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Emigration

"An asylum seeker from Russia is more helpless than a refugee from Somalia. A Somali will have a working bank card open in their country."

02.08.2022

The situation in Russia is becoming tenser by the day. It is no longer a question of citizens' financial security, but of physical security. According to media reports, the country's courts are open 7 days a week. Further, It is now possible to be sentenced for a couple of old posts on the Internet. Inevitably, this has posed an incredible threat on active opposition members.

In essence, people engaged in opposition activity in the Russian Federation now face the easiest choice possible: go to prison or try to leave the country.

Trendz correspondent Irina Yakovleva interviewed Andrei, a Russian political refugee in the Netherlands, former employee of Navalny's Saratov headquarters, and organiser of the charity initiative "To Be Good!".

- Let's start from the beginning of the journey. Why did you decide to leave Russia? Was it influenced by economic or political factors?

- There was my detention, there are such Ashniks, and also people threatened me directly that if I didn't testify in the sanitation case and against FbK, then I would at least get a criminal record for extremism.

- The E Center always comes up when it comes to political detentions. Was the decision to go to the Netherlands taken immediately after the threats?

- For a while, friends who had already left Russia wrote to me, telling me where they were and what they were doing, and asking what I was waiting for. I did not believe in principle that the issues around Navalyns headquarters would be taken so seriously. However, after what happened to Chanysheva and Fadeeva, I was wary of such outcomes. I made the final decision to go to the Netherlands when I was already in Georgia.

- So it turns out that you went to Georgia first? How are Russian immigrants received there?

- I liked it. I have only met nice people.

Georgians are extremely hospitable. For many people Russia is not yet Putin.

When the head of the family where I was a guest found out that I was being persecuted because I was an opponent of Putinism, he said that I could live in his house for as long as necessary. He introduced me to the family, told me a little about local customs and traditions, what to fear and what not to fear.

- In the end, however, you decided to move on. Why The Netherlands? Was there even a choice of countries at all?

- People can think what they want, but there aren’t many countries in the post-Soviet era that can refuse Russia, for example, in its demands for the extradition of certain people.

I also know that, I think Lithuania, has not extradited Leonid Volkov to Russia. As such, I chose the Netherlands mainly because there are already familiar activists here and I thought it would be easier to stick together and resist such pressures.

- What  did you do in Russia, apart from taking part in Navalny's headquarters?

- In Russia, I set up and coordinated an organisation to help the poor and pensioners.

We repaired the houses of poor old people and collected food for the hungry. We gave away second-hand clothes for free. Now nobody does that in my town.

- When you were involved in charity work, was there a problem with that part? I know that many such organisations often hit a ceiling, when they are told to help certain places, but not to go further as it is a different ‘territory’.

- We did not try to expand for the sake of expanding. We started by distributing hot food to the homeless and pensioners in the freezing December of 18. There was an immediate request for warm clothes.

We made a social media appeal and ended up providing not only the neighbourhood but also the neighbouring villages with clothes for both children and adults. Then another outlet appeared, and the villages got farther and farther away.

However, I have not noticed any problems on the part of the authorities. I was only persecuted for political reasons.

Things for the homeless and pensioners were brought in by the police, local officials, and ordinary townspeople. We were able to enthuse people of different views with a humane purpose.

- Do you remember your first day in the Netherlands?

- Of course I do. The asylum procedure, the arrest, your placement in prison, your fingerprints, the first interview, the cell.

- The processing begins with the arrest?

- The arrest and identification. You are essentially deprived of the ability to move at will and act on your own.

- How long were you in prison? In general, was it like a prison as we imagine it to be - a cot, bare walls, an iron door?

- Two weeks. No, it wasn't a bunk or any of the other stuff, but it was still a prison: steel doors that were locked at night, a table, a chair, a fridge, a kettle, a TV. Whilst in the corridor there were things for tennis and hockey, even some consoles, it was still very much a prison. Comfortable, of course, but a prison.

- Well, the experience was not the most pleasant. What was the procedure after "release"?

- This procedure is described in detail on the COA website, mine was no different. I was assigned to Limburg, AZC Echt. A second interview took place, then the positive in my favour came. Now I am on a housing waiting list in Chemt Bergen. My spouse is flying to the Netherlands soon so I think the procedure will now be adjusted.

- What are the challenges of living in AZC?

- There is freedom in AZC, and everyday life and comfort is not a priority for me if I don't have my family around.

- Living and comfort sounds like very relative terms.

- Well somehow it's relatively comfortable to eat frozen food for half a year (there are azz's where they feed and don't pay food allowance), or not being able to afford to buy yourself a new t-shirt.

Although it may sound like anything, an asylum seeker from Russia is more helpless than a refugee from Somalia. A Somali will have a working bank card opened in their country. That's just one difference.

- Are there other refugees from Russia? Who are they?

- Other refugees? Very different people. There's the man who lives in the next room who was an FSB officer and personally poured paint over Navalny's headquarters in Khabarovsk. He doesn't particularly regret what he did. He has nothing against Putin. He had nothing to buy his shoes with - the shoes he surrendered in said goodbye to this world. We gave him trainers.

Anya, however, and her partner, a Chechen girl, fled Chechnya for Russia. They were caught, brought back, and one eventually escaped from Russia. There was an article about them in the Meduza.

- Let's talk about adaptation. Do you have any help with the language, with integration?

- Today I had my first Dutch lesson in seven months. Now it's going to be three times a week. That said, it's not clear how I'm going to work if I have to attend classes. In general, of course, it helps to adapt, but here it depends on the individual SOA staff. Some are sympathetic and some are even harmful.

- Did you find a job quickly?

- There are plenty of jobs, not everyone will take me with my English, but there are options with Russian-speaking staff.

- Is there any volunteer help with the job? Is there such a circumstance in which the salary from the job removes any financial assistance for example?

- Yes, there are many examples of volunteers helping with job search. People who know the language help you write your CV and get to know the pay systems.

If a refugee has a salary of more than 2k Euro, the benefit is waived. If less, housing and utilities are simply deducted from the salary.

- It seems that obtaining asylum is a long process. How accessible is it to a person from Russia who is against the war, for example? After all, it's not enough to be against the state's policies, do you need some more proof of your position?

Of course there has to be proof. Protocols of arrests, searches, detentions.

A lot is changing now - and for the better - in the attitude towards Russians who oppose the war.

Personally, obtaining asylum was not as difficult for me as dealing with the psychological side of it - suddenly finding yourself alone, with nothing, with accounts blocked in a foreign country.

- Are you currently involved in any political or social activities?

- As a refugee, I try to get involved in the refugee assistance sector. Through me, Russian-speaking residents of AZC Echt ask for help. Many of them arrive with very few belongings having only taken what they had at the time. For example, they have no seasonal items and no money to buy them. The allowance is barely enough for food.

Several times I've filmed events and rallies as an official photographer for the organisers, and I edit videos from time to time, as needed.

I try to participate when I have enough energy, but to do it from AZC is morally incredibly difficult. You have no personal space here and it puts a lot of pressure on yourself.

- Was there a moment when you realised that you probably won't be able to go back to Russia again?

- I still believe that I will come back. These are all forced measures.
     

Interview by: Irina Yakovleva
Cover photo: IA Versiya-Saratov
Photos from Andrei's personal archive

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