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“At the rally in Germany, the first thing I did out of habit was to watch which side the riot police would run from.” The story of the relocation of St. Petersburg ex-deputy Olga Galkina

In 2022, Germany became one of the few EU countries that actively promotes humanitarian visas for politically active Russians, including journalists, politicians, and opposition figures.

Olga Galkina, a former member of the Parliament of St. Petersburg, who left Russia with her family after the outbreak of war due to the threat of military persecution for political reasons, moved to Berlin, where she is now the coordinator of the Reforum Space resource centre.

Media Loft journalist Asya Morskaya talked with Olga about protests, social and political activities in Germany, as well as her plans for the future.

You can't leave, you can't stay

- Olga, as we know, in February 2022 you spoke out against the war, after which the SOBR came to your home in masks and with weapons, and then you decided to leave Russia urgently. After the start of the war and before the SOBR arrived, did thoughts about moving creep into your head?

- Of course not. When we discussed these issues within the family, we always came to the conclusion that we would not leave  St. Petersburg or Russia of our own free will, but if something threatened the family and children, then we would be ready to consider moving to Kiev. But, for obvious reasons, this move was impossible and we are unlikely to get to Kyiv in the foreseeable future, in fact, nor back to St. Petersburg.

- Why to Kyiv? Were there any friendly connections or did you just like the direction in which Ukraine was moving?

- I liked the direction, I liked the city itself. My cousin lived there for several years, and he also met the war there. I also have friends there. It seemed that if not St. Petersburg, then Kyiv.

- The irony of fate, it turns out.

- Exactly. But it happened as it happened.

- When it was already clear that you needed to leave Russia, how much time did you have to make at least short-term plans and think about it? What emotions did you experience when the prospect of returning to your favourite city again became impossibly vague?

- When I returned after the interrogation, I received a call from an acquaintance who, for several months before, had been contacting me constantly  with the idea that I needed to think about leaving. He warned that all this would not end well. I just politely said: “Yes, yes, thank you very much.” But when I returned after the interrogation and restored the SIM card (because my phone is still with the police), he called and said: “Well? What will you do now?

I was at a loss and didn't know what to do. On the one hand, I categorically did not want to leave. On the other hand, I saw how the children were frightened by all these procedures that were carried out right before their eyes.

I was told that I only had half an hour to make a decision on submitting documents so that they could take me and my family out of Russia along with other human rights activists.

Then we waited for documents, and at that moment I was no longer living at my registered address. I  already had the status of a witness in a criminal case about telephone terrorism. In order to reclassify me as a suspect, they had to first find me. I assumed that something might happen, so I didn’t live at home whenI left. I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone, and I didn’t get to say goodbye to the city.

We went out by car: me, my husband and my two children. In the trunk we had two children's backpacks and two small bags. The saddest moment was when we were driving away from the house (crying), my mother was standing at the entrance and crying. As you can see, I still can’t talk about it calmly . I roared along in the car on some parts of the road to the border .

- Did you travel through Finland?

- We drove through Estonia.

- Was it difficult to cross the border?

- At that time there were Covid restrictions, and we arranged a trip for medical reasons to a sanatorium. Actually, that’s why we couldn’t take a lot of things, because it would have raised questions at the border.

I know that many did not get to say goodbye, and for such people, of course, it is still difficult to digest this whole experience.

I have a friend, also from St. Petersburg. On February 24, the day the war began, he came to the office and told his colleagues: “Guys, this is a nightmare, I’m going to a rally in the evening.” He went to a rally and was jailed for 15 days. When he came out, his lawyer said that his case could be reclassified under other articles, and he was advised to leave. So, without going home or to the office, without communicating with anyone, he simply got into the car and drove off.

He left, like me, at the beginning of March. He is now in another country, but after some time we managed to meet. It became clear that it is psychologically more difficult for yourself to let go of St. Petersburg, Russia, when, firstly, you left not of your own free will, and secondly, you did not have time to say goodbye.

- It turns out to be such an open wound.

- That's how it happened. We had never been to Berlin before. I had only been  to Germany previously,  a very long time ago, during my student years. We have arrived in an unknown place.

And also, my observation in recent years is that for those who are younger, it’s all much simpler. The younger a person is, the more he perceives this experience as an adventure. I am now over 40, my husband will turn 50 in a month. It turned out that this is a complicated story, we had practically no acquaintances here, we were placed with a German family. Thank you very much to the Germans with whom we lived.

Germany gave us protection

- Did you feel the support of the German authorities?

- Yes, the way Germany received us, the way Berlin received us, will forever remain in our hearts. I feel extremely grateful.

After a year and a half, you are able to digest all this and draw some conclusions. The fact that Germany provided the possibility of protection, of course, helped a lot. Moreover, I am talking not only about myself, but also about politically active Russians who left persecution in Russia. There are hundreds of them, and they received humanitarian visas here.

Germany was the only EU country that provided humanitarian protection on very good terms.

You need to understand that oppositionists and political activists are people who do not have any reserves of money. Before we came here, someone borrowed money, someone else opened a fundraiser, someone else managed to quickly sell something. But in general, everyone arrived with absolutely nothing, if not in the red. So the social and financial protection that Germany provides is a huge help. Many thanks to Germany as a country for this, and I would also like to specifically mention Sergei Lagodinsky, a member of the European Parliament. In many ways, it was he who broke this story of the possibility of a humanitarian visa for Russians under paragraph 22.2.

- How do you feel here?

- When we arrived, we quickly got the children into school. In the morning I took them to school, and then finished crying by the time I picked them up. In general, I had a very long period of psychological work with myself over the course of many months. On the one hand, I felt like a traitor, because if I am a politician and public figure, therefore I should be in Russia. I left, but how many people are still there?

- But you are also a mother.

- Here. This is on the one hand.

On the other hand, I walked through Berlin, held the hands of my children and realised that I had made the right decision for their sake. According to my article, you can be imprisoned for up to seven years. If I had sat down, I think no one psychologist could have worked through the trauma that the children might have received.

From dictatorship to democracy

- In a nutshell, what are you doing in Germany now?

- In a nutshell it may not work. Firstly, I am the coordinator of the resource centre Reforum Space Berlin. In addition, I am one of the founders of the Course on Democracy project. This is a deep educational project aimed at politicians and public figures from Russia. The point is to use the example of Germany to see how you can move from dictatorship to democracy. We have already launched this project, the presentation will be in mid-October in Berlin.

I am also working on a project that is aimed at working inside St. Petersburg. It is very important for me not to lose touch with my favourite city. A group of like-minded people, some of whom, like me, are outside Russia, and some in St. Petersburg, decided to create a media platform, which currently exists on the basis of a telegram channel.

We will be launching a YouTube channel soon. We have created the “European Petersburg” movement, and the opportunity to provide an alternative media platform for St. Petersburg is very important to us. It was very important for me that there was a dialogue between those who left and those who stayed.

As part of “European Petersburg” we also launched an important project called “Brown Notebook”. This is in defiance of foreign agency lists that are published on Fridays.

We do a brown list on Mondays. These are the St. Petersburg residents who either supported the war or are actively promoting it. There are politicians, officials, judges, prosecutors, rectors, cultural figures. All this information can be seen in our telegram channel.

We collect cases, publish them, and then we plan to transfer these cases to the European Commission for the possible imposition of sanctions against these people.

Also, within the framework of “European Petersburg”, we support our St. Petersburg political prisoners. This topic is constantly hushed up on media platforms. There are, of course, popular characters, for example, Andrei Pivovarov, Sasha Skochilenko, but in reality there are many more political prisoners from St. Petersburg, and we would like to talk about them. It is very important that, on the one hand, they are on the news agenda, and on the other hand, that we provide them with assistance.

Even under the “European Petersburg” there is a council of deputies. There are both ex-deputies of the St. Petersburg parliament and municipal deputies, including current ones.

We are also working on a number of projects, in particular, this is an analysis of the current legislation of St. Petersburg, as well as writing the future charter of free St. Petersburg - in general, there is a lot of work.

- There is also an Association of Deputies?

- Yes, and this story also has a connection to me (laughs). It took quite a lot of time, we took the deputies to Bonn, a preliminary meeting had already taken place there, where it was decided to create an organising committee to establish an association of deputies.

All are very bright personalities and, one might say, stars. We are literally struggling with every comma in the documents, it turns out to be slow and hot work, but I really hope that we will have time to do everything we have planned and everything will work out.

- How is the dialogue developing between European politicians and the Association of Deputies? Are there any difficulties or limitations in this direction?

- You see, there is no association of deputies  yet. There are a number of municipal deputies, regional deputies who are now in forced emigration and are building communication with European politicians, but these are rather individual stories, although they also have their place.

In particular, I, for example, as one of the ex-deputies, am a member of the Brussels Contact Group, where there is a dialogue between Russians who are in forced emigration, and members of the European Parliament and staff of the European Commission, precisely on interaction, on how relations with Russia will develop now and in the future. The attitude towards Russians in exile is also discussed.

- As far as I understand, Reforum was conceived primarily as an organisation helping liberal-minded Russians in emigration who disagree with the current course of events. How often do Russian-speaking representatives of other countries come to the Reforum space and do Ukrainians come to events? Is it possible to build a dialogue in this case?

- The fact is that it was initially planned that Reforum resource centres, located not only in Berlin, but also in Tallinn, Vilnius, Tbilisi, Budva, would work with the community not only Russian, but also Ukrainian and Belarusian.

Now, having worked for about a year, I can say that it is already clear that both Ukrainians and Belarusians have quite strong communities of their own. Therefore, it turned out that usually we work with Russians who are in forced emigration.

With all this, we are trying to build a dialogue with both Belarusians and Ukrainians, of course, too.

Those who arrived over the past year and a half come to us. These are people who moved largely for political reasons. I can’t say that we had any incidents here or that someone came with a different position, but if they come, then they probably keep quiet and try to listen to our argument, and this is also a useful story.

"I will return to disenchant my fellow citizens"

- There is an opinion that the beliefs of arriving Russians differ depending on what wave of emigration they were in. Among those who moved in the 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are surprisingly many who support Putin. Have you encountered them? Maybe not in Reforum Space, but just on the street?

- Of course, I have, because I live in Marzahn (a district in the Berlin administrative district of Marzahn-Hellersdorf. Considered the last residential area of the GDR era and the most Russian district of Berlin - editor's note). There is a large community of Russians there who moved 20-30 years ago. My children go to a Russian-German school, their classmates are children from Russian-speaking families, but they were  born in Germany.

This is a very interesting experience.

I periodically tear down leaflets with photographs of Putin, which say that Putin is for peace.

I am careful in discussions because I understand that not everyone shares my views, but there are many who hold the same opinion as me. I talk to them with great pleasure.

In general, I am in good shape, sometimes they say to me: “It’s like you never left Russia.” I try to argue my position, I try to talk with these people (with people who have a different opinion - editor's note). Because I understand that I will have to return to Russia, return to St. Petersburg, disenchant my fellow citizens, and here it is important to choose the right words, formulations, arguments. Now I'm training.

- How do you feel about the fact that Germany allows Russian car rallies? Well, of course, this is not only German history. In Sweden, until recently, it was also possible to burn the Koran.

- This is exactly the other side of freedom of speech and rallies. In Russia, we cannot go out into the streets even with an individual picket. Yes, even without going outside, you can go to jail there. But here is the downside, here all this is possible, but, of course, sometimes excesses occur.

- It feels like this is a kind of price that needs to be paid for supporting democracy, because if you start banning one opinion, then you will want to ban another, a third...

- Yes, so you can ban everything else and reach a situation like we now have in Russia.

When I went to the first rally here after moving, my children were very scared: “Mum, mum, don’t go, they’ll put you in prison!”

I remember my reaction too. We stood at the Russian embassy on Unter Den Linden, several cars with sirens drove by. In Berlin it is usually very loud, I was not used to it at that time. My reaction was such that, out of habit, I began to watch which side the riot police would run from. They told me: “Relax, the riot police won’t run.” I didn’t immediately begin to feel relaxed at the rallies.

- In addition to being a politician and coordinator of Reforum Space, you are also a mother. How difficult was it for you to adapt to Germany in this role? How do children cope with the move?

- It’s easier for my son. He was younger then, when we moved to Berlin, we urgently found him a football team. He is 8 now and has been playing football since he was three. He lives for football, and we realised that if we don’t find a use for him here from a football point of view, he will ask to be immediately sent back to Russia. The local team only speaks German, so he has come a long way in this last year and a half.

It turned out to be more difficult with my daughter; she still says that she wants to return to St. Petersburg, to our apartment. She thinks about it very often, but she is sure that she will no longer be able to live there, because she would be afraid that one day in the morning the “uncles” will come again.

She is now 11, she also goes to school here, as well as having a German tutor and to dance classes.

- Do you yourself want to return to St. Petersburg?

- Of course, this is all I live for; I didn’t even fully unpack my suitcases.

- Under what conditions would you be ready to do this?

- As soon as I understand that I and my family would not be in danger of going to prison.

I understand that Russia will probably be very turbulent in the future, but I am ready to return and reassemble my country and my city so that Russia has a chance to follow a democratic path of development.

By: Asya Morskaya