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"In times of war, there is nothing more important than protesting against it." How a student from Kazan got a humanitarian visa to Germany

31.07.2023

On 24 February 2022, Ilya Zernov, an 18-year-old student from Togliatti, went on a solitary picket with the words "No to war".

This action drew the attention of the authorities - and Ilya was forced to leave Russia for Serbia. The activist told Media Loft correspondent Katya Kobenok how he joined the anti-war movement in Serbia, was beaten by supporters of the Serbian pro-Russian right-wing forces, and how, after a long wait, he received a humanitarian visa to Germany.

"The police figured me out from the cameras"

Ilya enrolled at Kazan Federal University to study History of International Relations in 2021. Before Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, he only managed to finish one semester.

Even from high school, Ilya started working for Oleg Stepanov, who was the head of Alexei Navalny's headquarters in Moscow. The young man was also a volunteer in the human rights project OVD-Info.

As soon as Ilya heard about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, he hung several posters with slogans on the balconies of his dormitory.

"In the last few days before the invasion, I followed the news and hoped that it would go away, I went to bed thinking "just so long as it doesn't start". When my hostel neighbour told me that the war had started, I didn't want to believe it. I was shaking, and in a kind of frenzy I bought some paper, boards and paint and brought it all to my room. And I drew three posters: "No to war", "No to annexation. No to war. No to Putin' and 'For our and your freedom'."

After that Ilya went on a solitary picket in the centre of Kazan. Afterwards he was not detained, but simply had his passport details noted.

"At that moment I received a call from my dormitory neighbour saying that the university administration and the police had figured me out through the surveillance cameras," the activist recalls.

Ilya himself says that for a long time he could not accept the attitude of many of his compatriots to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"How do people not understand what's going on at all? How can one support this, much less participate in it? Why didn't many people understand how important it was from that moment, on 24 February to go out and protest? This is beyond my comprehension."

On 27 February, three days after the invasion began, Ilya was at the Boris Nemtsov memorial rally.

"And in the evening of the same day I was detained at an anti-war rally. I spent the night in the police station, and the next morning I was taken to court in handcuffs. The session started only eight hours after my detention."

Threatened with a terrorist article

Ilya made the decision to leave Russia in early March, after the police searched his place and started making threats.

"Police officers came to my room in the dormitory. They threatened me with prison, physical violence, expulsion from the university," says the activist.

Ilya was surprised to learn that the search order included Article 207 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation - deliberate false reporting of an act of terrorism.

"I demanded that I be provided with a lawyer. Then a police officer came up to me, grabbed me by the hair and said that I would be 'smashed your f***ing face'." This is a direct quote. I was told that I would now go to the pre-trial detention centre, then to court, 'then on a stage'."

Ilya's laptop, phone, bank cards, anti-war posters and leaflets were confiscated and he was taken to the police station. At that time, the authorities had already passed a law on "fakes" about the Russian army, under which dozens of people would be detained and convicted in the following months.

"At the police station, a police officer threatened me, demanded that I keep my head down. He wanted me to write an explanatory note about some emails that didn't even have anything to do with me."

And yet in the very first minutes of the search, the police started asking about the anti-war picket that Ilya had held on the first day of the war.

"They told me bluntly that if they saw me again, I would no longer be free. By the way, the day before the search I was distributing leaflets, and I stuck up one leaflet right next to the police station".

"Here, rallies are normal"

After his detention in Russia, Ilya decided to leave the country. The choice fell on Serbia, where the rules on entry and residence for Russians are quite simple. The activist says he did not even consider those countries that issue visas.

"I was afraid that I might be arrested in Russia. I just heard about Serbia from acquaintances and decided to go there," he admits.

Once in Serbia, Ilya joined the anti-war movements of Russian immigrants.

"In times of war, there is nothing more important than to protest against it. And time after time you have to show that you don't regard it as normal, as acceptable."

Ilija says that protests are perceived quite calmly in Serbia, for the local population it's just an urban event.

"Rallies here are normal, it's not some kind of super event like in Russia. You just announce a rally, come to it, the police stand there, watch the order, and that's it. There are no special problems.

At a rally in support of political prisoners held in Belgrade in January this year, Ilya spoke about his friend Andrei Boyarshinov, a PhD in biology and environmental activist, who is accused by the authorities of "calling for terrorism" for his social media postings.

"I met him in the detention centre. Somehow we were detained together. I came  to an anti-war rally just as Andrei was being detained. And now he is still in the pre-trial detention centre," Ilya says.

Ilya learnt that when arresting Boyarshinov, the police officers broke down his door and kept him in a cramped position for several hours. Boyarshinov even temporarily lost sensation in his toes.

"He's an environmental activist, he's been out at other protests. Andrei is just standing up  for his beliefs because he is against this war," Ilya says.

"The attacker's mask had Putin's face on it"

Serbia is one of the European countries with many references to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Here they sell T-shirts with Z-symbols and ushanka hats with portraits of Putin - and at the same time there are anti-war marches with white-blue and blue-yellow flags.

There is a lot of graffiti in Belgrade, which has already become a characteristic feature of the capital.

Once on the wall of one of the houses Ilya saw a mural dedicated to PMC "Wagner" and the caption under it: "To Ukraine - death".

"When I saw it, I was just shocked. This is glorification of war crimes and criminals. To wish death to people - I couldn't believe that someone would do such a thing. So I decided to paint over it," says Ilya.

When the activist was finishing, a Serbian man leaned out of the window of the house and demanded he move away from the graffiti. He started filming Ilya on his phone, and then left the house and chased after him.

Ilya started to run away, but the man had already called for backup.

"Two men with sticks ran out towards me, grabbed me, pinned me against the wall and started asking who I was, what I was doing here. They started asking about my nationality, whether I was Ukrainian."

Ilya showed them his Russian passport. They sat the young man down on a bench, but did not let him go. The activist thought they were calling the police and calmed down.

"What happened was that they did not call the police, but their accomplice, who came wearing a  mask with Putin's face on it. The situation was just absurd."

The attacker approached Ilya with a quick step and punched him in the left ear.

"He stunned me. And then this man pulled out a knife, started threatening: "speak, Ahmat is a force (religious and political slogan in honor of the late President of Chechnya Akhmat Kadyrov, the official battle cry of the pro-Russian authorities of the Chechen Republic), apologise for ruining the mural." I said that I would not apologise. They hit me again for refusing. One of them took out brass knuckles and started showing them to me and threatening me."

The attackers demanded 500 euros allegedly for the damaged mural. They also called Ilya a Nazi and a Satanist.

"Through google translator they wrote that I was 'held hostage'. And demanded my passport to take a photo or else I would be beaten up. I said I didn't want to be beaten up, but I wouldn't show my passport either."

Then the four attackers shoved Ilya, took away his passport, took a photograph, returned the document and told him not to come to the area again.

However, the pain and deafness in Ilya's ear did not go away. He had to go to the doctor.

"The doctor said that my eardrum was punctured. When I told him what had happened, he said it was a serious offence and something like this should be reported to the police."

And then Ilya really decided to file a police report. He contacted the founder of the Russian Democratic Society, Pyotr Nikitin. Nikitin helped him make a police report and connected the activist with a free lawyer.

The long road to a humanitarian visa

Ilya recalls that he managed to apply for a humanitarian visa to Germany quite by accident. In August 2022, at an anti-war exhibition in Belgrade, he gave a lecture on "Is there mass support for war by Russian citizens". This lecture was attended by German journalists and representatives of the German consulate.

"They heard my story. Then I learnt about such an opportunity as a humanitarian visa. I contacted the organisation that dealt with it and told them about the persecution in Russia. I have documentary evidence, a search warrant, detention protocols, court orders."

The consulate recommended applying for a visa through lists of German organisations. Lists of visa applicants are compiled by various human rights organisations in Germany that help Russians under persecution.

"I wrote to different organisations, for example, inTransit. There they told me which organisations to apply to. It's worth contacting any journalists, acquaintances from Germany and in general anyone. It's really difficult and painful," says the activist.

The procedure takes a lot of time - Ilya waited for an answer from August to the end of February.

"And I just recently got approval; they told me to prepare documents for the German embassy in Belgrade. They will give me a visa there."

The activist was able to leave for Germany within three months of receiving his visa.

In Germany, Ilya is going to go to university to specialise in political science or public administration. Now he participates in local programmes for journalists and, of course, in anti-war rallies. In June, the activist went to protests in support of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny and also took part in the LGBT+ event Marzahn Pride 2023.

By: Katya Kobenok

Photo materials from the archive of Ilya Zernov

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