“How Warsaw Became the Exile Capital of the East”, Der Spiegel

By Karolina Jeznach und Jan Puhl in Warsaw, The Polish Refugee Magnet, 03.01.2023

Refugees from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have converged on Warsaw. They are all united by the common enemy Putin and the knowledge that many will never return home. They are also changing the face of Poland.

Warsaw – the Capital of Exile of the EastWarsaw – the Capital of Exile of the East
Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL
It was in a supermarket that Ivan Aleksandrovich Vyrypaev of Russia, who has lived in Warsaw for several years, received a reminder that he is a foreigner here. The Polish cashier had detected Vyrypaev’s Russian accent and refused to serve him, the enemy. “I’m not selling you anything,” the cashier told him. It was two Ukrainian women, of all people, who stepped out of the line to defend the Russian.

Vyrypaev, with his hipster knitted cap, slim-fitting suit and sneakers, talks about this moment of unexpected solidarity among refugees as he wanders through the foyer of the Teatr Polski. A stage director, Vyrypaev stops for a moment next to the bust of a benefactor. With its angular head, the bust looks a bit like Putin from the side, Vyrypaev quips. Vladimir Putin, the man who drove him and so many others to Warsaw.

Within just a few years, Warsaw has become the capital of exile in the East: It’s not only Russian dissidents who have settled here – thousands of Belarusians have also fled dictator Alexander Lukashenko and his henchmen to the Polish capital. There are also Buryats, a Mongolian ethnic minority from Lake Baikal who fled Putin’s oppression, and Chechens, who have escaped the murderous Ramzan Kadyrov.

And in the capital city alone, with its 1.86 million inhabitants, offices had issued social security numbers to some 150,000 Ukrainians by September. The true number of Ukrainians who have found refuge here is probably much higher.

Khedi Alieva is one of the most famous Chechen women in Poland.Khedi Alieva is one of the most famous Chechen women in Poland. Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL
“I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It triggers depression in many people.”

Khedi Alieva, a refugee in Warsaw from Chechnya

Under the national conservative government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), Poland hasn’t exactly earned a reputation for welcoming immigrants. In 2017, for example, PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński warned that refugees from foreign countries would bring “germs and pathogens” into beautiful Poland. The European Union, PiS argued, should instead help refugees on site, meaning in the conflict regions and the adjacent areas.

But ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland itself has been one of those adjacent areas, and PiS has promised to help the Ukrainians. Even before the war, Ukrainians were a familiar presence in Poland – as a cheap labor force whose language sounds similar.

It isn’t likely that many of the recent arrivals will be able to return home any time soon. Vyrypayev, for his part, is planning on staying. “I am a Polish director of Russian origin,” he says. Born in Irkutsk, Siberia, he left his country of birth years ago and worked his way up in Warsaw to become one of the most important Russian-language playwrights in Europe.

Marina Dashuk and performer Igor Shugaleev

Marina Dashuk and performer Igor Shugaleev Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL

“When I dance, I’m not afraid.”

Igor Shugaleev, Belarusian performer

When Putin gave the order to attack Ukraine in February, the theater professional publicly declared he would renounce his Russian citizenship – a gesture that went down well in Poland. The authorities quickly issued Vyrypaev a new passport. “In Russia, I am threatened with at least 20 years in prison: five perhaps for my comparison of Putin to Stalin, another five for equating Stalin to Hitler,” he speculates. “The remaining 10 come together quickly: I have publicly condemned the invasion of Ukraine.”

Vyrypaev is currently staging Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at the Teatr Polski, and the play’s run is sold out for months. “Uncle Vanya,” which premiered in 1899, addresses the problems that still paralyze Russia today, the director says. It’s about missed opportunities, apathy, stagnation, boredom and hopelessness. “This enormous territory, and somewhere in the far distance lies the capital. Nobody knows what the state is and what it is good for.” The majority of his compatriots know the state first and foremost as an oppressor. The Russians, Vyrypaev says, don’t believe they can make a difference. “They are victims, too.”

Theater director Ivan Vyrypaev: The Russians "are victims, too."Theater director Ivan Vyrypaev: The Russians “are victims, too.” Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL

And that, even though nothing has happened to them yet. Olga and Dmitry left Russia as a precautionary measure. They prefer not to give their last names, fearful that their parents and relatives back in Russia could get into trouble with the security authorities. The two sociologists work for a global marketing agency in Warsaw. The company made the switch easy. Olga left Russia four years ago, after taking part in a memorial march to mark the anniversary of the death of murdered Putin critic Boris Nemtsov. Who knows what reprisals she might have faced? Dmitry followed suit last spring. Their Polish isn’t all that fluent yet, but you can get by just fine with English in Warsaw.

Fleeing the Mobilization

Dmitry says he likely would have been drafted by now in Russia, but he considers a war against Ukraine to be an absurdity. “I don’t have any enemies there,” he says. And I want to be able to post that without fear of repression.” When the Polish government tightened abortion laws, Olga joined the protests. “It felt so free,” she says. “The people here laugh a lot more than they do back home.” You can see how freedom inspires them. In Russia, on the other hand, most are preoccupied with the daily struggle to just get by. “No one believes that anything will ever get better, and certainly not that you can have any influence on the future,” she says. If Putin were to order everyone to walk on their knees tomorrow, she fears her compatriots would buy knee pads rather than object to it.

Russian exiles Dmitry and Olga: "I don’t have any enemies in Ukraine."

Russian exiles Dmitry and Olga: “I don’t have any enemies in Ukraine.” Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL

“The people here laugh a lot more than they do back home.”

Olga, a refugee from Russia

The two tend to be cautious when people ask them about their origins. “From Russia, unfortunately, is what I tell them,” says Olga. Dmitry has hosted Ukrainian refugees in his apartment twice, and says that Ukrainians are often surprisingly friendly to him. “Because we’re here, they assume that we must be opposed to the regime.” Time and again, she has been amazed by the continued willingness of her hosts to be supportive. Even though government aid for private housing has now run out, inflation is close to 20 percent and the economy is faltering, polls so far show little by way of anti-refugee sentiment. More than 80 percent of Poles say they have a generally positive attitude toward Ukrainian refugees.

It’s not as if the Poles have just been keeping to themselves until recently. Despite all the xenophobic rhetoric, even the nationalist conservatives with the PiS party have un-bureaucratically issued visas to hundreds of thousands of people – primarily to Ukrainians, but also to Indians and to Vietnamese – to satisfy the country’s thirst for labor.

However, since the violent suppression of mass protests in Belarus in 2022, and since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Poland has become a country of immigrants in a very short period of time.

The authorities are expecting even more refugees from Ukraine this winter. Migration experts estimate that their number could double, which would mean up to 4 million living in Poland. In addition, there are at least 50,000 Belarusians residing in the country. Soon, 10 percent of the entire population of Poland could be made up of immigrants from countries of the former Soviet Union.

A Puppet Theater for Traumatized Children

Warsaw, the capital city on the Vistula River, has had to reinvent itself time and again throughout history. In 1944, the German occupiers tried to wipe the city off the face of the earth, systematically blowing up building after building. Then the communists came and rebuilt the Old Town according to historical models, but also left behind concrete and prefabricated buildings. After Poland joined the European Union in 2004, the city became more colorful. Nowy Świat, Warsaw’s main street, is once again a glittering pedestrian zone. Full employment has prevailed for almost 20 years, Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski marches in LGBT parades, and the Palace of Science and Culture, a Stalinist candy-striped tower that was once the city’s visual centerpiece, has long since ceased to be Warsaw’s tallest building. Corporations, banks and insurance companies have built skyscrapers of glass and steel around it.

Now, immigrants are also changing the face of the city. They are opening cultural centers, they clean, they work in nursing, in construction, they work in restaurants and are even opening some themselves. Ukrainian women run beauty salons. Most of the refugees have been provided with private housing or already have their own apartments. Those who can, work remotely by computer in exile.

Bar owner Gleb Kovalev
Bar owner Gleb Kovalev Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL
“Warsaw has become much more tolerant and free-spirited, just like a real big city.”

Gleb Kowalew, a bar owner from Belarus

Beneath the arcades of the Poniatowski Bridge in the Powiśle district, Gleb Kovalev has opened his bar Karma, an artists’ pub. Karma used to be located in Minsk, and during the protests against dictator Lukashenko, people fled to the bar. Kovalev lowered the shutters and kept the militia at bay for a while. That was the moment that he decided to leave Belarus. A Karma location in Wrocław failed because of the pandemic, and a Karma in Kyiv failed because of the war. Ultimately, Kovalev and his bar wound up in Warsaw. “Warsaw has become much more tolerant and free-spirited, just like a real big city.”

Those who have always been in favor of accepting more people in need are now hoping for a positive effect stemming from people growing used to having foreigners around them: In the current conflict, Poles have finally learned that even real “refugee flows” can be managed. Political stability isn’t crumbling, the economy hasn’t collapsed and immigrants aren’t taking away anyone’s job.

Karma, a pub for artists: From Minsk to Kyiv to Warsaw

Karma, a pub for artists: From Minsk to Kyiv to Warsaw Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL

Poland has been living as a front-line country since February, having placed its armed forces on alert in addition to the territorial defense force, made up of volunteer reserve soldiers who want to protect the country. In NATO and the EU, it forged ahead when it came to supplying weapons or imposing sanctions. Even as the Germans continue to debate whether to send Marder and Leopard tanks to Kyiv, Poland has already delivered more than 200 battle tanks to Ukraine. There are notices on trains instructing people to refrain from posting images of military vehicles on social media. The enemy is listening. Poles are also collecting donations and taking Ukrainians who are complete strangers into their homes. You can find Ukrainian children in almost every Polish school class.

Nikolay Mishin has rehearsed a puppet show for them, with Baron von Münchhausen in the leading role. Normally, Mishin a Ukrainian from the Russian-speaking east of the country, works as a dramaturge. He spent 15 years working in St. Petersburg, and no one had ever been interested in what passport he held. Until February, that is.

“We knew right away: We are leaving Russia.” He and his wife Mila and their little daughter ended up sheltering with acquaintances in Warsaw.

Puppeteer Mykola Mishin, his wife and set designer Mila Gogenko, Baron von Münchhausen: "paths to new worlds"

Puppeteer Mykola Mishin, his wife and set designer Mila Gogenko, Baron von Münchhausen: “paths to new worlds” Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL

At first, the idea of staging a play with puppets rather than people had seemed “unusual.” But you tend to be modest as a new arrival, and Mishin transformed himself into the role of Münchhausen at Warsaw’s Gulliver puppet theater. “My baron isn’t a boaster or a liar, he’s a man who can point to the paths to new worlds. This is exactly the task Ukrainian children face here.” Mishin’s Münchhausen travels to the bottom of the ocean, to the sultan, and can even fly with the help of ducks. “We left out the episode with the ride on the cannonball,” Mishin says. “Many children are traumatized by war.”

A Belarusian Dance Frenzy

During the day, he often sits in the cafeteria of the Nowy Teatr, a modern building in the Stary Mokotów district, which is a hub for many immigrants. It’s also where Igor Shugaleev’s performance troupe rehearses. Most recently, he did no more than remain in a forced posture on the stage: kneeling, his hands clasped behind his back as if tied, his forehead pressed against the floor. Viewers suffer along with him, watching as the pain and tension grow.

Belarusian security personnel force prisoners into this pose, sometimes for many hours at a time, until their circulation collapses, in what is both a mental and physical torture. Igor Shugaleev, slim with an athletic body, stays in the position for almost an hour.

He and his fellow performers are performing at the Nowy Theater because back home in Belarus, they must first have every element of their program approved by the authorities. “An official would read through everything to make sure there was no criticism of Lukashenko hidden in the piece,” Shugaleev says.

The ensemble’s latest show in Warsaw is called: “My name is Ms. Troffea.” It is inspired by the legend according to which, in 1518 in Strasbourg, a woman stepped out of the house and started dancing, for no reason, for days, without stopping. Hundreds joined in this “dancing frenzy” until, finally, the church superiors had holy water dripped on the shoes of the possessed. It was intended to calm them. The stage is already completed, a plain wall with light projections and music by a Polish composer.

Performer Shugaleev: physical and mental torture

Performer Shugaleev: physical and mental torture Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL

Shugaleev will perform solo on the stage. He’s still in rehearsals. At first, only his leg will twitch, then a flick and, finally, the performance ends in wild techno. He says it’s like therapy for him, like “dancing into freedom.” “When I have peace of mind, I am constantly reminded that we can never go back. Then comes the gloom. When I dance, I have no fear.”

Belarusians have been in Warsaw for years. As early as the mid-1990s, the last freely elected politicians who had been ousted by Lukashenko took refuge in the Polish capital. The Belarusian House is located in the Saska Kępa district. It once served as the French ambassador’s residence, but today it is a cultural center and organization headquarters in one. Aleś Zarembiuk serves as its director. His true vocation is that of a journalist, a profession that can be life threatening in his home country. He escaped Lukashenko’s henchmen years ago through the backyards of his hometown and then came to Poland by taxi through Ukraine.

A Continued Willingness To Help

It has become much more difficult to traverse that route today. By the end of November, Zarembiuk and his fellow campaigners had helped 1,022 Belarusians obtain fast-track visas. “If you’re on the terror list, you need to get out, and fast,” he says. People are tortured in the prisons, arbitrary actions are the order of the day, people are deprived of food, the hygienic conditions are atrocious and, above all, the prisons are overcrowded. A 15-day jail sentence is the frequent punishment for even innocuous posts on social media. Thousands are locked away in labor camps.

Zarembiuk speaks flawless Polish, although he hopes to be able to return to Belarus one day. “It’s not just Lukashenko alone – it’s his apparatus that rules, and the head of the Security Council will likely become president after him,” Zarembiuk says. The only splashes of color in the giant building are the numerous white-red-white flags, the banners used in the protests against the rigged elections two years ago.

Zarembiuk believes that the gloom will soon subside and that readings, language courses and discussions can be held here soon. “We are dreaming of a Belarusian civil society in exile that could one day possibly assume power in the country again.”

Dissident Aleś Zarembiuk dreams of a Belarusian civil society.

Dissident Aleś Zarembiuk dreams of a Belarusian civil society. Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL

That civil society is already active in some places. At Plac Konstytucji, in an ensemble of buildings from the Stalin era, the Belarusians have set up a “youth hub,” and the city is helping with the rent. The exile community meets once a week for a popular quiz night gathering. “What? Where? When?” is the name of the game. Groups of six compete against each other to solve logic problems.

Men in Stuffy Leather Jackets

Fans of the quiz night says it’s likely that Lukashenko’s informants also go to the meetings and to rallies organized by the youth hub. You can recognize them by their stuffy leather jackets and by the fact that they answer in Russian when you speak to them in Belarusian. The dictator has made himself dependent on his neighbor to the east. He imitates Russian methods of rule, and he made Russian the official government language several years ago. Belarusian today is the language of resistance.

The Belarusians in Poland are a great role model for Zurtan Khaltarov. The native Buryat is currently visiting many cultural centers in Warsaw, including the Jewish Center. “I want to see what they have to offer and learn from that,” he says. Khaltarov had to leave his southern Siberian hometown of Ulan-Ude a year ago, in part because he had protested against a planned Cossack monument. For him, it was a provocation, a manifesto of Russian hegemonic claims. Moscow has rigorously suppressed Khaltarov’s Buryat culture for years. The language, which is similar to Mongolian, has almost fallen into oblivion.

Buryat activists with Zurtan Khaltarov (middle): He had to flee his home country because of posts critical of Russia.

Buryat activists with Zurtan Khaltarov (middle): He had to flee his home country because of posts critical of Russia. Foto: Jedrzej Nowicki / DER SPIEGEL

Khaltarov is currently fighting to obtain political asylum. So, it’s no coincidence that he wants to meet in a café called Kafka’s Trial. “It’s complicated,” he says. “But I’m optimistic.” His job prospects are good; Khaltarov is a laboratory chemist who has worked in state scientific institutes. A few months ago, he established a foundation for the promotion of Buryat culture. “In the past, Poles made us feel that we looked different,” he says: “But that has changed and it was insignificant, anyway, compared to the discrimination we experienced in Moscow.”

“Migration Light”

Has Poland suddenly become a country of migration? Some have their doubts, saying that Poland has thus far only experienced “migration light.” Refugees from neighboring countries mainly come to Poland because they already speak a Slavic language, they come from the same cultural sphere and they share similar historical experiences under communism. They also tend to have connections and networks in the country.

It’s worth noting that when it comes to fending off refugees  from the Middle East and Africa along the border with Belarus, the Polish government has shown the same commitment as it has when helping the Ukrainians. Every day, around 50 to 100 of them try to cross the meter-high fence or the marshes in the border area. Poland established its reputation among nationalist conservatives in 2015 when it boycotted a new EU-wide distribution mechanism for refugees, with the government arguing at the time that the Muslim migrants wouldn’t fit into Catholic Poland.

“Poland saved me.”

Khedi Alieva, a refugee from Chechnya

But when it is Vladimir Putin who Muslims are fleeing from, Poland makes an exception. “Poland saved me,” says Khedi Alieva of Chechnya. She wears a headscarf, but not a hijab. The name of Alieva’s project is Kuchnia Konfliktu, or “Kitchen of Conflict.” Starting at noon in Wilcza Street, she serves specialties from her homeland among jars of pickled olives and colorful art prints.

A colleague is preparing the food as Alieva describes her initiative. When a deliveryman rings the doorbell with a hundred bags of flour, the colleague flinches. “He won’t don’t anything to you,” Alieva reassures her. Every man is a threat – that’s the lesson many women have brought with them from war zones. Khedi Alieva provides advice to many of them.

Initially, she didn’t want to go to Poland. During her escape to Europe, she continued on her journey to Austria, only to be brought back to Poland, where she first entered the EU, in accordance with the Dublin Agreement, which stipulates that asylum applications must be filed in the first EU country entered by the refugee. It took her another eight years to be granted political asylum. During those years, she worked in a kebab restaurant for 5 złoty (just over a euro) an hour. Twenty years ago, Russian soldiers murdered her husband, shooting him for no apparent reason as he was on his way to work. “If he had really been an independence fighter, at least his death would have been good for something,” she says.

For 10 years, Alieva sought to obtain justice in the courts, in vain under Ramzan Kadyrov, the governor installed by Putin. “He just had another blogger murdered in Sweden,” Alieva says. “I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It triggers depression in many people. But it made me restless.”

Alieva is a public figure in Poland, and is a member of the Refugee Council in Gdansk as an adviser. Together with companions, she has sewn the city a huge white and red flag, eight by four meters large, which is flown on festive occasions. Alieva considers it a sign of tolerance that the Poles allow it to be flown so close to their national flag.

Meanwhile, the few tables at Kuchnia Konfliktu have filled up. Alieva serves hummus and borscht. She says that people who can’t pay don’t have to. Many elderly people have a hard time in their new home country, Alieva says. Their lives aren’t much different than those of the refugees – they have very little money and are often lonely. She now wants to give something back to the Poles. “I love this country – Allah is everywhere, here too.”