It's just over a year since Moscow claimed Crimea as part of Russia. After Russian President Vladimir Putin and Crimean leaders agreed upon it, it needed the approval of Russia's parliament, the Duma. It passed, of course, with 443 deputies voting in favor. Just one person voted against it (with one other abstaining).
That sole Russian politician who voted against Russia's annexation of Crimea? His name is Ilya Ponomarev, the State Duma representative from Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city. But 12 months after that vote, you won't find Ponomarev walking around Novosibirsk or in Moscow. Instead, he's in the United States: He has effectively become an exile.
"Well, you see, I'm here," he says in a Washington cafe when asked about the consequences of his vote on Crimea. "That's the outcome."
Last summer, after a period of remarkable public demonization in the wake of the Crimea vote (a billboard in the center of Moscow described him as a “national traitor"), Ponomarev was on a trip to California when he was told that he wouldn't be allowed to return to the country. In response to a civil suit alleging that he improperly took money out of the tech development-based Skolkovo Foundation, Ponomarev says that the Russian state used legislation designed to keep people in the country to keep him out.
Immune from prosecution because of his elected position, Ponomarev reasons that they just wanted him out of the picture, though he has smuggled his voting cards back to Moscow so he is still able to function politically in absentia. "I don't think they want to create another political martyr," he adds.
The Russian opposition movement certainly doesn't need more martyrs. Alexei Navalny, an upstart anti-corruption blogger, spent a year under house arrest and faces further problems. Oligarch and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky wasted a decade of his life in Russian prison camps and is effectively, like Ponomarev, an exile. Worst of all, long-standing opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was fatally shot in Moscow last month.
Ponomarev says he wasn't surprised that an opposition leader was killed, though he is surprised that someone as high-profile as Nemtsov was chosen. "The message was mainly for the West," he reasons, saying the killing appeared to be tied to political rivalries among those close to Putin.
Compared with these opposition leaders, Ponomarev got off lightly, but it's still an upsetting situation. His children remain in Russia, with their grandparents, and Ponomarev's wife recently fled the country in fear for her safety. Ponomarev now spends most of his time in California, but he's on a tourist visa and must stick to a strict set of rules to keep his seat back home in the Duma. "I am by law prohibited from having a [bank] account here," he says, "and I can tell you, without an account in the U.S., it is extremely hard to live here."
As bad as the situation is for the opposition movement in Russia, Ponomarev isn't sure that Western intervention can really help. “Whatever interference there could be, in Russia it is definitely counterproductive," he said. "Whatever you touch turns to dust, at best." Instead, he said that the West should focus on helping Ukraine, even arming it. "Right now interference of the West is associated with misery, chaos and corruption, and that’s what we see in the Ukraine," he says. "If Ukraine can be successful, it’s a showcase that Western interference can be productive." He also suggests that economic sanctions against Russians should be expanded to all Russian government workers and their families.
Ponomarev is well aware that for a Russian, his deep opposition to the government puts him in the minority: Polls have shown remarkably resilient public support for Putin's foreign policy. However, Ponomarev explained that this was a consequence of a wartime mentality and likened Putin's huge approval ratings to popular support for Czar Nicholas II in 1914. "These polls, they really show nothing," he says, adding that many of Putin's biggest critics were now, like himself, living abroad.
As an exile, the Russian lawmaker has to try to make sense of the U.S. political world, and it's not an easy task. His own political leanings fall far to the left, though they are unorthodox (he's described himself as a "libertarian Communist"). Neither of the mainstream American political parties appeal to him, and he's disheartened by how much domestic debates weigh on international policy. He feels that the Democrats are "balanced" but "extremely passive," while the Republicans are very "willing to act" but don't grasp the nuances.
Both parties need to do more to reach out to the Russians leaving Russia, he says, and be aware of the threat posed by RT, the Kremlin's international news organization. "I think that RT is more disruptive and more dangerous for the West than ISIS," Ponomarev says, referring to the notorious Islamic State group that operates in Syria and Iraq.
Given how complicated his life has become in the past year, why did Ponomarev make his risky vote? "That's what everyone asks," he laughs. He said he was concerned that the vote would turn Russia's neighbor, a country with which Russians have deep historical links, into an enemy. Ultimately, he feels he has been proven right over the past year. "If you take someone else's territory, that's how you end up. It’s an act of war," he says. "It’s like if the U.S. would try to take Nova Scotia for some reason."