‘Money doesn’t mean anything anymore’: 10 Russians explain what it’s like to live under Western sanctions and a Kremlin crackdown

March 9, 2022, 3:52 PM UTC

Elena, a 31-year-old content freelancer, had rented out her Moscow apartment on Airbnb enough times since 2018 to earn her the “super host” badge. She was earning the equivalent of $1,000 a month. “My listing was booked up most of the time,” she says. “I only had three to four days vacant during a month.” But overnight, that income stream disappeared. On March 3, the home-renting site suspended the platform for Russian and Belarusian users after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Elena is now worried that Google—or the Russian government—will restrict Russians’ access to YouTube, her other financial lifeline. TikTok has blocked its services in Russia, while Russian authorities have banned Facebook and restricted Twitter to clamp down on anti-war and anti-government content. Elena, like others in this story, declined to share her last name for fear of reprisal from the Russian government.

Elena and her husband fled to Turkey last week to escape the deteriorating economic and security situation in Russia. She worries about her elderly parents, who stayed behind and have health issues. Before she left, Elena withdrew all the cash that she could from ATMs, so she has “money for some time.” Russians who’ve left the country will be cut off from credit cards once Visa and Mastercard disable Russia-issued cards outside the country on March 10.

“I need to figure out what to do next,” she says.

Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine last month, Western nations have hit Russia with a barrage of sanctions to rebuke Moscow for the unprovoked assault on its neighbor that has so far killed at least 351 Ukrainian civilians and forced at least 2 million Ukrainians to flee the country. The U.S., alongside European nations like Germany and France, have cut Russia off from international payment system SWIFT, choked off Russia’s access to its $630 billion trove of foreign exchange reserves, and seized the assets of Russian oligarchs. On Tuesday, the U.S. and U.K. announced a ban on Russian oil and gas imports.

A long list of Western companies have now severed business ties with Russia. Apple stopped shipping products into the country. Nike, Hermès, and Ikea have shut down nationwide. Hollywood studios from Warner Bros. to Sony Pictures have halted film releases. Platforms like Netflix and Spotify no longer serve Russian users.

The punitive actions are intended to isolate Russia from the global economy, but they’ve also upended the lives of average Russians in the process, tanking the value of the Russian ruble and the country’s stock market, cutting Russians off from social media platforms, and denying them access to everyday goods and services, like imported food and mobile payment systems.

Photo of Russians lining up inside a supermarket to withdraw cash from an ATM on March 3, 2022 in Moscow, Russia.
Russians queue up to withdraw cash from an ATM inside a supermarket in Moscow, on March 3, 2022.
Vlad Karkov—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

The disruptions started as minor inconveniences. On Feb. 28, commuters in Moscow, for instance, realized Apple Pay and Google Pay no longer worked in the city’s metro, forcing them to fumble for cash. But the consequences of the sanctions and Western companies’ exits from Russia—once in full force—will jeopardize the livelihoods of many inside Russia. Some Russians are fleeing the country to escape the looming economic hardship, while others are rethinking their future inside the country owing to what they see as a bigger threat: Moscow’s crackdown on citizens who object to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A repeat of history

After the West’s sanctions hit, the Russian ruble cratered—it’s now trading at 129 to the U.S. dollar, its value more than halved since the start of the year—and authorities shut down the domestic stock exchange indefinitely. After the rout, trader Alexander Butmanov toasted the “death of Russia’s stock market” on live TV.

Ordinary Russians share in Butmanov’s pessimism.

Sasha, a 30-year-old IT engineer, says he’s so far lost 10% of his savings as a result of the stock market collapse. He invested in some Russian stocks, which plunged by 90%. His savings, the majority of which are in rubles, have “depreciated significantly,” he says. He wants to leave Russia but worries that many countries will deny entry to Russian citizens.

Investment consultant Arthur, 31, says he lost the equivalent of $10,000 owing to the stock market slump. “It’s like money doesn’t mean anything anymore. It all disappeared at once,” he notes. Arthur doesn’t expect to leave Russia, because his family is there, but he’s stalled plans to open a coffee shop. “Everything is so volatile right now. I’m waiting and lying low at the moment,” he says.

Vlad, who works as a technician in Moscow, says the value of his monthly salary has almost halved from $400 to around $250 owing to the ruble’s drop. Vlad and his partner have “almost no savings,” he says, but they’ve put aside emergency funds for a one-way ticket out of Russia. Given the precarious economic situation, Vlad has paused spending on high-ticket items, like the dental treatment and gender transition therapy he’d planned to undergo this year. He doesn’t want to risk starting hormonal treatment that’s dependent on foreign medicine, since sanctions could diminish Russia’s supply of imported drugs.

Some foreign medicines have become scarce, and people are now using their savings to stockpile imported drugs for depression and chronic illnesses while they can, says Maria, a 23-year-old PR professional in Moscow. Maria doesn’t want to leave Russia, but “every day, we’re getting more hopeless about ever getting our normal lives back,” she says. Maria and her family hope to relocate to any English-speaking country that will let Russians in. Still, they face challenges like transferring their assets abroad. Online transfers don’t work, and Russia on March 1 barred citizens from taking more than $10,000 in foreign currency out of the country.

Investment bank J.P. Morgan warns that Russia is headed for a 1998-like collapse when the country’s GDP shrank nearly 6% amid its debt crisis. The bank predicts a 7% GDP contraction for Russia this year.

The Kremlin has ordered retailers to cap price increases on basic food items like vegetable oil, flour, pasta, and sugar at 5% and to limit the amount customers can buy. Maxim, a 33-year-old quality assurance engineer and former journalist with a young daughter in Moscow, says that basic food items remain stocked in supermarkets. But he’s no longer buying imported food items, like bell peppers, which are becoming costlier or disappearing.

Amal Abdullaev, a half-Russian, half-Uzbek project manager at Russia’s Tinkoff Bank, estimates that the cost of electronics have increased 70% to 80% and car prices have shot up 50% since the invasion began. Grocery prices have increased around 10% to 15%, he says.

Photo of anti-war protestors gathering in St. Petersburg, Russia on March 1, 2022.
Anti-war protesters gather in St. Petersburg on March 1, 2022.
Ivan Petrov—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Purchases themselves are harder to carry out, even within Russia. Russian customers of sanctioned banks, like Russia’s VTB, have reported problems with using Google Pay and Apple Pay, says Abdullaev, 24. Visa and Mastercard say they will no longer process overseas transactions with Russia-issued cards, while foreign-issued cards won’t work inside Russia. Russian banks are now looking at China’s UnionPay as an alternative.

Abdullaev enjoys his work and doesn’t want to leave Moscow, his company, or his work team, but he’s considering moving to Almaty, Kazakhstan or Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. China would have been his first choice if it weren’t still closed to foreigners owing to COVID-19, he says. Two of Abdullaev’s friends who had jobs at top Russian tech firms Yandex and Ozon have left for the West and Central Asia, respectively.

Abdullaev will review his options at the end of March and see “how severe the [economic] effects are on everyday life,” he says. A bigger outbreak of war is also a concern, “but God save us from that,” he says.

Tough choices

Other Russians are reconsidering their future plans owing to the Kremlin’s efforts to rein in dissent.

Last Friday, Russia criminalized “fake” news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin refers to as a “special military operation.” Russians face up to 15 years in jail for even using the word “war.” As of March 6, Russian police had detained at least 13,000 citizens for anti-war demonstrations, according to numbers from OVD-Info, a Russian human rights organization. On Sunday, mass anti-war protests broke out across Russia, with over 5,000 people arrested.

Prominent liberal media outlets in Russia have stopped operations. Western media companies have done the same and pulled journalists from the country.

In one week’s time, Moscow has severed nearly all access to independent, non–state-run media and platforms as part of its influence campaign. State coverage of the Ukraine conflict is dominated by a key narrative: that the West’s provocations gave Russia no choice but to defend its national interests in Ukraine, where an army of neo-Nazis are terrorizing Russian and Ukrainian civilians in eastern Ukraine.

For all the Russians standing up to Putin’s regime, many others disbelieve the carnage taking place in Ukraine or are swayed by state propaganda that says a “special military operation” is justified to liberate eastern Ukraine.

Photo of Russian riot police offers outside of Moscow's Manezhnaya Square during an anti-war protest on March 2, 2022.
Russian riot police deployed outside Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square during an anti-war protest on March 2, 2022.
Kirill Kudryavtsev—AFP/Getty Images

But a staunch group of anti-war and anti-government demonstrators, like Sofia Romanova, a 24-year-old call center supervisor in Moscow, has protested the conflict since its onset. “We want peace and don’t agree with Putin and his clique,” she says. She cherishes Moscow’s “special vibe.” It has always felt “like freedom, youth, and home,” she says. Now, Romanova doesn’t see a bright future for Russia, “only more poverty and ignorance.” Romanova doesn’t have any savings but says leaving for Turkey or Georgia “seems like the only option now. I hate what this country has become.”

PR professional Ksyusha, 24, says her days are now consumed by “constant, uncontrolled doom-scrolling.” She reads police lists of detainees looking for friends’ names and monitors Telegram, Instagram, and Twitter through virtual private networks to keep up with friends’ daily farewells. In the past week, at least 15 of her friends have left Russia for Armenia, Georgia, Belarus, Poland, Finland, Estonia, and Egypt. “Inside, there’s only a feeling of emptiness. But it’s better to have them abroad rather than in prison or in war,” she says.

Other Russians hope to leave but need to save more money or apply for a passport. Maxim plans to leave in a few years: “As soon as I have the opportunity, I’ll take my family and go somewhere far away, like Canada or New Zealand.”

Most land border crossings out of Russia are closed. The train service from St. Petersburg to Helsinki is the last remaining link connecting Russia to the EU, and trains have been packed with Russians leaving their country. Russia still has direct flights to countries like Turkey, the UAE, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. But even airlines from “friendly” nations are starting to halt flights to and from Russia. Flight prices have surged; a direct flight from Moscow to Istanbul on a Russian airline, like Aeroflot, now costs around $750 to $1,000, compared with $150 to $250 during normal times, says Elena.

Then there are Russians who’ve contemplated leaving but have stayed because they worry that if they don’t protest the government’s action in Ukraine, no one will.

After the war broke out, Ksyusha “wanted to take the first flight anywhere,” she says, but she decided against it. She attends anti-war rallies, shares social media stories of what’s happening in Ukraine, and helps detained demonstrators with legal assistance and care packages. “It’s important to do something and not be silent,” says Ksyusha.

Vlad fears for his well-being. Police have discriminated against him for being transgender. But he doesn’t plan to leave Russia; it’s where his family and his home are. “I was born and raised here,” he says. “Why should I have to leave home because of the authorities?”

A week ago, Katya V., a 26-year-old poet and language teacher living in Moscow, bought a one-way ticket to Armenia to flee the government’s crackdown, but she hasn’t used it. “For a moment, I felt really frightened. Punishments for any kind of protest in Russia are becoming more severe. But I, like many people, can’t ignore…friends and colleagues being killed in Ukraine on behalf of my country. So I chose to stay to support everyone protesting at home.”

Photo of Russian riot police with anti-war protestor in St. Petersburg, Russia on February 27, 2022.
A Russian anti-war demonstrator held by riot police in St. Petersburg on Feb. 27, 2022.
Valya Egorshin—NurPhoto/Getty Images

It’s unclear whether the simmering anti-war sentiment in Russia will ever sway the Kremlin. Russia currently has no leadership structure to channel popular discontent into effective protest, says Michael A. Reynolds, director of Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Princeton University. Russians have lived through similar events, like the economic collapse of the 1990s, and “know how to survive” in times of hardship, Reynolds says. “Will the sanctions and economic dislocation cause the Russian population to turn against Putin and either compel him to end the war or overthrow him? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t count on it,” he says.

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