‘I’m never going back’: the high-profile Russian defectors rejecting war

Igor Volobuyev spent two decades working in the heart of the Russian business establishment, first for Gazprom and then for its affiliate Gazprombank, where until February this year he was vice-president.

Then Vladimir Putin launched his war on Ukraine in late February, and Volobuyev decided he could no longer stand living in Russia. He packed a small rucksack of possessions and a stack of cash, and flew out of the country on 2 March, pretending he was going on holiday.

A few days later, he crossed from Poland into Ukraine, where he spent his childhood years. Now, he spends his days trying to convince officials to provide him with Ukrainian documents and allow him to sign up for military service.

“I want to go to the place where I can defend my homeland with a weapon, I’m trying every day,” he said, in an interview in the suburbs of the capital, Kyiv. “I am never going back to Russia.”

Hundreds of thousands of Russians are believed to have fled the country since Putin launched the war, and many intellectuals, journalists and activists have voiced their opposition to the conflict. However, among the political and business elites, defections have been extremely rare. Despite reports of widespread dismay over the invasion of Ukraine, only a tiny handful of people have spoken publicly to condemn the war.

On Monday, Boris Bondarev, a career diplomat posted to the Russian mission to the UN in Geneva, became the highest-level Russian diplomat to denounce the war. When he resigned, Bondarev published a scathing letter in which he wrote that he was “ashamed” of his country and called the invasion a “disaster”.

Bondarev said he made his mind up to resign on the day Russia launched its invasion, but it took months to gather the resolve to go public.

Like many fellow diplomats, Bondarev had remained in his post over the past decade, despite Russia’s growing isolation due to a series of crises, including its annexation of Crimea and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.

“You understand that it is wrong,” he said in a telephone interview. “That it’s not good. But it doesn’t really touch you, your life. These bad things they happen somewhere far away. It’s not right but that’s how most people think.”

“But now this is totally different: Russia attacked another country. This is Ukraine who we always considered to be our brothers and attacked them in the most brutal manner. Bombing cities. Claiming them to be Nazis and denazified. It’s something ridiculous. It’s something unimaginable.”

Bondarev said he believed many of his fellow diplomats were also opposed to the war, but he never discussed it with them. “It isn’t something you really talked about with other people, it isn’t something you can speak about openly these days,” Bondarev said. “Everyone is silent.”

Volobuyev said that after 2014, he had started to speak openly about his concerns over Russian politics in the workplace, and while many people were scared of getting involved in a discussion, he felt that most people he knew agreed at least partially.

“In Gazprom there were a few passionate Putinists, but the majority of people understood exactly what kind of country they lived in. A lot of people in Russia are just scared,” he said.

“You have this internal censorship, that it’s dangerous to say certain things, and you live with this permanently. Ukrainians look at this and they don’t understand it because they are a free people,” he said.

Volobuyev grew up in the Ukrainian city of Okhtyrka , and left for Moscow in 1989, when he was 18. After spending some time in journalism, he joined Gazprom, where he worked for 15 years before moving to become one of Gazprombank’s vice-presidents in 2015.

As he tells it, he was originally a supporter of Putin, and voted for him in 2012, but his “eyes were opened” by the Maidan revolution in 2014 and subsequent Russia-backed war in Donbas. He wanted to return to Ukraine then, but said he could not, for family reasons, about which he declined to elaborate.

“It was a choice between my homeland and my family, and at that time I chose my family. On 24 February this year, I understood I could not put it off any longer,” he said.

Volobuyev was a mid-ranking cog in the Gazprom machine; among the higher business echelons few people have dared to break ranks.

Oleg Tinkov, a self-made billionaire who set up one of Russia’s leading banks, has so far been the most outspoken public opponent of the war among the business elite. In one of a series of critical Instagram posts, Tinkov wrote: “I don’t see ANY beneficiary of this crazy war! Innocent people and soldiers are dying.”

After his statements, Tinkov said he was forced to sell his assets at a knockdown price to an oligarch loyal to the Kremlin. In an interview with the Russian journalist Yury Dud, he said he was sure that the entire business elite backed his statements but were too scared to say the same publicly.

“I have spoken to 12 of the top 20 on the Forbes list personally, and they all support me, there is a full consensus,” he said.

He said half of those he had spoken to justified their silence by claiming to fear for their tens of thousands of employees, who could be affected if they fell out of favour with the Kremlin.

“The other half say, ‘We’ll make a statement and then lose our business, like you, and then what, what have you achieved?’”

Putin has referred to those who oppose Moscow’s actions as “scum and traitors”, whom the Russian people will “spit out like a fly”. In the current climate it is clear that public opposition to the war makes it dangerous to return to Russia.

Bondarev said he was worried about the response to his statement and said he would “welcome” an offer of asylum in the west. Tinkov has said he has hired bodyguards.

As a Russian citizen of Ukrainian origin, Volobuyev’s position is a little different. His arrival in Ukraine has given him a feeling that he has finally returned home, he said. But he accepts that he has a lot of work to do to persuade Ukrainians of his sincerity.

“All these years, I said I was Ukrainian but I continued to live and work there. I understand that I have to repent, and to prove for many years that I should be allowed to live here and that I can be trusted,” he said.

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