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‘Everyone at home thinks I work for the State Department’ Tens of thousands of Russians have fled to Turkey and Armenia. A new project seeks to ease their transition.

Source: Meduza
Serena Naclerio / Unsplash

As Russia has cracked down on dissent since invading Ukraine in late February, tens of thousands of people have fled the country. Many have left with less than a day's notice, which means they often have no luggage, no money, and no idea where to spend the night when they arrive in a foreign country. Kovcheg (“The Ark”) is a new organization working to provide shelter and legal support to Russian emigrants in need. Meduza tells the story of how it came to be.

 “Go ahead and leave the country”

Olga (name changed), a 20-year-old activist from a democratic youth movement, was arrested on March 3 on her way out of apartment building. She was expecting it: other activists from the movement she worked in first started getting arrested on February 24, prompting Olga to move in with friends for a while. But after a week, when it seemed like the authorities might leave her alone after all, she decided to return home.

“I kept looking at the cars outside. After two days, I saw it: a black Mercedes with a man sitting inside and eating something. Who would be eating in their car in a courtyard? The entrance to my apartment is right next to an archway. I run towards it, turn my head halfway, and I see the headlights come on and the car start following me.” Two men got out of the Mercedes, and one of them called out to Olga: “We’re not your enemies, young lady. We’re just going to take you to the police station.”

After they reached the police station, Olga was sent to court almost immediately. It only took five minutes for the judge to make a ruling: she was found guilty of violating the procedure for holding a public event. The same law has been used to prosecute thousands of activists and protest participants throughout Russia in recent weeks.

Olga spent 10 days in a special detention facility. “Mom immediately told me, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and leave [the country],’” Olga recalls. She was afraid to fly out of Moscow or St. Petersburg — there were rumors that customs agents in big cities were checking people’s phones and checking people against a list of undesirable activists. Instead, she bought a train ticket to a small town; from there, she would fly to Armenia.

“I got on the train early in the morning. That same morning, I found that someone had spray painted the word 'traitor' on my apartment door,” Olga tells me. “My grandmother bought some paint, but the paint job doesn’t look great right now. We’re waiting for the next message to appear.”

She spent about 15 minutes in passport control before being let through. Once she’d made it to her gate, her mother called. “She said the police had just come to our home and ordered her to tell me not to spread so much information [about the war and arrests] on social media,” says Olga.

Olga is speaking to me from an apartment in Yerevan that was rented specifically for refugees and involuntary migrants from Russia. At the time of our conversation, she’s only been here for about an hour. She says she still doesn’t feel like an emigrant; it feels more like she’s taking a trip. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, according to rough estimates from the organization OK Russians, about 300 thousand people have embarked on these kinds of “trips” from Russia.

‘A place where people can take a breath’

The apartment is large — about 250 square meters (2,700 square feet) — and is in an upscale neighborhood in north Yerevan. Kovcheg also rents another large apartment and a house in the city; altogether, they can house 50 emigrants, and even more if they use folding beds.

“We launched on March 10, but the idea emerged several days earlier,” says lawyer Anastasia Burakova. “I left Russia for Kyiv myself in early December, and I can pretty much imagine the difficulties these people are facing as they move to a new place. Especially if they face the threat of persecution at home. It can be hard for a person to adapt to a new place, and even to get basic information and meet people.”

Burakova is a human rights lawyer; she’s been advocating for people who face pressure from the state for years. Immediately after the war started, she started getting questions from activists and journalists about moving to a new country — people were interested in both the legal and the logistical issues.

“I always looked at the House of United Belarus in Vilnius that people created after 2020 and thought it was a good initiative: create a place where people can take a breath, get some advice from others who have already moved, and get integrated into the emigrant community,” says Burakova. She decided to open her own shelters in Armenia and Turkey — currently the two countries that have taken in the most Russians. Both countries are convenient entry points for migrants; they’re easy to fly to and they don’t require Russian citizens to have visas.

Burakova got in touch with the Anti-War Committee, a Russian organization started by emigrants from Russia, and its founders were supportive of her idea. The first donation to pay for rent came from businessman and Anti-War Committee co-founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky; he and Burakova had previously worked together on his project Human Rights Postcards.

Anastasia Burakova’s personal archive

After Khodorkovsky’s donation, the small grassroots initiative began gathering momentum. Kovcheg launched a chatbot to answer people’s most frequent questions. After starting a crowdfunding campaign, Kovcheg collected more than 33.5 thousand euros ($35.5 thousand) in its traditional bank account and $14.5 thousand in its crypto wallet. The money should be enough to fund about another month of work. Donors were most active in the first week of crowdfunding; they’ve since slowed down a bit, but Burakova is still hopeful that the project will be able to help a large number of people.

“I sought advice from people who do fundraising [professionally], and we’re getting ready to improve our system,” says Burakova. “We also have partnerships and even a business that’s offered to host our company on its website. A European business, of course.”

According to her, it’s impossible to give an exact description of who the donors are; all she knows are the email addresses they enter when they send money. Sometimes people use fake addresses. Meanwhile, cryptocurrency transfers can’t be tracked at all. “Every time someone makes a large donation — 500 euros or more — I try to write to them and thank them,” says Burakova. “It’s obvious that more than half of the donations are from people who left Russia a long time ago and settled in the West. Some of them have their own companies, some are academics, and some are in the creative sector. And now they want to help their compatriots.” Some donors don’t even speak Russian, answering the emails in English.

“We’re in touch with both the Anti-War Committee and with Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky personally,” says Burakova. “I saw that they launched the Sunrise project to help Ukrainians. I call them regularly to ask how they’re doing it, whether they need humanitarian aid, where we should send people. In this business, we communicate with one another.”

Kovcheg recently launched a psychological support service for emigrants. The majority of the psychologists are volunteers, but the group therapy the service offers is paid. The search for real estate continues, too, because while donations have decreased, applications and requests from emigrants have not. Since the beginning of March, the group’s Yerevan shelters have taken in about 150 people, each of whom is allowed to stay for two weeks. “We have the means to expand even more. So if Armenia has a second wave of emigration, Kovcheg will be ready,” says Burakova. The group is currently looking for property in Armenia and in Turkey.

To be sure, Burakova's work is not without its difficulties. The stream of migrants has changed the real estate market: while Yerevan was widely considered a cheap place to live before, finding an affordable place to live has become a challenge over the last month. Two-room apartments in the center of Yerevan that sold for $300 a month before are now going for $700 to $1,000.

Kovcheg managed to get a discount of over 30 percent on its largest apartment; the organization has a lot of local helpers, and they helped negotiate the price reduction.

Anybody who wants to stay at a Kovcheg shelter must fill out a special form. The coordinators examine the applications to determine whether each applicant just wants to save some more or really needs help. In Yerevan, applicant screening is done by Irina (name changed). She reviews the applications, gets in touch with the applicants, and meets with them if necessary. “Of course, we don’t look at applications of people who say things like, ‘I’m planning to come in June,’” said Irina. “I try to discreetly find out more about applicants’ financial situations. And sometimes people simply write, ‘I came with no money.’ Or, ‘I can pay for housing, but I need help finding it.’”

‘I don’t want that kind of future — not for myself and not for my child’

While most Kovcheg residents are activists who faced political persecution in Russia, they’re not the only people the group accepts. Tatiana (name changed) is a product manager in a company that works with several major clothing brands. When it became clear in early March that the “special military operation” would last more than just a few days, several of her colleagues bought tickets to Tbilisi through Istanbul.

Russians in tbilisi

‘We’ll all go back when the regime falls’ How Tbilisi become a hub for Russian political emigrants

Russians in tbilisi

‘We’ll all go back when the regime falls’ How Tbilisi become a hub for Russian political emigrants

Two acquaintances of hers who had bought tickets with domestic airlines had their flights canceled; Tatiana managed to leave Russia on a Turkish budget airline on March 12. The following day, the airline suspended all flights to Russia. “I was supposed to stay in the Georgian capital, but all of my friends are facing tough situations there: it’s hard to withdraw money, and they’re refusing to rent apartments to Russians,” she tells me. “So I thought I’d come here. I’m trying to get hired at the Armenian office of the company I worked at in Russia — they told me to send in my resume. If they don’t hire me, I’ll try to start my own business.”

Anton (name changed), a graphic designer, doesn’t consider himself a political activist, but he does speak out openly against military action, and he criticized the authorities in Russia. “I don’t think they’d started tracking me,” he says. “But I understood it wasn’t safe to stay in Russia if I was expressing my opinion like that. And I don’t want that kind of future — not for myself and not for my child.”

Anton recently moved out of his room at Kovcheg and began renting an apartment in Yerevan. When we talk, he’s getting ready to go to the airport to pick up his wife and child. Their new home consists of a single room for $350 a month — the same price they used to pay for a two-room apartment back in Russia. “Our neighbors are a married couple with a kid,” says Anton. “We’re also a married couple with a kid. It’s be like coliving — we’re joining together two families. Maybe it will be interesting for the kids.”

He’s not sure what he’ll do for work yet. “My skills don’t seem to be in demand here so far: too many good, smart Russians have arrived,” he says. “I was promised some orders from Russia, but I’m not willing to work on propaganda, so that rules out some of the projects.”

The Kovcheg apartment in Yerevan

“In Yerevan, I have no problem with walking down the street and seeing people smiling, because this country’s government hasn’t attacked another country, so people have no reason not to smile,” says Konstantin (name changed), a director. He arrived in Armenia just a few days ago and is living in the Kovchega house while he looks for work and long-term housing.

Konstantin is fairly new to the film industry. According to him, it’s not always easy for new directors in Russia; there are a lot of newbies, but making a full-fledged feature film requires a budget of around a million dollars. Producers are generally in no hurry to fork over that much money. Russia’s Culture Ministry funds about 20 debut films every year, and the competition is pretty fierce. “But I think there are undercurrents that lead to films getting chosen that aren’t the strongest, which makes the actual chances of getting funding even lower,” Konstantin says. He doesn’t think it’s likely that the Ministry will cancel this year’s competition, but he’s still not eager to shoot in Russia anymore. “Plus, all new screenplays are going to be put under a microscope now. And making films about how wonderful our country is is definitely not for me,” he says.

At the same time, his future in Armenia feels even foggier than in Russia: in a country with a total population of three million people, finding someone willing to finance an aspiring Russian filmmaker is a huge long shot. “If you want to break even on a film that cost a million dollars, you need to make $2.5 million at the box office, because half of it will go to distributors and advertisers,” he says. “So my task right now is to live through the next six months and see what happens in Russia. We’re still optimistic.”

‘Enough is enough’

Kovcheg’s apartment is a common space for people in need. In it, people throw parties, cook together, argue with one another, and play board games. People with kids and with pets are welcome there. It’s not uncommon for political activists, IT specialists, and professors from prestigious universities to spend time chatting together — mostly young people, but some older people as well.

“My situation changed really rapidly: on February 24, we went out onto our town’s central square,” says Svetlana (name changed), a 50-year-old who works as a guide. “I was holding a Ukrainian flag and a sign that said ‘No to war,’ and the police didn’t touch us. But by the time evening came, they’d started to arrest people.”

Since 2011, Svetlana has been following elections, coordinating regional political movements, and generally “understanding the signs coming from the top,” as she put it. “When they start arresting older women at protests and throwing them on the ground, you start to think about how you’re going to get out of the line of fire.” At the beginning of March, Svetlana wrote an Instagram post about her plan to lead a walk around the city — she didn’t think that was something they would arrest her for. She left her house shortly before the event. But when she went to a nearby train station to use the WiFi there, riot police arrested her for simply making the announcement on Instagram. “In rural areas, they often keep track of activists like me online; it’s very easy for them to do, and there are very few of us. At the Anti-Extremism Center, there are employees who just sit around all day watching what happens on social media,” says Svetlana. “One time, they gave me three days for retweeting an announcement for a rally in support of Navalny.”

This time, they took Svetlana to every police station in town: they took her to one, drew up the paperwork, then held her for three hours before officers from another station came to get her. She finally managed to escape from the last one when a lawyer came to get her. “He drove up, and when they started to transfer me from one office to the next, I just dashed to the lawyer’s car and we drove off.” For the next three days, she hid in other people’s apartments. After that, she decided to go to Armenia. “Once you get sick of constantly looking around to see whether somebody’s watching you, there comes a moment where you just decide enough is enough,” she says.

Svetlana’s already found a job in Yerevan: she’s a nanny in a hotel. The pay isn’t great, but the hotel provides free housing and meals. “I wouldn’t have been able to earn any more money in the city,” she says. “Sure, it’s scary sometimes — everyone is young, they’re all IT workers, and I’ll be a pensioner soon. But it’s not comparable to the conditions I was living in back there [in Russia]. The feeling of being an outcast.” Svetlana was fired from several jobs in Russia for her political views.

Galina Kalenova

“In my home region, everyone’s convinced I work for the State Department,” she says. “When your acquaintances tell you that Ukrainians are bombing themselves — it’s just awful.”

Svetlana says she would be ashamed to go to Europe right now because there are so many Ukrainians, so she plans to try and stay in Armenia for the time being. “It will be difficult, of course, but not more difficult than my life would be in Russia right now.”

‘Absolute diplomatic impotence’

Natasha (name changed) was born in a large city in central Russia, though she’s lived in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. For the last few years, she’s worked as a fundraiser, collecting money for charity foundations, a theater for kids with disabilities, coworking spaces, and other organizations.

“I didn’t want to leave Russia — I cried on the plane, thinking, I don’t understand: why do I have to leave my own country?” she says. “I have an education, I’m strong, and I could work to develop the country I love. But instead, I’m forced to leave and find something else to do. It’s very strange: people who kill other people get called patriots, while people who try to do something useful are considered ‘undesirable’ by the authorities.”

Natalia is a political scientist by training; she studied conflict and international relations when she was a student, and she was shocked that conflicts like the war in Ukraine can still happen in the 21st century, after two World Wars. “People are unleashing a war in the center of Europe — in my view, it shows absolute diplomatic impotence,” she says. “In dark times like this, we have to be strong. Our weakness is their strength, and it needs to be the opposite.”

Story by Olga Grigoryevna, reporting from Yerevan

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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