BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Shortly after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Alla Prigolovkina and her husband, Andrei Ushakov, decided they had to flee their Sochi, Russia, home.
Ushakov had been detained for holding up a sign that read “Peace,” and Prigolovkina, a pregnant ski instructor, feared he would soon be drafted and potentially killed, leaving their baby fatherless.
The original plan was to stay in Europe, but anti-Russian sentiment discouraged them.
“We chose Argentina because it has everything we needed: Fantastic nature, a large country, beautiful mountains,” Prigolovkina, 34, told The Associated Press inside the home her family is renting in Argentina’s western Mendoza province. “We felt it would be ideal for us.”
They were hardly alone.
Over the past year, Argentine immigration authorities have noticed flights packed with dozens of pregnant Russians. But whereas Prigolovkina said her family intends to build a life here at the foot of the Andes mountains, local officials believe many of the other recent Russian visitors are singularly focused on receiving one of Argentina’s passports.
All children born in Argentina automatically receive citizenship and having an Argentine child speeds up the process for the parents to obtain residency permits and, after a couple of years, their own passports.
Crucially, the navy blue booklets allow entry to 171 countries without a visa, a backup plan that Russians believe could come in handy in the ever-uncertain future. Due to sanctions, Russians have also had trouble opening bank accounts in foreign countries, something an Argentine passport could solve.
According to official figures, some 22,200 Russians entered Argentina over the last year, including 10,777 women — many of whom were in the advanced stages of pregnancy. In January, 4,523 Russians entered Argentina, more than four times the 1,037 that arrived in the same month last year.
After an investigation, Argentine officials concluded that Russian women, generally from affluent backgrounds, were entering the country as tourists with the plan to give birth, obtain their documentation and leave. More than half of the Russians who entered the country in the last year, 13,134, already left, including 6,400 women.
“We detected that they don’t come to do tourism, they come to have children,” Florencia Carignano, the national director for migration, said during a meeting with international media.
Although Argentina generally has a relatively permissive immigration process, the recent arrest of two alleged Russian spies who had Argentine passports in Slovenia raised alarms in the South American country, where officials reinforced immigration controls.
“We canceled residencies of Russians who spent more time outside than in,” Carignano said, expressing concern the Argentine “passport will cease to have the trust it enjoys in all countries.”
Immigration authorities have also called on the justice system to investigate agencies that allegedly offer assistance to Russian women who want to give birth in Argentina.
It’s unclear how many women have left Russia to give birth in the last year, but the issue is big enough that lawmakers in Moscow this month raised the question of whether those who choose to give birth abroad should be stripped of the so-called maternity fund that all Russian mothers receive — a financial benefit of almost $8,000 for the first child and about $10,500 for the second.
There is no discussion on whether to cut off access to the maternity fund for Russian mothers who give birth abroad, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
The phenomenon also is not entirely new. Prior to the Russia-Ukraine war, Russian women were part of a wave of “birth tourists” in the U.S. and many paid brokers tens of thousands of dollars to arrange their travel documents, accommodations and hospital stays, often in Florida.
Embarking on a long journey during an advanced pregnancy can be particularly perilous, and Russians in Argentina insist that their decision to leave their homes goes beyond a new passport. Despite the government’s claims, some at least seem eager to make Argentina their new home.
In spite of the language barrier and the unfamiliar, stifling summer heat, Prigolovkina and Ushakov have quickly adopted Argentine customs since their July move. Prigolovkina said they especially enjoy spending time in the park with their dogs. And while the family may not have been interested in soccer in Russia, they happily cheered when their newly adopted country won the World Cup late last year.
Still, she also concedes that obtaining a passport for their newborn son, Lev Andrés, was a motivating factor for the move: “We wanted our baby to have the chance to not just be Russian and have a single passport.”
Some experts say a country in which migrants once made up as much as 30% of the population should be particularly sensitive to the plight of Russians trying to start a new life. The South American country was transformed in the late 19th and early 20th century by the influx of millions of European migrants, including many from Italy and Spain.
“Given our history of migration, a country like ours should empathize more with the humanitarian dimension” of these recent immigrants, Natalia Debandi, a social scientist and migrations expert who is a researcher at the publicly funded CONICET institute, said. “They are not terrorists, they are people.”
A study by immigration agents based on interviews with 350 newly arrived Russians concluded that most are married and largely well-off professionals who have remote jobs in finance and digital design or live off savings.
Days before giving birth to a boy named Leo, 30-year-old Russian psychologist Ekaterina Gordienko lauded her experience in Argentina, saying “the health care system is very good, and people are very kind. My only problem is Spanish. If the doctor doesn’t speak English, I use the (Google) translator.”
Gordienko arrived in the nation’s capital of Buenos Aires in December with her 38-year-old husband, Maxim Levoshin. “The first thing we want is for Leo to live in a safe country, without a war in his future,” Levoshin said.
In Mendoza, Prigolovkina is excited for her family’s new life in Argentina and optimistic they will be able to give back to the country that has welcomed them.
“We have left everything behind to live in peace. I hope that Argentines understand that Russians can be very useful in different areas of life, in business, the economy, in science,” she said. “They can help make Argentina better.”
Associated Press journalists Natacha Pisarenko and Víctor Caivano in Mendoza, Argentina, Dasha Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia, and Harriet Morris in Moscow contributed.