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‘I can’t make peace with leaving’ Novosibirsk opposition politician Helga Pirogova on openly supporting Ukraine and being forced to flee Russia

Source: Meduza
Rostislav Netisov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

In mid-June, Helga Pirogova, an opposition municipal councillor from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, wrote a critical tweet in response to a news article about Russian volunteer soldiers killed in Ukraine. Pirogova had been openly supporting Ukraine for months, but apparently this comment was the final straw. On direct instructions from agency head Alexander Bastrykin, the Russian Investigative Committee launched criminal proceedings against Pirogova for allegedly spreading “disinformation” about the Russian military. Facing up to three years in prison if tried and convicted, Pirogova made the difficult decision to flee Russia for Georgia. Speaking to Meduza, Helga Pirogova shares her story.

I “burst” into politics very quickly. One might say I used to be a modest little urban activist — [doing] basic things like taking part in rallies and organizing some events. I was exasperated by what was happening with regard to the improvement of public services and the comforts of the city. 

Not long before the [2019] mayoral campaign, I met [local opposition activist] Sergey Boyko. After those elections it became clear that an individual person was unlikely to win anything in the city, and I fell in with those who were deciding what to do about the [municipal council] elections in 2020. We decided that some kind of coalition was needed. 

At the time these were just words. But in 2020 a coalition of [independent politicians headed by Sergey Boyko] appeared. I went to their campaign headquarters and asked what I could do and how I could help. They told me that becoming a candidate would be a big help. [So] I became a candidate. I literally put together all of the documents in two days, ran an election campaign, and won. 

It was a short road to success. Between when I went to the headquarters and asked how I could help, and when I received my councillor’s ID, two and a half months went by. 

Before that, I worked in marketing and PR. Even earlier, right after university, I went to work in a district administration, a branch of the mayor’s office. I worked there for three years and I know the system from the inside. I know how the municipal authorities work. 

It was impossible for me to remain in the administration for several reasons. You come from university young and full of life, you have a bunch of ideas — and you know how best to do things. You have grandiose plans, but the system is built in such a way that no one needs your grandiose plans. And you’re supposed to do things the same way they were done in 1989, only using a computer. 

This was very stressful. I thought about leaving. And then in 2014, [Russia annexed] Crimea. I realized that I definitely couldn’t stay. I worked for a while [longer] — while I was looking for another job. Then I left. 

But when you’re a councillor, you’re independent. You’re not a civil servant. I can, nominally, do whatever I want. Yes, they can put a spoke in my wheels, but I have more opportunities, powers, and freedom. This is another level.

I never imagined that my choice to become an independent deputy could end in a criminal case. No one imagines that it can end this way. I hoped until the very end that this wouldn’t happen.

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I didn’t plan to leave Russia. A criminal case was the only thing that could squeeze me out. I didn’t want to leave Russia. I still don’t want to and, to say the least, I can’t make peace with it. I have no desire to. Many people say: “Living in Europe is great.” But many forget that “living in Europe” has a great many things behind it — at the everyday and the emotional level. 

I really love Russian and I want [people] in my country to be able to live good, comfortable, happy, satisfying, and rich [lives]. One of my opponents recently said to me: “Why can’t you understand: Russians are people who need to live in poverty, in destitution, because this is our [way].” I categorically disagree with this assumption that this is our homespun Rus’; that we need to live badly because we cannot do otherwise. We deserve to live well, but unfortunately these aspirations of mine aren’t shared by everyone — judging by the criminal case. 

I found out about the case when a bunch of messages were sent to me on the morning of [July 22]. I actually deleted the tweet long before the case was launched. I deleted it because I figured that it was too emotional and might be misunderstood. Generally speaking, it was misunderstood. 

I was taken aback when I found out about the criminal case (I’ll leave it at that). I made the decision to leave that same day, in the afternoon. It became clear that they wouldn’t just let me off. In any case, they would need a public whipping and a scapegoat. It became clear that it was a matter of time and a very urgent matter. I crossed the border and here I am in Georgia. 

Now I’ll try to rest a little, find time to give interviews to everyone who wants one, and I’ll decide what to do next. I don’t have a concrete answer to this question [about what to do next], even for myself — not yet. But I’m still a deputy in Novosibirsk and I’ll work on municipal issues. I still have aides there and, in this sense, my work is changing, but not very much.

It’s hard to talk about my own bravery. You just do what you think is necessary, because you can’t do otherwise. I can’t be silent when I see injustice. It was scary, but between fear and the opportunity to say something, I chose the latter. And to be honest, I didn’t feel as though they might [initiate] a criminal case. It’s ridiculous to think that a tweet that doesn’t even use the word “war” can get you a felony case.

No one close to me supports the war. I’m incredibly lucky to be surrounded by wonderful people. But of course, I’ve encountered those who support it. [Namely,] a bunch of my colleagues on the municipal council. When I came to a session wearing a [sunflower] crown, the entire United Russia faction was wearing party masks with [the pro-war letter] “Z.” They made their position as clear as possible. 

You just try to reduce the amount of contact [you have] with people who support the war as much as possible. And if this isn’t possible, then you just emotionally share your position on the war and municipal issues, because you don’t have a choice: you have to solve problems for your constituents, for the city’s residents. 

But voters wrote me letters, asking me to express my position. I’m very glad that the majority of the residents of my district support me. At least there were many more words of support than words [saying] that they were disappointed because they voted for me. There were also such [statements], I won’t deny it, but there were more of the former. 

Now, in order for me to stop being a councillor, there’s a few options for depriving [me] of a mandate. The first is a court ruling, the second is a violation in my income declaration, and the third is death. I don’t know if any of these will happen. The main thing is that it’s not the last one.

Further reading

‘Holding people liable for stating the facts’ Condemning the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine is a criminal offense in Russia. Here’s how investigators are building their cases. 

Further reading

‘Holding people liable for stating the facts’ Condemning the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine is a criminal offense in Russia. Here’s how investigators are building their cases. 

Interview by Sasha Sivtsova

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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