Thursday, 13 Jun 2024

Exiled Russian activist on the price of speaking out against Putin's regime

‘Undesirable’ – this is how Vladimir Putin’s regime sees civil activist Anastasia Shevchenko.

On February 24, 2022, as Russian tanks moved across the border into Ukraine, she had already spent two years under house arrest for her work with the Open Russia opposition movement and for protesting against the president.

The 43-year-old is the first person in the country to be charged under the law on ‘undesirable organisations’, which came into force in 2015.

It gives authorities the power to arbitrarily ban the activities of international NGOs in Russia under vaguely-defined security pretexts, while also criminalising working with them. 

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As the Kremlin further steps up its crackdown on dissent, spoke with Ms Shevchenko to find out what the going price of speaking out against Russia’s regime is.

From her home in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, she summed up the last few years of her life: ‘I had to escape Russia after the war began and now I am on a wanted list there.

‘As soon as I return, I will be arrested and imprisoned for three years. My crime is that I took part in a political rally against Putin.

‘I took part in debates, once on the local TV station, and participated in a seminar. I was preparing to run for office and local elections.

‘But I was classified as a member of an undesirable organisation. This is why I was fined twice and then arrested in January 2018. I spent more than two years under house arrest.

‘I was completely isolated from the world – you cannot use the internet, of course, you can write or receive letters receive letters and so on.’

For six months before being detained, Ms Shevchenko had been tailed by Federal Security Service agents, who had installed a secret camera in her bedroom ceiling, watching her every move.

But the revived cruelty of the Soviet regime really came to view when her eldest daughter, Alina, became ill and was rushed into intensive care two days after the arrest.

Ms Shevchenko was denied any visitation and was only permitted to be with Alina after she had already lost consciousness in the hospital.

Holding her child’s cold hand, the mother could not stop the tears running down her face as she said goodbye in the 15 minutes she was allowed to be there.

A couple of hours later, Alina had died.

‘When I finally came to the hospital, it was after her heart had stopped twice,’ the parent recalled.

‘She was already in a very bad condition. She was unconscious, and was breathing with the help of medical equipment. She was completely on her own.

‘This is something I cannot understand and forgive and forget. She did not see me when I came there.

‘I just wanted to hold her hand, but it was cold already. Alina died maybe two or three hours after my visit. y

‘I saw her for 15 minutes, I was just crying the entire time. There was no empathy, no compassion.’

Putin’s Russia is built on repression, only dialled up or down to suit the purposes. 

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, it was already clear that the opposition that groups like Open Russia presented was a threat to the Kremlin.

In February 2021, the activist was found guilty and received a suspended sentence of four years of imprisonment for having links to the pro-democracy group based in the UK.

Tolerance for open dissent in Russia had sunk even lower since she was detained in 2019.

Despite this, Ms Shevchenko never considered fleeing her country and planned to stay and fight the regime from the inside.

This changed a few months after the war in Ukraine began, when her 14-year-old son was tasked with writing a support letter to frontline troops by his teachers at school.

Coming to terms that the future of her children is threatened by propaganda and how polarised the society is becoming, she packed their bags and fled across the border overnight in August last year.

At the time, the president had not yet announced partial mobilisation of military reservists, so their documents were not checked at the border with Belarus.

Driving for almost 30 hours with her children in the back, Ms Shevchenko did not stop the car until she reached Lithuania.

‘A couple of weeks after the war began, my son, who was in the fourth grade at the time, was asked was given homework to write a letter to a Russian soldier and wish him victory over Ukraine,’ she said.

‘He started his letter, writing “What are you doing? You’re killing people”.

‘My daughter had also just graduated from school in May. She is also a brave girl, and I could imagine that if she enters university, it would be impossible for her to study as they ask you to pledge support to the invasion.

‘As soon as you disagree, you are no longer a student. It happened to many of my friends’ children. I also saw how the country was changing.

‘There were a lot of Z letters everywhere. The society was so polarised – those who do support the war and those who do not.’

From Lithuania, Ms Shevchenko is still very much involved with politics in Europe and the US.

She is scheduled to speak at the May 17 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in Geneva, Switzerland, a major conference that shines a spotlight on urgent human rights situations that require global attention.

The activist stands behind her choice to speak out against the president and for defending human rights, and has ‘no regrets’.

But the trauma of what the Kremlin put her through continues to live with her and her children.

‘People ask me if I am concerned the regime will target me abroad, but if I begin to think about it, it will destroy me,’ she said.

‘Alexei Navalny had his underwear poisoned with the Novichok agent. To think about my underwear all the time will become too overconsuming. it. No, I just live my life.

‘It took some time here, in Lithuania, to start behaving normally, to stop looking if anyone is following me and to convince myself to relax.

‘Still, I sometimes get flashbacks of what happened. It is also a huge problem for me to trust people, especially new ones.’

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