Russia’s digital nomads head for Latin America

On café terraces in Buenos Aires the distinct sound of the Russian language, brimming with consonants, has become immediately identifiable above open Spanish vowels — one sign of the new arrivals that Latin America is attracting.

Max Artushenkov, 39, moved to the Argentine capital with his wife and newborn son three months ago. “It’s not hard to find Russian people in Buenos Aires,” said Artushenkov, who runs an ecommerce start-up.

Those who arrived after February — when Russia invaded Ukraine — “are usually people who work in IT or entrepreneurs . . . many whose businesses had just started to go global and now find big problems in Russia,” said Artushenkov, referring to the litany of new restrictions brought on by sanctions against his country’s business sector in response to the war, from opening bank accounts to raising capital.

They are among hundreds of Russians estimated to have relocated to Latin America in recent months, as a combination of relaxed entry rules and an ambivalence towards western sanctions makes it an increasingly attractive destination.

It is difficult to determine the full extent of Russian arrivals. The country is not individually categorised as a destination in most immigration statistics provided by South American nations — rather, its nationals generally fall under the “other countries” category. Several Russian embassies in the region did not respond to requests for comment.

Yet to observers on the ground this “new wave” of migration is undeniable, according to Vladimir Rouvinski, a professor at Colombia’s ICESI University.

Latin America is “the only entire continent where Russians can buy a ticket and simply arrive,” Rouvisnski said from the Colombian city of Cali, where he estimates roughly 100 Russians are currently based. A native of Russia who has lived in Colombia for more than two decades, Rouvinski first noticed an uptick in arrivals in 2020, following a blizzard of laws that allowed President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule and to intensify police violence against protesters.

Russians face no visa requirements to visit Mexico and all 12 South American nations. Extending the standard 90-day stay issued by most countries is also fairly straightforward, and Russians generally consider Latin American societies to be liberal, diverse and democratic.

Like many other parts of the world with developing economies, Latin America has been more ambivalent about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than have the US and Europe. Some of its leaders have criticised the disproportionate hardship that wide-ranging economic sanctions cause to populations.

The experience of Cuba and Venezuela, where US embargoes imposed to achieve regime change have caused widespread suffering, also weigh heavily on Latin American minds. The region’s leaders have instead called for multilateral negotiations to solve the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Moscow is also an important supplier of fertiliser to the continent’s agricultural powerhouses, including Argentina and Brazil. On the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, Argentina’s president publicly offered his country as a “point of entry” for Moscow to expand its presence in the region.

This had historical precedent: at the end of the 19th century Argentina had welcomed some of the first Russian migrants to Latin America. Further waves arrived after the second world war in 1945 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The latest crop of arrivals is “very diverse,” Rouvinski said, from doctors and software engineers to digital nomads and workers in the construction industry. Most are from Russia’s big cities: “These are well-travelled individuals,” he said. “Not oligarchs or the very wealthy, and they are not usually people with dual nationality.”

In Colombia’s capital Bogotá, 30-year-old Ekaterina Ponik said she is looking for photography work, having left Moscow in February. Further north in Mexico City, Konstantin Rodchenko, 42, arrived seven weeks ago and has already met around 30 other Russian nationals at the co-working space he rents along the city’s central avenue, Paseo de la Reforma.

For start-ups “it’s incredibly attractive,” said Konstantin who runs LoyalMe, a software and consulting firm. “Latin America is less polished and predictable, much like what we’re used to back home [in Russia]. There’s a business opportunity,” he said, pointing to how the level of technology development is several years behind Russia, meaning that engineers are in high demand. The region is also a big market for software, and social media adoption is high.

Alexey Solovyov, who runs an investment firm in Dubai, said he has received 40 requests from Russian entrepreneurs since the beginning of March looking to relocate or expand their businesses to South America.

“These are not pre-seed companies, these are requests from established and sustainable businesses who see opportunities in Latin America,” Solovyov, who is from Moscow, said. “I can already see a Russian tech hub brewing.”

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