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Human rights/Russia

"Thinking people are leaving Russia": interview with Ark founder Anastasia Burakova


What has Russia lost with the new wave of emigration? How can these people find themselves in a country that has welcomed them? What do the Russians fleeing the Putin regime have in common with the Germans fleeing the Hitler regime 80 years ago?

We spoke to Anastasia Burakova, a lawyer, human rights activist and founder of the Ark project, about this and much more.

This interview was very personal for me: it was thanks to the Ark and its volunteers that I was able to prepare the necessary documents for my move and learn more about the country to which I had safely relocated. Ark also helped me get into a language course to prepare for the IELTS exam which I will be taking this year.

24 February 2022 with us forever

 "Ark" is a project to help Russian expatriates who condemn the military aggression against Ukraine. It was launched in early March 2022, days after Russian troops invaded the neighbouring country.

Burakova believes that the 24th of February 2022 is a date that will be forever with both the current generation of Russians and those to come.

"You can talk about the economy, human capital, international contacts, but most importantly, people are dying every day at the hands of the Russian army in Ukraine, losing their homes. Their lives will never be restored," says the human rights activist.

Ukraine has been living under incessant Russian shelling for a year now. According to the UN, in 12 months of war in the country more than 8,000 civilians - including 500 children - have been killed and more than 13,000 have been wounded in varying degrees of severity. However, experts note that this is only the data that they have been able to confirm. In reality, there are many more victims of Russian aggression.

"White Rose" inside Russia

Since the beginning of the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine, thousands - maybe even tens of thousands - of Russians have been fleeing Russia. People were fleeing fear, uncertainty and the beginning of a protracted economic crisis. They also left, both the activists, against whom a new article on "fakes" about the Russian army had been opened, and ordinary people, who did not want to be associated with the government, which had launched a destructive war. In late February and early March, there was panic at airports; people were afraid of the closure of borders.

The Ark calculated that the outflow of population from Russia for the year was 2 million people. The comparison has been made between Russians fleeing the Putin regime and Germans who fled the Hitler regime almost 80 years ago.

And Burakova believes that the two - though different - situations are indeed similar:

"If you take objective circumstances out of the equation - the same globalisation, easier movement of labour and capital - then the general picture is similar: thinking people are leaving Russia, there is negative selection in all spheres."

However, there remains a "white rose" inside Russia, says the human rights activist.

"These are those who, despite repression, the danger of huge prison sentences, continue to fight the system and the militaristic machine."

"We have a sticky fear instilled in us."

Putin is now waging a bloody war against Ukrainians, killing them and depriving them of their homes. And in his own country he has long been killing every voice of dissent from the Kremlin.

"Putin started the war against the people of Russia many years ago: destroying the right to freedom of the media, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly. During authoritarianism we have been deprived of democratic institutions, we have a sticky fear that will be excruciatingly difficult to eradicate."

Burakova believes that the Kremlin is now actively using the "Russophobia" narrative to convince Russians that its criminal policies are correct:

"The whole world is against us because we are Russian and only Putin is the protector" is a very convenient propaganda device. National exclusivity requires no personal involvement and absolves the individual of responsibility for his actions".

At the same time, it is the Kremlin that threatens neighbouring countries and the world at large with nuclear weapons, and it is the Kremlin that is waging a war of aggression against Ukraine, the human rights activist reminded.

"And this is being done on behalf of the Russians. It is easy to convince people who see other countries only on TV: the vast majority of the country's population could not afford to travel abroad even during the fat years of Putin's 'stability'."

GDP growth in relocating countries

Ark specialists are now seeing rising GDP figures in visa-free countries for Russians.

"Some are creating preferential conditions for high-tech companies, primarily in the IT sphere. For example, in Armenia, one of the first chat rooms for emigrants was created with the support of the country's Ministry of Economy - one can get advice on repatriation, starting a business and other issues," says Burakova.

Emigrants, together with local residents, organize the urban environment where they live; they sort waste, as well as hold cultural events.

Recently, authorities in Armenia, a country to which more than 100,000 Russians have migrated, said the planned GDP growth rate has almost doubled. Instead of 7%, it is estimated at almost 13% - and much of this is due to Russian emigrants, the authorities admit.

This trend has been observed in almost all the post-Soviet countries to which the Russians have flocked.

"Trying to live in their own little world".

For all of 2022, the departure of Russians has been patchy or even wave-like, Burakova notes.

"The first big wave was the end of February and March 2022. The Ark received more than 100 applications a day for temporary accommodation and several hundred questions in the legal aid bot. The second wave was from late September to mid-October 2022, after the announcement of mobilisation in Russia".

However, the first wave was much more "politicised" than the second:

"I'm not just talking about activists, journalists, human rights activists, but also ordinary people who signed anti-war petitions, sent money to Ukrainian organizations, went out to protest, wrote posts on social networks.

The second wave that began after the mobilization began was more apolitical, the human rights activist believes. It was the shock of the introduction of the mobilisation decree that was the main factor behind the exodus.

"We did not meet supporters of the war, rather ordinary people who were trying to live in their own little world.

At adaptation meetings in visa-free countries in late September and early October, Ark provided both practical information about the host countries and links to independent media that tell the truth about the war and the Russian regime, anti-war and humanitarian projects that you can join to help," Burakova says.

Now some people are coming back, even though the mobilisation decree has been in force since last September and the risks have not disappeared. Sometimes Ark receives information about spot mobilisations in individual cities.

"Everything depends on the Kremlin's actions, which defy logic"

At the end of August 2022, the European Union decided to suspend its agreement with Russia from 2007, which made it much easier for Russians to obtain Schengen visas. There were many media reports at the time that the EU could completely ban the issuing of visas to Russian citizens. The Baltic States and Finland were in favour, but Germany and France opposed the policy.

Now it is difficult to say whether Russian emigrants and returnees, both current and future, should fear a stricter visa regime, Burakova said.

"I'm afraid no one can say for sure here. It depends on many factors, and first and foremost on the actions of the Kremlin, which do not obey any logic or common sense."

She reminded that decisions not to let in Russians with open Schengen visas, issued in other states, are made at the legislative level of specific countries. Now only the Baltic States, Poland and the Czech Republic have introduced such restrictions, while other states have not announced such plans so far.

EU countries have not stopped issuing work visas, digital nomad visas and other types of visas that allow Russians to move and work legally.

"The restrictions affected short-term (popularly known as tourist) visas, which do not allow residence and work in the country," Burakova explained.

A number of European countries offer the opportunity to legalise those with a remote income - so-called freelancer or digital nomad visas, she says.

"First independent trip abroad"

For many, especially second wave relocates, emigration was their first "independent" trip abroad. Therefore, some of those who left are not always aware of what they will do where they arrived. Burakova stresses that many emigrants arrive with the belief that moving to Europe automatically means a high standard of living and job opportunities.

"There are also many misconceptions about refugeeism: some people perceive it not as protection from the risks of persecution in Russia, but as an easy way to move and legalize, which is very far from the reality."

Another chance for opponents of war to leave Russia is to get a humanitarian visa. As of October 2022, Germany had approved more than 250 humanitarian visas, Poland, Lithuania even more.

"The procedure takes time to verify the case, also the queue at the embassies where the person gets the visa plays a role, because apart from humanitarian visas consular offices do their usual work and the staff remains the same," Burakova explains.

European countries now allow for humanitarian visas outside the country of citizenship or residence permit. Therefore, a person with persecution risks in the Russian Federation may travel to a visa-free country and expect a visa there already.

Ark's future

Burakova says that Ark is now beginning to gradually refocus on post-relocation assistance:

"Language learning, psychological assistance, networking, public diplomacy activities with the host society, establishing communication with the Western democratic community - that's what the project is doing now."

"The Ark has already launched a line of work with repatriated businesses, and will soon launch an initiative to develop individual economic activities for emigrants.

Since its founding, Ark has helped hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Putin's war. The initiative started with a few lawyers, a simple Telegram bot and two co-livings in Yerevan and Istanbul. And now the project itself supports around 240 anti-war initiatives and projects, talks about anti-war protests around the world, and tells the truth about war and the Kremlin regime.

The Ark team consists of more than 1,700 people, including chat room moderators, psychologists, lawyers, language teachers, IT specialists and many others. Together they continue to help Russians who disagree with Putin's regime.

By: Katya Kobenok

Photos from the personal archive of Anastasia Burakova

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