ISTANBUL: In a dark stairwell in Istanbul, Alex, Micha and Nigina wait for keys to a temporary flat.
When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the three young Russians left their country behind for Turkey.
Thousands of others have followed, many paying exorbitant airfares to reach one of the last accessible destinations as Western sanctions tighten.
For now the friends have found a place to live in the upscale Istanbul neighbourhood of Nisantasi so beloved of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, but their future is uncertain.
“We are not the kind of people who flee their country lightly just because we saw a small problem,” said Nigina Beroeva, a 38-year-old documentary filmmaker and journalist.
“I have no plan, no life project,” she told AFP. “Leaving was really emotional.”
It is not the first time a Russian exodus has found a haven on the banks of the Bosphorus.
Hundreds of thousands of White Russian aristocrats and army officers fled for their lives to Istanbul a century ago after their defeat by the Bolsheviks.
CONSCRIPTION AND CENSORSHIP
The new arrivals are young and educated – designers, tech developers, journalists and actors. Many feared being conscripted into the army and fled before the borders closed.
Others were worried by a new law which threatens 15 years in jail for spreading “fake news” about the army.
“I am a refugee for the second time,” said Beroeva, who packed a small turquoise suitcase and abandoned her life in Moscow on the day the new law was passed.
Her family fled war in Tajikistan when she was 10.
Beroeva is weighing moving to ex-Soviet Armenia, Georgia or even Kazakhstan when her two-month Turkish visa expires.
“It is mainly young people from cities who left,” said Artur, a 24-year-old actor.
His T-shirt quotes Shakespeare’s Tempest: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
Artur abandoned his new acting career in Saint Peterburg to evade a possible army draft.
In Istanbul, he shares a cramped flat with three friends: Tatiana, an actress, Igor, a director, and Alex, a mathematician.
“RUSSIANS AGAINST WAR”
On a freezing night, dozens of young Russians queued up for concert tickets for Russian rap star Oxxxymiron.
The Russian superstar’s concert was a benefit for Ukrainian refugees and part of a campaign that the rapper named RAW, an anagram for war that stands for “Russians Against War”.
Since many Russians have lost access to their bank accounts due to Western sanctions, the rapper ensured that 50 tickets would be available at the door for cash.
Although many waiting for the concert were quick to criticise Putin, some backtracked, expressing fear for family members still in Russia.
Yuriy lives in the UK but his wife and children are trapped in Moscow, where they were on holiday when Putin invaded Ukraine.
With all direct flights to the UK cancelled, the family is trying to travel through Turkey.
The 38-year-old physicist told AFP that he fears hostility towards Russians.
But in Istanbul, Russians seem to be welcomed, said Julie Ledevea, a 23-year-old Franco-Russian.
She left Russia with her fiance, Ramil.
“People know Russians well here. They are friendly. Some even congratulated us on Putin’s offensive in Ukraine,” she said, grimacing.
And there’s a sense of solidarity among the new residents of Turkey’s “Little Russia”.
“Meeting friends here saved me,” Beroeva said.
“Our situation is difficult but compared to the Ukrainians, we will be fine.”