The New York Times published on Monday an article describing how thousands of middle-class Russians have fled the country for neighboring Armenia and (Republic of) Georgia since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the introduction of harsh sanctions for Russian dissidents.
This Kos diary is the story of one such family.
I must know Владимир Рябков (Vladimir Ryabkov) a few months ago when he booked a week-long vacation for his family at our Airbnb in Vancouver, Canada. It was a family trip — he was visiting Canada with his wife and two young daughters.
Mr. Ryabkov is typical of the small business middle class that emerged in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist economy at the end of the Soviet era. He ran a small Subaru repair garage in Tomsk – a small town (half a million) just north of Kazakhstan and Mongolia in southern Siberia. Although he was far from being a wealthy oligarch, he earned enough to afford to travel outside the country every year or two. Her next trip would take the family to Toronto and Vancouver for a month this summer.
Both Vladimir and his wife Anastasiia were what Americans would call “progressives.” They support the Russian dissident politician Alexei Navalny – currently the victim of politically motivated poisoning and imprisonment by the Putin government. The Ryabkovs believed that Navalny would eventually inspire the revival of democracy in Russia.
Then came the Putin-led invasion of Ukraine.
…and the crackdown on independent media across Russia;
…and new laws that criminalize treason:
- call the “military intervention” in Ukraine a invasion or one war
- publicly demonstrate against the invasion
(the penalty could be up to 15 years in prison and/or conscription into the Russian army with deployment to Ukraine to be used as cannon fodder by firing resistance fire or with orders to shoot Ukrainian citizens … or both.)
After the invasion, Vladimir and Anastasiia hit the sidewalks of Tomsk with homemade anti-war signs. The police stopped them and took their names, but that was just before the draconian anti-protest laws were passed. As soon as these new laws came into force, the police were on their doorstep to “gather further evidence” of their anti-war activities.
Vladimir and Anastasiia believed that the arrest could happen at any time. As well as leaving their young children in the hands of an unsympathetic government while they go to prison, an arrest would also mean that Vladimir could be drafted into the Russian army and – with a gun to his own head – given the order to fire on Ukrainian civilians.
Although Vladimir is a Russian citizen, he was actually born in Ukraine when Ukraine and Russia were part of the former Soviet Union. His mother is Ukrainian. His Grandmother was Ukrainian. If the Russians forced him to fight, the “enemy” in his sights would be his own people. It’s possible he literally found himself shooting his family – his cousins and uncles.
His reaction to this possibility:I left [Russia at] the possibility of being drafted into the army, then I would only have one choice, shoot myself.”
Within hours of the police visit, the family quickly packed up and fled Russia – first to Armenia, then to the Republic of Georgia, where they are living in a hotel and attempting to organize the next stage of their exile.
“I will never go back to Russia,” he told me in an email. “Because after Putin, something worse can happen. As long as there is no democracy in Russia, changes for the better are impossible”
Shortly after leaving Russia, Vladimir posted a powerful three minutes send a message to youtube — apologize to Ukraine and renounce Russian citizenship.
As a small business owner, Vladimir was able to set aside a nest egg that temporarily funds his exile. While this leaves him better than thousands of other exiles of conscience, he still left behind a well-established and successful business and almost all of his personal property and personal connections.
They are now a family with no country, no home, no support networks, no safety net, no work permit and no certainty for the future. Sitting in their hotel room in Tbilisi, Georgia, they are just as much refugees from Putin’s war machine as they are Ukrainian refugees settled in temporary accommodation in Poland or Romania.
It’s not a happy story, and it may not have a happy ending – the nest egg runs out when you can’t work, and the ‘no fuss’ EU asylum programs for fleeing Ukrainians the west do not yet apply to Russian anti-war dissidents fleeing Putin and Russian repression.
I hope the major cable news networks in North America and Europe will begin to shine a light on the Russians who chose to stand up against the invasion and who are now suffering the consequences. Their stories of resistance and courage should be good for morale in Ukraine, offer encouragement to other Russian dissidents, and remind the West that it’s not “the Russians”, it’s Putin and his invertebrate entourage, whose most are apparently aware that this is a big, big mistake for Russia, and who – like the sycophants who once inhabited Trump’s Oval Office – are afraid to tell the boss he’s hurting the homeland.