In Russia, repression against opponents intensifies as the invasion of Ukraine progresses. Fearing arrest, some Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine are choosing to flee, in particular to Armenia. Sasha, Marina, Julia and Xenia confessed to France on 24.
Their names are Sasha, Marina, Julia and Ksenia. After the invasion of Ukraine, these four Russians made the decision to leave their country. Fearing government reprisals, they took an emergency flight to Armenia, one of the few countries in the region where Russians can enter without a visa.
Before the exile, they did not know each other. Today they live in the same place, in the vicinity of the capital Yerevan. “We left everything behind, but we feel safer here than in Russia,” says Sasha, an entrepreneur who comes from western Russia with his wife Marina and two children.
They left after the entry into force on March 5 of a new law that tightens repression against the media and opponents of the war in Ukraine. The text provides for up to fifteen years in prison for those who spread “false information about the Russian army.”
The consequences were immediate. “The most popular media and critics of the authorities are blocked […]independent radio stations were closed, dozens of journalists were forced to stop their work, some even left the country,” says a press release from the NGO Amnesty International. At least 150 journalists have fled the country since the start of the war,” reports the Agency investigative journalism, which is not currently available in Russia.
Since then, the social network Facebook has also been blocked, Twitter has been restricted, and access to Instagram has been restricted. Moscow’s next target could be YouTube, which is very popular in Russia and used by opponents of the regime.
Sasha, Marina, Julia and Ksenia quickly felt threatened. On February 24 and in the days following the Russian invasion, Sasha posted anti-war material on social media. “There were more and more unpleasant and even threatening messages in the comments,” he recalls.
For her part, Ksenia, who worked in banking in Russia, shared a lot of “independent information” on social media and signed petitions against the war. Yulia posted anti-Putin content on Instagram and used the well-known hashtag #no war [“non à la guerre”, NDLR]. However, in Russia, the use of the words “war”, “invasion” and “attack” to describe Moscow’s military actions in Ukraine could have serious consequences. The example of Marina Ovsyannikova confirms this. She was arrested for holding a poster condemning the war in Ukraine on Russian television. Quickly released, she still faces a harsh prison sentence.
>> View: “The Flight of Russian Citizens to Armenia”
“The Russians don’t know what’s going on in Ukraine. And propaganda starts very early, even in kindergarten,” Marina condemns. As early as February 24, her children’s school asked students to write postcards in support of Russian soldiers. “I had to explain to my daughter that the soldiers had no choice but to obey orders.”
The family also came under pressure from the Russian authorities. The police called Sasha’s sister and went to their mother’s house to try and find him. Then, when Sasha was already in Armenia, he received a call from the police and was asked to come to the department for interrogation. “Once I went to a demonstration against the war. I stayed there for a maximum of five minutes, but I held the sign, so they should have noticed me, ”he says. According to OVD-Info, about 15,000 peaceful demonstrators have been detained in Russia since February 24. Fearing fines, arrest or even landing, Sasha and Marina left their home. The same evening the family was in Armenia.
For her part, Julia, who works in the field of graphic design, has participated in several events. “I did not want to stay in Russia, because those who show their disagreement with this war risk big problems. And I refuse to take part in this “crime of the Russian state,” she emphasizes. She didn’t wait to leave. A few days after the adoption of the new Russian law, Yulia flew away from Moscow. “At that time, it was the only opportunity for me to leave Russia.”
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Flights to Yerevan were available quickly and within his budget. And then Yulia does not have a visa to Schengen. Ksenia and Marina are in the same situation as “many who want to leave”, according to Yulia. These same reasons prompted Xenia to leave for Armenia, where she was reunited with her husband Donald. This Frenchman, who traveled extensively in the former Soviet countries and speaks fluent Russian, joined his wife to help her return to France with him. “Russophile and Francophile sentiments are quite pronounced in Armenia. I thought that this was perhaps the last country in the region where anti-Russian sentiment could develop. And then, like the Russians, the French can come here without a visa. “
Hope for political change
Donald is due back in France in a week. But his wife may not be able to follow him. “Xenia is allowed to stay in Armenia for six months. But I am doing my best with the French authorities so that she has a visa for France before I leave.” To obtain it, Ksenia must apply for a residence permit in Russia. But it’s impossible for her. If she returns to Russia, she is afraid to stay there for several months while waiting for a visa.
Sasha and Marina hope to be able to return “if there is a sudden political change in Russia, or rather a democratic one,” Sasha explains, saying that he is “convinced that Putin will lose the war.” They do not exclude the possibility of going to Ukraine after the war. “There is a Russian-speaking population there, and we support the Ukrainian people in defending their country,” Sasha justifies. The third option is “to leave and live in the European Union if it ever accepts Russian refugees.”
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For Julia, this is also uncertainty. “I don’t plan anything. I am only sure that, unless there are serious political changes, I will not return to Russia,” she says. It is unclear how many Russians have fled their country since February 24. The international organization for migration, contacted by France 24, said on Wednesday it “does not have this information.”
The Russian Embassy in Armenia and the Russian Consulate in Paris did not respond to our inquiries. Economist Konstantin Sorin of the University of Chicago estimated as of March 8 that 200,000 people had left Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine. Last week, Vahe Hakobyan, Chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee of the Armenian Parliament, said that about 6,000 citizens of Russia and Ukraine arrive in the country every day.
The Armenian government gave the figure 80K there; The mayor of Tbilisi said that there are 20-25 thousand. There were more flights to Istanbul than to Yerevan every day, and on larger planes. Plus Tel Aviv, Almaty, Bishkek + a tiny but constant flow through Estonia, Latvia and Finland. So, 200K is the lower limit.
— Konstantin Sonin (@k_sonin) March 8, 2022