“I didn’t know anyone here. But I knew there was a strong Russian community,” says Ivan.
This divorced father got all of the information necessary for his move from Telegram, an encrypted messaging app popular with Russians at home and abroad. It's a vital source of information for many. Settling in India can be a real challenge, especially for those who don't speak English well, or at all, as is the case for many of these expatriates.
Compared to other destinations, Goa has many advantages.
“Some were reluctant to come to India. Many think it’s a wild and dirty country," says Ivan, who now occupies a room in a guesthouse owned by an Indian family who live on the ground floor, and to whom he pays 20,000 rupees a month, or a little over €200.
Compared to other destinations, Goa has many advantages. With its luxuriant vegetation and fine sandy beaches, the region offers an idyllic setting. The temperature is pleasant year-long, and life is cheaper than in Thailand, Sri Lanka or Bali.
Goa has also been a favored vacation spot for Russian tourists since the beginning of the 2000s. Before the pandemic, around 100,000 Russians swarmed the beaches during each season.
The Russian community gathered on the State’s northern coast, particularly in Morjim, which gained the nickname of Morjimograd. Here, in the neighboring cities of Mandrem and Arambol, some restaurants display menus written only in Cyrillic, and most Indian waiters for the beach huts know basic Russian.
In the main street of Arambol, posters promote the “Goa Orthodox Family,” a group of believers hoping to recruit passing Russians to celebrate their faith in the tropics. It is even possible to go to the banya, the traditional Russian bath, despite the 33-degree heat.
The existence of this strong tropical Russian community makes Goa a familiar destination for exiles. They can recreate a social circle quickly, without facing the hostility of the local population, as is often the case in Georgia. There, the unprecedented flood of Russians after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine stirred up hostile reactions in the small Caucasian country of 3.7 million, many still traumatized by the 2008 Russian invasion. The Indian population, on the other hand, is largely indifferent to the war. Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, has never explicitly condemned it, afraid of offending his long-standing ally.
In Goa, Russians enjoy a certain freedom, unthinkable in their own country.
In Goa, Russians enjoy a certain freedom, unthinkable in their own country. Smoking a joint while riding a motorbike without a helmet ? Not a problem — at least not on the small roads. Goa has always been a permissive state, popular for its wild parties and easy access to drugs. During the high season, between November and April, young Indians and tourists from all over the world flock to the beaches to dance to Goa Trance, electronic music throbbing at 160 decibels, born of the meeting between local hippies and English DJs of the Acid House wave of the end of the 80s.
Living like the hippies
According to official statistics, tourism is responsible for more than 16% of the state’s GDP. This source of income is vital for the families of the region: 35% depend directly on jobs related to tourism. Travelers come for the beaches, the parties and to discover the region's heritage.
Goa was a Portuguese territory from 1501 to 1961, when the Indian army seized control of the region after a lightning attack. Baroque, whitewashed churches testify to the presence of the Portuguese. Goa also attracts celebrities: Mick Jagger has been seen basking on a beach in Ashvem, where his daughter, Jade, owns a jewelry shop.
In the 1960s, hippy communities settled on the coast. Some Russians try to carry on this original spirit by living like the first beatniks. In the jungle overlooking Arambol beach, some Russians, not very talkative, live like marginals, on the fringe of the outside world. Some sleep in shelters made of odds and ends. Others doze off in hammocks. It’s hard to tell if these men are fleeing the war, or society as a whole. “We don’t talk about politics,” answers one, apparently shocked by our presence, in front of ancient cans scattered around a dying fire.
The fact remains that Indian authorities look on this community with a favorable eye, as it supports the numerous villages along the North coast. The Immigration department quickly grants them electronic visas, which Russians receive within three days.
Ivan has gotten used to the Goan life. His ex-wife, who first stayed in Moscow, joined him a few weeks ago with their 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. She now lives in a nearby guesthouse. Thanks to his work as a UX designer for a Russian online education company, Ivan can work remotely and keep receiving his salary. But the situation is getting complicated: the exiles are in the sights of the Russian government, which is asking companies to reduce remote work, aiming to cut off the livelihood of people like Ivan.
“My mom told me: leave fast!"
Many Russian expatriates in Goa work in information technology. In the cafes of Arambol, it’s easy to spot them: Bluetooth headsets on, they type lines of codes while sipping lattes, dressed in flowery tank tops, shorts and flip-flops. Some have joints in their ashtrays. A scooter, an essential accessory to get to the beach at the end of the day, is never far away. These digital workers are overrepresented among the exiled Russians, because their activity is compatible with remote working. At the end of December, Russian authorities announced that 100,000 tech workers had left the country in 2022, which is around 10% of the sector’s workforce. This brain drain is starting to worry Moscow.
Serguei*, 36, is one of the new technology workers. A freelance developer for Russian companies, he also left when the army came knocking on his door on Sept. 22, 2022. “My mom told me: leave fast!" says the young man from Astrakhan, near the Caspian sea.
In Sept. 2023, he drove to Kazakhstan, just 90 minutes away. So many people were fleeing that he was stuck in traffic for 24 hours before going through the border. “Some left on a bike to get there faster," he says. With brown curls escaping from his colorful bandana, his goatee and psychedelic glasses, it feels like we’re face to face with the eccentric photographer played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. “It’s not possible to build a life in Russia," says the digital neo-hippie, who is now living in Arambol. “For me, it’s unacceptable to go and kill Ukrainian people, who are our brothers. What have they done to be killed?” he says angrily.
“F*ck Putin” signs
Goa seems far from the war. And yet, the war in Ukraine has disturbed the tropical carefreeness of Morjim, because the area also counts numerous pro-Putin Russians, who look down on those who fled Russia to escape the mobilization.
“They’re traitors,” says Ioulia Petrova, a 40-year-old from Moscow, who manages a tourism company in Goa. “The new generation is very different from the one born under the Soviet Union. They have no respect for their homeland. They demand a lot of things, but they are not ready to sacrifice their life for their country.” Every morning, Diana, one of her friends, prays for her “beloved president," Vladimir Putin.
We are meeting with the two friends at Jardin d’Ulysse, a Boho-chic restaurant on the seashore of Morjim. Ioulia recalls the dinners organized with her Ukrainian friends passing through Goa in this private establishment, which is popular among Russian clients. That time is over: she fell out with most of them.
Some Russians live in a parallel reality.
“They call us the zombies,” says Ioulia, who only spends time with friends who share her political convictions. Talking with her means confronting the Kremlin’s propaganda, of which she has mastered all the mendacious rhetoric. It’s not Russia that invaded Ukraine, but Ukraine that invaded Russia, with the help of the Americans, she claims. “By the way, Ukraine has never been a country,” she adds. In Morjim, she doesn’t hide her pro-Kremlin positions. Since then, opponents to the Russian president have taunted her. One morning, she found a Ukrainian flag drawn on her car.
“Some Russians living in Goa live in a parallel reality. They’re convinced that there’s a worldwide plot against Russia," explains Illarion Chevtchenko, the impassive owner of Café Sho in Mandrem. Rare are the Putin supporters who cross the door of his restaurant, where you can enjoy Russian and Ukrainian specialties. And for good reason: settled in Goa for three years, Illarion is Ukrainian.
Originally from Dnipro, he wanted to go back to fight, but “there are so many volunteers that the army is turning down applications. So I try to help my family from Goa by sending them money,” says the clear-eyed, strapping lad. The pro-Putin have to be satisfied with the Bora-Bora, another popular cafe-restaurant in Morjim, whose owners don’t hide their support for the Russian president. Before the war, everyone mingled willingly, but now, everyone knows which restaurant to frequent, according to their political orientation. Gilbert, the manager of Jardin d’Ulysse, ensures that he stays neutral, afraid to alienate some of his customers, who are 90% Russian.
No way home
After the start of the war, a protest was organized on the beach of Arambol. Around 100 Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Europeans gathered, waving Ukrainian flags and signs and shouting “F*ck Putin!” Denis Chernenko, a Russian of Ukrainian origins living in India for several years, was one of the organizers. “We could not plan a protest like this anymore; it could go south,” says Chernenko.
If we organized a demonstration, they might attack us.
A few weeks ago, he was harassed in a store by pro-Putin Russians who had seen him at the demonstration. These past few months, the beach of Arambol has also seen the first Russian soldiers coming back from the Ukrainian front. “There are some right now. The government pays for their vacation in Goa. If we organized a demonstration, they might attack us,” says Denis.
Like him, many Russians who have been living in Goa for years are stuck. It's impossible to go back to their country, and the anti-war messages posted on their social media are punishable by several years in prison. Before the war, these nomads would go back to Russia during the monsoon, between June and October. It was an occasion to see their family, but also to replenish their money before leaving again. They now need to find alternatives. To fund his life in Goa, Denis offers consultations in Indian astrology, for which he charges more than €130 per session.
Sitting at the Café Sho, Daria Pavlenko, 24, also said goodbye to Russia. When the war broke out, the young woman was on holiday in Goa. After a round trip to Moscow to pack her belongings and tie up loose ends, she left Russia for good. “I don’t want to go back. At least not as long as Putin is alive. Can you imagine? All my life I’ve only known one president. I don’t want to be forced to accept propaganda and to have my taxes fund this horrible war.”
Recently, she opened a YouTube channel where she posts videos of her life in India. This allowed her to build a community of several thousands followers, who send her money during the streaming sessions she holds from her apartment. Thanks to these few hundred euros, Daria is able to meet her needs. Her father, who has a Moldovan passport, helped her get one too, which allows her to travel more freely. In a few days, she will fly to Berlin.
The start of the monsoon, in June, will push other Russians to leave. Ivan is thinking about going to Vietnam or Bali. Sergueï plans to go to Kazakhstan. We will have to wait until November and the arrival of the dry season to see these exiled from the cold come back.
*Names have been modified