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Moscow on the Med
Kate Elizabeth Creasey
09 April 2024
published in Issue Five

Two winters in Istanbul

If you are a holder of a Russian passport, there are few places in the Western Hemisphere that you can go without a visa. In the spring of 2022, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, many countries in geographic proximity to Russia banned Russian commercial airlines from operating in their airspace. It was a noble gesture, though with the backfiring effect of making it even harder for those who wanted to leave Russia to do so. Turkey — one of the few places you could go in the Western Hemisphere as a Russian — became the destination for many Russians fleeing both the fallout of the war in Ukraine and the effects of Western sanctions. Not only did you not need a visa, but there were also commercial flights to take you.

Last year the Turkish winter felt more Russian somehow. Fancy black SUVs with white, blue and red flags on their license plates were a frequent sight on Istanbul streets. Cyrillic script appeared on menus and signs. Some public announcements even became trilingual, with information in Turkish, English and Russian. Russian-only posters advertised bands from Moscow and Saint Petersburg playing concerts at popular venues. Demand for Russian language classes increased, as Turks in white-collar service sector jobs, like banking, sought competitive advantages to access the financial opportunities that the influx of Russians (and Russian money) brought to a rapidly deteriorating domestic economy. Beyond Istanbul, Russians who had previously purchased summer residences on the Mediterranean now became more permanent fixtures of life in cities like Antalya, prompting new appellations for the town like « Moscow on the Med ».

Ukrainians came, too, and the consequences of Russian occupation of the country were visible in Istanbul. The coffeeshops and cafés of the Cihangir neighborhood were filled with stylishly dressed members of the Ukrainian laptop class (think chunky Balenciaga sneakers, leather puffer jackets and slender 90s-style eyewear), who spent long hours on Zoom calls with employers and clients in Silicon Valley, London and Singapore. Ten years ago, those seats were filled by Turkish journalists, writers, and intelligentsia, but after a decade of political repression (and five years of economic crisis), many now sat in prison or had emigrated abroad to places like Germany and the Netherlands. At a Ukrainian community center across the street from Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, young Ukrainian mothers gathered in the afternoons to swap notes about how to navigate life abroad, or to commiserate about the latest bombing in their home country, or relatives’ deployment. Groups of Ukrainian men came to Istanbul for short respites from fighting on the front lines to enjoy the relative luxury of hot showers, sunshine, unrationed meals and a few nights of sleep uninterrupted by dropping bombs.

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Edmund de Waal, Letters to Comodo (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 13.

Translated by Tayfun Göl, from Marxism-Leninism Today (14 March 2022).

Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929-1940 (Oxford University Press, 1963), 115.

The film chronicles the Kremlin’s poisoning of Navalny in 2020 and his and his supporters’ valiant efforts to hold Putin accountable for it. One motif in the film is particularly notable: Putin’s fear of Navalny is so great that he is unable even to utter Navalny’s name. Even in the news conference after the revelations about Navalny’s poisoning were made public, Putin refers to Navalny only as the « patient at the clinic in Berlin ». Navalny emerges in the film as a master — even in a prison camp — of revealing the limits of Putin’s power, of showing him to be incapable of something.

From Nazim Hikmet, Selected Poetry, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk (Persea Books, 1986).