Tens of thousands of people are leaving Russia, even with few routes out of the country
From economic sanctions to disgust over Ukraine invasion, many vow never to return
The day that Russia's military began launching strikes across Ukraine, Mikhail Grinberg and his wife, Polina, knew they had to leave. The only question was should they go immediately and just take their passports, or did they have time to pack clothes?
They bought tickets for the next day, Feb. 25, filled some suitcases and flew from Moscow to Riga, the capital of Latvia.
"I definitely want a better future for my family, definitely," said 35-year-old Mikhail, who works as a product manager for the Russian technology company Yandex. "But also, it's avoiding this feeling of disgust."
Few routes out of Russia
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about purifying Russian society from "traitors" whose minds are aligned with the West, but tens of thousands of people living in Russia have already made the choice to leave.
Some fear the further isolation of Russia through economic sanctions, which could lead to food and medicine shortages, but others, like the Grinbergs, say they can't stomach living in the country any longer.
With European airspace closed, crossing Russia's border with Finland, Estonia or Latvia are among the only routes out of the country, as long as travellers have the necessary visas.
The Grinbergs headed to Latvia, where more than one-third of the population speaks Russian as their first language, because Polina's relatives live in a community northeast of Riga.
Mikhail had left Russia before. He studied English in Ukraine, and the couple previously lived in the U.K., which is where their two-year-old son, Leo, was born.
They decided to return to Moscow because Mikhail was offered his "dream job" helping to design Yandex's English-language learning platform.
Sense of shame
When the Grinbergs woke up and heard the news of the invasion on Feb. 24, they wanted to leave as soon as they could, but even after they left, guilt followed them.
Polina, 37, burst into tears as she spoke about not being able to sleep at night because she keeps picturing children who have been killed in Ukraine.
"It is so hard for me to concentrate because all I can think of is those pictures that speak to me directly," she said.
As a student in Russia, Mikhail frequently took part in anti-government protests, but he stopped when it became too dangerous.
"I don't have enough courage to risk a prison sentence per se, but I can still do certain things," he said. "I can stop paying tax in Russia."
Mikhail says he will have to get another job somewhere in the European Union, and he understands that he could face some resentment because he is Russian.
He says he started looking for employment on the job website LinkedIn and saw a few posts by people who wrote "death to all Russians."
Tensions in Latvia
In Latvia, where there is a significant Russian population, the government expelled three employees of the Russian Embassy on Friday. Latvia's foreign affairs minister said on Twitter that they were expelled "in connection with activities that are contrary to their diplomatic status," as well as because of the "ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine."
Prior to what Russia has dubbed its "special military operation," there was already tension in Latvia between the Latvian and Russian communities.
In recent years, there have been protests by Russian groups over government plans to have all schools teach classes in Latvian.
There have also been petitions to remove what is unofficially known as a "Victory Memorial" in Riga, which celebrates the Soviet army's win over Germany in the Second World War. On Feb. 25, the memorial was vandalized with blue and yellow paint, the national colours of Ukraine.
The day before, the Latvian government stopped issuing Schengen visas to Russian citizens. The visas allow them to enter Latvia and travel through 26 European countries. Russians are now not allowed to cross the Latvian border unless they already have the proper paperwork, but the visas are being issued to Ukrainian citizens living in Russia. Russia is home to the largest diaspora of Ukrainians in the world.
'The government does what it wants'
At the Terehova border crossing in southeast Latvia, a steady stream of people carried luggage and bags between the Russian and Latvian checkpoints on Wednesday, when a CBC News crew visited. After being dropped off on the Russian side of the border, they walked across to Latvia.
Nearly all of the people approached by CBC said they were Ukrainian — including a group of nurses from Russia who were on their way to Ukraine, where they planned to help out in a military hospital.
Halyna Poberezhna, 55, who worked in a hospital in Moscow for the past 15 years, says she has no plans to return.
"Because of what they are doing now to our people, they are now enemies for centuries," said Poberezhna, who paid a mini-bus driver to pick her up in Latvia.
A few hundred metres away, 73-year old Lyidia was being escorted by her 12-year-old grandson, Yegor Seminov, through passport control.
She is a Ukrainian who has lived in Russia for years.
"People are outraged," she said. "But the government does what it wants."