Russian dissidents seeking asylum in Catalonia after the war broke out
Eco-activist tells of his house burning down after leaving the country, while Putin opponents face tough crackdown
Thousands of Ukrainians have had to uproot their lives and relocate to Catalonia as refugees since the beginning of Russia's war in their country.
However, Ukrainians are not the only people who have faced issues as a result of the war. Many Russians who oppose the politics of Vladimir Putin have faced serious repercussions for publicly voicing their anger against the invasion, from detention to fines, and perhaps even worse.
Catalan News spoke with three such people about their stories: Russian nationals who have felt the need to flee their home country for fear of persecution for showing their opposition to the war in Ukraine, and who are now living in Catalonia.
Anna Shevchenko and Nikita Kazantcev are a young couple currently in the process of regularizing their refugee status in Barcelona. As soon as the war started, they were involved in some of the earliest protests against it in their home country, organizing themselves with a larger activism group.
On the first weekend after the invasion began, Nikita says he was arrested in Moscow, and ended up spending a month in jail. Meanwhile, Anna happened to be traveling in India when the war broke out and found it very difficult to return to her friends, family, and fellow anti-war activists.
Three-strikes arrest system
Nikita explained the danger he and other activists faced when protesting against the war: in early 2022, there was a three-strikes system in force. The first arrest led to a fine of 15,000 rubles, equivalent to around €200 – but as Nikita points out, this is the monthly salary of a teacher in many parts of the country. "That's how they try to scare people to not go to the protest," he says.
After the second arrest, the detainee faces jail time of around one month, or else a much larger fine of around €15,000. The third strike can yield imprisonment of up to three years, and after two arrests already, Nikita felt it was time to leave the country.
Even while not protesting against the war, Nikita explained how he did not trust the police force in Russia and felt it was safer to flee. "In Russia, if you see a policeman, he can actually put drugs in your pocket and arrest you," Nikita claims. While he was in jail, he also met a Korean man who had been detained for painting his fingernails blue and yellow.
While in different parts of the world, Anna and Nikita wanted to reunite but didn't have a plan for where or how. "I wanted to be a volunteer on the Ukraine-Poland border, because my activism in Russia had become dangerous and useless, actually," Anna explains, with Nikita adding that it was impossible for the activist group to "go big" because they could get locked up for up to "15 years."
Arrival to Barcelona
Anna had a visa for the Schengen zone already and thus wanted to make her way to the Ukrainian-Polish border to help refugees fleeing the invaded country. She had a visa that lasted only two weeks, but Poland wouldn't process the refugee status for Russian nationals because they were assisting so many Ukrainians at the time.
Instead, Anna came to Barcelona to undergo the refugee process here, as they said that obtaining refugee status in Spain was easier than in most other countries, albeit a very lengthy process.
Nikita's situation was a lot more complicated. He felt unsafe after receiving a message on a municipal appointments application used in Russia telling him to go to see a judge to have a "conversation" with him, as Nikita puts it. He adds that this happened at the beginning of the mobilization of civilians to be sent to the front lines.
"I decided to go somewhere, just not to be in Russia because I felt that something bad could happen to me. Either they could force me to go to war, because I can go to war physically, medically, so it could be an instrument of repression in Russia if you're in opposition. Either war or jail. I don't like the war, and I don't like jail, so I decided to go Georgia." At the time, he also says police visited his home and his parents' home in search of him, leaving him feeling very unsafe.
By late September 2022, he first crossed the southern border into Georgia on foot, and eventually made his way to Armenia where from there he looked for a flight to Spain. However, without a visa, getting a direct flight to Spain would be extremely difficult, so instead, he purchased a flight to South America – where visas are not needed for Russian travelers – with a layover in Barcelona.
"When I arrived, I tried to escape the airport and some guards asked me what I'm doing here," Nikita says, explaining that he was seeking asylum. "They didn't understand at first and tried to deport me to the country I was coming from." Eventually, the border guards understood his situation and began the refugee process for him, all the while keeping him detained in a migration center.
After a lot of stress for Nikita to get out of Russia, and a long time separated from each other, the couple were finally reunited safely in Barcelona.
Eco-activist's house burns down
Andrei Paniushkin is an environmental activist from the Krasnodar region of Russia who proudly declares himself a "pacifist" who opposes all forms of war and violence. He has long been involved in environmental activism and has experience writing articles and blog posts about his points of view, and when the full-scale invasion began last February 24, he started to write about his feelings on the war.
"I felt a rising pressure from authorities in Russia," Paniushkin says, making him decide to leave his hometown for some time "and let pressure decrease." While away, his neighbor told him that police officers began gathering information about and "prepared a kind of criminal offense" against him, he claims.
Because of this, the activist decided to leave Russia with a tourist visa he already had. "I have friends here in Spain and in other European countries, I decided just to be a tourist, come here, stay for a while, eat good food, drink wine."
While in Barcelona, he met with some Ukrainian refugees who told him of their plight, stories which he included in some of the articles he continued to write. "At the beginning, they were so angry about my Russian nationality, and they said a lot of real truths, real evidence about the war in Ukraine. So I shared that with my neighbors back there in Russia."
Paniushkin believes that local authorities or police officers read what he was writing and targeted him as a result. "I think when I wrote that I will come back some day, the catastrophe occurred."
The catastrophe that he refers to happened in early December 2022. While grocery shopping in Catalonia, one of his neighbors video-called him. Upon answering, they told him and showed him that his house was on fire. They told him that they had already rung the fire department too, but Paniushkin tells Catalan News that no fire brigade arrived at the scene for an hour and a half, despite being located only 1km away.
"All cameras, all security devices, all network devices, they all lost supply in same moment," Andrei claims, having seen information from his provider that the cameras cut out at the same moment in the middle of the night. "I think they waited 12 hours to let all batteries lose their charge, and they did it."
Filing police reports came to no avail, and Andrei even goes further: "They unofficially said that I should understand that everything that happens is because of my political activity. Unofficially, unofficially in personal talk, without record," he claims.
"I see no other reason, only my public opinion about war. My journalist articles and blogs and everything comments about war. That's only one reason why in two months after I flee Russia, suddenly my house burned down and I have nothing."
Longing for an eventual return
Despite their troubles, all of Anna, Nikita, and Andrei all say they would like to one day return to their home countries, but all three affirm that the circumstances would need to be very different. "I want to return to Russia, but not modern Russia, because modern Russia is an abuser," Anna said, with Nikita adding – "an imperialistic abuser."
"But I really love Russian culture," Anna continues. "I have an education in Slavic Russian languages. It's very hard for me to discuss because it's like an abusive relation with my country and my culture. But I'm afraid for Russian people."
Nikita wants to see a very different political and administrative system in place. "If I try to think about Russia where I want to return, it would be very divided by areas, like the actual federation with local governments inside of the areas with local ethnic groups, and this would be not vertical from Moscow," the activist says.
"Of course I want to move back, I want to build a new, free Russia," Andrei says. "I don't think Russia in the next ten years will be happy because we will suffer a lot, but I want to build a free Russia with free people and I am absolutely sure that I will move back someday."
He believes he will be "prosecuted" if he returns any time in the near future, so he does not plan on moving back soon, but he is very determined that a brighter future will come to his homeland, and he is eager to be a part of that.
"I think we need to build a core of active Russians, Russian speaking people together with Ukrainian people, to bring new perspectives and a new future."
"I promise it to my neighbors, I will definitely move back to Krasnodar, to Goryachy Klyuch, and rebuild my house and my country."