Tens of thousands of refugees have fled Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime as vocal critics and quiet Russian dissidents sneak past border guards to escape an ever-tighter Kremlin crackdown.
One of these emigrants, whom we will call Anna, arrived in Brussels only a few days after the invasion of Ukraine to take refuge with her friend Elena, a young Russian who had settled in Belgium a few years earlier.
It was a WhatsApp message from Anna telling Elena that their world had just been turned upside down.
Anna, who lives in Moscow, sent a message to say she was at the bank withdrawing all the money from her account. “The war has begun,” she writes. Elena spent the rest of the day crying, unable to believe that her country had actually invaded Ukraine.
Within days, Elena welcomed her friend to her apartment. As a Russian, she has no refugee rights in Europe, unlike Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s horrific war.
The exact number is unknown, but thousands of Russians have left the country since the start of the war for fear of persecution or because they feel they can no longer live in their country. They feel suffocated.
Elena does not believe that she will be able to go home until President Putin leaves.
During this time, she helps her friend and also sees her other friends leaving Russia, some have gone to Armenia, others to Turkey and Georgia. A diaspora of Russian refugees is forming.
Those who decide to stay, either with the intention of challenging the regime or because they have no way to leave the country, report a climate of fear and despair.
“Since Feb. 24, life has changed,” said Inna, a psychologist whose son, of military age, could be called up at any time to fight. She has trouble sleeping or concentrating on anything “I try not to read the news anymore, but it’s impossible to lock myself in the house like a snail and stop feeling and empathy .”
She said she feared her son would be conscripted, but also, Inna explained, “I don’t want our poor village boys to become cannon fodder and become murderers.”
Like many Russians, she has friends in Ukraine. One of them lost his wife and 10-year-old daughter in Mariupol.
“We were brought up in Soviet times, we grew up with the phrase ‘if only there was no war’, and now I’m shocked at how many of my compatriots support this war. Whenever possible, when ordinary people write to me from Ukraine, I ask for forgiveness. We are guilty of allowing this.
But there is room for hope. Inna says, with a hint of excitement, that “some of my acquaintances who previously supported Putin’s policies have started to realize what is happening.”
In St. Petersburg, Katya, an activist, said the day the war started “was a day of horror, fear and tears, the first message I wrote to my family and friends: “Russia invaded Ukraine, [the war] has begun.’ I wrote this with tears in my eyes, thinking of myself as a fascist, that evening I went out into the streets shouting ‘no to war’ until I was hoarse with it.
“My country is doing horrible things that cannot be justified.”
She went out several times to protest and defy the regime until she was arrested and interrogated by an agent of the Federal Security Service (the dreaded FSB) and an anti-terrorist officer.
“They tortured me with brutal interrogations, tried to access my mobile phone to find out what [Telegram] channels in which I participated. They said I was one of the organizers of the protest, but I didn’t organize anything. They said I was on their special list and threatened to sue me for spreading fake news, a crime in the country, if I opened my mouth to defend Ukraine,” Katya said.
She spent 24 hours in detention without even being able to contact a lawyer and said “it was kind of a horror”.
Via Telegram, Sophia, a cameraman from Moscow, told The Daily Beast that “virtually everything has changed” since the start of the war. In addition to the price hike, almost all foreign stores have closed.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of brands and companies have left Russia with no prospect of returning. The biggest losers are ordinary citizens. “It all feels very apocalyptic,” exclaims Sophia, also adding that “it’s like you have to get used to living with a feeling of depression.”
She said she felt ‘incredibly ashamed because my country is doing horrible things that cannot be justified. It is a terrible crime that will not be easily forgiven or forgotten.
The feeling is like “if a big part of you has died, you keep doing your things on automatic mode, but you see no purpose. You wake up and find that you have no future and at the same time you understand that it is not you who are bombarded, that there are people who are suffering much more at the moment, ”she said.
And despite all the difficulties, Sophia opposes the war and Putin saying he destroyed two countries, Ukraine with bombs and the Russian economy, “and our future”.
Hiding in an undisclosed location, opposition politician Aleksei Miniailo speaks hastily on the phone. Nervous, he spills what he had on the table while frantically typing messages on his computer to friends and other activists.
Miniailo wants his name published because “it’s a way to protect me, after all I’m a public person”. But it is unclear whether he will receive any protection if arrested by the police. A historian at Moscow State University, he joined the hunger strike organized by Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and close associate of Alexei Navalny in 2019. The same year, Miniailo was imprisoned for two months for encouraging demonstrations.
Now he is working with a group of academics, researchers, activists and professionals conducting a project in which they critically analyze opinion polls.
“We survey public opinion in Russia and explain it. Raw numbers are misleading because the country is at war, because in autocracies and dictatorships polls are not really representative of public opinion,” he said. he explained.
Miniailo’s daily life consists of trying to stop the war. From his hiding place, he talks to people, tries to persuade them to act and stop the war before the Russians suffer even more serious consequences.
“Putin thought he was going to win this war in Ukraine in a few days, but he miscalculated. What I see now is more like the war in Chechnya in 1994,” Miniailo said.
For him, the main problem is that “Ukraine is the closest country to Russia, it is a brotherly people. 20% of Russians have relatives in Ukraine. And if we cannot dialogue with Ukraine, but prefer to launch rockets, how can we find common ground with any other country?
That’s why he’s dedicated to digging deeper into opinion polls. He believes people are terrified, they can’t understand what’s going on.
In Reutov, a Moscow suburb, journalist and human rights activist Evgeny Kurakin also asked for his name to be published. “I have been persecuted for my professional activities for 11 years,” he said with some indifference, adding that he had already been recognized as a political prisoner by the human rights organization Memorial, a organization that was forced to shut down within a year. of Putin’s latest crackdowns.
“After being expelled from the Council of Europe, we were deprived of the right to appeal the decisions of Russian courts: the outlook in Russia has become completely bleak,” Kurakin said.
Whispers are heard everywhere. Even if they cannot raise their voices, the society discusses the events and is not satisfied. The consequences are very heavy, and the propaganda is so blatant that people begin to mistrust the authorities.
“I can speak according to my friend, I provide them with alternative information, and today they are already starting to question themselves and ask themselves the right questions. All is not lost, “he says with joy not concealed.
Like Sophia, he sees the situation with a certain pessimism for the immediate future but believes that “the regime has accelerated its fall” and that it will not be maintained forever.