Fearing arrest, Russia’s Ukraine war critics find sanctuary in Armenia

Russia’s crackdown on journalists, dissidents and critics of the war in Ukraine is prompting many people to flee the country for fear of arrest, and France 24 spoke with four Russians who took refuge in the Armenian capital Yerevan, after they expressed their opposition to Vladimir Putin’s war.

Sasha, Marina, Yulia and Ksenia did not meet before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and today they live together in exile on the outskirts of the Armenian capital Yerevan.

When the Kremlin ordered its forces into Ukraine on February 24, the four Russian citizens joined many of their fellow citizens to express their opposition to the war, both online and on the street.

But when the crackdown on dissent escalated, they bought the first tickets they could find and flew to Armenia, one of the few countries in the region where Russians can travel without a visa.

“We left everything behind, but we feel safer here than in our own country,” said Sasha, a business owner from western Russia, who traveled with his wife and two children.

© Studio graphique France Médias Monde Sasha’s family has left in the wake of new legislation that tightens sanctions against media and critics of the bloody conflict in Ukraine, which Moscow refuses to call “war”. Under the law, which was passed on March 5, Russians face up to 15 years in prison for spreading “false news” about the country’s military.

Amnesty International said the “scorched earth” policy has turned Russia’s media landscape into a “barren land”, detailing the impact of Moscow’s latest crackdown on the press.

“By blocking the most popular critical media outlets, shutting down independent radio stations and forcing dozens of journalists to stop their work or leave the country, the authorities have almost completely denied people in Russia access to objective, unbiased and trustworthy information,” the group said in a statement.

At least 150 journalists have fled the country since the start of the war, according to Agentstifvo, an investigative news website that is no longer accessible from Russia.

In its quest to stifle all dissent on social media, Moscow has also cut off access to Facebook and severely restricted Twitter. This week, she moved to block Instagram, the most popular social media platform among Russian youth.

‘The Russians don’t know what’s going on in Ukraine’ Even before Moscow pressed social media, Sasha felt an increased threat, and his anti-war posts sparked more ‘threatening’ comments. Ksenia, who worked in the banking sector in Russia, shared “independent news” content on social media and signed a number of anti-war petitions. Meanwhile, Yulia posted criticism of Putin on her Instagram account and used the hashtag #нетвойне (nowar) – a dangerous move in Russia, where the use of the terms “war”, “invasion” and “attack” to refer to Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine could lead to Prison.

Earlier this week, in an extraordinary display of dissent, journalist Marina Ovsianikova flashed an anti-war poster on Russian state television before she was arrested and fined. Authorities later released her, but she still faces up to 15 years in prison for her brazen on-air protest, which made headlines around the world.

In an interview with France 24, Ovsianikova spoke out against the Russian government’s “propaganda” and called for an end to the “brothers” war in Ukraine.

The propaganda started early – “as early as a nursery,” said Marina, one of the four Russians who took refuge in Yerevan. In her children’s school, pupils were asked to write postcards in support of the Russian troops. “I had to explain to my daughter that the soldiers had no choice but to obey orders,” she said.

“The Russian people do not know what is happening in Ukraine,” Marina added.

Sasha, whose mother and sister were questioned by the police about his whereabouts, said his relatives were also pressured by the Russian authorities. He was already in Armenia when he received a phone call from the police summoning him for an interview.

“I only went to one anti-war protest and stayed about five minutes, but I held a banner in my hand and I must have been spotted,” he said.

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Since the war began on February 24, around 15,000 people have been arrested across Russia for peaceful protest against the war, according to independent media OVD-Info.

Yulia, a graphic designer, participated in many of these protests. I flew in from Moscow just days after the March 5 law criminalizing talk of war in Ukraine.

“I could not stay in Russia because people who declare their opposition to the war can have serious problems,” she explained. “And I refuse to participate in this crime of the Russian state.”

For Yulia, who does not have a visa to visit the Schengen countries, travel to Yerevan was the only available – and affordable – option. The same applies to Ksenia and Marina, as well as “many who want to leave Russia,” Yulia said. “It was the only way out.”

A bridge between Russia and France: Once in Armenia, Ksenia met her French husband Donald who traveled to meet her in Yerevan. He is a Russian speaker with extensive knowledge of the former Soviet bloc, and hopes to take his wife with him to France.

Explaining the decision to meet in Yerevan, he said, “Armenians are fans of the Russians and the Francophones, so I thought this would be the last place in the region to turn against the Russians.” “And like Russians, French citizens can travel here without a visa.”

Donald has to return to France in a week, but his wife may have to wait longer before boarding the plane to Paris. “Ksenia was allowed to stay in Armenia for six months, but I am trying everything in my power to persuade the French authorities to grant her a visa before I leave,” he said.

The problem is that Ksenia must first apply for a French residence permit – in her homeland, Russia. This is not an option for her now. She worries that she will have to wait several months in Russia while her application is being processed.

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Sasha and Marina pin their hopes on “a sudden political change in Russia, towards democracy”, which would allow them to return home. Convinced that Putin will “lose the war,” they are considering moving to Ukraine one day.

“There is a Russian speaking population there, and we support the Ukrainian people in their defense of their country,” Sasha said, as his “third option” would be “to live in the European Union, if he accepts Russian refugees.”

Yulia’s future is also in the air. “I’m not planning anything,” she said. “But one thing is certain: except for a major political shift, I will not return to Russia.”

It is difficult to estimate how many Russians have fled their country since the beginning of the war. I called France 24, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) had no numbers to give. The Russian Embassy in Armenia and the Consulate in Paris did not respond to our inquiries.

Konstantin Sorin, an economist at the University of Chicago, estimated on March 8 that about 200,000 people had left Russia since February 24. Last week, Fahi Hakobyan, head of the Armenian parliament’s economic committee, said about 6,000 Russians and Ukrainians arrive in his country every day.

This article is adapted from the original text in French.

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