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Russian exiles bring banyas and blinis to Buenos Aires

By Lucinda Elliott and Miguel Lo Bianco

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - When Ilia Gafarov and Nadia Gafarova host the grand opening of their "banya", a traditional Russian sauna, in April, they hope it will help make a permanent home of their adopted city of Buenos Aires.

The couple, a former banker and recruiter from Russia's eastern port city of Vladivostok, moved to Argentina with their two daughters nine months ago, part of a wave of migration from Russia to Latin America since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The Gafarovs said they are looking to invest a large part of their savings in the enterprise and to apply for citizenship when they become eligible late next year.

"The Russian community has grown significantly while we've been here, and a banya is something they want too," said Ilia, who also cited demand by health-conscious locals.

As Russia's war in Ukraine enters its third year, a growing number of Russian families are putting down roots around Latin America, according to previously unreported residency visa approval data from five countries and interviews with a dozen exiles and experts.

Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, granted temporary or permanent residence last year to a total of almost 9,000 Russians, the data show, up from just over 1,000 in 2020.

Some, like the Gafarovs are leaving an imprint on their adopted cities. The family also cook traditional Russian dishes like blini to feel at home.

The exiles and experts cited Latin America's lenient visa rules and easier paths to citizenship, affordable lifestyles, good weather and relative ambivalence towards international sanctions as major attractions for Russian citizens seeking to escape the war and its impacts on the economy - despite the geographical distance.

LENIENT VISA REGIMES

Unlike Europe and the United States, most countries in South America do not require visitor visas for Russian nationals, and extending the normal 90-day stay is usually straightforward. While most countries in the region condemned Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, none have sent aid or weapons to Kyiv.

"Latin America was an experiment for Russians two years ago, now those who travel to the continent come with the intention to stay," said Vladimir Rouvinski, a political scientist at Colombia's ICESI University.

Argentina was the top destination in the region for Russian emigres, according to the government data, issuing 3,750 residency visas to Russian nationals in 2023, over ten times the number before the war started and the pandemic dampened global travel in 2020. This January alone it was over 500.

Mexico granted residency permits to 3,231 Russians last year, three times more than 2021, according to government data.

And Brazil granted residency to about 1,000 Russian citizens last year, up from 400 in 2021.

In group chats on the Telegram messaging app, Reuters saw Russian emigrants around Latin America sharing tips on buying property, opening businesses, finding kindergartens and applying for residency.

The influx is gradually changing the complexion of city neighborhoods. Russian-run cafes and beauty salons have popped up around Buenos Aires in well-heeled Recoleta and trendy Palermo. Russian Orthodox church groups in the southern coastal Brazilian city of Florianopolis are on the hunt for a permanent priest. Waiters, teachers and cashiers have started learning simple Russian phrases.

ADAPTATION IS A PROCESS

When 36-year-old Tatiana Kalabukhova, originally from Rostov-on-Don near Russia's western border with Ukraine, moved to Mexico City with her partner in December last year, she never imagined the daily reminders of Russian culture she'd find in her adopted neighborhood, like Pushkin Garden, named after the poet Alexander Pushkin, where she takes her son to play.

Kalabukhova, a business consultant, has been granted temporary residency which she plans to extend, but admits her family is "still in the process" of adapting to their new home and learning Spanish, following several years living in the United States.

"When I moved here from the United States, I felt more at ease because life feels more grounded here," she said.

Some Russians living or visiting parts of the United States and Europe have reported facing anti-Russian sentiment since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The emigrants Reuters spoke to said that while there were hurdles making transactions with Russian banks, they could resort to cryptocurrencies that are widely used in Argentina and Brazil, and Chinese bank cards, like UnionPay, that are available in Russia and accepted in 12 Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.

Argentina and Brazil became popular destinations among Russian expectant mothers two years ago, due to automatic citizenship rules for newborns.

But that's expanded to entrepreneurs and families, in part because of changes to Russia's conscription system last year that made it harder to avoid being called up for military service. The legislation came into effect this January.

A former police officer in his mid-30s from Yekaterinburg, who requested anonymity because of fear of reprisals, said he and his wife drove to the Kazakhstan border six hours after the first conscription call was announced because they feared they were at high risk of being mobilized.

He said the couple moved to Brazil after learning his wife, who has medical training, was pregnant.

Others have fled because of political repression and the economic impacts of the war, said Russian Helena Yaw, who moved to Florianopolis with her husband in 2019 and who was recently joined by her brother.

"People are buying anything they can find, to invest their rapidly depreciating roubles," Yaw said.

(This story has been refiled with an edited headline)

(Reporting by Lucinda Elliott. Additional reporting by Diego Oré in Mexico City, Miguel Lo Bianco in Buenos Aires and Fabricio Escandiuzzi in Florianopolis, Brazil. Editing by Adam Jourdan and Suzanne Goldenberg)