Russian dissidents seek asylum in Kyiv

Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine

(opendemocracy.net – Anna Yalovkina – Anna Yalovkina is a journalist from Kyrgyzstan and a correspondent at the internet portal Vecherny Bishkek. She writes for lenta.ru and films video for RFE/RL – April 17, 2015)

As oppression heats up in Russia, post-revolutionary Ukraine is attracting political émigrés from the Russian opposition.

From the moment the Maidan started in Ukraine, Russian authorities rushed to pass judgement on the emergent revolution, supporting President Viktor Yanukovych in any way they could. Russia’s leadership feared that the revolution could spread to Russia. Accordingly, Russian state media responded with a massive information campaign against the Maidan, convincing citizens that Ukraine had suffered an illegitimate coup and that all members of the opposition are ‘fifth columnists’ and ‘agents of the West.’

The Russian government’s apprehensions were, in a certain sense, justified. Despite mass propaganda, some citizens in Russia began calling for a Maidan in their own country. After the change of leadership in Kyiv and the outbreak of conflict, the majority of the Russian opposition came out in favour of Ukraine in its war against separatist forces in the country’s Donbas region.

But in a country where writing a provocative Facebook post, attending a protest action or making a public declaration out of line with the government’s position are potential grounds for criminal prosecution, individuals and groups have started to make their way to Ukraine.

Russia’s activists continue the fight in Kyiv

A certain ‘clique’ of Russian émigrés has emerged in Kyiv. Despite their ideological differences, they’re all one degree of separation or less from one another, and they gather at a certain cafe in the old city centre to discuss politics and their plans for the future of Ukraine and Russia. One wants to simply split up Russia into independent republics, another wants to make Russia part of Europe, and the third is anxious for reform.

But they are united, at least, by a shared dissatisfaction with Putin’s government and an inability to return to their homeland.

Take Irina Belacheu, a chemical engineer from suburban Moscow. Belacheu first travelled to Ukraine in December 2013 – first, simply as a tourist to the Maidan, but then as full participant in the proceedings. Given that Maidan protesters were perceived in Moscow as merely a disgruntled mob at the time, Belacheu organised a ‘school of resistance’ with her colleagues. Here, participants discussed the construction of a democratic state, inviting economists, lawyers, and political analysts to give lectures. The Moscow school continues, but now, after the Maidan, Belacheu decided to open a branch in Kyiv, even if she does miss home.

‘I was just an activist,’ Belacheu says. ‘I went to protests and marches against Putin’s policies. We saw that they were leading the country towards a catastrophe. After taking part in various events, I understood that I could no longer fight the propaganda that’s infiltrated the whole of Russian society.

‘When I protested with a picket that read, “Ukrainians and Russians are brothers, no to war”, I encountered strong aggression. One man even wanted to fight me! People in the office reacted very negatively to me. In Russia, people simply do not accept the truth. And I decided to go to Kyiv and organise the School of Resistance,’ she explains.

Your average down-on-their-luck Russian dissident can quickly find a home in the centre of Kyiv. Over social media, they can make contact with other people who’ve already left Russia under a cloud.

This is exactly what Pavel Shekhman, a blogger from Moscow, did. ‘I was against Putin from the start. Since 2007, I’ve been taking part in unsanctioned protests. That was the first time I was arrested. For me, the Maidan was the fulfilment of our dreams. What we wanted to see in Moscow had happened in Kyiv,’ Shekhman told me.

In Moscow, a criminal case was brought against Shekhman for a blog post, which reproduced news of the shooting of 11 Ukrainian soldiers. The post stated that the 11 soldiers had been shot for refusing to give interviews to Russian journalists, and in response Shekhman called for these journalists themselves to be killed. Shekhman was first arrested and ordered not to leave the country, then placed under house arrest. Shekhman was later accused of inciting violence and hatred of a social group. On 14 February, Shekhman managed to escape from house arrest and went straight to Kyiv.

Upon arrival in Kyiv, Shekhman was cared for by virtual – now real – friends from Ukraine, who had supported him in his journey. He was known, after all, as a Russian who opposed Putin’s government in Russia.

Shekhman was met at the border by Vladimir Malyshev, an activist who regularly took part in marches and protest actions in Moscow and St Petersburg. Malyshev had already been in Kyiv for a year; like many others, he had travelled to the capital of neighbouring Ukraine to take part in the Maidan. He had the same logic for leaving as them: the fight wasn’t going to bear fruit in Russia, so it had to start in Ukraine.

Together, Malyshev and Shekhman decided to start a newspaper about Ukraine. They had no desire to leave Ukraine, nor to return to Russia.

‘Imperialists are the real traitors in Russia’

Sitting in Kyiv, Olga Kurnosova has been involved in Russian politics for a long time. While Kurnosova was elected a local deputy in St Petersburg (specialising in science and research) during the early 1990s, in 2003 she joined Aleksandr Dugin’s Eurasia party.

Later joining Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front, Kurnosova was an active participant in 2006 protests, including the Marches of the Dissenters in Russia’s second city, and later the Marches of Millions in 2011-2012. Later, in 2008, Kurnosova joined the Solidarity movement, but was expelled four years later on grounds of nationalism.

More recently, in January 2014, Kurnosova formed the Committee of Solidarity with the Maidan – a Russian anti-war movement which aims to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russia – together with other members of the opposition.

But in October 2014, Kurnosova left Russia in the middle of the night, travelling by train across the territory of Belarus with her mobile switched off. She bought the ticket using someone else’s passport.

‘My flat in Moscow had already been broken into a few times,’ Kurnosova says. ‘I wasn’t even living there anymore. I was living at friends’ flats. Three days after I moved to another friend’s place, the police showed up at my flat again. And it was then I understood that there was no point sticking around waiting to find out when I’d be arrested.’

Finding herself in Kyiv, Kurnosova decided to continue the fight for a democratic and European Russia. Kurnosova declined to get into details about how she has been doing this, noting that revealing her methods may hamper her desired results.

The newly-minted émigré believes that the future of Russia depends on Ukraine and openly confesses her love for both countries. ‘In my view, as long as war rages between Ukraine and Russia, I cannot leave this place. Without a victory for Ukraine, there can be no victory for Russia.’

Back in 2003, Kurnosova supported Aleksandr Dugin’s Eurasia party and espoused what she now views as ‘imperialist’ talking points, which centred on the creation of the Eurasian Union in the post-Soviet space. However, she now considers ‘imperialists’ the main enemies of Russia, criticising the idea of a unified ‘Russian world’ (Russkii mir).

‘It’s all a political construct created to justify the debauchery that’s currently taking place. It has no relation to the words they use for it. The “Russian world” is Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gagarin. In no way is it Putin,’ says Kurnosova.

According to Kurnosova, the Eurasian Economic Union was established in order to justify an Asiatic style of governance – Russia has gotten lost and ended up in Asia, and needs to return home. And its home is Europe. For Kurnosova, though, home is St Petersburg and she wants to return, even though her work in Kyiv is more important.

‘Imperialists are the true traitors. Empire is a feature of the last century. A proper place [among countries] isn’t won by brandishing nuclear weapons, but by top-level education, advanced sciences, and cities with good roads and nice buildings. I want Russia to be a country in which people are happy. This is a lot more than empire,’ concluded Kurnosova.

‘Russia will soon split up’

The political analyst Pavel Mizerin, who specialises in Russian-Ukrainian relations, has lived in two homes since 2004.

Mizerin has worked on election campaigns in both Russia and Ukraine, choosing primarily liberal candidates. Having returned to his hometown of St Petersburg in 2012, Mizerin admits that he could hardly recognise his own country. At that time Mizerin began to feel that democracy in Russia was under threat, while in Ukraine, the situation was, at least, more open.

Mizerin is an activist in the Free Ingria movement, a fringe group which supports the separation from Russia of the former Novgorod Republic (territory conquered by Muscovy in the 15th century). The political analyst believes that St Petersburg and all of ‘Ingria’ should shift towards Europe and cast off ‘Moscow’s Asiatic authoritarian type of government.’

It is this very idea that first brought Mizerin to the attention of the authorities. But the FSB intervened directly for an unexpected reason – his position regarding EuroMaidan.

When the first demonstrations began in Kyiv in November 2013, Mizerin often commented on them in the media, connecting the outcome of the EuroMaidan with the future of Russia and the whole of Eastern Europe. Mizerin published a whole string of articles with his predictions on the victory of the protesters. Then the FSB invited him to come in for a chat.

The conversation with the agents was not a friendly one. A young man came in with a thick binder of documents, listing Mizerin’s activities in Ukraine over the past two years.

The conversation took on increasingly dark tones. According to Mizerin, the meeting ended with threats directed at both him personally and his relatives.

‘My colleagues helped me find a lawyer. He advised me to leave the country for a while. He said that I could be issued a notice not to leave. On 8 February, I left Russia and by 9 February I was in Kyiv,’ said Mizerin.

Mizerin ended up in Kyiv at the most critical period of Maidan and immediately got involved in the action. Breaking up cobblestones and building barricades, Mizerin simultaneously described everything he saw on social media and giving interviews to Russian opposition outlets. Two weeks after Mizerin arrived, Viktor Yanukovych fled the country.

This activist for the secession of the northwest part of Russia is sure that the Russian Federation cannot survive without splitting up. ‘We’re looking at the agony of a state, where Tatar and Mongol political culture has been imposed on Moscow and [the city of] Vladimir’s political traditions. The result is a monster – first the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union and now modern Russia,’ Mizerin explains.

Mizerin hopes that instead of Russia there will be a confederation of free provinces and republics, and his region – St Petersburg and Novgorod – will become independent and join the European Union.

Digging in

While the conflict between Russia and Ukraine drags on, Russian political émigrés see Kyiv as an island where their brave slogans are not shouted down, but amplified. Finding themselves in a Russian speaking space where the media are prepared to broadcast their ideas, they have no intention of leaving their ideological battlefield in Kyiv.

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