Russians fleeing repression say it's getting hard to breathe in their country

  • 2022-03-15
  • BNS/TBT Staff

VILNIUS – Russians who have fled to Vilnius to escape persecution in their country have no doubt that an increasing number of their compatriots opposed to the war in Ukraine will come to Lithuania and other Baltic countries as Western sanctions are crippling the Russian economy and the Kremlin's fist of repression is tightening.

The Lithuanian Migration Department says it has not yet noticed a significant increase in arrivals from Russia and Belarus seeking political asylum.

However, Russian citizens interviewed by BNS in Vilnius say that this may soon change as it is getting "difficult to breathe" in their country due to the total censorship, with people being persecuted just for saying the word "war" in public.

The emerging new diaspora are planning to work from Lithuania or other Western countries in the hope of a change of government in Russia.


Sergei Davidis, the 53-year-old head of the Political Prisoners Support Program at Memorial Human Rights Center, arrived in Vilnius last week, just after Russian authorities raided the offices of the country's most prominent human rights organization.

Memorial's international office was liquidated by a court decision in late December 2021 after prosecutors accused the center of "justifying terrorism". According to Davidis, the charges were brought because the center defended the rights of various religious communities.

It was therefore only a matter of time before the local Memorial center and other units would be completely paralyzed. Davidis says the law enforcement searches were "the last straw" that made him decide to move to Vilnius. 

"Many people are now leaving Russia because they don't want to take responsibility for the war. It's extremely difficult to speak out, to influence Putin's regime," he told BNS. "Much of rights protection or journalistic activity is simply impossible or banned."


Anna Stepanova, a 60-year-old civic activist, has in the past worked with the opposition party Parnas and in 2017 headed Aleksei Navalny's election headquarters in Nizhny Novgorod, several hundred kilometers east of Moscow. She lived in St Petersburg recently. 

Stepanova, who received a one-year visa through NGOs, says she moved to Vilnius in early December, before the start of Russia's war in Ukraine, because she felt persecuted.

"If I were still in Russia now, I'd definitely leave, because war is unacceptable to me," she told BNS, adding that the vast majority of her relatives and friends do not support Putin's war against Ukraine. 

According to Stepanova, people in Nizhny Novgorod, a city where Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician killed in 2015, served as governor in the 1990s, are currently holding protests against the war in Ukraine, even though they know that "they will be put in jail".

Among those facing criminal proceedings in the city are prominent journalists, according to the activist. 


Stepanova says she is in contact with other opposition activists in Vilnius and sees efforts by many Russians to leave their country, but some of them have faced difficulties due to the suspension of visa issuance and the cancellation of flights from Russia.

Some are trying to reach Lithuania, for example, via Georgia, to which tens of thousands of Russians have fled since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. 

"I heard the Russian transport minister say that he will allow cars to leave Russia. I think there will be a flow to the Baltic states, especially from St Petersburg and neighboring cities. Because [...] it has become difficult to breathe there," the woman said.  

"It's hopeless, because people don't want to live in fear," she added. 


When asked how many people in his circle would like to move to Vilnius, Davidis said that many choose the easier route of fleeing to Georgia and Armenia, where they do not need visas.

Also, flights to the Caucasian countries continue to operate, unlike those to the EU.  

"But those who have the opportunity, those who have a visa, of course, go to the Baltic states as well," the opposition activist said. 

"Many people give up everything. They don't leave because they want to continue working, like we do, but because they can't stay in the country." 

Davidis says he will continue his work to draw the world's attention to political prisoners in Russia, especially with the recent increase in their numbers amid the war in Ukraine.

in his words, some of the Memorial team will continue to work from Russia or other countries, remotely. 


Davidis says that the problems faced by him or other Russians do not compare to "the disasters that Putin has brought to the Ukrainian people".

However, the man believes that the Russian president has "enormously overestimated his capabilities" and that the West should step up support for Ukraine to help it achieve a breakthrough in the war.

"There's no good move for him [Putin]. He probably thinks that he can't afford to retreat, but at the same time, he can't win, which is a dramatic situation," the opposition activist said. 

"We can only be proud of the resilience of the Ukrainian people, of the Ukrainian soldiers who stopped the aggression and prevented the Blitzkrieg scenario from materializing," he added.

With Russian law enforcement detaining hundreds of anti-war protesters on a daily basis, Davidis is skeptical about the chances of larger crowds turning out for rallies.

In his words, many of his relatives, friends and acquaintances are "categorically against the war" and many go to protests, but these are "moral rather than political activities" that will not change the situation.


Stepanova says she believes that Ukraine will find the strength to "go into a counter-attack", even though its strength is "not infinite".

She hopes that the West will provide Ukraine with continued assistance no matter how events unfold.

In the activist's words, the Internet remains the only window for non-propaganda information in Russia, but certain knowledge is needed to circumvent the restrictions imposed on social networks and independent media.

In the meantime, many people believe only the Kremlin's official distorted version of events, according to Stepanova.

"There are people who have been crushed by the regime for so many years that they are morally incapable of facing the truth. They are afraid and probably immersed in this insanity shown on state television," the woman said. 

"Anyone can get information if they want to, but those who don't want watch state propaganda television which simply turns them into zombies," she added.