Russian anti-war activists forced into exile

The decision of civil society activists in Russia to stand against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has cost some of them a life into exile or detention in their home country. Through the voices of two of them, Arshak Makichyan and Tania, we see how the fighting against repression and for the development of civil society in Russia hasn't stopped far from home.

03 June 2023

Arshak Makichyan, 28, was stripped of his Russian citizenship for standing against the war in Ukraine in March 2022 (Ameer Alhalbi)
Ameer Alhalbi

Ameer Alhalbi was born in Aleppo in 1996. He was awarded 2nd place for "spot news" in World Press Photo's 2017 contest, and was honored by the Canon company for his project "Rescued From the Rubble," which he worked on in Aleppo. His work has been recognized by several international awards. He now lives and works as a photographer in Paris and graduated from the Speos photography school in 2019. Photo credit : Constance Negre

Roula Nasrallah

Nasrallah started working as a journalist, and field producer in 2006 during the influx of Iraqi refugees into Syria. She worked with award-winning correspondents from media outlets including New York Times. In 2010, she became a Public Information Officer at UNHCR in Damascus. Over the past years, she continued reporting about Syria for international media outlets in Paris and Turkey and collaborating with Non-Governmental Organizations.

On the 24th of February, 2022, Russia invaded its neighbor, Ukraine. Many Russian anti-war activists took to the streets in various cities to oppose the brutal war against its “brotherly nation”. Thousands of them faced mass arrest, while many others fled the country fearing increased government repression.

Arshak Makichyan, 28, was stripped of his Russian nationality for standing against the war in Ukraine in March last year. “I still want to go back to Russia, to protest again and to be useful there,” Arshak stated from his apartment in Berlin over a Zoom call. It happened to be Arshak’s and his partner’s wedding on the same day that Putin decided to invade Ukraine, on February 24th, 2022. They decided to cancel the ceremony, both wearing clothes to show the world that they stand against this war. Arshak’s bride wore a blue dress and carried yellow flowers to show solidarity with Ukraine. “That is how far my activism affected my life, but I never thought that they would take my only nationality from me,” Arshak added.

Arshak is one of the rare Russians who have demonstrated in Russia since 2019. He has been staging a solo protest as a climate change activist. According to Arshak, “the climate crisis is connected to human rights.'' Protests are tightly restricted in Russia and demonstrators must seek the approval of authorities before holding an event. However, if the demonstration consists of only one person, governmental approval is not necessary. Using this strategy, Arshak managed to stage a solo demonstration every Friday for more than 40 weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Born to Armenian parents who fled the Karabakh war in the 1990s, Arshak came to Russia when he was 5. “I am Russian and my culture is Russian,” he explained. The Russian authorities also stripped his father and brother of their nationalities as a punishment for Arshak’s activism against the Kremlin's assault. Arshak preferred not to give any further details about his family, as they are still in Russia. He’s concerned about their safety as it’s unclear what fate awaits them in Moscow.

Arshak was a violin student back in Russia. He left Moscow, like many other Russian activists, making the difficult decision to flee his country. “I was afraid that they might break my hands because I’m a violinist. They use different methods to intimidate anyone standing against Putin’s repression.'' Hoping to return to his city soon, Arshak took a small bag and his violin with him, aiming to sell it upon arrival in Europe in order to support himself financially. As a result of the sanctions on Russia, Arshak and his wife were unable to fly out of Russia. Instead, they took a bus from Moscow to Berlin to join their friends there. Arshak is applying now for political asylum in Germany but still dreams of going back to Russia one day. “I am waiting for the Russian revolution to break out soon and for Putin's repression to come to an end,” Arshak said.

“I am waiting for the Russian revolution to break out soon and for Putin's repression to come to an end,” Arshak said.

According to OVD-Info, an independent media human rights project, 19,335 Russians were detained at anti-war protests after the 24th of February, 2022. OVD-Info provides Russian activists with legal support and aims to end political persecution in Russia. It promotes the enforcement of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly all over Russia. The OVD-info team is based both inside and outside Russia, and a number of members have been detained for fighting against repression and for the development of civil society in Russia.

Putin state propaganda has prevented many Russians inside the Federation from learning about the Kremlin’s atrocities in Syria since 2015. When Arshak was asked if he demonstrated against the Russian intervention in Syria, he said: “I didn’t know much about Syria before coming to Berlin and meeting Syrian activists. The Kremlin is using the same propaganda for their invasion in Ukraine, spreading disinformation and repressing the public in order to control them according to Putin’s narrative.”

Tania is in her thirties. She doesn’t have Archak’s history of activism in opposition to Putin’s policies, but Russian propaganda didn’t prevent her from standing against the war on her neighboring country. Tania had never thought that she would leave Russia, but was forced to flee two months ago, fearing repercussions from the Russian security services for expressing her opinion. Using Google Translate, Tania said that she had to leave her home overnight. “My husband, who I have been with for ten years, reported me,” she explained.

At six in the morning, her home was raided. The next day, she was supposed to present herself to the Regime Investigation Committee. Shocked by her husband’s actions and fearing repercussions from the government, Tania left Russia, losing her home, her job, and the life that she had built. "If I had not left Russia,” she said, “I would definitely be in prison now". Tania is a pseudonym, and she refused to give any further information about her journey leaving Russia. Tania is in the south of France now, where she’s applying for political asylum and still living in fear of being identified.

"If I had not left Russia,” Tania said, “I would definitely be in prison now".

Tania’s life was turned upside down within just a few hours. She wishes that what happened to her was only a nightmare, as she lost her life and her partner for standing against the unjust war in Ukraine. Tania could not bring any of her belongings with her when she left Russia, having to leave behind her beloved dog. Upon her arrival to the south of France, her husband contacted her, threatening to kill her dog if she did not take it with her. Although bringing it to France would be difficult, Tania couldn’t stand to lose her dog, as he was the only family she had left. “With the earth uprooted from under my feet, I could only cry. I was living in exile and missing my dog.”

 With the help of her friends and animal organizations, Tania managed to bring her dog from Russia to France where she is trying to build a new life. She was insistent on not giving any information that could allow her to be identified. Instead, she told the story about her dog as an example of how even animals pay for men’s actions, especially in Russia. Tania managed to build close friendships with many Ukrainian refugees in the south of France, as they share the same language and the same hope for Putin’s war to end so that they can return to their countries in peace.

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad