He escaped to Estonia in December, leaving behind his wife, two daughters and scientific career.
The prosecution of more and more opponents of President Vladimir Putin means that a widening circle of Russians may confront similar decisions. The main leaders in Moscow have vowed to stay and fight despite the court cases stacking up against them, but less visible figures are agonizing over whether there’s anything to gain behind bars.
“It’s a very personal matter,” Gazaryan said during a conversation on Skype. “I decided freedom was better than prison, especially Russian prison. You are a hostage in prison, and your family will suffer a lot.”
The authorities have been bearing down hard on the opposition since a May 6 demonstration, on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, when police clashed with protesters.
Investigators accused 18 protesters of mass rioting and assaulting police, and have recently said 12 of those cases are ready for court. One man among the original 18 cooperated with police, saying he had grappled with an officer and regretted it. In November he got 41
2 years in jail, an unmistakable signal that protest would be treated harshly.
In August, after three members of a feminist punk rock group were sentenced to two years in jail for performing an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s main cathedral, two other, unidentified members of the group reportedly left the country and went into hiding. By some estimates, hundreds of activists have done the same, and the magazine New Times recently published a five-page guide for would-be asylum-seekers, offering information on the most receptive countries and advice on how to get there.
The numbers remain unclear, but Marina Popova, coordinator of the Sixth of May Committee, organized to protect protesters who are under threat, said she knows of about 10 who have made their departures public.
“Others are keeping it quiet,” she said. “Only their closest relatives and friends know.”
Anastasia Rybachenko, a 21-year-old student, thinks hundreds may have quietly left, hoping that someday they can return. Rybachenko, who protested in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6, was in Strasbourg, France, for an event at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in July when she was told police had searched her apartment.
“The investigators called me as a witness in the case,” she said. “But the search of a witness’s apartment means the witness will soon become a suspect.”
Rybachenko stayed abroad. Her university in Moscow expelled her. Garry Kasparov, the chess champion and opposition leader, and Boris Nemtsov, another longtime Putin nemesis, helped her enter a university in Estonia, where she is finishing her last year.
“I did not want to waste four years in prison,” she said. “I am more useful as a free person. I can finish my education, get experience, and someday I hope I can return. I want to contribute.”