Russia’s crackdown on journalists, dissidents and critics of the war in Ukraine is pushing many people to flee the country, fearing arrest. FRANCE 24 spoke to four Russians who found refuge in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, after voicing their opposition to Vladimir Putin’s war.
Sasha, Marina, Yulia and Kseniia had never met before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Today, they live together in exile, on the outskirts of Yerevan, the Armenian capital.
When the Kremlin ordered its forces into Ukraine on February 24, the four Russian nationals joined many fellow citizens in voicing their opposition to the war, both online and on the street.
But when a crackdown on dissent escalated, they bought the first tickets they could find and flew out 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 country,” said Sasha, a business owner from western Russia, who flew out with his wife and two children.
© Studio graphique France Médias Monde
Sasha’s family left in the wake of new legislation toughening sanctions against the media and critics of the bloody conflict in Ukraine, which Moscow refuses to call a “war”. Under the law, passed on March 5, Russians face up to 15 years in jail for spreading “fake news” about the country’s military.
The “scorched-earth” policy has turned Russia’s media landscape into a “wasteland”, said Amnesty International, detailing the impact of Moscow’s latest crackdown on the press.
“By blocking the most popular critical media outlets, closing independent radio stations and forcing dozens of journalists to halt their work or leave the country, the authorities have almost completely deprived people in Russia of access to objective, unbiased and trustworthy information,” the advocacy group said in a statement.
At least 150 journalists have fled the country since the start of the war, according to Agentstvo, an investigative news site that can no longer be accessed from Russia.
Seeking to stifle all dissent on social media, Moscow has also cut off access to Facebook and severely restricted Twitter. This week, it moved to block Instagram, the most popular social media platform among young Russians.
‘Russians don’t know what is going on in Ukraine’Even before Moscow pulled the plug on social media, Sasha had felt increasingly threatened, his anti-war posts prompting ever more “menacing” comments. Kseniia, who worked in the banking sector in Russia, shared “independent news” content on social media and signed a number of petitions against the war. Yulia, meanwhile, posted criticism of Putin on her Instagram account and used the hashtag #нетвойне (no war) – a dangerous move in Russia, where using the terms “war”, “invasion” and “attack” to refer to Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine can lead to jail.
Earlier this week, in an extraordinary show of dissent, journalist Marina Ovsyannikova held up an anti-war poster on Russian state television before being arrested and fined. She was later released by the authorities, but still faces up to 15 years in jail for her brazen on-air protest, which made headlines around the world.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Ovsyannikova spoke out against Russian state “propaganda” and called for an end to the “fratricidal” war in Ukraine.
The propaganda starts early on – “as early as nursery school,” said Marina, one of the four Russians who sought refuge in Yerevan. At her children’s school, pupils were told to write postcards in support of Russian troops. “I had to explain to my daughter that the soldiers had no choice but to obey orders,” she said.
“The Russian people don’t know what is going on in Ukraine,” Marina added.
Relatives have also come under pressure from Russian authorities, said Sasha, whose mother and sister have been quizzed by the police about his whereabouts. He was already in Armenia when he got 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 placard in my hand and I must’ve been spotted,” he said.
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Since the start of the war on February 24, some 15,000 people have been arrested across Russia for protesting peacefully against the war, according to the independent media OVD-Info.
Youlia, a graphic designer, took part in several such protests. She flew out of Moscow just days after the March 5 law criminalising talk of the war in Ukraine.
“I couldn’t stay in Russia because people who state their opposition to the war can run into serious trouble,” she explained. “And I refuse to take any part in this Russian state crime.”
For Yulia, who does not have a visa to visit Schengen countries, flying to Yerevan was the only available – and affordable – option. The same applied to Kseniia and Marina, as well as “many more who want to leave Russia,” said Yulia. “It was the only way to get out.”
A bridge between Russia and FranceOnce in Armenia, Kseniia met up with her French husband Donald, who flew out to meet her in Yerevan. A Russian speaker with extensive knowledge of the former Soviet bloc, he is hoping to take his wife back with him to France.
“Armenians are both Russophile and Francophile, so I thought this would be the last place in the region to turn against Russians,” he said, explaining the decision to meet up in Yerevan. “And just 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 a flight for Paris. “Kseniia is allowed to stay in Armenia for six months, but I’m trying everything I can to get the French authorities to grant her a visa before I leave,” he said.
The trouble is Kseniia must first apply for a French residency permit – in her home country, Russia. That is not an option for her right now. She’s worried she will have to wait several months in Russia while her application is processed.