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Exile or Prison: The dire choice for Russian opposition leaders

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MOSCOW – In reference to the dark era of Soviet repression, increasing numbers of Russian politicians and journalists are being driven into exile.

The steady stream of politically motivated emigration that had accompanied President Vladimir V. Putin’s two-decade rule turned into a flood this year. Oppositionists, their supporters, human rights activists and even independent journalists are increasingly faced with a choice: escape or imprisonment.

A senior ally of incarcerated opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny left Russia this month, telling state media and adding them to a list of dozens of dissidents and journalists believed to have departed this year. Taken together, experts say, this is the largest wave of political emigration in Russia’s post-Soviet history.

This year’s forced departures are reminiscent of a tactic used by the KGB in the last decades of the Soviet Union, when the secret police told some dissidents they could either go west or east – into exile or a Siberian prison camp. Then, as now, the Kremlin seems to be betting that driving high-profile critics out of the country is less of a headache than imprisoning them, and that Russians are easily portrayed abroad as traitors under the guise of the West.

“Your strategy is: first you oust them,” said Dmitri G. Gudkov, a popular Moscow opposition politician who fled in June. “And if you can’t squeeze them out, throw them in jail.”

On August 7, Lyubov Sobol, Navalny’s most prominent ally who had stayed in Russia, flew to Turkey, Kremlin-friendly TV stations reported. Earlier this month, a court sentenced Ms. Sobol to a year and a half of restricted mobility, including a travel ban from the Moscow region. But the authorities granted her a few weeks of freedom before the ruling came into force – a clear signal for Ms. Sobol that she had one last chance to get out.

“It is of course best to participate in Russian politics within Russia,” Ms. Sobol said in a recent interview. “But at the moment the risks are too great for that.”

Speaking to the New York Times on Aug. 5, Ms. Sobol admitted she was considering leaving because she had faced jail sentences on other pending criminal cases. She has remained active on social media, commenting on events in Russia, but not revealing her whereabouts; On Thursday she announced that a surgeon in Armenia had performed a long-delayed operation on her nose.

Russian news agencies reported on Monday that Mr Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh had also left the country.

Andrei Soldatov, who wrote the book “The Compatriots” with Irina Borogan on the history of Russians abroad, described the practice of expelling dissidents as a “very clever tactic” of the Kremlin. The two have been in exile in London since September after receiving signals that returning would be dangerous, Soldatov said.

“If people can choose whether to continue radicalizing or to leave, people still have a choice and they go,” he said. “That reduces the pressure on the system.”

This year’s wave of exit – triggered by the suppression of dissenting opinions after Navalny returned to Russia in January – has welcomed more than a dozen national and regional figures into Navalny’s movement, which has been ostracized as extremist; other opposition figures from across the country; and journalists whose news agencies have been banned or branded as “foreign agents”.

An investigative journalist, Roman Badanin, was on family vacation in Africa last month when his outlet, Proekt, was declared an “undesirable organization,” making any connection with it a possible crime. He considered returning home to face a charge. This could have made him a political star, but it would have thwarted his ability to carry on as a journalist, and time in jail “would be my least productive years,” he said.

So Mr. Badanin flew from Morocco to New York and just packed his warm vacation clothes. He lived with a friend in California and also helped some of his employees leave Russia. Mr Badanin said that when the police searched his deputy’s apartment, the message could not have been clearer: the detective demonstratively returned the passport he found.

The question for the new exiles is how they can stay relevant at home. Mr Badanin plans to set up a news agency outside Russia that will be of interest to the people in Russia – a challenge, as Russian emigrants often break away from their homeland and “only become interesting for one another”.

Former oil magnate Mikhail B. Chodorkovsky, who spent 10 years in prison after an argument with Putin and now lives in London, said he spends 12 hours a day communicating with people in Russia. Khodorkovsky said in a telephone interview that he was determined not to lose contact with a country that he last saw as a free man in 2003.

Two news outlets and a law enforcement group supported by Mr. Khodorkovsky in Russia were shut down this month after affiliated organizations were declared “undesirable”. Andrei Pivorarov, a former leader of Mr. Khodorkovsky’s “Open Russia” movement, was arrested in May after boarding a flight to Warsaw – a sign that not all dissidents are allowed to flee.

“I felt it was imperative to work outdoors and in public until the last moment while that opportunity exists,” said Khodorkovsky. But now, he said, “the risks of such work have become too great.”

Leaving as opposition leaders, the pro-Kremlin news media scornfully report their departure. For example, in a comment on a popular Kremlin-friendly account on the Telegram social network, Ms. Sobol’s exit showed that “the Navalnyites can only be associated with cowardly rats.”

Mr Navalny’s employees are trying to maintain their influence through corruption investigations and livestreams on YouTube and to lobby for a coordinated protest vote in the Russian parliamentary elections in September. But they do not emphasize that they are abroad.

Ivan Zhdanov, the executive director of Mr. Navalny’s team, left Russia in January to coordinate protests following the return and arrest of Mr. Navalny. He decided not to return after Russian authorities accused him of recruiting minors to protest. In a phone interview from a location in Europe he did not want to reveal, he argued that the battlefield of Russian politics has largely shifted online.

“What matters is what we do, and not whether a certain employee or a certain number of employees has crossed the border of the Russian Federation,” said Zhdanov.

In March, police in southern Russia arrested Mr. Zhdanov’s 66-year-old father, a retired local official, on suspicion of abuse of office. Now he is in prison in the far north of Russia.

“These are terrorists who have taken a hostage,” said Zhdanov of his father’s arrest and promised not to change course.

For Mr. Gudkov, the Moscow politician, it was the threat of imprisonment for a relative that forced him out of the country.

In June, people close to the authorities called Mr. Gudkov’s wife and father to tell him that he and his 61-year-old aunt were being held for allegedly unpaid rent. Despite being a suspect in a criminal investigation, Mr Gudkov was able to get in his car and drive to Ukraine – a move he believes has eased the pressure on his aunt.

Mr. Gudkov, who in. served The 2011-2016 parliament said the Russian authorities were convinced that not enough dissidents were allowed to leave the country during the Soviet era, creating domestic political pressure that contributed to the country’s demise.

But officials don’t see the importance of the internet, he said.

“Our generals in the security authorities are preparing for the last war,” said Gudkov of his current refuge in Bulgaria. “If you leave now, you will be heard just as well, if not better.”

Some Putin critics would disagree.

Yulia Galyamina, who last year helped lead a campaign against a referendum that allowed Putin to rule until 2036, said she refused to leave the lead while she was under criminal investigation. She received a two-year suspended sentence that prevented her from running for parliament in September. She is now working with another opposition candidate, but is staying away from street protests on the advice of her lawyer.

“I’m sorry, but how will anything change here when everyone leaves?” She said. “When it all collapses, power will fall into the hands of those around.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed to the coverage.

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