Anxious Russians flee by the hundreds each day into neighbouring Finland

Hundreds of Russians are crossing into Finland every day, one of the few remaining routes out of Russia for those looking to escape the economic uncertainty over sanctions or the effects of a new law tracking the spread of what the Kremlin deems as "fake news" about the war in Ukraine.

As economic sanctions and political uncertainty grip Russia, many travel to Finland en route to the West

This 25-year-old student, one of the hundreds of Russians choosing to leave Russia because of the war in Ukraine, described having panic attacks in the days before her departure. The student, who did not want her name used because of fear of repercussions, arrived by train in Helsinki on Tuesday and is unsure when she’ll return to her home country. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The trains from the east pulling into Platform 9 at Helsinki's central train station are packed, transporting nearly 700 passengers from Russia each day, as people seek to escape the uncertainty and fear the war in Ukraine has brought to their own country.

A 25-year-old student looked around anxiously as she stepped off the train in the Finnish capital. She asked not to be identified, as she fears repercussions.

"It is unstable [in Russia] now," she told CBC News, describing a feeling of unease in her country that prompted her to have severe panic attacks. 

She pulled out her phone to show photos snapped in the days before she left St. Petersburg, one in support of Ukraine — with yellow and blue ribbons tied to a tree — and another of a giant Z broadcast on a multimedia screen in a subway station. The letter Z has morphed into a pro-war symbol in Russia, painted on tanks advancing on Ukrainian territory. 

"Some of my friends have been arrested already, some have been fined, some have been released," said the student, who has now joined her Russian boyfriend in Helsinki and doesn't know when — or if — she'll return home. 

"Many of my friends are fleeing Russia as well." 

An Allegro train travelling from St. Petersburg arrives in Helsinki on Tuesday. Some 700 passengers are arriving every day at the Finnish capital's central train station. (Lily Martin/CBC )

Crossing into Finland is one of the few remaining routes out of Russia for those looking to escape the economic uncertainty related to punishing sanctions or to avoid a new law criminalizing spreading what the Kremlin deems to be "fake" news, a charge that could lead to 15 years in jail. 

Just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his invasion of Ukraine, the twice-daily trains destined for Finland from St. Petersburg, on a line reserved for Finnish and Russian nationals, started filling up. A few weeks ago, an official said, the trains were operating at about 20 per cent capacity.

"We can see the demand is quite high for now," said Viktoria Hurri, director of Finnish-Russian passenger services at VR Group, Finland's national railway. The train line is run jointly by VR Group and its Russian counterpart. 

"So now we're proposing to our colleagues to … put a third train also running daily," she said. The hope is the third daily run would start next week, with the option to eventually expand to the pre-pandemic four trains a day. 

Circuitous route

Hurri confirmed VR Group has asked Russian Railways for permission to allow other nationalities to take the Allegro train, which would allow expatriates in Russia to use the train to depart the country. The decision would need to be made by both Finnish and Russian rail companies. 

After more than 30 countries closed their airspace to Russian flights, Dmitry, a 26-year old Russian PhD student, said the only option for him to get to Paris was a circuitous route by bus from Moscow, via St. Petersburg and Helsinki, where he can board a flight. 

Dmitry, who did not want his last name used, says he thought 'it’s better not to risk it,' when asked why he decided to leave Russia and return to Paris, via Helsinki. (Lily Martin/CBC)

He wasn't planning on leaving Russia but changed his mind after what he called a "long reflection," abandoning his PhD field work study as the war in Ukraine intensified. 

"I was starting to get a little bit worried due to the legislation that they were beginning to pass in the Russian Duma and I thought it's better not to risk [it]," he told CBC News, asking that we use his first name only because he fears for his safety. 

Dmitry said the effects of the sanctions imposed on Russia have yet to be truly felt but many in his country are bracing themselves. 

'Very stressed'

"Many people in Russia are very stressed," he said, adding that the concern is not confined to those watching independent news outlets.

"Those who are following the news on the Russian federal channels through the propaganda machine, they are increasingly worried, too," Dmitry said. "They feel that the situation is not going as planned and their operation is not going as planned." 

When Dmitry talked of possibly returning to his home country, he spoke of years, not weeks. 

Police officers detain a man during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central St. Petersburg on March 2, 2022. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

For Russian political activist Elena Shendera, that option feels tightly shut. 

Her decision to leave was clinched, she said, after she attended one of the first large protests in St. Petersburg on March 2 where Russian authorities clamped down on demonstrators. More than 13,000 protesters have been arrested across the country at anti-war rallies in dozens of cities, according to OVD-Info, an independent group that monitors detentions. 

"I could have stayed and protested and I would have been arrested first for 15 days or even worse," Shendera said. "Or I would have to be silent, which I cannot do." 

Disdain for some compatriots

After two days in Helsinki, Shendera, 50, struggled to put into words the feeling of freedom and release she felt. She also expressed disdain at some of her compatriots.

"They are like zombies saying that this is the Ukrainians' own fault," said Shendera. "They close their eyes. 

"I am not sure if I can forgive them."

A protester holds a sign during a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Helsinki on March 5, 2022. (Lily Martin/CBC)

She crossed at the eastern land border dividing Finland and Russia on Sunday, a day on which border officials confirmed 2,259 Russians arrived, an increase in usual traffic.

Finland has a long and complicated history with its eastern neighbour, built around proximity and that 1,340-kilometre shared border.

An invasion from Soviet Union forces in 1939 led to the Winter War, with Finns ferociously fighting back the Russians for several months before negotiating an agreement to maintain the country's independence. After the war, Finnish foreign policy was dedicated to military non-alignment. The country decided not to join NATO when it signed into the European Union in 1995.

But polls are now showing for the first time ever that a majority of Finns support joining the military alliance.

WATCH | Support grows in Finland to join NATO:

Support for Finland to join NATO picks up steam

1 year ago
Duration 3:17
There’s growing support in Finland for the country to join NATO amid the Ukraine war, despite threats of serious military and political repercussions from Russia. A petition that would force Finnish MPs to debate the issue picked up tens of thousands of signatures in a matter of days.

It's "a radical historic shift," said Alexander Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister who is now a professor and director at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. 

"We used to be about 50 per cent against NATO and 20 in favour and that pretty much shifted overnight," Stubb said, attributing the change to a heightened fear of being left alone if Russia invades.

"The longer the war goes on, I think, the higher the figures in favour of NATO's membership [will go]."

Former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb has long supported a bid for NATO membership for the Nordic country that shares a long land border with Russia. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Stubb cautioned, however, that a rushed push for Finland to join the alliance could further destabilize European politics. 

"We can't do it right now. It's a little bit like trying to buy fire insurance when the fire is already on."

Russia's Foreign Ministry has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that there would be "serious military and political consequences" were Finland and neighbouring Sweden to join NATO. 

Protesters against the Russian invasion of Ukraine take over the steps of the Helsinki Cathedral on March 5, 2022. (Lily Martin/CBC)

At a protest in support of Ukraine that wound through the streets of Helsinki's city centre on Saturday, Leena Rauramo couldn't hold back tears. 

"I'm also very much afraid that Russia would come here," the 37-year-old Helsinki resident said, "that they will start to invade our country.

"I am not always a fan of NATO and U.S. foreign policy, but if someone would ask me right now, I would say yes for NATO," said Rauramo, adding that it would give Finland a strengthened independence. 

Leena Rauramo, a 37-year-old Helsinki resident, is increasingly worried about possible Russian aggression against Finland and now supports her country joining NATO. (Lily Martin/CBC)

That same protest drew Russian citizens Andrey Maltsev and his wife, Paulina Stepanova, who were carrying a European Union flag and wearing buttons with Ukraine's colours. 

"We are Russians and we do not support Putin and his team," Maltsev said.

The couple has been in Helsinki for two months for his work, along with their three-year-old son, and they said they've received several messages from friends and colleagues back home, worried about how to get out of the country. 

"Many males think they will be moved to the military facilities," Maltsev told CBC News, and he is worried the same would happen to him if he were to return to Russia. 

"I'm simply afraid that I will be detained on the border because of our support for those peace movements we have in Finland." 


Salimah Shivji


Salimah Shivji is CBC's India correspondent, based in Mumbai. She has been a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau and has covered everything from climate change to corruption across Canada.