Russia’s Student Diaspora: A Forgotten Side of Putin’s War

Trinity News speaks to Russian students about their experience of studying in Europe in the context of the war in Ukraine

One Spring day in 2022, Mark was sitting in a classroom in Trinity watching a pair of classmates from his degree in management science and information studies make a presentation which touched on a number of major current affairs. “When they mentioned the war people looked at me,” he remembers, laughing. Mark, like some 48,000 others across the globe, was a Russian student studying abroad when on  24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the weeks and months that followed, the flow of capital, trade, and people between the EU and Russia dried up as sanctions were imposed and peace-time partnerships halted across all areas of society, not least the higher education sector. The day following the Russian invasion, the European Commission announced that in view of the war “the participation of Russian public entities or bodies in all ongoing and future actions of the EU’s Erasmus+ Programme” had been terminated. Yet “at the same time”, the Commission maintains it will still readily issue “Schengen visas to Russian travellers belonging to essential categories” – a group which includes students and academics. For its part, the Russian government has attempted to counter this narrative by claiming that Russian students are being expelled from European universities and is offering those facing “infringements of their rights” automatic entry to the country’s top universities if they agree to come home. Now, caught in the middle of these conflicting narratives, Europe’s Russian students find themselves navigating the new challenges created by a war which shows no signs of ending. 

“Returning to Russia has become at best difficult and at worst a direct threat to their livelihoods”

No direction home 

Despite the claims made by the Russian government, it would appear that little has changed regarding the status of Russian students within the European university system. However, the absence of any formal hindrances has not made the experience of being a national of the aggressor state in a brutal war any easier. Many students who left their families  to study abroad before the war are now cut off from them as returning to Russia has become at best difficult and at worst a direct threat to their livelihoods. 

The risk of being drafted into the military upon re-entering the country is present in the minds of many of the male students Trinity News spoke to. Mark himself has not been home in two years and will not go back until he manages to have himself exempted from the draft on the basis that he is living and working abroad. Even those students who have managed to return home have faced enormous complications. With Russian airspace closed to flights from inside the EU, students wishing to see their families have had to face the exorbitant price of flying via Turkey or Serbia, or brave an overland journey which can take several days. For others, matters of principle make these options unthinkable: “I am not going to return to Russia while Putin is the President,” one student told Trinity News. 

Climate change

In their immediate context meanwhile, these students are feeling a sense of stigmatisation which comes partially as a result of a harshening media climate. “I won’t lie it was actually quite tough for the first month”, Mark recalls, telling Trinity News that events such as the vandalism of the Russian embassy on Orwell Road weighed heavily on his mind. Others say that they have preferred to tune out of a news cycle which has become increasingly frightening, particularly as social media sites such as Telegram have become breeding grounds for military video content which is extremely effective at stirring up hate against Russian people in the comments section. 

“I understand the difficulties my country brought to the world, but I think we have to divide politics and ordinary students who come to get a better degree”

Beneath these experiences is a strong sense that anger and hatred is too often being levelled at Russians themselves as opposed to Putin’s regime. “I understand the difficulties my country brought to the world,” says Polina, a final year BESS student and former chairperson of Trinity’s Russian Society, “but I think we have to divide politics and ordinary students who come to get a better degree.” Mark agrees: “I would appreciate it if there were a few more reminders of the differences between the Russian students and the Russian government” he says. 

This hostile atmosphere has inevitably trickled down into these students’ everyday interactions. Mark recounts the beats missed by security guards outside bars upon examining his passport, and describes an encounter with a drunken stranger yelling “death to Russians! Death to Putin!”. While Mark and others with similar anecdotes have not allowed these incidents to phase them, it is evident that they stick in their minds long after they have occurred. 

Elephants in the room 

Closer to home, there is also a sense shared by many students that the dynamics of their peer groups have altered. “Discussions about politics increased,” Sophia, a masters student who moved from Moscow to study in Germany, told me, grimacing. “I try to stay away from these conversations.” From talking to these students, one gets the sense that people’s curiosity about Russian attitudes towards the war will hang over any conversation until it is satisfied. To a certain extent, this curiosity is a positive thing: “I am going to ask new Russian students the same question [about their stance on the war]”, one student originally from Moscow remarks, “it is always important to know the position of people we interact with”. Yet in other circumstances the experience is an extremely alienating one. “In general I expect to be less welcome than I was before,” says  Sophia. She and Mark both grieve a loss of solidarity within a previously tight-knit Russian speaking community in their universities, particularly between Russian and Ukrainian students. Mark describes how the invasion “drove a wedge” between members of Trinity’s Russian society which he finds both understandable and highly regrettable. Now, if the chance arises for him to speak Russian “you have to be more careful.” Sophia, meanwhile, tells Trinity News that many people with whom she would previously have spoken Russian have dropped the habit altogether, preferring to interact with her in English. “You don’t know how to behave yourself anymore,” Mark concludes.


Overall, the overwhelming feeling amongst Russian students appears to be one of intense exasperation and exhaustion. Tired of awkward interactions, microaggressions and the stress of always having to hold an opinion about a war for which they have no real responsibility, the trials of being a Russian student in Europe have taken their toll. Piled on top of these day-to-day challenges, more long-term practical questions also weigh heavily on their minds. “Because of the war, a lot of us who pay non-EU fees are now struggling to pay tuition,” Polina says. “It is hard for our parents to send us money for living expenses, so we have to find other ways’.’ Instability and uncertainty – hallmarks of war – affect everything. Sophia, recounting her recent visit to Moscow, puts this feeling in stark terms: “it is already normal that no one really plans anything. You cannot really plan anything if you live in Moscow or Russia”. Her parting words to fellow Russian students in Europe are that they must “be prepared for the fact that you will have to be persistent …it will be a bit harder to reach what you want.” Most importantly, she stresses the need to “be human and treat everyone like a human” – advice which, in times of war, everyone would do well to take on board.

Sam Walsh

Sam Walsh is a Deputy Features editor for Trinity News. He is currently in his Senior Sophister Year studying Law and French.