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Opinion Escape from Russia: A young college student tells his tale

Misha Sukhoruchkin (Lee Hockstader for The Washington Post)

The knock at Misha Sukhoruchkin’s college apartment door came shortly before dinner time, and a voice outside said, “Delivery.” When he opened up, two Russian paramilitary police and five plainclothes officers burst in, ransacked the place and hauled him away. By the time they were done at the police station — where he was forced to sign and videotape a “confession” expressing his “love” for Vladimir Putin, then roughed up by goons who threatened to break his hands with a hammer — the baby-faced 18-year-old had made his decision: It was time to leave Russia.

Misha’s odyssey, which he recounted to me in Paris, where he eventually landed, is a telling example of how the Russian dictator’s imperial fever dream has upended so many lives. The suffering, of course, is incomparably worse in Ukraine, where the Kremlin has waged its bloody war. But millions of Russians have also been caught in Putin’s widening campaign of brutality, prompting hundreds of thousands of them to flee and an unknowable number of others to plot their departure.

Even if Putin’s regime is more brittle than it seems — as in many dictatorships, the slightest gesture of domestic dissent elicits wild overreactions — it will not collapse under the weight of millions of disaffected Russian teens and college students. Like Misha, they are powerless under Putin’s thumb.

Misha told me his story amid the quotidian clatter of a Left Bank café, a surreal place to hear such a bleak, brave tale impossible to verify, but impossible to ignore. He has lank hair to his shoulders and owlish glasses; he looks like he might start shaving in a year or two. A gamer who writes fantasy fiction, he delivered deft insights in a low, steady voice and excellent English. Before the war, he said, he was rarely active in politics.

A sophomore psychology major, he tended to get his information from Twitter and Telegram, a chat app popular in Russia. That’s how he learned in April about the Russian army’s atrocities in Bucha, through videos of Ukrainian civilians who had been slaughtered, he said, “like cattle.”

Appalled, he took a can of black spray paint, went out after midnight and scrawled the words “Putin = War” on a wall an hour’s walk from his university in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic. “I couldn’t sit and do nothing,” he said. “I realized it wasn’t a war for territory or resources. It was just evil.” It took two days for the police to track him down.

When he was released after several hours, stripped of his phone, laptop and official ID, the cops ordered him to return the next day. He was badly frightened — of another beating; of being expelled from college, which could have subjected him to the draft; of criminal charges of “vandalism on the basis of political hatred”; of prison.

Misha went home and packed a rucksack with the essentials: a blanket, two liters of water, his flute, a set of dice from the fantasy board game “Dungeons and Dragons.” He set out at 3 a.m., heading south toward the Polish border 20 miles away. He trekked for three days through the woods, navigating by the sun and the moon, frequently lost, mucking through spring grassland, sleeping on moss and twigs in frozen marshes. He avoided roads and took wide detours around villages, for fear of informers.

By the fourth night, approaching the frontier, he was delirious from hunger and found himself mumbling his thoughts out loud. At a remote stretch of the international boundary, he used a pair of logs to pry apart the bottom strands of barbed wire and tumbled through the gap into Poland. Then he ran and ran, crossing more swampland and a river, until he came to a village. He had lost more than 20 pounds.

The border crossing should have meant freedom for Misha. But most European countries, including Poland, have resisted admitting Russians, even as they have welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees. Rather than being granted asylum, Misha was interrogated on suspicion of spying, then held for weeks in migrant detention. Only through the intercession of well-connected relatives in Paris — themselves Muscovites who turned against Putin and fled years ago — did he manage to reach France, which has been more welcoming.

For Misha, leaving Russia was one thing. Ridding himself of it is another. The psychological habits he formed growing up there — indifference to politics, fear of police — are “like a curse,” he said. “I need to free myself of this influence.”

He has spent the fall cramming for the ACTs, hoping to resume his studies at an English-language university. He plans to switch his major to political science, for reasons that make sense, and imagines a future of activism in the West, since going home looks unsafe for the foreseeable future. “I have a bone to pick with all of Russia’s structures and authoritarian states around the world,” he said.

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