‘We had less than 48 hours to get out safely’: Edi students on their experiences fleeing Russia

Many were left stranded as flights were cancelled

Last Friday, Edinburgh University suspended all year abroad programmes in Russia. An urgent email was sent to all students, ordering them to “make arrangements for your immediate return to the UK/home” in “as short a space of time as possible”. It was sent hours after Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine.

The approximately 20 third-year language students, including myself, who were studying across Russia have now confirmed that they all got home safely.

Many students watched Putin’s speech in real-time.

For many of the students who were in Russia, Putin’s speech was the turning point and some had flights booked before the uni’s announcement. I had a flight booked with Finnair for March 1st which has now been cancelled due to safety concerns.

Students told The Edinburgh Tab their escape from Russia was stressful and uncertain. Many airlines, including BA and Aeroflot, were suddenly not viable options to use to get home. Some had flight cancellations and were forced to stay in Russia for another 24 hours. Others had to take 17-hour flights to get home, with flights to Madrid, Istanbul and Vienna as the only feasible ways to leave the country.

From my own personal experience, on two occasions I added flight tickets to my basket but by the time I went pay for them, they had already gone. I got one of the last seats on a flight to Vienna.

Paying for flights was also a cause for concern as Apple Pay and other foreign payment methods stopped working. Students couldn’t pay for taxis to the airport but it was too unsafe to use the metro.

Alannah Millar and Rosa Swaddle, who were both in Moscow, had their flights cancelled and were forced to stay for several more hours. Rosa told The Edinburgh Tab: “The university phoned us personally several times to make sure we were alright and to make sure we could arrange some sort of plan. They did all they could over the phone”.

Alannah explained how scary the situation was: “My first flight was cancelled. I had my passport taken off me, got stuck in the airport and wasn’t given another migration card. The university offered to repatriate us by buying tickets for us and giving us money to help us get home.

“Sarah Montgomery offered us her phone number, stating that whilst it wasn’t officially 24/7 help, she’d have her phone by the bed and would answer immediately. They answered emails quickly and seemed to be tracking our flights as they messaged when it was cancelled.

“Whilst they couldn’t do anything about our lack of migration card – which we needed to ask the embassy about – the uni was quite comforting to me personally. What scared me is the idea that the EU might close airspace for Russian aircraft. Luckily I got another flight and got to Madrid just in time”.

Aidan Arlow was in St. Petersburg when he received the email – he also had a flight cancelled. He told The Edinburgh Tab that: “I was briefly stranded, but I got the last flight out to Switzerland. There were a bunch of protests near my flat”.

Students were worried about the escalation of tensions in Russia before the uni pulled them out. Many agree that leaving was the safest option as police presence increased and protests grew. “War Police” vans littered the streets around the Kremlin and protests in St. Petersburg have been met with fierce police retaliation.

A student who was in St. Petersburg feels that the uni may have acted too late, saying: “The Uni wasn’t very reassuring to start with. Maybe it would have been better to recall us as soon as Putin recognised the separatist states, but they were one of the first universities to act which is good. They got all of us out.” 

Russian newspapers have been approving of the invasion – this headline reads “all unrecognised countries have different destinies”

Many of the students and I spoke to are scared. We are glad to be out, but for many of the Russians we met and grew close to, getting out is not an option.

For a lot of us, Boris Johnson’s commentary echoed our own experiences: “I do not believe this war is in your name”.

If you have any concerns about your safety during your year abroad, you can contact the University of Edinburgh via +44 (0) 131 650 2257 24.

Recommended related articles by this writer:

• Edi year abroad students in Russia feel ‘abandoned’ by uni with rising tension in Ukraine

• Edinburgh University bans students from travelling to Ukraine during their year abroad

Edi Uni has suspended all programmes in Russia, with students told to leave immediately