“Sasha”, a young Vesna activist, fled Russia after receiving threats for participating in demonstrations. It took him three days to drive 2000 km to Georgia where he is continuing to fight for democracy and respect for human rights.
The day after Russia initiated a full-scale war against Ukraine, the youth organization Vesna held demonstrations all around Russia. The biggest one was held in Moscow and Sasha was one of the main organizers. His name is not Sasha but to protect his family in Russia he wishes us not to disclose his real name.
“One of the other Vesna activists had been attacked and beaten up in his home. Before the actual demonstrations we had met at his place and I guess the police believed that his home was the main office of Vesna, which it wasn’t,” he says in an interview held in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Upon on finding out his friend had been beaten he went to visit him at the hospital.
“When I came back home someone had painted Z on my door. I realised then that I had to leave Russia,” Sasha continues.
Members beaten by the police
The youth protests led by Vesna attracted a lot of interest from youth all over the country the day after Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine. The response from the authorities was to crack down on any dissent. Russian authorities targeted and accused several members of Vesna, who often were detained; some were beaten and many more threatened.
Sasha realised he had to leave and took his car and drove 2000 kilometres to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where many other Russians have found refuge.
“It took me three days to drive. When reaching Rostov, southern Russia. When I came close to the border of Ukraine, Luhansk region, I was a fuel truck explode and burn. Maybe it had been attacked because of the war, but I don’t know what had happened to it,” he says.
He continued driving south and when arriving in the Russian southern region he was stopped by traffic police. There were many others driving this road to go to Georgia and Sasha believes that the police knew that and would take advantage of the people fleeing Russia.
“The police there are known to ask for money. So, I was stopped on a traffic offense I had not committed. And if I didn’t pay the police officers the 50,000 rubles they asked for, they would have forced me back to Moscow,” says Sasha.
After that he stayed the night and the following morning continued to the border. But there he got stuck again because an avalanche of snow was blocking the only road in to Georgia.
“I stayed awake in the car all night. It was winter and cold, but I had to keep awake and move forward when the traffic moved. Otherwise, I would have lost my place in the queue,” he continues.
In Georgia Sasha continues to work with Vesna to bring democracy to Russia. The Russian authorities are in May going to label Vesna as an extremist organization. This would effectively make it an offense to spread Vesna’s information or support them with money. We asked Sasha why the authorities are so worried about Vesna:
“Before the war I had to struggle to find young people in Moscow who wanted to join our movement but when the war began, we could quickly organize the biggest anti-war campaign in Russia. We are now one of the biggest organisations that are against the war, this has also given us greater responsibility.”
“Now there are many young people who want to work with us despite the risks. We have built a good structure and we have a governing council. Still, the police know nothing about the structure of our organization,” says Sasha.
Fighting in the legal system
The Russian legal system has systematically used legal measures to stop any opposition. In 2022 the public prosecutor opened up a criminal case against the Vesna the organization. At first instance the organisation and some members of if ended up on the foreign agent list. With that legal decision some of the Vesna coordinators became officially wanted by police and some members were put under house arrest. The next step is to classify Vesna as an extremist organisation.
“Our lawyers have appealed against the decision to define Vesna as an extremist organization. But in May 2023, they will decide in the second court level and label us as an extremist organizations. Then they can charge anyone who is part of the movement as an extremist, which means you could face ten years in prison, even if you have just posted something on the internet,” he says.
Despite this, Sasha believes that it is still worth to fight the decisions within the legal system:
“It’s essential to stretch the system and give us more time. Also, it is important to demonstrate that even the Russian state system need to follow the rule of law. They cannot arrest someone for extremism if the legal procedure is not done correctly. So, the court is important and therefore the lawyers try to stretch the processes so long as possible. In the end this will also help people in danger that need to be evacuated right now,” says Sasha.
In the end Sasha found it unsecured to stay in Russia. It is now more than a year since he left Russia. As for many, his journey was dramatic:
Currently there are about 120 000 Russians in Georgia. Since the war in 2008, when Russia occupied parts of the country and formed two so called “republics”, there are no diplomatic relations between the countries. Still, Russians can enter without visa and trade between the countries is important. Georgia has not joined the sanctions against Russia.
“Those of us who left for political reasons are a minority and we know each other well. Most Russians came here to not be enlisted in the army. They might not publicly be against the war, and they are clearly not supporting the regime and they don’t want to pay Russian taxes, taxes that would fund the army,” says Sasha.
“I have not met any direct aggression from Georgians. Most are welcoming. You will find some graffiti with writings such as ‘Russians go home’. But you will never be told that straight to your face.”
Sasha has learned to read and speak some Georgian and he is truly grateful for the hospitality of the Georgian people. Living in Georgia has made him realise how bad his own country has behaved against their neighbour country.
“It is actually insane how the Russian government have acted so brutally against this country. But still, we Russians can enter without visa and stay for up to one year!”
But life as an exile in Georgia is far from easy. Or as Sasha puts it:
“The first nine months, I was just confused, and I didn’t know what to do. Now I have a clear plan. I am currently working as a media manager.”
Sasha had to drop out of law school in Moscow, but in the future he hopes to be able to work as a lawyer. He is renting a cheap apartment and tries to spend as little as possible.
“I have my mother back home in Moscow and my grandmother. I try to help them from here, and even more important, I try not to create any problems for them.”
Sasha wants to return to Russia but at the moment it is not possible.
“I didn’t plan to be exiled, but at the moment it is not possible. Therefore, I’m grateful for the opportunity here in Georgia. I don’t know where I would have gone as I don’t have any European visa.”
Protests against foreign agent law
Georgia is dominated by the Georgia Dream party which has step by step moved closer to Russia. The ruling party in Georgia has hesitated to support Ukraine. Youth leaders and oppositions groups call their policy the “Russification” of Georgia.
When the dominating Georgia Dream party tried to implement laws against foreign agents, modelled upon the Russian laws, massive protest broke out and in the end the regime had to withdraw the laws.
When the protests broke out Sasha went there to observe – and to learn for the future:
“I have never been to any protest outside of Russia, so I went to learn more. The most important difference from protests I witnessed in Georgia was the demographic of those who took part in the protest. In Russia those who go to a rally would mostly be women and retired people, not many young men. In Georgia it was many young participating and ready to confront the police, something that would not happen in Russia,” he says.
“The demonstrations here were well organised with young people in the front, ready to confront the police. They would saw division with those who would try to divide the crowd. These people were ready to confront the police. The other part of the crowd is more like us in Russia. They stand farther from the line of confrontation, act mostly as support. And when the police use water cannon and tear gas the first group returns to the major group.”
In Russia, the police would just brutally beat old women, children and others who cannot protect themselves. In Georgia it is different, the protesters fight back. Sasha notes that the police in Georgia doesn’t want to arrest or detain as many as possible. The Georgian police try to push people out of the space, not arrest them.
“The difference is not only about brutality, but also that the police in Russia punish people for participating in protests. They don’t want anybody to protest. They try to detain as many as possible so that people will never protest again,” says Sasha.
He also points out that the risk of participating in protests in Russia are much greater. Taking part in a demonstration can give up to ten years in prison and taking part in the opposition movement can ruin one’s possibility to get married, have children and ever form a family.
“That is a high price to pay for a protest. Still, I hope our grassroot movement will rise, and we want Russians to recognise what is happening even if they do not dare to take part in protests. And of course, for those who dare, we are grateful, and we try to make their protests as safe as possible.”
And even though the future is everything but certain, Sasha is certain that changes will come to Russia:
“Probably, the war will last as long Putin is still in power. For him the war has a clear purpose. We respect the Ukrainian’s right to protect themselves. We are hundred percent anti-war and our goal is the immediate end of to the war and transition to peace negotiations.”
The next goal for the opposition is the Russian presidential election that will take place in March 2024.
“Probably Putin will run for president again, but things could happen, especially if there are changes within the ruling structures in Russia. And if things happen to Putin, the system will collapse as everything is centred around him.
Note: Sasha is a pseudonym and for security reasons we are not able to publish a photo of him.