Prague's Russian community talks integration and Russophobia

Russians make up 7 percent of foreigners with residence permits and are the fourth largest foreign community in the Czech Republic.

Julie Orlova

Written by Julie Orlova Published on 12.05.2021 13:47:00 (updated on 19.05.2021) Reading time: 6 minutes

The Russian-Czech diplomatic conflict, which began with Russian spies being accused of the fatal explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014, is gaining momentum. As the numbers of embassy workers get cut and tension in the Czech community increases, concerns about difficulties in obtaining residency permits and growing cases of Russophobia have been voiced.

Maria (28) is a graphic designer who has been living in Prague for 8 years. Earlier this year she traveled to Moscow where she got married to her Russian boyfriend. Immediately following the couple applied for his Czech residency permit for the purpose of family reunification. The appointment, scheduled for April 19, the day Russia expelled Czech diplomats over the spying row, was canceled without any notification.

The games politicians play have a real negative effect on ordinary people. Taking into consideration how long it usually takes to get the documents sorted again, I will be lucky to see my husband by the end of summer,” she says.

Maria is among the 44,332 Russians currently residing in the Czech Republic. The number of Russians with residence permits has tripled in the Czech Republic since 2004 when the country joined the EU, data from the Interior Ministry and the Czech Statistical Office (CSU) show. Russians comprise 7 percent of foreigners with residence permits and are the fourth largest foreign community in the Czech Republic. Sixty percent of them are settled in Prague.

Data from 2015 research conducted by the Institute of Labor and Social Affairs show that the most common “push factors” are economic instability and high level of corruption in Russia: poor financial rewards at work in the home country, the financial crisis in the Russian Federation, and as a result, inability to find work.

Prague's Russian community has felt the blowback of the expulsion of Russian diplomates from the embassy in Prague (Photo of the Russian Embassy via Wikipedia Commons: Krokodyl/CC BY 2.5)
Prague's Russian community has felt the blowback of the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the embassy in Prague (Photo of the Russian Embassy via Wikipedia Commons: Krokodyl/CC BY 2.5)

Post-Velvet Revolution waves of Russian immigrants mention political reasons, in addition to poverty and destabilization of the country, as a reason for leaving the Russian Federation: conflict with Ukraine, Putin’s regime, police injustice, limitation of freedoms, and increased tension in society.

In pursuit of a better life

Anna and Vsevolod, a couple in their early 30s, have been living in Prague for just over a year. “The possibility to be relocated abroad (but not necessarily to Prague) was one of the reasons I started working for my current employer in the first place,” says Vsevolod.

Our biggest motivation was economic as well as political. My ruble salary was becoming less and less competitive. At the same time, the domestic and foreign policy of the state was aggressive and not aimed at improving the quality of life of common citizens, only the rich bunch. The way the criminal and administrative prosecution is handled caused us a great deal of distress and affected our wellbeing. Once we even had to turn to Czech police and, compared to Russia, our experience was extremely positive.”

Anna adds, “Our hopes for a better standard of living are gradually coming true, even despite the pandemic, two lockdowns, and our inability to speak Czech well. Prague is much better than Moscow in terms of the environmental conditions, infrastructure, the quality of food, and the noise level.”

Escaping poverty and inequality

The Russian community in the Czech Republic has undergone significant qualitative changes in the past decade. According to the Interior Ministry, women make up 56 percent of the Russian community in the Czech Republic.

"I think that the Russian community has changed a lot since political emigrants have entered the Czech Republic. While it used to be more of an economic emigration – ordinary people seeking financial-growth opportunities – it has turned into an intellectual emigration. I can see it reflected in how my peers react to the ongoing diplomatic conflict, we don’t support either side and wish we had the right to vote to change the current government,” says Ekaterina (24), a social media manager of an integration center in Prague and a Master’s degree student at VŠE.

One of the reasons I moved was that I felt like I was trapped in a ship that’s sinking. I had ambitions and brilliant education, but the pressure of Putin’s dictatorship, social injustice, and gender inequality made me move and start my life somewhere else.”

The preexisting Russian community and similar cultural environment of Prague is one of the main “pull factors” that solidify the decision to pursue free education or career and business opportunities in the Czech Republic.

“We first came here on vacation and since then couldn’t stop thinking about moving here permanently; we encountered many Russian speakers here, and Prague is very compatible with our home town, Ufa,” says Yana (42), who moved here with her husband 14 years ago by opening a business in Prague. Later they bought an apartment in then unprestigious Karlín and moved their elderly mother here as well. When asked if she feels integrated into the Czech community, she responds negatively.

Yana, 42, moved to Prague with her husband 14 years ago (photo is her own).
Yana, 42, moved to Prague with her husband 14 years ago (photo is her own).

“We didn’t manage to assimilate, but it doesn’t stop us from living a happy and fulfilling life here. Our daughter goes to a very international class and is accepted there. We do live in the Russian-speaking bubble, but it consists of many nationalities. We do communicate with Czechs; we just didn’t manage to establish close relationships with them. At the same time, we love doing business with them because Czechs are very grateful and loyal clients: if they come to you once, they will be back.”

Integration as a part of wellbeing 

Russian bubbles are common, even though many Russians make it their goal to be as integrated into Czech society as they can, which 2015 research from the Institute of Labor and Social Affairs confirms.

“From the very beginning I knew there is no way back, that I was going to stay here, so it was my priority to perfect the language and make Czech friends,” says Valeria (24), auditor of financial institutions, who moved here from Belarus after high school. “I can confidently say that I have succeeded and now consider myself at home here rather than in Belarus.”

Valeria managed to secure a circle of close Czech friends, but no one canceled random acts of hatred and the overall Russophobia. “The hatred of the foreign is understandable, therefore the hatred towards foreigners is valid. I just hate the assumption that I do not speak Czech or 'speak it with the same terrible accent as every Russian who attempts to speak it,' as they claim."

Not all Russian speakers in the Czech Republic are actually Russian; they can be Kazakh, Ukrainian, Moldovan, or Belarusian. All of them are treated the same way unless the nationality is specified. “I was once walking down the street, speaking in Russian to my mum on the phone and someone spat at my feet! I wonder if the same thing would have happened if he’d known I was from Belarus. I am lucky that I am confident enough to just brush it off, yet not everybody is like me, somebody can take it close to heart.”

Russian pigs

Russophobia is old news, Russian speakers are very aware of it. Most of them encounter it here on the individual level, for instance, a grumbling of the older generation, nagging about the accent, refusal to rent an apartment, or demonstrating knowledge of the Russian curse words to your face, conveniently turned into a joke.

Most Russians are not seriously bothered by it since it is not institutional. However, international conflicts, similar to the one currently unfolding, can cause tension in society and a surge in actual aggression. Many Russian speakers on social media have expressed their increased fears of being harassed on the streets and anxiety about possible discrimination.

Anton 29, a Russian entrepreneur living in Brno (photo his own).
Anton 29, a Russian entrepreneur living in Brno (photo his own).

“Maybe we are something more than Russian pigs?” is the opening line of an Instagram post, which gained immense popularity recently – it gathered almost 8k likes and was reposted 800 times and received immense support not only from Russian speakers but from Czechs as well.

The author, Аnton Vaykhel (29), a Russian entrepreneur living in Brno, calls not to incite inter-ethnic hostility and not to equate all Russian-speaking people with supporters of Putin and the Russian government. Anton says he was inspired to write the post by the increased number of provocative anti-Russian headlines in Czech media and aggressive comments below the articles.

"It is illogical to blame the emigrant for the politicians’ sins of the country he left. Their emigration is already an indicator that they are not a supporter of the domestic policies. All we shall do while reading about the ongoing conflict is approach news reports on the topic with critical thinking.”

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