Inside the network of young Russian activists working to take down Putin from afar
Three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Daniil Ken attended a protest in St Petersburg. “My family became nervous and asked me to leave Russia,” said Mr Ken, head of the Teacher’s Alliance trade union, affiliated to the foundation of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He fled to Yerevan, Armenia, and found accommodation in The Ark – a spacious apartment full of exiled dissidents. The apartment is part of The Ark House, established shortly after the start of the war by human rights lawyer, Anastasia Burakova. “I was receiving hundreds of messages from activists and journalists asking about legal issues and immigration,” recalls Ms Burakova, who was herself forced to flee the country last year after her legal aid group was branded an “undesirable” organisation and dissolved. She started a crowdfunding campaign with initial support from the Anti-War Committee, a group that includes some of Mr Putin’s highest-profile Russian critics such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky – a one-time billionaire who founded the Open Russia Foundation to strengthen civil society in the country. The Ark now operates three properties in Yerevan and Istanbul, cities that are easily accessible as Armenia and Turkey do not require visas for Russian travellers and have not closed their airspace to Russian planes. The Ark also offers a raft of support services including legal assistance, immigration advice, psychological treatment, and help finding work and accommodation.
Ms Burakova estimates her project has provided support to around 50,000 people, a significant proportion of the hundreds of thousands of Russians believed to have fled the country since the war. While it began as primarily a humanitarian service, over time it has become more of a political operation. The Ark aims to serve as a hub for dissidents in exile, using different means for a common goal. As the head of the Teacher’s Alliance, Daniil Ken focuses on education. He recently released a video calling on Swansea University to withdraw an invitation to pro-Putin academic, Yuri Mikalchevsky, to attend a conference, and sent a message to Mr Mikalchevsky posing as a Russian Minister asking why he was visiting an “enemy country. While leaving their homeland is traumatic for many dissidents, and makes their work more challenging, there is the benefit of greater freedom of expression. “Those who have left have a very important opportunity to speak freely on anti-war topics and publish in their own name,” says Daniil Chebykin, now living in “a country in the South Caucasus” with assistance from The Ark, having faced prosecution for organising protests in Russia. Some exiles believe the war presents an opportunity to build opposition to the regime, by harnessing discontent over the oppression and isolation Mr Putin has inflicted upon his citizens.
Mr Chebykin, who leads an opposition group based in Siberia, says his anti-war and anti-regime posts are reaching larger audiences and receiving more positive responses. “The war has absolutely created more opponents of the regime than any single event,” he says. Public outreach typically strikes a balance of attacking Mr Putin and the war without appearing anti-Russian, emphasising the deaths of Russians and the economic hardship caused by sanctions. While living abroad allows greater freedom, Russian exiles are aware they are not beyond the reach of the regime. But opponents of Mr Putin have long accepted an element of risk, says Ms Burakova. “We are the biggest platform for immigrants with an anti-war position,” she says.
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