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Russian travelers say they fear one question: ‘Where are you from?’

For the past year, it’s been harder and more expensive for Russians to travel abroad.

But some say that’s only the beginning of their concerns.

With anti-Russian sentiment on the rise, several Russian citizens spoke to CNBC Travel about their worries, how they’re treated when they travel, and what goes through their minds when people ask where they are from.

How traveling has changed for Russians

Julia Azarova, an independent journalist, said she left Russia a year ago. She said she fled Moscow for Istanbul after the invasion of Ukraine, before eventually settling in Lithuania.

“I had to leave my own country” or risk imprisonment, she said. “We had to pack our things in a day and go.”

Since then, Azarova said she’s been to Latvia twice, but she can’t go to Ukraine, where she has relatives. Her Russian friends have encountered problems getting into Poland, while her colleagues have been prevented from entering Georgia, the latter likely in a show of loyalty to Putin, she said.

Anna — who asked that we not use her real name over fears of “unpredictable consequences” — has the opposite problem. She said she’s in Moscow and doesn’t know when she will leave Russia again.

Traveling somewhere abroad seems like something unimaginable and impossible.
Anna
resident of Moscow

“Normally, I’d visit one to two countries a year,” she said. But now “traveling somewhere abroad seems like something unimaginable and impossible.”

Traveling, especially airfare, is very expensive, she said. Also, “Russian credit cards are blocked almost everywhere and buying foreign currency in Russia is so difficult.”

As for when she plans to go abroad again: “Probably when the war ends.”

Another Russian traveler, Lana, also asked that we not use her full name over fears of retaliation from Russian authorities. She lives in Asia and was planning to go home last summer for the first time since the pandemic started, she said.

But she canceled the trip after the invasion of Ukraine, she said, despite her parents not having seen her child in years.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said, adding that the risk of border closures or flight cancellations prompted her decision.

What it’s like meeting other people

Rather than returning home, Lana traveled around Asia — to places like Thailand and Japan.

It’s “really hard to go abroad and meet new people thinking that you are the person from Russia — and how people will respond to that,” Lana said.  

She said when people ask where’s she from, there’s an “anticipation moment” that didn’t exist when she was young.

“Back then, when you say ‘I’m from Russia,’ the first thing people say is vodka, bears, Matryoshka [dolls], and all that innocent stuff,” she said. “You kind of feel like yeah, I’m from Russia — it’s cool.”

Lana told CNBC Travel being from Russia used to elicit comments about ballet, vodka and Matryoshka dolls.
Bo Zaunders | Corbis Documentary | Getty Images

But it’s different now, she said. While traveling, she braced for negative comments. Yet so far none have come, she said. Rather, people have offered words of sympathy and concern, she said.

Lana may have been lucky. A wave of anger at Russia has blanketed parts of the world, from Europe to the United States, in incidents which the Russian government has used to stoke nationalism in the country.

“Not everyone understands that the government, the country and the people, it’s not always the same thing,” she said. “Let’s say you’re from … [the United] States, I mean, you might not support Trump after all, right? The same thing’s been happening in Russia for the past, probably, 10 years.” 

Anna said telling new people she’s Russian has “always been tricky, to be honest, even before the war.”

She said there’s a “prejudice and stigma about Russians,” describing instances in Polish restaurants where waitstaff refused to serve her after spotting her Russian guidebook. After that, she began hiding her nationality more, she said.

She said being asked where she’s from will be even harder once she starts traveling abroad again.

“After the war, I guess, I’ll be afraid of the question even more, because I’ll instantly feel the need to start explaining myself, fearing a negative and aggressive reaction.”

Azarova agreed it’s hard to meet foreigners, especially as she wrestles with her own feelings of “guilt.”

“You understand that you personally haven’t done anything wrong, but you can’t get rid of the idea that something’s wrong with you personally,” she said.

After the invasion, Russian journalist Julia Azarova fled Moscow with her husband, who is also a journalist. She said she welcomes people asking her about the war. “I’m honestly very, very glad to say what I think about that.”
Source: Julia Azarova

Since leaving Russia, Azarova said she’s not had any confrontations over her nationality. However, like Anna, she said she often feels the need to quickly say how she feels about the war.

She said her conversations with foreigners have helped her because “you get the feeling that nobody’s blaming you.”

Now she’s now no longer afraid to say she’s Russian, she said, namely because she can’t do anything about it.  

“But I can do something to show the face of Russians who are not for Putin, who are not for that war … and who tried to do something to stop it.”

She now covers the war for the news channel Khodorkovsky Live, a YouTube channel backed by the exiled Russian businessman and prominent Kremlin critic, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

What they wish people knew about Russians

“People are just people,” Lana said, “regardless of nationality, your passport, your citizenship. I’ve lived in a few countries. I’ve traveled a lot. From my experience, most of the time stereotypes just don’t stand.”

Anna said she wants the world to know that not all Russians are “crazy scary.” Rather, they are friendly, warm-hearted, ready to help and eager to be good friends, she said.

“Many of us are trying hard to change something but people should know that it is difficult and very dangerous indeed to do … People should know, that behind scary news about Russia, there are millions of Russians, who suffer, who are scared and who are trapped, and who pray for peace every single day.”

Azarova said she wishes the world understood that sanctioning the Russian people, as opposed to the government and ruling elite, won’t influence Putin.

Lana said of recent trips to Thailand and Japan: “When you talk to people on a personal level, they do not perceive you as a representative of a country …you’re just a human being with your own thoughts and feelings.”
Tomosang | Moment | Getty Images

That’s because their opinions don’t affect change, like in a democracy, since “Putin is not an elected leader. This is a very, very important point. He hasn’t been elected in a fair and free election,” she said.

Plus, Putin doesn’t care what happens to Russian people, she said — their difficulties won’t change anything.

What will? “If Putin is removed by force” she said. But “Russian people don’t have … weapons.”

The future

Lana said she’s fearful about the future.  

“I don’t … see a way out of the current situation. I’m afraid that Russia is … stuck,” she said.

Azarova said that, although she misses Moscow tremendously, she is slowly accepting she may never live there again.

“Never mind all the problems … it’s still a very beautiful city with all my memories of my childhood,” she said.

But she said, her home, the way she knew it, “no longer exists.”   

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