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‘Every time she’s offline, I think the FSB got her’ Meet Alina, the 19-year-old daughter of a Russian mercenary whose fiancé is in exile for opposing the war

Source: Meduza
Maxim Shipenkov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Like many in Putin’s Russia, Alina thought of politics as “something distant and boring” for most of her life — until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The war caused a rift between Alina and her family, alienating her from her mother and grandmother. Then, in the fall of 2022, her estranged father signed a contract with Wagner Group; less than a year later, he was killed in combat. Throughout this period, Alina had only one person who understood and supported her: her fiancé Vladimir, an anti-war activist in another city whom she’d met online during the pandemic. In the spring of 2023, however, after Vladimir graffitied a World War II tank to protest a Russian missile strike against Ukrainian civilians, law enforcement officers raided his home. After weeks of harassment and threats against himself, Alina, and her family, Vladimir decided to flee the country. Meduza’s Lilia Yapparova tells the couple’s story.

A blurry silhouette

There are no tourist attractions in the dusty town in southern Russia where Alina grew up. What it does have is a train station built in pre-revolutionary times, a church, a couple of parks, some apartment buildings, and an overgrown residential area. “It’s a town of hicks, to put it bluntly,” Alina says. “Everyone’s ready to lash out at anybody with a differing opinion.”

Alina’s parents got married just a few months after meeting. She was born not long after that, but the family never settled into any kind of domestic life; Alina’s father was unemployed, and one day her mom caught him shooting up heroin. “I barely knew my father,” Alina tells Meduza. “All I remember is a blurry silhouette. I was four [when he left]. He promised to bring me back some candy, saying he’d be back soon. But he never returned.”

Alina’s mom dated other men after her dad left, she says, but all of the relationships followed the same pattern: everything would be fine until the boyfriend quit his job or got fired, at which point he would start lounging on the sofa or playing video games all day. Eventually, he would leave.

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Alina and her mother got help from her grandmother, who had her own notary office. Both Alina’s mother and her aunt worked there. But according to Alina, her grandmother was a “complicated person,” drinking a lot and constantly getting into arguments with her daughters. It was from her grandmother that Alina first heard her father referred to as a “druggie.”

Alina admits that her dad’s absence was painful. She often asked about him, but her mother would always brush the questions off. Alina didn’t hear from her father again until she was 11 years old: he called on the phone, and because Alina’s mother and grandmother weren’t home, she was able to talk with him. “He said that when I grew up, I’d have my own home, because he would leave his to me. He said he loved me and missed me very much. Then he asked me to tell my mom to call him back, and he hung up,” Alina says. Her father didn’t call again.

Dad never really lived up to his potential. He broke things off with the drug crowd when he left our family, but he still struggled to find his footing. He spent some time working as a truck driver, but that only paid peanuts. When that was over, I don’t think he made any money. Just sat at home. His [new] wife worked. His reputation in town was awful. They called him ‘Storyteller,’ because he was always coming up with these ridiculous stories. This failure to get his life on track is probably why he went to war.

In the fall of 2022, Alina’s father signed a contract with Wagner Group and joined the war in Ukraine as a reconnaissance scout. In the summer of 2023, he was killed by an explosion in a trench near Klishchiivka in the Donetsk region.

Alina’s family was told that her father saved the lives of several of his fellow fighters right before his death, which earned him Russia’s Order of Courage and a story in his hometown newspaper. According to the article, the “hero of the special military operation” was a pianist who “never passed up an opportunity to help someone.” His high school put up a plaque in his honor, and the town’s mayor gave a speech at his funeral.

The letters Z and V were put on our door, and a giant crowd showed up, like a gypsy camp. Soldiers and ordinary civilians alike. His coffin sat closed in the front of the house. A priest performed his funeral and burned incense.

My stepmother and step-grandmother hugged me, even though we didn’t know each other. They said they regretted never getting to know me while my dad was alive. I felt really sorry for them; my dad wasn’t in my life, but they’d been very close to him.

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The award and praise for her father, however, Alina found insulting. “Now he’s a ‘hero’ who deserves all of this credit. But nobody gave a damn about ‘Storyteller,’ who worked as a trucker just to be able to afford some bread,” she says.

Alina doesn’t know whether her father sincerely supported the war or if he just enlisted because he needed the money. She tells Meduza that she’s chosen “not to look for positives” in her father’s death. She’s received two deposits from the government totaling more than one million rubles (over $10,000) as compensation for losing her dad; the rest of the government payout went to her grandmother, stepmom, and stepbrother.

‘We’ve been through so much already’

Two days before Alina’s father’s funeral, her boyfriend, Vladimir, proposed. “He even called my mom to ask for her blessing,” Alina says. “But my mom told him that we can’t be together until we get our lives in order.”

But the couple’s lives are unlikely to reach the kind of stability her mother had in mind anytime soon; in May 2022, the Russian authorities opened a felony case against Vladimir for “vandalism motivated by political hatred.”

Vladimir and Alina started dating when she was 17 and he was 20. They first met during the pandemic “in some online chatroom” for young people in cities across Russia; Alina refers to it as a “troll hangout.” Vladimir was one of the unofficial leaders of the group, and he struck Alina as “unusual and vibrant,” asking the chat users “provocative questions.”

Alina and Vladimir began messaging each other outside of the larger chat, discussing books they both liked. Alina was impressed by her new friend’s activism: he called himself an anarchist, attended rallies for Alexey Navalny, and painted graffiti in support of political prisoners.

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Sometimes, Alina says, Vladimir would discuss politics with her directly. “He said that everything was the fault of Putin and the corruptioneers who’ve lodged themselves in the government. At that point, he was supporting Navalny, despite having anarchist views. But anarchy doesn’t arise out of the blue, and Navalny was promising democracy. He [Vladimir] saw this as the first step,” she recounts.

Alina, for her part, wasn’t especially interested in this at the time — she saw politics as “something distant and boring.”

This old guy Putin delivers a pre-written speech on New Year’s Eve that everyone’s already memorized, like The Irony of Fate [the 1975 film that Russians traditionally watch on New Year’s Eve]. Vladimir didn’t like that I felt this way, but I didn’t have any real interest in politics. Until February 24. Then I couldn’t accept what had happened. Nobody close to me understood — only Vladimir. He and I would watch the news and read Novaya Gazeta for hours, discussing it all.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Alina and Vladimir had been together for one year, but they’d never met in person. On the first day of the war, however, Alina realized that nobody around her would understand her anti-war views. At one point, a fierce argument broke out between her and her grandmother:

She was standing in the kitchen, watching TV. Then she turned around, looked at me with wild eyes, and cried out: “Alina, they’re doing the right thing! We’re being threatened! There’s no other way!”

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Alina didn’t take part in any anti-war protests and didn’t talk publicly about her views; given Russia’s laws against “disinformation” and “discrediting” the army, the risk seemed too high. Vladimir, however, couldn’t stay silent. In early March, he and a friend managed to paint a series of anti-war graffiti works throughout their town without getting caught. But when Vladimir started publicly criticizing the war at his college, where he was set to graduate soon, he wasn’t so lucky. One day, he was summoned to the rector’s office, where officers from Russia’s Anti-Extremism Center were waiting for him.

The college was forcibly herding [students] to a pro-war concert, and all it took was for me to ask how my classmates could stand to just go along with it. [I’m certain that] a professor reported me. Immediately after the concert, in the rector’s office, they threatened to expel me for my [anti-war] views. The next day, they called in officers from Center E [the Anti-Extremism Center] and lured me into the office with no warning as to what the meeting would be about. Both of [the officers] were in plainclothes, and they only showed their badges when I demanded it, but they wouldn’t let me read their names. They also took my phone, but I managed to write to my friend that I was being taken [to the police station]. They didn’t stop pressuring me [at the station] until he called. They said they would be watching me [and then released me].

Vladimir didn’t notice anybody following him in the subsequent weeks, and despite the school’s reaction to his anti-war views, he was allowed to graduate on time. For a while after that, according to Alina, Vladimir’s job search left little time for activism. Meanwhile, she graduated from high school and enrolled in a Moscow university. In the summer of 2022, she moved to Russia’s capital.

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It wasn’t until the fall that Alina and Vladimir finally met in person for the first time. According to her, Vladimir kept postponing their meeting for months, anxious about his “chronic lack of money” and nervous that Alina wouldn’t like him. When Putin announced Russia’s mobilization in September 2022, however, Vladimir started to worry that he’d be drafted, and he invited Alina to come visit him in his hometown.

He met me on the train platform. Early in the morning. I saw his silhouette. I could see him walking; I recognized his hair and jacket. I’d only seen him in photographs. He was the first romantic partner I’d ever had. And he and I had been through so much together. He hugged me and took in the way I smelled. I was this close to crying. And then he asks me: “Well, how do I look? Are you disappointed?”

After that, Alina started regularly visiting Vladimir on weekends. The two would read Novaya Gazeta, watch interviews by Ukrainian and Russian anti-war journalists, and discuss Russia’s political situation. This went on until the spring of 2023.

On the night of April 27–28, Russian troops launched an attack on the Ukrainian city of Uman. One missile hit a nine-story building, killing 23 people, including six children. The news made an especially strong impression on Vladimir, Alina says: the following night, he painted anti-war slogans all over a World War II tank in a local park.


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Two weeks later, Alina went to visit Vladimir, and he took off work to spend more time with her. “It was a suspiciously good day,” she recalls before describing it minute-by-minute: how she made Vladimir pancakes for breakfast, how he drew the Ukrainian flag on her face with face paint, and how they ordered pizza for lunch. When the pizza delivery guy arrived, Alina was talking to her mother on the phone. Shortly after, there was another knock at the door. Vladimir opened it, thinking it was the delivery man again. Instead, four plainclothes officers walked into the apartment.

They knocked Vladimir down to the ground, screaming: “Get the fuck down or I’ll shoot you in the knee!” Then they shoved me into the kitchen and demanded I call our “accomplices.” They threatened to jail me for 17 years for the face paint. One of them was especially cruel: he threatened to crush the head of the kitten I’d brought with me. They tried to scare me by saying that they’d hurt Vladimir or harm my family if I didn’t collaborate with them.

The men demanded that Vladimir confess to vandalizing the tank on the Ukrainian military’s orders and threatened to rape Alina if he denied it. “After all their cursing, screaming, and threats,” Alina says, Vladimir admitted to leaving the graffiti, but he maintained that he’d been acting alone. After that, the men ordered him to sit in front of a camera and apologize for his protest. They then confiscated two laptops, an external memory card, Vladimir’s spray paint cans, and both his and Alina’s cell phones.

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Afterward, Alina and Vladimir were held in the police station until late into the night. When Vladimir asked to go out for a smoke, the officers threatened to “take him outside and shoot him in the knee,” he says. “After that, [one of the police officers] slammed my head against the door jamb, but I put my hand up to soften the impact.” Alina was then sent home, but Vladimir was taken to the local FSB branch.

Vladimir was ultimately charged with “vandalism motivated by political hatred.” According to him, the investigators in his case called the city government and tried to convince officials to retroactively declare the tank an official “monument to military glory,” which would make Vladimir eligible for more serious charges. But the administration refused, he says, so Vladimir was released on his own recognizance.

Vladimir was summoned by police several more times after that, and they tried to charge him with “extremism,” “discrediting” the army, and “rehabilitating Nazism” when he refused to assist them, he says.

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“A month later [after the raid], they called me to the station and asked what I was up to. [I told them] I was looking for work. They said they would make it impossible for me to find work. And the investigators refused to tell me when my court date would be,” he recalls. The officers were making it “impossible to live,” he says.

Rather than stick around and wait to see where everything was headed, Vladimir decided to leave Russia. He doesn’t have a foreign passport, which severely limits the countries accessible to him. He initially got a job at a cleaning service but found himself “unable to do quality work” due to his lack of knowledge of the local language as well as mental health problems stemming from the persecution he faced in Russia (including panic attacks, derealization, and insomnia).

I can’t afford to rent a place closer [to my work] without dying of hunger. The cleaners don’t pay well. It will take at least a year for another country to consider my humanitarian visa application. I applied for a passport, despite the fact that there’s a warrant out for me in Russia. There’s a risk I’ll be deported: people I’ve met here have told me stories of Russians being detained while visiting the embassy to get their documents. I’m losing motivation to live, and the only thing giving me hope is the possibility of meeting my girlfriend somewhere that will be safe for both of us.

Alina is still in Russia. “Every time she goes offline, I think the FSB got her,” Vladimir says. Alina sends him money, clothing, books, and some groceries. “I feel endlessly guilty for dragging her into this. I’m afraid to lose her, but there’s nothing I can do. I’ve tried everything. I’m in a bind.”

* * *

After Alina spoke to Meduza’s correspondent for several hours over the phone, the line suddenly cut off. Shortly after, Alina sent a message: the Internet in her dormitory, she said, had been “disabled by security officials.” “They warned me [during the raid of Vladimir’s apartment] not to try anything,” she said. She was afraid to leave her room, expecting the police to be waiting for her outside.

When the Internet finally started working again, Alina found that neither the police nor the FSB had come to the dorm. She admitted that she’s afraid, among other reasons, because of her family: her mom, her grandmother, and other relatives have continued urging her to “lay low” and “not attract attention” since the authorities could ruin not just her life but also theirs. They’ve also discouraged her from leaving the country to be with Vladimir because they think it will be seen as a “sign of disloyalty” — and that they’ll be punished for it.

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Story by Lilia Yapparova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

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