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In response to the war, Americans flee Russia in droves

McDonald's has closed its more than 800 restaurants in Russia in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This photo at a Moscow McDonald's was taken on March 13, just before it was closed.
McDonald's has closed its more than 800 restaurants in Russia in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This photo at a Moscow McDonald's was taken on March 13, just before it was closed.

Journalist Michele Berdy arrived in Moscow shortly after graduating from Amherst College in 1978.

On March 9, she caught a ride out of Russia with one suitcase, her dog Riley, and no idea when — or if — she might return.

"Before I left, I cried 20 times a day. I just could not believe that I would have to leave and maybe not come back," Berdy said.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Berdy initially planned to stay put and keep working at The Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper, where the staff includes both Westerners and Russians.

But she knew it was time to leave a few days later when Russia passed a law saying anyone criticizing the Russian war could get up to 15 years in prison.

"You can't call it a war, you can't call it an invasion, you can't call Russia the aggressor," she said. "It would be impossible to not violate the law and to be able to report. It just seemed suddenly it was very dangerous for all of us."

Aside from several years in the 1980s, Berdy has lived in Moscow since she got out of college. She's seen a lot over the past four decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union, political chaos, financial meltdowns — but nothing like this.

"I had three days to just figure out what of my entire life that I had in Russia I could put in a suitcase and a take-on bag," said Berdy, who owns her apartment in Moscow.

"I just left a full apartment," she added. "How do you leave an apartment for two months or two years?"

She caught a van to Riga, Latvia.

"It cost 100 euros for my dog and 90 euros for me," Berdy said.

Americans companies depart

Hundreds of American companies have either suspended operations in Russia, or are pulling out altogether. Dale Buckner is helping some of them.

Buckner is the CEO of Global Guardian, which has chartered four flights out of Moscow to Turkey to evacuate American executives, their families, and many Russian employees at those companies.

"Here's the gritty reality. In all of these evacuations, we've typically had two, no more than four days of warning to tell our clients, 'You're leaving. This is the airport. This is your aircraft. Here's your timeline. Here's your destination," said Buckner, whose company is based in suburban Washington.

He says Global Guardian has helped more than 2,000 people leave Russia by air and by road. About one-third are Americans and Europeans, the other two-thirds are Russians.

He's worked with eight U.S. and multi-national companies, though he declined to name them.

Russian authorities are not preventing Russians or foreigners from leaving the country. But, he said, "they're now conducting what they're calling interviews. You're being interviewed on who you are, where you're coming from, who you work for. Why are you departing? Where are you headed? What's your final destination?"

After evacuating their people, companies want to know how to get their assets out, or at least safeguard them.

"Companies are struggling with, 'How do I protect that sensitive information of my supply chain, my trade secrets," Buckner added.

The State Department urged Americans to leave Russia shortly after the war began, citing "the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens ... the Embassy's limited ability to assist U.S. citizens ... limited flights into and out of Russia, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law."

Several Americans are being detained or jailed in Russia, though the cases reported publicly took place before the war began. Among those held is Brittany Griner, the WNBA star who was arrested at a Moscow airport last month and has been accused of smuggling vape cartridges containing hashish oil into the country.

The State Department says it doesn't have reliable figures on how many Americans were living in Russia before the war, or how many have left. But those who fled are believed to be in the thousands.

By comparison, the State Department estimated more than 20,000 Americans were in Ukraine in the months leading up to the war. Most have left.

A rise in anti-Western attitudes

One American businessman who left Russia shortly after the war began is now managing his company's operations in Russia from Turkey.

The businessman, who asked not to be named out of concern for his security and that of his employees, said he's getting letters from Russian employees asking if he can help them get jobs outside Russia.

In his many years in Russia, the businessman said, he's never seen such levels of government repression and anti-Western sentiment.

Meanwhile, Michele Berdy plans to stay in Latvia for a while before deciding on her next move. Even if she can go back to Russia eventually, she says it will never be the same.

"The worst part of that last week in Russia was the having contact with that alternate reality that my neighbors were living in, where they would just say to me, 'You know, what is wrong with President Biden? He won't leave us in peace,'" she said. "I just can't imagine going back and, and saying, 'Oh, well, that's over now.'"

Russia now faces a reckoning, she said, which will be long and painful.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.