RFE / RL spoke to three Russian emigrants, one of whom is seeking political asylum in Georgia.
Towards the end of March, supporters of Russian opposition politician Sergei Navalny announced plans to stage mass protests demanding Navalny’s release. The opposition politician was transferred to the Vladimir region, to a colony where he is to serve a controversial sentence that, according to his supporters, is politically motivated. His lawyers reported that Navalny’s health condition had become alarming.
“If you are against corruption and repression, political assassinations, help us release Alexei,” they wrote on a website created specifically for the project. “The main way to achieve this is public protest,” you will read there.
Among many other problems that accompany the mobilization of the public is that more active Russian citizens have left the country, many have been harassed by the security services, among the emigrants are well-known Russian activists: economist Konstantin Soin, environmental activist Eugenia Chirikova, journalist Champion Gary Kasparov.
However, the same thing is happening locally, across the country. The Russian edition of Radio Liberty spoke to three activists who are well known for their experience and determination to leave their homeland in the Urals region for their public activities in Russia.
Russia ranks third in the world in the number of immigrants. According to 2019 data, about 10.5 million Russian citizens, or about 7 percent of the population, lived abroad.
More than 1.5 million Russians left the country in 2000, following the coming to power of Vladimir Putin. The rate of emigration has increased since Putin returned for a third term in 2012.
“I always felt threatened”
Twenty-four-year-old Yuri Izotov was one of Yekaterinburg’s most prominent liberal activists, and he is now one of the city’s most prominent political émigrés.
In the spring of 2014, Izotov, a member of the Parnassus political party formed by former Vice Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, began protesting against separatist conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine. These protests soon escalated into protests calling for the release of activists detained during the demonstrations.
Although Izotov has come under the scrutiny of law enforcement because of his activism, he believes the turning point came in May 2015, when he became the main organizer of a protest against police violence.
“It’s hard to imagine now, but the Yekaterinburg government allowed the demonstration to take place right in front of police station number 5 on Sako and Vancet Street,” Izotov recalled. “About 20-30 people came with flags, posters and shouts:” Police! Police! Defend Human Rights! ”And“ Liar Police Are Enemies of the People! ”
In a few minutes, police came out of the building to disperse the demonstration. Five policemen pulled Isotov out and fined him 20,000 rubles ($ 365) for alleged disobedience to a police officer.
Since then, he said, he has become an object of persecution by pro-Kremlin hooligans and local state media. He was usually referred to as a “pro-Ukrainian activist from Yekaterinburg.”
In 2016, he left Russia and went to Ukraine.
“I had strong feelings,” he told RFE / RL. “On the one hand, I did not see any prospect of continuing socio-political protests in Russia. “I was active in peaceful protests for two years, but the peaceful protests had no effect other than arrests, fines and arrests.”
“On the other hand, I have always felt that I was in danger in Russia,” he said. “I may have exaggerated that feeling then, but I thought I would have new opportunities in Ukraine to be freer and more helpful. But nothing came of it. “
In February 2018, Izotov took part in an anti-war demonstration in front of the Rossotrudnichestvo office of the Russian Federal Agency in Kiev. He admits that during the protest he threw four eggs and a container of paint at the building.
In March 2018, a Moscow court charged him in absentia, according to which he could be sentenced to 5 to 10 years in prison. Now he thinks he will probably never return to Russia.
“When I went to Kiev, I had the feeling that Russia was a hopeless case because the protest movement had brought nothing,” he told RFE / RL. “I have a double feeling now. There is hope that people will come out to defend Navalny. On the one hand, I see that the number of people protesting is very small and these demonstrations do not bring positive results. I’m a little disappointed because I expected more. “
In April 2019 – after the legal stay in Ukraine expired – Isotov arrived in Georgia. Last January, he sought political asylum in Tbilisi.
“If I am not granted asylum in Georgia, then I will have to find another country,” he said. “I miss having friends and people who think like me the most.”
“I saw that things were getting worse and worse”
Yaroslav, who asked us not to reveal his last name for safety, is a 41-year-old factory worker from the town of Kopeysky in the Chelyabinsk region.
Frustrated with the fact that his family’s financial problems were growing with inflation, he thought for years about leaving Russia. He is tired of the city’s dilapidated infrastructure – water cuts, power outages, potholes, dirt and rubbish everywhere.
“I did not see that the city authorities wanted to do anything to improve people’s lives, and I always felt that I was involved in fighting these problems,” he recalled. “I saw that the situation was getting worse and worse. I had the feeling of being in a bottomless pit. “
Yaroslav and his wife were concerned about the ecological situation in their city, Kopeysk, and throughout Russia. Many in his enterprise were ill with cancer, many were troubled at heart. “The worst thing is that many could not even reach retirement age,” he said, adding that the same fate awaited him.
Enterprises and mines in the region were backed by corrupt local authorities, Yaroslav claims. He said the funds were to be spent on identifying harmful substances in the exhaust.
“The harmful gases were released at night,” he tells us. “Early in the morning there was the smell of chemicals, my heart was pounding and I was so exhausted. At four in the morning I wake up to a baby coughing. He had difficulty breathing, he was often whitening. “
Her youngest son was diagnosed with asthma.
The first demonstration in which Yaroslav took part took place in Chelyabinsk. It was a protest against the Kremlin’s decision to raise the retirement age.
He was arrested and fined $ 160. He could not bear it any longer. The family sold everything they had and left for Mexico.
They applied for asylum in the US and received status within a year. The family now lives in Sacramento, California, and is doing well in repairing household items.
“Before leaving Russia,” Yaroslav said, “we received advice from an immigration lawyer who explained that most Russian citizens are constantly persecuted by various structures and do not even realize it because they think it is normal. “But in reality, most of these citizens, who live on a daily basis, can gather evidence to apply for asylum.”
“In Russia, officially, you still have freedom of expression, but you are being persecuted for it. They threaten to take the children away from you. Others are watched and not allowed to live in peace. A student may be expelled from the university. This is all persecution. “
“I started dreaming a month or two after coming here. I saw as if we had returned to Russia. I had conflicting feelings – at the same time, as if I was happy, at the same time as if I was disappointed. You can not describe exactly this feeling. Yes, I would love to see loved ones, but we will not go back there forever. Here, for the first time in my life, I had a feeling that I had never had in Russia – “satisfaction”. Sacramento is a city where you are not in a hurry. When you wake up in the morning, everything is the same: prices, laws, people. “
“I wanted to avoid politics from the beginning”
Yekaterinburg journalist Ksenia Kirilova moved to the United States in 2014, just when the conflict in Ukraine was just beginning. Ksenia’s husband is from Kharkov, a citizen of Ukraine.
“When I got the visa, I was called to the security service. They explained to me that I should not go back. “
Kirilova collaborated with RFE / RL’s Russian and Ukrainian services. He worked in the Urals section of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and was involved in social issues.
“At first I wanted to avoid politics, but it soon became clear that it would not work, because social problems usually arise from corruption and neglect of lawlessness,” said Ksenia Kirilova, who wrote an article on corruption in Russia’s security service in 2012 and was soon fired. .
As he recalls, the Orthodox Church, about which he had previously written, stopped providing him with information about his activities. At the same time, as Kirilova says, the security service put pressure on the printing house to increase the printing fee for its newspaper.
When Ksenia Kirilova moved to the United States and settled in California, she continued to write for Novi Region, an online platform. But soon the publication also became the object of persecution because it did not support the war in Ukraine. Its owner, Alexander Shchetin, was forced to emigrate to Ukraine and sell his property in Russia.
“Novi Region” was declared an extremist media in Russia and closed.
In 2016, Shchetinin was found dead in his apartment in Kiev. It is unknown at this time what he did to cause the deaths.
Kirilova was going to visit Russia, but she does not want to go back and work there.
“It is becoming more and more difficult to talk in Russia not only about politics, but also about other topics, including social issues,” the Russian journalist thinks. “Liberalism has been demonized and, as a result, protest movements such as those of the ultra-right, the national-Bolsheviks, the real fascists and the radical left are growing. This trend is alarming, but they are turning a blind eye to it. ” “Here I can call things by their names. “If I had been in Russia, dozens of cases would have been brought against me,” he said, adding that he had no dilemma: “Either leaving Russia or fighting for the betterment of the homeland.” Some are leaving Russia to continue the fight. “Nothing has changed for me in this regard except that I have better opportunities here.”