In the end, Suren Gazaryan had little time to make a life-changing decision: Stay home and end up in jail, or flee the country.
“The choice is very simple, between freedom and prison,” said Gazaryan, an environmentalist from southern Russia. “For me it was clear.”
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.”
The political emigrants, as they call themselves, are finding refuge in Spain, Germany and Ukraine — the latter a not entirely safe destination but one that does not require a visa. In the fall, activist Leonid Razvozzhayev said Russia agents kidnapped him from Kiev and spirited him into Russia, where he faces charges of organizing mass disturbances.
Estonia also has been a favorite destination. Maxim Efimov, a human rights activist from the northern region of Karelia, won political asylum there in October. A year ago, as the protest movement was awakening, he posted an article critical of the Orthodox Church, which he said operated like a branch of the ruling United Russia party.
His apartment was raided, he said, his computer and documents confiscated. Investigated for extremism, he was warned that he could face two years in jail for offending religious beliefs.
“As there is no independent judiciary in Karelia,” he wrote on his blog, “it is likely that I will be found guilty.” He fled.
Two high-profile activists have repeatedly declared their intention to stay despite enormous risks.
Three cases have been brought against Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger: misappropriating more than $500,000 worth of government-owned timber while he was an unpaid consultant to a regional governor, a case dating to 2009 that had been dropped; defrauding a now-defunct political party of $3.25 million for advertising services that were never provided; and cheating a transportation company out of $1.79 million. He was formally charged Friday in the timber case, but no trial date has been set.
Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front, a group from the socialist end of the political spectrum, has been charged with plotting mass disorder, on the basis of a documentary made by a television company sympathetic to the Kremlin.
“If anyone expected me to flee,” Udaltsov said after he was charged in October, “they were mistaken. I will bear it all, and I hope those who support me will not be silent or give in.”
Gazaryan, who in October was elected to a 45-member organizing committee of the national opposition, had been campaigning against construction of a large residential compound in a Krasnodar national forest, where the endangered long-needle Pitsunda pine was under protection.
He and fellow activists collected documents showing the sprawling complex belonged to the Krasnodar governor, Alexander Tkachev. Eventually, Gazaryan was accused of writing anti-Tkachev graffiti on a fence around the land, and he and another activist were convicted in June. Their three-year prison sentences were suspended, conditioned on limiting their public activities.
In August, he was walking near a fenced-off estate purportedly belonging to Putin when security guards tried to seize his phone. Gazaryan said he picked up a rock and warned them off. He was accused of threatening them, and two months later he was told to report to the police for interrogation.
“This meant prison for sure,” he said.
Gazaryan, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences who studies bats that live in the Caucasus, decided to leave. He spent time in Ukraine and Georgia before he could get a visa to Estonia, where he had friends and has applied for asylum.
“I tried to resist,” he said, “but I have no idea how we can resist this state. All legal ways are exhausted, fair elections, lawful activism, honest courts. They don’t need intelligent, educated people as long as the economy is based on oil and gas. The country doesn’t need us. Of course, the situation will change someday, but it will take years.”
In June, Alexander Dolmatov, a 36-year-old engineer at a defense plant and a member of the Other Russia, a fringe opposition party, fled the country for the Netherlands. He had been detained at Bolotnaya on May 6 for disobeying a police officer. He was quickly released, but a few days later police searched his parents’ apartment, where he was registered as living. Arrest and prison, he told his friends, were certain.
A few days ago, he was denied asylum. He killed himself Thursday. How, and why, remained unclear Friday.