Moscow on the Med: A Faraway War Transforms a Turkish Resort Town
ANTALYA, Turkey — The ice cream man grappled with how much the war in Ukraine had changed his neighborhood.
So many Russians had moved to Antalya, a resort city in southern Turkey, that local families were being priced out of their homes. Russian co-working spaces, hair salons and other businesses were using signs in Russian to advertise their services.
And Russians clearly outnumbered Turks in the park where the ice cream vendor worked — pushing their children on the playground swings, doing video conferences with faraway places from the park benches and, thankfully, buying lots of ice cream.
“It is as if one morning we woke up and we no longer heard any Turkish words. It’s all Russian,” said the vendor, Kaan Devran Ozturk, 23. “Turks feel like strangers in their own country.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent huge numbers of people fleeing from both countries, and tens of thousands of them have ended up in this historic city on the so-called Turkish Riviera, where they are settling in as the conflict rages back home.
They include draft dodgers from both sides of the war and Russians who have fallen afoul of their government, as well those who oppose the war or who fear economic trouble at home and have taken advantage of Turkey’s open borders and relatively easy residency requirements to start new lives in a warmer, sunnier climate.
While Russians have long flocked to Antalya’s beaches for summer vacations, and some Russians lived here year-round, the influx this year has dramatically increased their numbers, and their presence in neighborhoods where they were not often seen before.
They have brought lots of much-needed foreign currency into Turkey, helping keep its economy afloat, but their new Turkish neighbors grumble about skyrocketing housing prices and wonder how long these new residents will stay, potentially altering the social fabric.
“As they are now settled, they are visible,” said Ismail Caglar, the head of an Antalya real estate association. “They stroll down the beach with their children. They sit down at a cafe with their children. They are everywhere.”
He said that the size of this year’s influx had caused housing prices to triple and allowed Russian real estate brokers to charge property owners, mainly Russians, exorbitant fees and cut out their Turkish competitors.
“People think they are tourists and will go back after the war,” he said. “I don’t believe that because Antalya is really like heaven. Look at the weather! Where is there weather like this in Russia?”
In September, the governor of Antalya Province, which includes the city and surrounding areas, said that the number of foreign residents in his jurisdiction had more than doubled in two years, to more than 177,000. That included more than 50,000 Russians and 18,000 Ukrainians.
In November, foreigners bought more than 19,000 properties in the area, the highest number in Turkey after Istanbul, whose population is five times higher.
To limit their concentration, the Turkish authorities have closed 10 neighborhoods in Antalya to new foreign residents, which has pushed them into other parts of the city.
Antalya’s monuments, architecture and ruins reflect more than 2,000 years of history — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and more. The presence of so many Russians is changing the city anew, making some areas feel like Moscow on the Mediterranean. Russians crowd the shopping malls, jog and cycle along the seafront promenades, fill up the seats at Starbucks and wheel their grocery baskets to outdoor markets to stock up on Turkish produce.
At times, amid the mix of Turks, Russians and Ukrainians, tensions have risen. Posters of unknown origin have appeared calling the Russians killers and telling them to go home. Ukrainians have worn flag arm bands, and unidentified vandals have repeatedly defaced the Russian matryoshka doll statues in a public park dedicated to Russian-Turkish friendship. More recently, more than 14,000 people signed an online petition calling for foreigners to be banned from Antalya’s real estate market.
But for the most part, the communities have forged a workable coexistence.
From the pulpit in the Orthodox Church of St. Alypios in Antalya’s old city, the Rev. Vladimir Rusanen, the dean of the church, has sought to keep the rancor in Europe out of his congregation, which is about 60 percent Russian and 35 percent Ukrainian.
“We have families who have people dying on both sides of this war,” he said in an interview, adding that there are many other places where people can discuss the conflict.
“The church is a spiritual hospital where people get healed,” he said. “It is not constructed to bring political discourse into the sanctuary.”
Most of the Russians are frank about why they moved to Turkey.
“We all understand why we are here,” said Igor Lipin, who, at 32, said that remaining in Russia could have meant being drafted to fight or being thrown in prison for refusing.
“It is much warmer here than in Siberia,” he said.
He spoke inside an upscale shopping mall where the bright blond hair, pale skin and often immodest dress of the Russian shoppers stood out. A pair of Russian women took turns sniffing perfume bottles in one store. A man in a leather jacket snapped photos of his female companion, who wore copious makeup and revealing clothes. A Russian couple strolled by, their arms laden with shopping bags.
Turks smarted at the sight of Russians casually snapping up products most local people would struggle to afford.
Mehmet Cetinkal, a university student, said he worked six days a week for a monthly salary of about $320. He shared a one-bedroom apartment with two other students so they could afford the rent, but their landlord had recently told them to leave so he could raise the price.
“I feel like we surrendered Antalya to them,” said Mr. Cetinkal, 25. “I feel like we now exist to serve to Russians.”
Most of the Russians are affluent enough to set up new lives in Turkey, but they still struggle with disrupted lives and shattered dreams.
When the war began, Anastasia Raskopina, who worked for a modeling agency in Sochi, decided her family needed to get out of Russia. They couldn’t get visas to any countries in Europe, so they considered flying to Bali, she said, but found out it would not accept their two dogs. So she, her husband, daughter, their dogs and cat came to Turkey, where they bought an apartment in Belek, near Antalya, with the money they got from selling a house in Russia.
“There is no Plan B,” she said. “We can’t go anywhere.”
She and her husband both lost their jobs in Russia, so he was taking a training course to work in real estate and she had started a Russian-language children’s theater company, she said. When Russia announced a military draft in September, her son, Gleb Farafonov, fled Russia, where he had studied for years to become a veterinarian but was just short of getting his degree.
“My whole life now is in an empty backpack,” said Mr. Farafonov, 24. “I have no plans.”
Many of the Russians live in the western district of Konyaalti, where shop signs in Russian offer money transfers, Bitcoin, Russian cuisine and haircuts.
At a weekly outdoor market, Russian shoppers nearly outnumbered Turks, arriving with wheeled shopping baskets and fair-haired children in strollers to sample the olives and haggle with the cheese sellers. Turkish and Russian women jostled with each other to find the best peppers and tomatoes. A Russian woman strolled through in fluorescent green running shorts and a matching sweatshirt.
Among the shoppers was a Ukrainian man with his wife and daughter who had fled conscription at home and declined to give his name.
“In the end I managed to get out,” he said.
Yavuz Guner, a Turk who was selling homemade soap, said he understood why so many people had fled the war.
“Ukrainians and Russians here are dancing at the hotels and bars together,” he said. “This is a meaningless war because of politics.”
Mr. Guner, 44, also said he understood why they had come to Antalya.
“Look at those!” he said pointing to piles of fruits and vegetables nearby. “Do they have such fresh food in their country?”