Paul: "Turkey is in a situation like Russia was in 2009: in the process of transformation towards autocracy"


Paul is in his late twenties and ended up in Kadıköy by chance. He wanted to get away from the States and is now living very well in Istanbul. The reason is the comparatively stable salary in US dollars, which would be small for a life in the US, but offers him the opportunity to build his start-up in Turkey. Paul was born in Russia, but after leaving the country 10 years ago, he hasn’t returned until now: to escape military service. With Putin’s war, a Russian migrant community is now forming in Istanbul, reminding him of his old home.

Paul Illustration

Paul orders cay and a sandwich in a café in the Yeldeğirmeni district. He likes to have breakfast here because he lives right across the street. He came to Kadıköy in October 2021, looking for a new place to live because he was fed up with being stereotyped and judged which he had experienced on a daily basis in Brooklyn, New York.

Paul is 27 years old and was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. After several moves within the country, he followed his father to the US at the age of 17. Paul finished school in New York, started studying Political Science and Economy and gained work experience by doing various internships. After a few detours he found a job at the UN, where he worked unpaid on workshops to sensitize employees and draw attention to their own stigma (re)production and prejudices against foreign cultures. "On the side, I worked as a food delivery boy to finance my life. My goal was diplomatic service in the States." Returning to Russia was out of the question for him, as he did not want to do the compulsory two-year military service.

After graduating from university, he traveled with friends across the country in a rental car. "We had an accident. I was arrested briefly and it blocked my way into diplomacy. That was tough." He needed time to refocus, living off his savings and his father's support. But as soon as Paul joined demonstrations against Trump his father immediately cut off his support. "Then the money got tight. I was under pressure, psychologically burdened and unhappy with the jobs I had to take. It showed in my work. I changed employers too many times, eventually no one would hire me. The only option I had left was self-employment." So Paul applied for unemployment benefits and, inspired by a friend, got involved with crowdfunding.

There was nothing keeping him in the States after all. He was making plans to move to Spain or Italy. But first he wanted to visit a friend who currently lives in Istanbul. This visit turned into the decision to stay. He started conceptualizing his start-up, which aims to help small businesses generate capital from the public using crowdfunding. His goal is to have found investors for the project in the next year, whose support will secure his income.

He currently makes a living by selling teaching material and trainings to smaller companies, which should /will enable them to further/continue their economic development via crowdfunding. "I benefit from the low costs of living in Turkey. In the US, I would never have been able to live like this on a salary like my current one!" The fall in the value of the dollar (inflation rate of 8.52%) is less noticeable for Paul when he lives in Turkey rather than the US. This is because the lira has lost almost ten times its value in comparison (inflation rate of 79.6%).

Meanwhile, Kadıköy has become home. He knows the people who live around him. People greet each other, even though their names remain unknown to each other. He knows that the shop assistant in the tobacco shop speaks a little Russian and therefore buys from him regularly. He feels comfortable and no longer wants to miss the feeling of familiarity that comes with familiar faces, routines and regular cafés. In addition, a community of Russians has established itself who have left their homeland since Putin's war of aggression on Ukraine and are now trying to start over in Istanbul. Among them are mainly young people from St. Petersburg and Moscow who belong to a progressive milieu.

Paul says: "The more a state develops into an autocracy, the smaller becomes the difference between the terms 'refugee' and 'migrant'."

He spends a lot of time in the new café in Moda opened by his Russian friends, which offers a Turkish breakfast with Russian ingredients and whose owners also run a tattoo studio upstairs. Because he does not want to do military service in his country of birth, he has not been there for ten years. He is happy about the community that has developed around the café and allows him to reconnect with his childhood and youth.

Although most of them feel at home in the seemingly progressive Kadıköy, a certain uneasiness does not go away - for Putin and Erdoğan have only recently announced closer cooperation. Moreover, many opposition figures and activists in Turkey are fighting against state repression. So how safe is it here for people who went to Istanbul because of their own (network) activities against the Russian war, because Putin's apparatus would otherwise threaten them with sanctions? "Turkey is in a political situation that Russia was in 2009: well on its way towards autocracy," Paul says.

He has finished his çay and is thinking about what freedom means to him: "The most important thing for me is to be able to move without restrictions and to be able to decide where I want to live. To a certain extent, the possession of money is also liberating, as long as it is not connected to "servitude" to an employer. I consider dependencies, whether on religious organisations, government authorities, social circles and especially capitalist institutions (such as energy suppliers and pharmaceutical companies) to be fundamentally dangerous and freedom-stealing."