RIGA, Latvia — When she finally crossed into the European Union, Olesya Krivtsova, a 20-year-old pacifist branded a terrorist by the Russian authorities for opposing the war in Ukraine, exhaled the fear of two days on the run and “cried a little,” she said.
In a video, she unclipped the electronic ankle bracelet attached by Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service when she was put under house arrest and tossed it away with a mischievous sideways glance. Then she grinned joyfully, holding a small sign: “Freedom.”
Her escape was one of many by Russian opposition politicians, activists and simply ordinary Russians who opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war, were charged over protests or antiwar comments, and placed under house arrest pending trial.
How do they do it?
It takes plenty of guts, ingenious disguises, and evasive tactics worthy of a John le Carré novel.
The escapes by detainees fitted with electronic bracelets — which trigger a police alarm if removed or if the accused leave home — suggest Russia’s law enforcement system may be as defective as its military, which has suffered repeated setbacks in Ukraine.
“It was frightening to leave the house with a bracelet,” Krivtsova said in an interview. “It was terrifying to cross the border. The whole thing was scary.” She said it was better to risk her life escaping than face the chance of 10 years in jail, after fellow students denounced her for antiwar posts in a chat group.
“I felt relief,” she said of the border crossing. “And then I felt kind of empty. But I realized that now I could breathe. I could exhale.” First, she called her family, who had no idea where she was during her escape because she left her phone behind.
For detainees, the main trick is to exploit weaknesses in the system. In most cases, there is no surveillance on detainees’ homes. Instead, the electronic bracelets alert police if a person leaves home or removes it, but they do not have GPS trackers. Once the alert is triggered, it is a race to get out of the area quickly, as police respond to the alarm.
If there was a how-to-guide it would say: Timing is everything. Leave late Friday or early Saturday, when a police response may be slower. Find ways to delay the police response.
Move fast. Take secondary roads. Switch drivers often. Abandon your phone or install a fresh sim card to avoid tracking.
Many detainees get help from underground Russian groups and external rights groups with experience providing routes, reliable drivers, visas, money, and, if needed, safe houses. Detainees often cross borders with humanitarian visas from E.U. nations such as Lithuania and Germany.
Most cross at official border points and remove their electronic bracelets after leaving Russia. Then, they can record a video, unclipping the ankle bracelet, sending a message of freedom and defiance.
Krivtsova said the ankle bracelet was not a physical burden “but I did feel a part of the Russian state on my body, and it felt like handcuffs.” Like most escapees, she provided few details about her flight to preserve methods and routes for others. She left late on a Saturday, and police did not come knocking until the next morning.
“It is very important to leave your phone,” she said. “My look was like a beggar, a homeless person. I had glasses on and very shabby clothes.” In her first car, she shed her homeless disguise and switched cars, still close to her home. She changed clothes several times on the road. Crossing the border was frightening but surprisingly easy, she said.
“I had all the documents and all legal grounds to leave,” she said. “All these databases are very primitive and I had not been put on the federal wanted list yet. And this is the case in many other examples.”
Her mother, Natalia, was out of town for the weekend at the time. “We did not know anything and I hope you understand,” Natalia said. “You know, no matter what I say this could be turned against me.”
“What she did is her own achievement,” Natalia added, noting it was also a failure of the Federal Security Service, or FSB. “I believe that certain people might lose their positions at the FSB or the police. I’m sure somebody will be punished.”
Lucy Shtein and Maria Alyokhina, members of the activist music group Pussy Riot, who are prominent critics of Putin, disguised as food delivery couriers last year and escaped from Moscow weeks apart, managing — incredibly — to pull off the same trick twice.
Shtein left in March last year and her partner, Alyokhina, departed about a month later dressed in the same bright green food courier suit, traveling to Lithuania through Belarus.
Marina Ovsyannikova, the state television editor famous for running onto a live news broadcast with a placard that said “No War,” faced a greater challenge because her estranged husband was denying her access to her daughter, 11, and son, 17.
Ovsyannikova said her lawyer, who has also fled Russia, kept warning that she was running out of time. Her son wanted to live with his father but she refused to leave without her daughter, who eventually downloaded a taxi app and took a car to her apartment. The pair fled late on a Friday in October, wearing baggy trousers with hats pulled over their faces. Police did not go to her home until Monday, she said in an interview.
Crossing an official border point was impossible because she was well-known and her daughter had no passport. Her lawyer — who planned the escape with help from Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group — advised taking backpacks because they might have to hike up to a kilometer cross-country. She ignored him and took two small suitcases.
It was a mistake. Dragging the bags across soggy, furrowed fields was a nightmare.
The trip, using seven cars, took more than a day. Nearing the frontier late at night, the seventh car got stuck in mud and the driver panicked. Ovsyannikova, her daughter and a guide had to get out and walk, farther than planned.
“The moment we got into this field, we just fell down in the mud,” she said. “It was pitch black. There were tractors and the headlights of border guard cars. The guy who was with us kept saying, ‘Girls, get down, quickly!’ It was terrifying, like a movie.”
The guide’s phone had no signal but he told them he could navigate by the stars. “He said, ‘Look at the tail of the Great Bear in the sky.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It seems funny now but it wasn’t at the time,” she recalled. “We were hysterical. It was awful. I think we walked in the field for about 10 kilometers but it was extremely hard. We could not walk 500 meters without falling down.”
“At one point I was so desperate, I told the guy, ‘Look just get me back to Moscow. I would rather go to jail then continue walking in this field,’” Ovsyannikova said. Her daughter calmed her and the guide found a phone signal. They managed to cross the border into a forest and meet waiting rescuers.
By then, she was too numb to celebrate. “I was so tired and exhausted by that time that I could not feel joy and happiness. But at the same time, I felt that I’m free and that we were on the way to freedom,” she said. Her daughter turned 12 in a new country.
Ovsyannikova said she fled because of “total injustice. I felt like I was a political prisoner.” Removing the bracelet on video, she said: “Dear Federal Penitentiary System. Put this bracelet on Putin. He, not I, should be isolated from society and he should be tried for the genocide of the people of Ukraine and for the mass destruction of the male population of Russia.”
As for advice on pulling off an escape, Krivtsova said the best thing was to contact human rights groups for help. “Or contact me,” she said. “I will help.”
Ebel reported from London.
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