Hundreds of Russians and Ukrainians alike crowded into the only Russian Orthodox Church on the Arabian Peninsula on Sunday to celebrate the most important Christian religious festival of the year — far from home and in the shadow of a war that has brought devastation to Ukraine and international isolation to Moscow.
The church’s gold Byzantine crosses rise unexpectedly from the dusty streets of Sharjah — a conservative Muslim emirate just south of skyscraper-studded Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Although the two nationalities, united in language and history, typically celebrate Easter in harmony in this strange corner of the world where they’ve forged new lives as expats, this year there was unspoken tension even as children in floral dresses played on the stone steps and priests blessed brimming bread baskets under the blazing sun.
“I don’t have any problems with Russians as people,” said Sergei, a Ukrainian businessman from Kyiv and Dubai resident of five years, who like all those interviewed, declined to give his last name for privacy reasons. “But war changes people. Children are dying. The Russians now hate my country.”
A few Russians interviewed said they did not support the war and felt sick or guilty about it. But to avoid any confrontation in the pews, they stuck to small talk with Ukrainians about the festivities and warming weather, they said.
“We’re all the same, we’ve all come from Russia or Ukraine to seek a better life here,” said Kata, who moved from Moscow to Dubai for a marketing job just before the war. “It’s so weird between us right now. We try as much as possible not to discuss the war. … It’s too painful, too difficult.”
The vast Russian Orthodox Church in Sharjah, the country’s biggest church, has for over a decade served as a touchstone for Dubai’s booming Russian and eastern European community.
Dubai’s glittering skyscrapers, white sand beaches and luxury malls have long attracted Russian visitors, who made up the city’s third-largest tourist source market last year. Before the war, the Russian Embassy estimated there were 40,000 Russian nationals in the UAE, along with about 60,000 Russian-speakers from former Soviet states. Cyrillic signs dot the UAE’s cavernous malls and airport concourses.
Dubai, one of the few remaining flight corridors out of Moscow, appears to have emerged as a magnet for scores of well-heeled Russians despairing of their country’s future and concerned that their own livelihoods are no longer viable amid a stranglehold of global sanctions.
The UAE has imposed no such sanctions and retains close relations with Russia — a major trade partner and fellow member of OPEC Plus, the group of oil-producing nations and its allies that has rebuffed Western pleas for increased oil supplies to calm energy markets. Russians need no visas to enter the UAE. Any investment of over $200,000 in real estate secures three years’ residence.
Ordinary Russians say Dubai has become an increasingly rare haven as anti-Russian hostility escalates around the world over the grinding war, which has rocked the stability of Europe, sent oil prices soaring and triggered the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
“Dubai is the best place for business and job opportunities because the conditions in our country radically changed,” said Leonid, a Russian social media executive who moved to Dubai after the war.
Last week, Leonid joined the UAE’s now-thriving expat Jewish community in its celebration of the Passover holiday. I have received Passover Seder invitations from over a dozen Russian and Ukrainian Jewish friends who have moved to Dubai since the war.
“Professionals and IT specialists are leaving the country. They don’t want to live in the new Russia,” he said, adding that the Ukrainians and Russians have witnessed sharing the traditional feast last week managed to get along. “It’s not like on TV.”
In Sharjah on Sunday, the Christian faithful filtered into the street full of mosques and Pakistani-owned barbershops after taking communion. The call to prayer sounded out, beckoning Muslim worshipers fasting for the holy month of Ramadan.
“This country is more warm to us than Europe,” said Maria, a Belarusian real estate broker who lives in Dubai. “There is no hate here, it feels natural.”