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Russia: international students suffer under sanctions

“Everyone is thinking: can I live until the end of the month or do I need to leave as soon as possible?”

International students in Russia face difficulty leaving the country, while others debate whether to leave at all. Photo: pexels

Sanctions have meant that students can no longer receive bank transfers from their families, which many of them rely on to live

Deniz is a second year international student living in St Petersburg. While students on study abroad placements are rapidly evacuating the country, international students enrolled in full courses at Russian universities face a difficult decision. 

Deniz is halfway through her studies and leaving could mean jeopardising her degree as her classes are not available online. “It’s not like I can just leave everything and move back to Turkey,” she said, “because I already studied here for three years and, at this point, I don’t want to waste that time and all that effort.” 

Russia hosted over 315,000 international students in 2019-20, making up approximately 8% of all students in the country. The majority of these are from neighbouring countries, including China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Students from further afield also form a significant number of Russia’s international student population. In 2020, the country welcomed 15,803 Indian students and 8,731 Egyptian students. 

Now the repercussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are making life hard for the international students living in Russia. Sanctions have meant that students can no longer receive bank transfers from their families, which many of them rely on to live. Although Deniz’s Turkish bank card is still working in most shops, she is worried about what will happen if that changes. 

At the same time, flights out of the country are becoming rarer and more expensive, causing problems for students who do attempt to leave the country. 

A cohort of Scottish students who were studying abroad in Russia faced a difficult journey home, GlasgowWorld reported last week. When their flights were cancelled, the students tried to reach Finland by train, only to learn that people were being turned away. They eventually returned home via flights to Dubai organised by Glasgow University. 

“The last thing they wanted to do was leave”

Renee Stillings, director at SRAS, a US-based provider of study abroad programs, told The PIE News that it evacuated its cohort of 18 students from Russia to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on February 27. 

“The last thing they wanted to do was leave,” Stillings said. “They’d just made friends, settled in their classes, fell in love with their new host city.”

Other universities are also in the process of evacuating their students on study abroad placements but it is unclear how many remain in Russia. University College London said in a statement that it is “strongly advising” UCL students studying abroad in Ukraine and Russia to return to the UK, their home countries or a country of their choice “as soon as possible” as travel from these countries is becoming increasingly difficult.

“We understand that students might not be able to return directly to London and may have to travel via other countries to which access may be easier,” UCL added. “We have offered to pay for flights, accommodation, food and anything else that these students might need.”

Similarly, Middlebury College, a private college in the US, said on February 28, “Given the very limited availability of international flights out of Russia, and the US Department of State’s authorisation for family members and non-essential embassy staff to return to the US, we feel that it is time for students to leave the country.”

“I fear that if those bridges didn’t exist at all, the situation could be even worse than it is”

There is now a question mark over the future of study abroad programs in the region. Stillings said she hopes international students will be able to return to Russia and Ukraine this autumn. The current crisis, she said, makes it even more important for students to understand Russian culture and language. 

“If the country is open and safe to our students, it behoves us to learn about the country and connect those bridges,” Stillings told The PIE. “We established so many connections between students – Russians and Ukrainians – that we hear from these students all the time. They’re communicating with their friends [about] their futures, they’re concerned about them. Those bridges are still there. I fear that if those bridges didn’t exist at all, the situation could be even worse than it is.” 

While Stillings is hopeful that the situation will be resolved rapidly, SRAS is increasing its activities in Central Asia to open new opportunities for students hoping to study in the region. Meanwhile, many of the international students remaining in Russia are, Deniz said, “just waiting a bit, to understand and to decide what to do”.

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