In Turkey, Russians are welcome to visit — but it doesn't mean they can all stay
Nearly 150,000 Russians are living in Turkey with short-term residency permits
On a street in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, near the coast of the Sea of Marmara, a group of anti-war Russians wear blue and yellow ribbons, and other Ukrainian symbols, as they hand out flyers to advertise a fundraising event for children's organizations in Ukraine.
Nick, who didn't want us to use his last name, had a Ukrainian flag tied around his neck while taking part in the gathering on May 19. But when a police officer turned up to inquire about what they were doing, he hastily slipped away down a side street.
He returned a few minutes later when the officer was gone.
"This was a stressful moment," he told CBC News.
The 18-year-old has been living in Turkey without proper documentation after his short-term residency application was rejected by the Turkish government.
He is part of a group of Russians who left the country because they disagreed with the war and didn't want to end up fighting in it, but have limited options of where to settle.
Turkey has always been a prime destination for Russians. Its warm weather and idyllic coasts, along with visa-free travel for tourism and business attracted seven million Russian visitors a year before the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russians moved there, or are at least staying temporarily to escape the prospect of mobilization.
There are now nearly 150,000 Russians living in Turkey on short-term residency permits, which are required for any stays longer than 60 days.
Earlier this year, there were reports on social media and in Russian independent media that more Russians were being denied residency permits, which would allow them to stay legally for at least a year.
While official information was not released by Turkish authorities, the apparent rejections came amid public criticism about the rising cost of housing in Antalya, a city along the Mediterranean coast and a preferred destination for Russians.
An online petition, signed by over 20,000 people, called for foreigners to be shut out of the housing market.
According to government statistics, across Turkey, housing sales to foreigners increased by 15.2 per cent in 2022. Russian citizens were the most prevalent buyers, purchasing more than 16,000 properties last year.
Russians who have had their permit applications rejected are in disbelief, and unsure of what to do next.
"I was completely destroyed … depressed," said Albert Sarkisiants, in an interview with CBC News on May 13.
Sarkisiants had his residency application rejected in December, three months after he flew out of Russia to avoid being drafted.
He had booked a ticket out of Russia for Sept. 27, because he suspected the country would introduce a mass-mobilization campaign after it annexed four Ukrainian territories.
But after Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization on Sept. 21, he bought a ticket to Istanbul and flew out right away with just his backpack and his passport.
"As a person who served in the Russian army I had a big risk of being mobilized," he said.
Sarkisiants served a mandatory year of military service, where he said he "wasn't even allowed to use rifles." But now, he says that wouldn't save him from being sent to the front line.
He found an apartment and prepaid his rent for six months only to have his application for residency rejected. Oddly, he says his wife's application, which was nearly identical, was later approved.
Sarkisiants, who was working on his PhD in philosophy in Russia and is currently not earning any substantial income, lives off money from renting out his Moscow apartment.
"It is not a pleasant experience to live illegally," he said, adding there aren't any good options at the moment.
He won't go back to Russia given that the country has now introduced an electronic draft system which bans men from leaving the country from the moment the summons is delivered online.
Sarkisiants also says he was arrested twice for protesting in the days after Russia launched its invasion, and if he were to return and speak out, he could face years in jail.
His plan is to stay in Turkey for now, but relocate to Serbia eventually. He knows once he leaves the country he will have to pay an administrative fine for residing there without the proper documentation.
Sarkisiants says living in Turkey illegally creates all kinds of worries around accessing heath care and other services. But he says even Russians with permits still live with the uncertainty of how long they can stay separated from their family.
Subbotnik off the coast
CBC News spoke with Sarkisiants on an island off the coast of Istanbul where he and a group of recent Russian émigrés were cleaning up garbage as part of a social outing.
The event billed was a subbotnik, which refers to the Soviet tradition of doing volunteer work on a Saturday.
It was organized by Denis Agenorov, 37, who left his wife and dream job in environmental sustainability behind in Moscow for Istanbul, where he has been living for months with no income.
He has applied for dozens of new jobs, but has only received a few interviews and no offers.
He says he has found Turkey very welcoming, and wanted to organize the coastal cleanup as a way of giving back and helping Russians connect with each other as they grapple with the consequences of the invasion.
"I think I just haven't dealt with it yet mentally," he told CBC News. "It will take a lot of years to realize what has happened as a nation, really."
Alongside him picking up small pieces of garbage near the water was Andrei Gamov, 35, who left his wife and three-year-old daughter in Moscow, along with an engineering job at Russia's energy giant Gazprom.
He has a permit to stay in Turkey and has found work outside of his field, but says his future is full of uncertainty.
"It's so stressful … to leave your home country, to lose language, your friends, your relatives," he said.
"We are victims, too, because we are forced to leave.… But, of course, Ukrainians are the main victims."
With files from Corinne Seminoff and Reuters