Russian couple find a refuge from war in their Istanbul bookstore

October 12, 2022 - 7:08 PM
A Russian couple, Oleg Chernousov and Aleksandra Chernousova, talks during an interview with Reuters at their newly opened bookstore in Istanbul, Turkey October 7, 2022. (Reuters/Dilara Senkaya)

The conversation flowed from Turkish to Russian as Oleg and Aleksandra Chernousov chatted to guests at the launch of their bookstore in Istanbul, the start of a new life in a new city they once thought would just be a temporary home.

Seven months earlier they had fled from St Petersburg with a handful of possessions and one clear thought – to get themselves and their 11-year-old daughter far away from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

As the conflict raged on and their savings ran low, they and other Russian emigres started looking round in Turkey and making longer term plans.

For the Chernousov family, those plans have taken shape in Istanbul’s fashionable Moda district with the launch of their new bookstore “Black Mustache” – a play on the literal meaning of their surname. .

“The store is pocket-sized, not big, but we hope it will have a long and happy life,” Oleg, 33, told Reuters as visitors, mostly other newly arrived Russians, poured into the shop.

Many say they fled Russia for fear of being arrested for opposing the invasion, which Putin calls a “special military operation”.

They were also worried they might be forced to fight – a fear that has become a reality since the president ordered a mass conscription.

For their new home, they chose Turkey, a NATO member that has sought to balance ties with Russia and Ukraine during the conflict.

“Black Mustache” sells books on photography, fashion and design, including some in Russian, though the delivery costs have been high.

Oleg has been able to build on the experience he gained managing a similar store in St Petersburg, where books were always a big part of the couple’s life.

“When Oleg and I started dating, in Russia we called it the candy-and-flower period, he offered me some books,” Aleksandra said. When they fled, they had to leave most of them behind.

“That’s why I feel so good that we’re doing a bookstore, because the books and the bookshelves we had in Russia mean a lot to me,” she added. “They were a source of inspiration and without them, I felt alone, I felt lonesome. Now I feel better.”

—Reporting by David Gauthier-Villars, Bulent Usta and Yesim Dikmen; Editing by Daren Butler and Andrew Heavens