Before President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, before the possibility of nuclear war became a distinct reality, Daniel’s 12-year-old stepdaughter posted a TikTok showing support for the LGBTQ+ community. When it gained a fair amount of traction, that’s when Daniel grew scared. “We had to ask her to take it down so that we would not get in trouble for propagandizing to our child,” says Daniel, whose name has been changed to protect his safety. “We knew that they could come after us and at the very least, ruin our careers. At worst, they could threaten to take my wife’s parental rights away.” And now, thanks to Russia’s new “fake news” law, TikTok has suspended service there entirely.
On Saturday, 10 days after the war in Ukraine began, the U.S. Embassy in Russia advised all Americans to depart immediately to avoid “the potential throughout Russia of harassment of foreigners, including through regulations targeted specifically against foreigners.” For many still in the country, they had a difficult decision to make. But Daniel and his family were one step ahead of them: His wife and stepdaughter caught a flight last Wednesday and he hit the road shortly after. In the past few days, Daniel, his father, and his dog have driven through several European countries en route to their temporary destination, and covered hundreds of miles in a trip that took just days to plan. As the Russian military continued it’s merciless attacks on the Ukrainian people, for dissidents like Daniel, the choice was obvious: Leave now or possibly get stuck in Russia. So they left.
“I honestly have no idea what is going on in Ukraine or on the world stage right now because of our intensive travel schedule, done without much internet access,” Daniel, who moved to Russia almost a decade ago, said from the road two days after he and his family fled. Though he was in relative safety at that point — his wife and stepdaughter flew ahead to their destination — his car attracted unwanted attention throughout the long journey.“ I have Russian license plates and we were harassed on the road in Poland several times today. I had a guy try to swerve into me in Estonia – maybe he didn’t see me, but I think he was trying to scare me,” he says.
As he drove toward the border of Russia and Estonia, Daniel tensed with anxiety, hoping that all the documents he and his wife had gathered in the previous 72 hours—personal documents, international car insurance, documents for the dog—would pass muster. Luckily, they did. “I pulled over and just took a few breaths and looked around me,” Daniel says. “It still looked like Russia — all the signs were in Russian, people were speaking Russian — but it didn’t feel like Russia. I was overcome with this wave of relief. Like, whatever happens next doesn’t matter. This was the hardest thing we needed to do and we did it.”
To avoid any possible confusion by passing vehicles and pedestrians, Daniel has taped over the Russian flag on his plates, and plastered the car with makeshift Ukrainian flags on the windows and back bumper. But they’ve also had to adapt the car’s adornments depending on their location.
“We have seen signs and a TON of Ukrainian flags everywhere, though less so in Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia (so far),” he explains. “These places are a bit more split on the issue, so we took down our ‘Fuck Putin’ signs before crossing into Slovenia. The ‘Fuck Putin’ signs and makeshift Ukrainian flags got us a few honks and thumbs up today, as well as a middle finger from a trucker in southern Austria.”
Daniel’s family had already recently made the decision to move from Russia to the States. In fact, just two days before the war started, he’d gotten a job offer. “Pre-invasion, we understood that things were moving towards the line that we would not cross — which is basically having to compromise our principles as educators and parents in order to stay safe in Russia,” Daniel explains.
But the family thought they had more time — time for his wife and stepdaughter to adjust to the idea of moving across the world, to apply for their greencards, and pack up the nice life they’d built for themselves. But then overnight, everything changed.
As soon as it became clear their departure was imminent, Daniel’s father flew from the states to Latvia to accompany him on the days-long trek to join his family, and his wife and stepdaughter boarded a plane. “We both independently came to the conclusion that it was important for them to leave in case Putin shut down the borders, didn’t allow Russians to leave or airlines started canceling flights,” he says.
And Daniel’s family wasn’t the only one who felt compelled to leave home in the past two weeks. “There are reports of rising numbers of Russians heading to Finland, Estonia or other places where they can drive or take the train, or where they can buy flights to the reduced number of countries still maintaining air travel with Russia,” says Michelle Mittelstadt, Director of Communications at the Migration Policy Institute and MPI Europe, though she notes she hasn’t seen official numbers on just how many people are doing this.
As Daniel and his father made it to their final border crossing, one last anxiety-provoking curveball was thrown their way. “We were actually stopped at the Montenegrin border and they threatened not to let us through because my Covid vax was over six months old,” he says. “They made us sit in the car and sweat it out for a minute, but then let us go. That feeling of relief was almost greater than passing into Estonia.”
Now that he’s reunited with his family, he’ll begin the process of building a new life abroad. As far as foreign understanding of the current situation in Russia, Daniel feels there’s a huge perception gap. And he wants people back home in the United States to understand it’s not as easy as just standing up to Putin in the midst of his historic aggression.
“If going to a Black Lives Matter meeting, a Pride march, or even a Trump rally meant that your kids, your mom and dad, your extended family and your sister-in-law’s pet turtle fell under scrutiny, you might think twice about going,” he says. “You might even lie about your stance to protect those you care about. That’s how things are in Russia.”
This story has been updated.