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A Russian refugee’s long road to Elon Musk How a Siberian dissident endured Ukrainian politics and New Jersey’s prisons to reach California

Meduza
11:20, 25 july 2017

Alexander Klimanov, June 20, 2017

Evgeniya Nikolayeva for Meduza

Despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric of America’s 45th president, the United States is still accepting new folks eager to live in the world’s richest country, even handing out political asylum to some lucky refugees. In a special report for Meduza, Diana Manucharyan tells the story of one of these people: Alexander Klimanov, a former opposition activist from Tomsk, who managed to work briefly for the governor of Odessa, before crossing the ocean to North America and reaching the U.S through Mexico, whereupon he spent more than eight months in immigration prisons.

They stood in line for hours under an open sky: young Chinese people who’d been pounding shots of tequila on the beach in Cancun just the night before; “long-distance migrants” from Africa and South Asia, wearing clothes that had long ago become rags; Latin Americans carrying huge suitcases; and Alexander Klimanov, a former member of Russia’s “Union of Right Forces” opposition political party.

American tourists and permit-holding migrant workers passed by, walking down a special green corridor that allowed them to submit their documents and pass through customs without delay. Everyone else had to trudge along a long, serpentine line that stretched from the fence to the threshold of the border service. When the Russian man finally reached the front of the line, he said in broken English to the border control officer, “Iʼm a Russian oppositionist. I need political asylum.”

The officers plugged his information into their database, and it turned out that there was no record of his deportation and no evidence that he was wanted by police anywhere. Then he was asked to take a seat on the ground where the next group of asylum-seekers was forming, waiting to be questioned about their lives back home, to determine if their asylum claims were justified.

Sitting there, Klimanov says he overheard the refugee hopefuls telling the border guards all kinds of stories. Most of the asylum seekers were from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Generally, Klimanov says, they claimed to have fled persecution back home because of their nationality or social status (for example, because they belong to some ethnic group or sexual orientation). He says only three individuals claimed to face persecution because of their beliefs: a man from Bangladesh who was a member of an opposition nationalist political party, a Mexican video blogger constantly ranting about the Masonic world conspiracy, and himself, Alexander Klimanov, a 31-year-old Russian citizen who crossed 10 timezones just to surrender himself to U.S. border guards.

Looking back, Klimanov had helped organize protests against rigged elections in Siberia, and later he’d served the Ukrainian state as a volunteer for Odessa Governor Mikhail Saakashvili. Looking ahead, Klimanov would spend the next eight months in U.S. prisons.

From the party of power to a ragtag liberal

Ever since he was a small boy, Klimanov was always leaving one place for another. His father served in the Soviet army, and just two months after Klimanov was born in the western Ukrainian city of Brody, the family was transferred to a settlement on the Kola Peninsula, in far northwestern Russia. A few years later, they moved again, this time to the Tomsk region. By the time Klimanov finished grade school, he was living in Tuapse, in the Krasnodar region. Then he enrolled in the Tomsk Polytechnic University to study the oil and gas industry.

While living in the university’s dorms, Klimanov says a student group called “New Civilization” rented space in the building, staging events for active young people. It was through this group that the college freshman from Tuapse first got acquainted with people his age who took an interest in politics. Klimanov says he started helping the group with events, earning easy money for the work. In 2001, when the school’s provost, Petr Chubik, decided to run for a seat in the regional parliament, Klimanov stood on street corners, handing out calendars with the candidate’s portrait. Later, he worked on the campaign, participating in small rallies for United Russia, the country’s ruling political party. Klimanov says today that he didn’t concern himself very much with the ideology or policy platform of the people paying him wages. Back then, he saw politics exclusively as a way to earn a living.

And Klimanov did pretty well for himself. In 2005, he was offered a job managing a team of 40 people, organizing small rallies for municipal elections in Tomsk for the People’s Patriotic Party of Russia. “The party was completely fake, designed simply to pull votes from the Communist Party,” Klimanov admits today. “But I didn’t know anything back then. I just did my job. I sat on the floor in my kitchen with my computer balanced on a stool. I was having the room remodeled using my earnings.” (In 2007, Russia’s Supreme Court liquidated the People’s Patriotic Party for violations of federal laws on political parties.)

Before long, one of Klimanov’s acquaintances working as a political analyst encouraged him to join the opposition party “Union of Right Forces,” where he could find full-time work. “I was skeptical, at first. [Party leaders Anatoly] Chubais, [Irina] Khakamada, and [Boris] Nemtsov were enemies of Russia — all such typical cliches,” Klimanov remembers (though the party was formally led by Nikita Belykh in the mid-2000s). “But I kept coming to meetings, talking with them, and hanging out at the party headquarters. And I was drawn in, coming to understand the true state of things in the country. In a year, I’d become an absolute liberal, and money was no longer my guiding star.”

#МойПервыйМитинг я не помню, но зато прекрасно помню первый митинг, в организации которого я принимал участие. 17 апреля...

Опубликовано Александром Климановым 28 марта 2017 г.
Alexander Klimanov at his first opposition protest in April 2007

Klimanov’s political career took off fast. By 2006, he was already the chairman of one of the party’s regional subdivisions in Tomsk. In this role, he helped organize local protests against voter fraud in elections for the regional parliament. When the Union of Right Forces dissolved to make way for “Right Cause,” Klimanov stuck around to work in the new party. “Once again, we were attracting young and active people. Again, we were driven, when it came to elections,” Klimanov says, recalling the 2010 municipal race. “The party didn’t have funds for a campaign. It couldn’t pay anyone. But we worked from the early morning until midnight on nothing but enthusiasm and caffeine. Some of my friends back then were working with United Russia’s campaign, spending budget money and looking at me like I was crazy for what I was doing. They tried to reach out to me, as old friends. But I’d changed.”

Ahead of the State Duma elections in December 2011, a schism rocked Right Cause, resulting in the departure of leader Mikhail Prokhorov, who accused Vladislav Surkov, the first deputy head of President Medvedev’s administration, of trying to take control of the party. It wouldn’t be long before Klimanov left the party, too, quitting as soon as Right Cause endorsed Vladimir Putin’s candidacy in the 2012 presidential race. Klimanov held to his new oppositionist views, and in early 2012 he joined a new round of protests against election falsification. In Tomsk, he helped organize a demonstration against voter fraud on February 4.

“There’s a saying in Russian: ‘Steer clear of the wolf trap’ [i.e., keep your head down]. From where I was sitting, it seemed that he wasn’t just steering into the trap, but actively looking for one,” says Elena Sidorenko, remembering Alexander Klimanov. She worked in Tomsk as a coordinator for the election-monitoring group “Golos,” where she observed Klimanov’s political activism firsthand. “I considered this the radicalism of youth, but maybe it was just an acute sense of justice that permeated everything he did. He was a very freedom-loving and independent person, and an unconventional thinker. You know that song ‘Grenada’? He reminds me of the people who give everything and forget about themselves.”

But by May 2012, when another round of protests came to Tomsk, Klimanov had become somewhat disappointed in politics. “I stopped playing at parliamentarism and pretending that we could win in elections or achieve something through protests,” Klimanov says. “[The cases against] Pussy Riot and the Bolotnaya Square protesters showed that it was all useless, and we needed to change our tactics.” Contemplating the opposition’s plans, Klimanov earned money however he could. He worked as a security guard, took a job as a project manager at a local publisher, served as a teacher at a children’s summer camp, and helped “Golos” train election monitors. “I even knitted fishing nets at home,” he says. “I did whatever I could. But mainly, I wrote a lot. When the country lost its mind over Maidan and Crimea in the spring of 2014, it was like I’d been drenched in boiling hot water. I thought we were moments from the world of George Orwell or a return to 1937.”

Klimanov published his writings mostly on his Vkontakte page, addressing issues like “the need for revolution and a violent overthrow of the authorities,” arguing that legal means and peaceful political protests had exhausted themselves. “If we want a victory like they had at Maidan, then we need to act like they did at Maidan,” Klimanov wrote. Today, he says it was these words that “ruined” him.

Escape to Odessa

In May 2015, Klimanov says several colleagues in the opposition warned him that the Federal Security Service was monitoring his activities and planned to charge him with two felonies: encouraging extremist activity and inciting hatred (articles 280 and 282 in Russia’s Criminal Code).

But not everyone believes that the police were ready to bring such serious charges against Klimanov. Sergey Maltsev, the former coordinator of the “Citizen Observer” project in Tomsk, knew Klimanov personally and says he doubts his situation was so dire. “You see, until recently Tomsk was this political sanctuary,” Maltsev told Meduza. “For example, we were able to get permits for [anti-corruption] demonstrations on March 26 and June 12 [2017], and there weren’t any mass detentions. In my view — and I stress that this is just from my perspective — [Klimanov’s] emigration has more to do with his search for a better life, not any pressure he encountered here. I hope he found it.”

Klimanov, on the other hand, thinks it’s entirely plausible that he was under police surveillance, pointing to his acquaintance Vadim Tyumentsev, a videoblogger in Tomsk, who was prosecuted for the same felonies. On his blog, Tyumentsev discussed local corruption and badmouthed refugees streaming in from Lugansk and Donetsk (he was convicted of inciting hatred against these people). Tyumentsev was sentenced to five years in prison.

Around this time, Klimanov’s friends in Kiev were “inviting him to Ukraine” more and more often, he says. One of these people, a combatant in the Ukrainian volunteer regiment “Dnepr-1,” identified himself to Meduza as “Alarm,” refusing to give his real name in order to “spare his family any more problems.” According to “Alarm,” he and Klimanov first got acquainted on Vkontakte, bonding over their mutual fascination with “historical fencing.” This was all long before the start of the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but the two men got to discussing politics eventually. “At some moment, Sasha [Klimanov] said he was ready to help us, and I told him to come,” “Alarm” says. “Actually, thanks to Sasha, my view of people in Russia as universal enemies was broken forever.”

On May 15, 2015, Klimanov landed at Borispol airport in Kiev. “Alarm” had arranged for a work invitation that would allow his friend to take a job as a manager at a local company. By this time, the Ukrainian army had absorbed and “legalized” the volunteer battalions fighting in the east, and it was virtually impossible for foreigners to join, obviating Klimanov’s earlier offer to “help.” After Klimanov arrived in Kiev, volunteers from the Ukrainian charity “Plastir,” which works mainly with the Ukrainian military, helped him find housing.

Июнь 2015. Киев. Фестиваль «Країна Мрії».

Опубликовано Александром Климановым 27 ноября 2016 г.
Alexander Klimanov in Kiev in June 2015

In the end, Klimanov didn’t take the manager’s job. The Russian oppositionist was very interested in Ukraine’s post-revolutionary politics, and he became especially excited two weeks after he arrived, when former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was made the governor of Odessa. “I watched his press conference online and it only took me 20 minutes to realize that I wanted to work on his team of reformers,” Klimanov says. “After all, I was in Ukraine because I still believed that change was possible. So almost immediately I packed my things and moved to Odessa.”

Saakashvili’s team needed volunteers, and Klimanov quickly found a job, first handling public appeals, and then working in the “anti-corruption office,” a new independent agency designed by Saakashvili’s administration to investigate corruption throughout the Odessa region.

“He [Klimanov] honestly tried to help everywhere he could. He came off as a diversely developed, sociable, and positive person,” says Arkady Topov, one of Klimanov’s former colleagues at the “Anti-Corruption Office.” Anton Terekhov, another volunteer working on the team, adds, “Sasha was pretty lousy when it came to making sense of the local situation. You couldn’t say he managed to surprise anyone with his results. It was the usual boring work: gathering facts and analyzing data. He was more an exotic team member than some super-effective staffer.”

Klimanov’s former colleagues in Odessa say the romantic optimism he brought to the job quickly evaporated after local elections in the fall of 2015, when he worked on the Odessa mayoral campaign of Alexander Borovik, one of Saakashvili’s advisors. “When Kernes won in Kharkov, and Trukhanov won in Odessa, it became clear that there was still a long, long way to go until we got real reforms, and everything was circling back on itself,” Klimanov says, confirming his attitude at the time. “I realized that Saakashvili wouldn’t hold onto his post for long.”

“He came with some very exaggerated expectations,” Terekhov explains. “In Russia he didn’t have the opportunity to engage fully in politics, and here he expected a larger stage to open for him. But Sasha didn’t understand and didn’t really try to understand the very complicated local system of checks and balances, or the murky political game here in Odessa.”

In addition to his disappointment with Ukrainian politics, Klimanov encountered other difficulties after four months in Odessa. He wasn’t earning an income as a volunteer, and he’d nearly exhausted his savings. His residency status as a Russian citizen in this new country, moreover, was in some question, given that he’d long ago overstayed the permitted term of his visa, and he wasn’t registered locally. “I had a realization: if they deport me from Ukraine, the worst case scenario is that the Lubyanka awaits me,” Klimanov told Meduza. “If they’d already pinned one crime on me, before I ever went to Ukraine, then now they could easily come at me for treason.”

It was then that Klimanov got the idea to make a run for America. “I thought, ‘I’m too tired of trying to change the world materially. It has to be changed mentally!’” he told Meduza. “Like a sponge, I soaked up what information I could find about Elon Musk’s projects and the companies in Silicon Valley.” Terekhov confirms Klimanov’s changing obsessions: “He wanted to run to the place where history is being made, to the United States, closer to California and Musk. I think he wanted to be on the cutting edge, and I understand him,” Terekhov says.

By a lucky coincidence, Klimanov suddenly came into some cash, when someone back in Tomsk finally agreed to buy the car he’d been trying for months to sell. By this time, he’d learned that the simplest way to ask for asylum in the U.S. would be at the border. There is, however, one caveat with this approach: asylum seekers have to put themselves on American soil to make this request, which places anyone unsponsored by American-citizen guarantors under the jurisdiction of the immigration courts. Before asylum requests come to trial, these individuals are locked up in prison. “I was dumbfounded,” Klimanov says today. “But I was calmed by the thought that I wouldn’t be in prison for very long — at least that’s what I read on the Internet.”

Klimanov couldn’t get a U.S. visa while living in Ukraine, but his Russian passport did allow him to obtain electronic permission to enter Mexico. On December 2, 2015, he flew to Tijuana. A few hours later, he was face-to-face with a U.S. border guard.

In American shackles

In a certain sense, Alexander Klimanov lucked out. His trip to the U.S.-Mexican border was, relatively speaking, a piece of cake. Many other refugees hoping to win asylum in America must overcome obstacles far more daunting than a mere shortage of airfare cash. Refugees from South America travel to the border on the roofs of trains, hiring specialists called “coyotes” to lead them safely (and illegally) over international borders. Klimanov says he was told this service costs roughly $4,000 per person.

In June 2014, BuzzFeed reported the story of Amidu Fredrick Sinayor, who reached the Western Hemisphere from Ghana by hiding in the engine room of a container ship. From the shores of Colombia, he and a group of other Africans passed through Latin America, hiking through jungles, encountering local police, and hiring “coyotes” to reach the United States. Sinayor surrendered himself to the first U.S. official he met, when he finally reached El Paso, Texas. One of Kimanov’s cellmates, a Bangladeshi man named Akram, told him that he’d reached the U.S. border from Brazil by sleeping on piles of rocks in the desert, enduring weeks of starvation.

Once these asylum seekers end up in a U.S. deportation prison, however, everyone who made it to America is subjected to the same conditions.

Klimanov came to Mexico wearing camouflage-colored pants and combat boots. When he entered the U.S. detention center, he swapped them out for jeans (no belt) and a new pair of shoes (no laces). Before he was placed in a holding cell, a border guard seized Klimanov’s documents and his large hiking backpack, which he’d carefully filled with a sleeping bag, a single-breasted coat, a light suit, three neckties, and two dress shirts. After a few hours, in the middle of the night, the border guards summoned Klimanov for the standard questioning, asking why he was afraid to return home, if he was being persecuted in his homeland, and if he belonged to any organizations or social groups.

Refugees at a border crossing in California, May 8, 2017
Juan Barak / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Anyone who seeks asylum in the U.S. has to answer these questions, and your answers determine your fate as a refugee in America. After the first interview, some people are sent back to their homelands. Others are transferred to a temporary detention center (an immigration prison), where they wait for a court ruling. The detention center is often located far from the place at the border where the asylum seeker entered the United States. Klimanov, for example, was first moved around several times in the San Diego area. Later, he was transferred to the other end of the country, to the Delaney Hall prison in New Jersey. Klimanov told Meduza that the whole ordeal looked like something out of the movies: inmates were “seated in a big bus” and driven to Arizona, “like a bunch of real convicts,” shackled at the legs and chained together at their belts. From there, he was flown to the East Coast aboard a chartered plane.

Once again, Klimanov says he was disappointed, explaining that he studied U.S. immigration policy and intentionally crossed the border in California because he read that the local judges are more sympathetic to immigrants than in other states. Olga Katz-Shalfant, who represented Klimanov in court, told Meduza that the transfer to New Jersey was a predictable measure: most refugee cases in the U.S. involving Russians are tried on the East Coast, she says, and the judges there are better qualified to hear a case like Klimanov’s. Katz-Shalfant says the verdicts in these trials vary by individual judges, and here Klimanov did not luck out: his case landed in a federal court in Connecticut known to be “very strict” on asylum requests.

Klimanov wasn’t provided with an attorney right away. Today, when describing how his case was reviewed, Klimanov doesn’t hide his contempt for America’s justice system. The U.S. legal process, he says, long ago “transformed into a big lying industry” built on various dishonest schemes. “The lawyers, knowing the interview tactics, tweak a story according to a certain template, but only to such an extent that it doesn’t diverge from the established facts. And then they sit down with their clients who memorize the whole fabrication,” Klimanov complains.

Referring to his cellmates, Klimanov says many refugees hire lawyers to invent and embellish their own tales of persecution, long before filing official asylum petitions (though Katz-Shalfant says there’s little lawyers can do for these immigrants, before they end up in a temporary detention center). Klimanov says he was certain that his authentic story would convince American officials to grant his asylum request, and he saw no need to hire an attorney. That confidence fueled his decision to forgo legal assistance both at his first interview and his second interview, when he was already an immigration prison inmate. This second interview is supposed to determine how justified a refugee’s fears are about returning to their home country.

Eventually, Klimanov, who spoke no English, realized that he needed legal help. When it came time to submit his official asylum petition, his epiphany came at the hands of representatives from the international organization Human Rights First, who visited the prison once a week. These people convinced Klimanov that he needed qualified lawyers, and they reached out to American attorney Eric Inglis, and later also connected with Katz-Shalfant, who speaks Russian.

Klimanov shared the detention center with other asylum seekers, as well as U.S. residents the American government was trying to expel. Some fellow inmates were facing deportation because they’d committed a crime (sometimes just a misdemeanor). Klimanov says he shared a cell with a Hungarian man named Stephen who’d been living in the States for 13 years. “He worked in construction. He was getting everything together little by little: he got a green card, bought a car, signed a lease on an apartment,” Klimanov says. “Then he got stopped for driving under the influence. The first time he got a warning. The second time, they arrested him, in part because he got hostile when they searched him. When he got to prison, Stephen found a lawyer, but he still ended up getting deported.“ And there was an Irishman named Joe who was just about to get his American passport after marrying a woman with U.S. citizenship. But then they caught him traveling on expired foreign documents, and sent him off to the temporary detention center.

“Anyone living in this country on any visa — whether it’s an immigrant visa, a worker’s visa, or a tourist visa — is in the United States not by right but by permission,” Katz-Shalfant explained to Meduza. “And this permission is quite easy to lose.”

Boycotting lunch

It’s not for nothing that the temporary detention centers for immigrants in the U.S. are called “prisons” — the daily schedule at these facilities is every bit as strict and regimented as what you’d find in penitentiaries housing convicted felons. The time allotted for waking up, going to bed, eating, working, exercising, and accessing the phone is strictly prescribed; inmates are forbidden from leaving the detention center’s grounds; and guards patrol the entire premises. The main difference, according to Klimanov, is what the inmates spend their time discussing: he says immigrants are always busy talking about politics.

For all his experience with activism, however, Klimanov told Meduza that he steered clear of political conversations. “First, the people who tried to talk about politics with me were far removed from the real thing. They were all just armchair analysts. Second, the people there just weren’t my kind of people,” he says. “For example, at one point I was in with a Ukrainian, who was requesting asylum because Ukraine had drafted him for the Anti-Terrorist Operation. What was I supposed to talk about with him?”

Klimanov says there were few options when it came to recreation at the prison in New Jersey. He says some inmates spent their free time in the library, others played chess, and a few even learned how to make shoes from paper or weave ropes out of laundry bags. Most inmates just sat in the TV room, where the National Geographic channel was especially popular.

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“The selection was pretty meager in the library,” Klimanov complains. “All that was worthwhile were the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a collection of Faulkner’s works translated into Russian. It was there where I first read ‘The Golden Calf’ by Ilf and Petrov and Voinovich’s excellent collection of short stories, ‘The Smell of Chocolate.’ With a special account, there was also a Russian encyclopedic dictionary. This was my ‘Google.’ I kept it under my mattress, lived by it, and took from it everything that I needed.”

Without ways to stay busy, many inmates, Klimanov says, turn to religion. At the Delaney Hall prison, there were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. They’d gather at prayer meetings and discuss religious literature. “The party man from Bangladesh first confessed that he wasn’t at all religious. But over time, he became something like a spiritual leader among the prisoners. He bought a Quran and wrapped it in a special cover,” Klimanov recalls. “He drew all over some bed sheets, and used them as a prayer rug. People had breakdowns, searching irrationally for salvation.”

Klimanov found a more prosaic way to bide his time, while he waited for his verdict: he took a job at the prison. Earning one dollar a day, he started working at the prison’s law library. After some time, having improved his English, Klimanov even started advising fellow inmates about how to draft and submit their legal paperwork.

Though he avoided talking about world politics while locked up, Klimanov actively participated in the prison’s internal politics. He and his cellmates had several grievances against Delaney Hall’s management, beginning with the quality of the guards, who Klimanov says were untrained and paid just $13 an hour — only slightly more than New Jersey’s minimum wage.

Privately owned prisons, of course, have been a recent topic of controversy in the United States, where supporters claim they cut down on incarceration costs — a mighty advantage in a nation that has the world’s biggest prison population. Critics, however, raise a number of concerns, and U.S. journalists have reported again and again about their questionable hiring practices and their sometimes monstrous living conditions. Last summer, Mother Jones published an investigative report by Shane Bauer, who spent four months working as a corrections officer at a Louisiana prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the second-largest private-prison company in the country. Bauer’s groundbreaking report helped push the U.S. federal government to stop using private prisons (though Donald Trump has already canceled this decision by the Obama administration).

In October 2016, following a settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Labor Department, the company responsible for managing Delaney Hall was forced to pay $4.8 million in back wages and benefits after it was revealed that detention officers were earning $11.29 an hour instead of the required $30.97.

“They violate everything they can in prisons, because the kinds of people you find there are irresponsible, lazy thugs,” Klimanov says with disgust, describing the prison staff’s various shortcomings: guards are rude, scheduled access to the gym is denied, and the dinners stink. “We knew how they were skimming money off the food. As we understood it, the government spent $150 a day on each of us,” Klimanov explains. “This is a considerable sum, but the prison clearly spent less on us.” (According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, U.S. private immigration prisons receive $126 per day in federal funding for each inmate.)

Even behind bars in the United States, Klimanov again participated in protests, joining with other inmates to boycott lunch. He and the other prisoners even managed to get a new lunch menu introduced, but in June 2016 U.S. immigration officials decided not to extend the government’s contract with Delaney Hall. The inmates were then scattered to other facilities, and Klimanov ended up at a neighboring federal prison in the Essex area.

“It was hell,” Klimanov says of his transfer. “There were 4,500 people, only 800 of whom were immigrants. Everyone else was a convict. The prisoners were divided by [color] categories. We were the ‘blues’ (without any criminal past), but gradually they started to mix ‘greens’ (convicted criminals) into our cellblock. On a separate floor, there were the ‘reds’ — the people with serious criminal convictions.” At this new prison, Klimanov says the inmates were rarely allowed into the yard, going to the gym was considered dangerous, and the only books available in the library were detective novels. At this prison, however, there was a well established supply system for contraband.

“It works like this: in prison there’s a so-called kiosk. Using a special terminal or telephone, you order whatever you need (foods, personal hygiene products, clothes, writing instruments), and once or twice a week the officers come and hand out the orders. The money is written off from your account,” Klimanov explains. “If you need contraband, then the guy just names the price — like five packs of cookies, 20 soups, shaving cream — and you shake on it. That’s how you get him to bring you a joint or whatever else you agree on.”

Klimanov's federal prison in Essex, New Jersey, in July 2011
Angel Franco / The New York Times / Scanpix / LETA

Klimanov was at Essex County Prison for two months. He says he was mostly in a state of apathy by that point. There was nothing left for him to do, and his physical activity had been reduced to zero. He says he spent entire days just staring at the ceiling, waiting for news.

Eventually, Klimanov got some news: his final hearing was scheduled for August 22, 2016. That day, Klimanov, his two lawyers, a state prosecutor, a stenographer, and an interpreter gathered in a New Jersey courtroom. The immigration judge reviewing the case teleconferenced in from Connecticut.

The Russian asylum seeker was sworn in and then subjected to a series of questions that had become all too familiar to him over the past eight months: Why did he illegally cross the border? Why was he requesting asylum? What threatened him back in Russia? Then came remarks by the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The court also reviewed testimony by a witness: Andrey Pozdnyakov, Klimanov’s former party colleague in “Right Cause,” who supported his claims about persecution in Russia. Pozdnyakov, who currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and manages a software company called “Elecard,” told Meduza that he testified that Klimanov could expect to be “persecuted for political reasons” if he returned to Russia and didn’t demonstrate “deeply sincere repentance.” This would be especially true, Pozdnyakov argued, if Klimanov continued practicing political activism.

The court ruled in Klimanov’s favor. He says the judge, despite his harsh reputation, simply didn’t have any other choice, after being presented with all the evidence and information about the situation in contemporary Russia.

“Eric and I did an enormous amount of work collecting all the case materials. We presented our dossier on the political and human rights situation in Russia to the U.S. State Department, describing in detail all the repressions dissidents now face, both from state agencies and private individuals,” Katz-Shalfant told Meduza. “I also presented the originals and translations of Alexander’s comments on social media. And we collected statements from witnesses who confirmed Alexander’s testimony. Most importantly, his honesty is unmistakable in all the materials. It’s impossible not to believe him.”

Dreams about outer space

“On August 22, at 10 p.m., I went free. I was met by volunteers from the [charity] First Friends, who brought me home and gave me a place to sleep,” Klimanov says. “I remember how I went nuts on the fruit when I got to their place. I was experiencing a terrible vitamin deficiency.”

The same volunteers soon found him temporary housing in the center of Manhattan: a room at the Seafarers & International House, where they’d reached an agreement on free housing. Klimanov spent two months there. The whole time, he looked for jobs at volunteer organizations, but he couldn’t find any paid positions, and unpaid labor would no longer cut it. In America, he’d need something to live on.

In the end, it was his own former lawyer, Olga Katz-Shalfant, who helped Klimanov land his first job out of prison, finding a vacancy at a Russian-speaking construction company in Pennsylvania. He was there for about a month and a half, working on facades and helping with installations, before someone in San Francisco finally responded to one of his applications. Now Klimanov set out for the high-tech capital of the world — the land of Elon Musk. This was everything he’d dreamed about since the moment he started imagining a life in America.

Today, Klimanov says he’s fully embraced Musk’s ideas about conquering outer space, telling Meduza that the SpaceX founder is “creating history and setting the pace for the entire planet.”

“For our parents, space was ‘There will be apple blossoms on Mars.’ For my generation, space was stolen. It all died out,” Klimanov says. “And then Musk appeared.” Klimanov is particularly taken with a story about how Tesla Motors got its start after Musk casually met with a group of young people who were trying to create an electric car in their garage. Klimanov says fateful meetings like that are possible only in California.

Alexander Klimanov in San Francisco on June 20, 2017
Evgeniya Nikolayeva for Meduza

The Russian refugee has still yet to meet his South African-born Canadian-American innovator idol. Today, Klimanov works at a San Francisco hotel in North Beach. Until about noon, he works at the reception desk, checking in new guests. In the latter half of the day, he helps with the hotel’s auditing, earning a little more than $2,000 a month for his work. This doesn’t leave him with enough time or money to do any traveling (San Francisco is, after all, one of the most expensive places to live in the United States), but once every two weeks he gets together with other Russian emigrants and plays the party game “Mafia.”

Even with this group, however, Klimanov doesn’t discuss life back in Russia: The host for these get togethers has instituted a moratorium on any talk of politics. Klimanov says all his thoughts are now devoted exclusively to the aerospace industry. He says he’s thinking about moving to Los Angeles, where he hopes to find slightly cheaper housing not far from the SpaceX headquarters and other offices in the industry. He says he’s once again actively sending out his résumé.

“I have look at all this from the inside, at how production is organized. I’ve got to get in contact with the developers and understand where I should go next,” says Alexander Klimanov, a Russian refugee who once made a living staging protests in Siberia and volunteering on the Odessa governor’s staff. “There are different work levels. Somebody’s gotta paint those rockets. Right now, I’d like to be the one installing the cables, fastening the panels, and so on. I’m saving money for electrician classes.”

Russian report by Diana Manucharyan, translation by Kevin Rothrock