Misha, a Russian student at King’s College London, has divided his time in recent days between protesting against the war in Ukraine, mobilising donations for people fleeing the conflict and trying to persuade his family in Moscow to leave the country.

“They need to get out before it’s too late, but right now Europe is fully closed [to travel from Russia],” said Misha who only gave his first name for fear his comments could rebound on his family back home where there is a growing crackdown on dissent towards the war. “People are just trying to hide and hope no one comes for them.”

Almost two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, Misha’s anxieties are shared by millions in its diaspora. Attitudes towards their home country are hardening, with Vladimir Putin’s military campaign also sparking divisions with their families back home.

Many expatriate Russians have links to Ukraine and sympathise with the country’s plight. However, they worry about speaking out because of a fear of reprisals for their relatives in Russia or drawing attention to themselves and damaging relations with local communities.

Some Russians in western countries have described examples of taunts in supermarkets or cases of children insulted as “terrorists” and being told to “go home” by classmates. Several independent organisations with no ties to the Kremlin have reported hostile social media posts, suppliers deciding not to fulfil contracts or customers cancelling bookings.

Yet Misha is clear where the blame for the increased antipathy towards Russians should lie: “Those who blame Russophobia fail to realise this is Putin’s fault,” he said.

Diliara Faizullina, a young mother outside a Russian grocery store on Moscow Road in west London’s Bayswater district, said she had received a few hostile glances when speaking Russian on the bus but dismisses this as trivial compared with the “terrifying” conditions faced by friends in Ukraine.

She is more depressed by what she views as the brainwashing of relatives back in Russia. “Russians are posting that we are traitors. It’s so heartbreaking,” she said. Every day she calls her mother in the Russian republic of Tatarstan but refuses to discuss politics with her any more.

With Russia threatening jail sentences for anyone convicted of “fake” reporting on the conflict, the information gap is widening. Last week, it shut independent media outlets and social media networks such as Facebook.

“Ilya”, a west London resident from Russia who did not want to give his real name, has also experienced anti-Russian sentiment. However, he said he was more concerned about his parents in Moscow who felt powerless about the “nightmare” situation in Ukraine.

Alex Selsky, a professor at the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, fosters connections between Israel and the Russian-speaking Jewish diaspora and is aware of the strong links many Israeli citizens have to both countries.

“Israelis are in shock. People are trying to provide humanitarian help and are very scared about the future of their relatives and friends, both in Russia and Ukraine,” said Selsky, who was once an adviser to former premier Benjamin Netanyahu. “They want this conflict to stop as soon as possible.”

Refugees who have fled Ukraine receive food, clothing and toiletries at a railway station in Berlin
Refugees who have fled Ukraine receive food, clothing and toiletries at a railway station in Berlin © Carsten Koall/Getty

In Berlin, Irina Bollein, a consultant with Club Dialog, a German-government funded organisation which supports Russian-speaking immigrants, said the group was working on practical measures to help refugees settle, such as collecting food, medicine and clothing and co-ordinating volunteer groups.

“Right now we are focusing on the refugees,” the Russian said. “We support the Ukrainians and are all deeply concerned about what’s going on in Russia too.”

Many community groups have sharply criticised the war. London’s longstanding Maslenitsa, the “butter festival” which Russians and Ukrainians normally celebrate ahead of Lent, was cancelled last weekend with the message from the organisers that “we unequivocally condemn this invasion”.

Nik Storonsky, a Russian with Ukrainian roots who emigrated to Britain and co-founded digital bank Revolut, condemned the war as “horrifying”. But in a blog post last week, he said he was mindful of the “safety and wellbeing” of staff in the company’s offices in Ukraine and Russia. Revolut has opened a fee-free instant transfer service for people who want to send money to families in Ukraine and is matching donations made to the Red Cross Ukraine appeal.

Polina Shepherd, a Siberian-born Briton who organises Russian choirs in Brighton, southern England, typifies the surge in solidarity for Ukraine. Shepherd has pivoted to co-ordinating “choirs for peace” concerts.

“It’s more important now to be concerned about Ukraine,” she said, admitting that some British members of her choir had hesitated to attend because of the current tensions.

“Us Russians will have to bear that negativity, and repair as much as we can,” she added. “There is so much adrenalin, with an unhealthy, irrational reaction from all sides.”

With the collapse in the rouble and the blocking of money transfers from Russia, some Russian students overseas are now facing a sharp rise in the costs of their education.

Michael Spence, president of University College London, last week announced a package of support for students from the affected regions while calling for tolerance after reports of “a small number of personally directed attacks” against Russians on campus.

Misha, the King’s College student, was more concerned about the impact of war on Russia’s relations with the world. “We are going back to the Soviet Union, and it’s really sad a lot of people don’t see the bigger picture.”

By the Russian shop in west London, just a few minutes’ walk from where Ukrainian protesters have been picketing the Russian embassy, Faizullina expressed similar fears about the long-term damage caused by the war.

She gestured towards her baby son and said: “He has a Russian passport but I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to use it again.”