Artyom Kotenko’s world collapsed when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Born to a Ukrainian father and a Russian mother in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, he lived in Russia for most of his life.
“I was crushed. I could not live or breathe,” the 50-year-old artist and graphic designer, who is a Russian national, told AFP in Paris.
A week after President Vladimir Putin sent troops to pro-Western Ukraine, Kotenko left behind his old life in Saint Petersburg and went to Helsinki. From there he made his way to Paris, which he says “healed his wounds”.
“I stopped feeling like I was suffocating, like I was dying every day. I was able to breathe again,” he said in the 13th district of Paris where pro-Ukrainian graffiti adorns the streets.
But much to Kotenko’s disappointment, Paris appeared indifferent to his plight.
Kotenko, who worked at Saint Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater and the Higher School of Economics, realised he could not get a job in France.
He wanted to draw on his extensive teaching experience to work with the children of Ukrainian refugees but found out that those jobs were reserved for EU citizens.
“This is strange. This has to change because there are a lot of people like me and there is work for us,” he said.
– Political exiles –
French President Emmanuel Macron has led diplomatic outreach to the Kremlin over the war in Ukraine, and Ukrainian refugees are welcomed with open arms in France.
But Russians fleeing Putin’s regime realise they are left to their own fate in one of the wealthiest EU countries.
Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russians have fled the country in protest over Putin’s policies and out of fear for their children’s future.
Observers point out that most of Russia’s new political exiles are liberal-leaning well-educated professionals in their prime.
Some even draw parallels with the departure of intellectual elites from Soviet Russia in 1922 in a phenomenon that has come to be known as the “Philosophers’ Ships”.
Some leading Western democracies have indicated their willingness to tap into the professional knowledge and experience fleeing Russians have to offer.
German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said in early May that Berlin might simplify visa procedures and help find jobs for Russians fleeing Putin’s regime.
“We want them to be aware that we could really use them,” he told reporters.
US officials are also considering ways to lure highly educated anti-Kremlin Russians.
The French interior ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
– ‘Support them’ –
Many political emigres say France should do the same.
“If people seek an opportunity to move here, you need to support them,” said Daniel Kashnitsky, a 41-year-old Muscovite, pointing to France’s notorious bureaucratic hurdles.
He, his wife and their four children — two of them adopted — applied for asylum in France in April and met with AFP in the 18th district of Paris. After a long day at the prefecture the children appeared exhausted.
“We have nowhere to live,” said Kashnitsky’s 38-year-old wife Natalya. “It’s stressful.”
The family arrived in Paris more than a month after the war in Ukraine broke out. A public health specialist who previously lived in Sweden, Lithuania and Israel, Kashnitsky said he did not want to leave his “beloved” Moscow.
The war changed everything. First, Kashnitsky staged an anti-war protest in central Moscow and spent a night in jail. He also gave interviews to Swedish media. Then he realised it was time to leave.
“It was important to me to take the kids out,” Kashnitsky told AFP, adding that his eldest son was turning 18 in May and could be drafted.
When they arrived in Paris, they had nowhere to go, and airport officials took them to a centre for Ukrainian refugees.
Kashnitsky said they could not stay at the centre. They eventually found a budget hotel outside Paris for which they paid themselves.
Two weeks after arriving in France the family received temporary housing in the southern town of Ales. The future is uncertain but Kashnitsky is optimistic. “I am hoping to be able to start working as soon as possible.”
– ‘Catastrophic situation’ –
After the start of the Ukraine war French university lecturer Antoine Nicolle helped create an association to help Russians fleeing the regime.
“We’ve created an association because we saw that nothing was being done for Russians,” he told AFP.
He said they wanted to set up a fund to raise money for the emigres but due to Western sanctions they could not open a bank account “because of the word ‘Russian'” in its name.
“This is messed up,” he said.
After more than a month in Paris Kotenko left for Seville where he legalised his relationship with his Spanish boyfriend and hopes to put down roots.
Stressing that Ukrainians need to receive all the support they can get, Kotenko said anti-Kremlin Russians should not be forgotten, too.
“More and more people like me will appear here and they need to be given a chance to gain a foothold, work officially, to be issued humanitarian visas,” he said.
“The situation is catastrophic and something needs to be done about it. Otherwise these Russians will simply settle here as illegal immigrants.”