YEKATERINBURG — Earlier this week, the team of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny announced a plan for massive public protests across the country this spring to call for Navalny’s release from prison on charges that many observers believe are politically motivated.
“If you oppose corruption, repression, and political murders, help us secure the release of Aleksei,” they wrote on a special website launched to promote the project. “The main method of achieving this is public protests.”
Among the many obstacles their efforts to mobilize the public now face is the fact that many of Russia’s most active citizens have left the country, many of them pushed out by persecution from the security services. Some of those who left were well-known national oppositionist figures such as economist Konstantin Sonin, environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova, journalist Oleg Kashin, and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.
However, a similar process has been going on at the local level in regions around the country. RFE/RL’s Russian Service spoke with three activists who were active and well-known in the Ural Mountains region about their experience of activism in Russia and their decision to leave their homeland.
Russia ranks third globally in terms of numbers of emigrants. Some 10.5 million Russians, about 7 percent of the population, lived abroad as of 2019. More than 1.5 million Russians have left the country since Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, with the pace of emigration accelerating since Putin returned for a third presidential term in 2012.
‘I Always Felt I Was In Danger’
Twenty-four-year-old Yury Izotov was one of Yekaterinburg’s best-known liberal activists and now he is one of the city’s best-known political émigrés.
In the spring of 2014, Izotov, a member of the Parnas political party created by former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, began participating in protests against the Russia-backed separatist conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine. Those protests quickly metastasized into protests calling for the release of activists jailed during the initial rallies.
Although this activity certainly put Izotov on the radar of law enforcement, he believes the breaking point for him came in May 2015 when he became the main organizer of a protest against police abuse.
“It is impossible to imagine now, but the Yekaterinburg administration gave permission for the protest right outside police precinct No. 5 on Sacco and Vanzetti Street,” Izotov recalled. “About 20 or 30 people showed up with flags and signs and they were chanting things like, ‘Police! Observe human rights!’ and ‘A lying cop is an enemy of the people!'”
Within minutes, however, police emerged from the building to break up the demonstration. Five officers whisked Izotov away and he ended up getting a 20,000 ruble ($365) fine for purportedly disobeying a police officer.
After that, he says, he became a frequent target of harassment by pro-Kremlin hooligans and local state-controlled media, who usually dubbed him “a pro-Ukrainian activist from Yekaterinburg.”
In 2016, he left Russia for Ukraine.
“My feelings were complicated,” he told RFE/RL. “On one hand, I couldn’t see any perspectives for continuing sociopolitical protest activity in Russia. For two years I had been actively participating in peaceful protests, but peaceful protests didn’t produce any results except detentions, fines, and arrests.”
“On the other hand, I always felt I was in danger in Russia,” he continued. “Maybe I exaggerated that feeling at the time, but it seemed to me that I could find new opportunities in Ukraine, that I would be more free and could be more useful. But it didn’t work out that way.”
In February 2018, Izotov participated in an anti-war demonstration outside the Kyiv mission of the Russian state aid agency Rossotrudnichestvo. He admits that he threw four eggs and a container of paint at the building during the protest.
In March 2018, a court in Moscow approved in absentia criminal charges against him that could result in a prison sentence of five to 10 years. He now feels it is unlikely he will ever return to Russia.
“When I went to Kyiv, I felt that Russia was a hopeless case because the protest movement had gone nowhere,” he told RFE/RL. “Now I am torn between two feelings. There is hope that people will come out to defend Navalny. On the other hand, I see that the number of people coming out is too small and these protests are not producing positive results. I think I’m a little disappointed because my expectations were raised.”
In April 2019, Izotov moved to Georgia after his legal stay in Ukraine expired. Last January, he applied for political asylum in Tbilisi.
“If they don’t give me asylum in Georgia, I’ll have to find some other country,” he said. “Mostly I miss having friends and people who think like me.”
‘A Bottomless Pit’
Yaroslav, who asked that his last name be withheld due to safety concerns, is a 41-year-old factory worker from the city of Kopeisk in the Chelyabinsk region.
He had been thinking of leaving Russia for years, frustrated as his family’s financial problems mounted with inflation. He was tired of the city’s crumbling infrastructure — of having his water or electricity turned off, of the potholes in the roads, of the ubiquitous dirt and garbage.
“I couldn’t see that the city authorities wanted to do anything to improve life for people and I always felt like I was in some sort of competition against all these problems,” he recalled. “I could see that things were getting worse and worse. It felt like a bottomless pit.”
Yaroslav and his wife were particularly upset about the ecological situation in Kopeisk and in Russia generally. He saw people at his own factory suffering from cancer and heart conditions.
“The worst part was that most of them didn’t live to retire,” he said. “I could see that my future was no better.”
Factories and mines in the region were protected by corrupt local authorities, he claimed. Money meant for controlling emissions was often stolen.
“They would release emissions during the night,” he said. “When you went out in the morning, you would nearly vomit from the smell of chemicals. Sometimes, I would wake up a 4 a.m. and see how my own child was struggling to breathe and turning white before my eyes.”
His youngest son was diagnosed with chronic asthma.
Yaroslavl attended his first protest in Chelyabinsk in 2018, part of a national wave of demonstrations against a Kremlin push to raise retirement ages.
He was detained and fined 10,000 rubles ($160) for attending an unsanctioned demonstration. For him, it was the last straw.
“We sold everything we owned for cheap and bought tickets for Mexico,” he said. They applied for asylum in the United States and received it within a year. Yaroslav and his family now live in Sacramento, California, where he earns a good living repairing appliances.
“Before we left Russia,” he said, “we consulted an immigration lawyer. He explained that the majority of Russians experience constant persecution from various structures and they don’t even understand it. They think their situation is ‘normal,’ but the truth is that most Russians living their everyday lives could put together evidence for an asylum application.”
“Even in Russia, even now, you formally have the right to express your opinions, but they persecute you for that,” Yaroslav added. “They threaten to take away some people’s children. Others are followed and not able to live normally. A student might get kicked out of his university. All of this is considered persecution.”
“A month or two after I got here, I began dreaming that we were back in Russia,” he said. “I had mixed feelings of joy and disappointment at the same time. I can’t really describe it. Of course, I’d like to go back to Russia and see my relatives for a while. But we would never move back. Here I discovered one feeling that I never had in Russia — I’d call it ‘contentment.’ Sacramento is a city where you don’t hurry. You wake up in the morning and things are the same as they were in the evening — prices, laws, people.”
‘At First I Tried To Avoid Politics’
Yekaterinburg journalist Kseniya Kirillova left for the United States in 2014, just as the conflict in Ukraine was heating up. Her husband is a Ukrainian national from Kharkiv.
“When I got my visa, I was summoned to the FSB,” she said, referring to Russia’s Federal Security Service. “They made it clear to me that I was not to come back.”
Kirillova, who has contributed to RFE/RL’s Russian and Ukrainian services, worked for the Urals edition of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, focusing on social problems.
“At first I tried to avoid politics,” she said. But it soon became clear that this was impossible — social problems are usually a consequence of corruption and ignoring lawlessness, and bureaucratic malfeasance was just not possible.”
She said that when she wrote about corruption in the local FSB in 2012, she began to find herself ostracized. The Russian Orthodox Church, whose projects she had covered in the past, stopped informing her about its activities, she said.
At the same time, she said, the FSB pressured the liberal newspaper, forcing the city’s printing house to raise the rates it charged for printing the paper and paying visits to the paper’s advertisers.
After she moved to the United States and settled in California, she continued writing for the Novy Region online publishing group. Among other things, she wrote about the tribulations experienced by Izotov.
But Novy Region was also pressured because of its opposition to the war in Ukraine. Owner Aleksandr Shchetinin was forced to move to Kyiv and sell most of his Russian assets. The Novy Region website was declared “extremist” and blocked in Russia. Shchetinin’s bank accounts were blocked. In August 2016, he was found shot to death in his Kyiv apartment. It remains unknown whether his death was murder or suicide.
Although Kirillova would like to return to Russia to visit, she knows she could never work there.
“It is becoming harder and harder in Russia to talk not just about politics, but about other things, including social issues,” she said. “And this is very dangerous for the authorities themselves because they themselves can’t see the real situation in society. Liberalism has been demonized and as a result other protest movements are growing — the radical right, the national-Bolsheviks; real fascists and radical leftists. These tendencies are very alarming, but they close their eyes to them.”
“Here I can describe things as they are,” she concluded. “If I was in Russia, I’d probably face dozens of criminal charges by now.”
She added that, in her case, it wasn’t a dilemma between leaving Russia or fighting to improve her homeland.
“Some people leave in order to continue fighting,” she said. “In that regard, nothing has changed for me except here I have more opportunities.”