The characters of this story, a mom and her son, are real people under fake names (Olga and Andrey) to ensure security of the mom who has stayed in Russia. Her son has received political asylum in Lithuania. Representing LGBTQ+ community, he faced persecution at home as a civic and environmental activist.
Andrey: I was asleep when I heard a doorbell. Having seen my parents through a peephole, I opened the door; from behind their backs, FSB officers broke into the flat with machine guns. Trained to be professional in lying and winning trust, they deceived my parents to bring them from their summerhouse.
They recruited neighbours as attesting witnesses. Without showing a search warrant, they told me that a criminal case on extremism had been launched against me. They started turning things upside down everywhere in my place, piling staff out of my shelves in the middle of the room. They brought away many bags full of my belongings. Two computers, phones, a photo camera, flash drivers, all my books (on history, business, physics, and mathematics), and even CDs with movies and games. Without composing a seizure inventory, they just packed things up and took them out.
A car with a large FSB sign was waiting in front of my house, armed people next to it. They wanted to take my passport, but changed their mind after my mom’s scandal. The search lasted five or six hours. Many people gathered around to watch, since this is a large yard of a high-rise building. They didn’t arrest me that time, though.
Olga looks at the sky over the Trakai castle, Lithuania, and says in expert’s confident manner, “Light twin-engine plane”. She is a daughter of a Soviet aviation colonel and a mother of a political refugee sheltered by Lithuania in 2014.
Andrey: It was not my choice to come to Lithuania. It happened by chance. It was just the nearest country, easiest to reach in legal and physical terms. Why I say it is lifesaving? Because I am homosexual, and I have health problems. Chances are I would not survive a Russian prison.
Olga tells that their region hosts many flying trainings: “They keep flying around and rumbling”. Her son is ironic: “They train for Syria”. She hisses him off, first, to add afterwards, “They will fly where the Homeland will task them to”.
“It is good that guys serve in the army, - says Olga. – Having served is essential for getting a good job, for example in a municipality”. Olga is a schoolteacher of Russian language and literature. She says that, just like other teachers in her school, she has to prepare weekly political reviews based on First TV Channel news stories: “They will punish me if I don’t”.
Andrey worked as a physics and informatics teacher, too; however, he had to quit due to the pressure made on him because of his untraditional sexual orientation. He started making business. His mom says he has a spirit of enterprise. For example, he installed vending machines in their town and administered them together with his father. Andrey also had his small coffeehouse. His vending machine rendered him an unexpected service last time.
Andrey: I went to my vending machine and took the earnings off. Having bought the cheapest phone, I restored my old phone number by showing my ID. I told the phone company that I had lost my old one, and they issued a new SIM-card. My friends called from Krasnodar immediately, saying, “Do you know you are on all news shows?”
In the evening, I visited a friend of mine to change my social media passwords. I called my parents and learnt that my dad was going to Krasnodar next morning for a hospital visit. I wangled an invitation to come along to meet my colleagues from human rights NGOs in Krasnodar. Human rights defenders told me: “Are you mad? Don’t go home. While still free, just get off there”. I learnt from my lawyer that FSB guys came next day to catch me. They waited in front of my house to arrest me and refer to compulsory mental examination.
As we are walking down a path around the Trakai castle, along the lakeside, Andrey is telling that the reason to launch an extremism case against him was his repost in social media of a quotation related to Kuban nationalists, attacking foreign students and LGBTQ+ community members.
Andrey: “Russians have to die out, be reborn and realise that they are people rather than Russians”. They could have taken any other sentence. I reposted 50 to 100 times per day, focusing on subjects like religion satire, Olympics, LGBT, or environment. They showed me a pile of 300 to 400 printouts from my Vkontakte page. They kept printing them out since 2013. A lawyer filed a complaint to the prosecutor’s office against the illegal persecution, since the extremism law was passed in 2014, while the reposts were from 2013. Many more irregularities were there. The sentence doesn’t matter. First, they just needed to meet their quarterly plan and to detect a certain number of offenders per article, including extremism, terrorism, drugs, thefts, and murders. If they don’t meet the plan, they don’t get their bonus payments and career promotions. Second, they had received a task to purge out the activists that spoke in public. They must have been aware of plans regarding Ukraine, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.
Andrey emphasises some statements on social media were more extremist, such as “Putin is a terrorist”. His mom casts quick and fearful glances around the Lithuanian walkway and raises her voice on the son: “C’mon, keep it to yourself. I have always told you, just keep it to yourself”.
Andrey: My granny came later from the neighbouring apartment block where she lives. I am her only grandson. She has health issues; I took care of her, visiting her several times per day. She had found out about everything from the mom; she said, “I warned you to never go against the authorities. I did not object when they dekulakised me, because they would have imprisoned your grandfa and me. You won’t prove anything; you won’t change anything; don’t criticise the government!” I kept telling her, “C’mon grandma, it’s 21st century, and the world has democracy”.
Olga cries as she is speaking about her son’s enforced emigration.
Andrey: I can remember hugging my grandmother without knowing that this was our last hug. She went off to bed. I couldn’t sleep and just stayed sitting. The parents came to pick me up at 5 a.m. I left with my home clothes and slippers on. I had no luggage.
Olga: Come on, don’t lie that you had slippers on.
Andrey: I thought I would come back. I did not think I would travel on after Krasnodar and even leave the country. Krasnodar activists told me, “Are you mad? Don’t go home. While still free, just get off there”. They also explained me that escaping Russia is possible only through Moscow. The distance between Krasnodar and Moscow is about 1.500 kilometres. I had no valid visa. I was on a local wanted list, and getting to the federal one was a matter of time. I was afraid of applying for a visa to any embassy, because every embassy in Russia has a police box nearby. You need to show documents to get in. Formally, they secure the embassy; in reality, they watch those who try to leave.
Olga does not tell anyone about her son back home. She is afraid of losing her job; no one is going to keep extremist’s mother working in a school. She agreed to give interview on terms of confidentiality. The public position is that her son lives with other relatives. Only with her nearest and dearest does she discuss the truth.
Andrey: We had philosophical discussions with my mom, regarding why it is OK for authors and poets to criticise Russia, but not OK for me. In her opinion, I am a criminal, but Pushkin is not; therefore, I have to surrender. I asked her to find me a lawyer. She decided to find a lawyer and use him to convince me to come back.
Olga is fighting for acquittal of her son and looking for a lawyer to lead his case in the ECHR. She says that she understands that even an acquittal will not bring her son back home, since he would immediately face new charges; for example, a theft case was launched against him immediately after his escape. The mother says that she needs the fact of non-guilty sentence rather than a money compensation; this would be the lawyer’s honorarium if he or she wins the case, because they have no other funds. Olga believes his son was mistreated by applying the law passed a year after his deed: “The Constitution has a provision on freedom of expression; but just try using it! They wiretap all conversations and highlight all statements on the web”.
Andrey: I was in school in Yeltsin’s times. They inspired me. I started school in 1990, and graduated in 2000. My primary school teacher would tell us about the country changing, the democracy coming; she was pretty anti-Soviet. It was my inspiration for years. Now we have it…
Olga did not avoid people after the searches, staying proud and confident. When asked what happened, she would say that her son had written some stupid thing on a web. Olga sold the searched flat afterwards, to help her son. They moved to the summerhouse with no utilities and took a loan. They are on four loans now. Among other things, they need it for travelling to Lithuania to visit their son. She is afraid of making any statements now to keep her job and the loans.
Olga complains that her financial situation is hard. Her pension is about 200 euro, and such is the wage. Her kitchen garden and private lessons help, too. She has to take care of her disabled mother and a sick husband. All of a sudden, she exclaims, “Crimea is ours and has always been!”, and adds that she would defend this statement with deadly force. Her son argues: “They cut your wage every sixth month to pay for Crimea!” She gets angry: “It’s not for Crimea; it’s because of country’s hardships. Don’t twist facts!”
Andrey: We organised small protests with other activists, one-person actions or social ads against demolition of houses or destroying a conservation area for the Olympics, when they poured heating oil and concrete straight into the river. They destroyed a half of this natural area and the river.
Olga loves her country: “We have mountains and warm sea. Your sea is grey and cold. Our soil is fertile, and yours is of clay and sand”.
Andrey: I spent three days in my girlfriend’s flat in Krasnodar, exploring emigration options: via sea, mountains or forests. US-based journalists, refugees from Russia, contacted me and said that they could try to agree with an embassy of a certain state; on my side, I would have to travel to Moscow. I borrowed money from my friends and asked them to book a ticket for me, because booking requires showing an ID. I had to wait two or three weeks in Moscow, moving on after every two or three days. When I was out of distant friends whom I could ask for a stay, I ended up on a street; I had to stay at a railway station. I was lucky that it was summer. I spent several nights in a 24/7 sauna. The embassy told they couldn’t help me, unfortunately. I hitchhiked to Saint Petersburg to find an opportunity to cross the border illegally. With my lesbian friend, I got lost in woods; caught among several swamps, we could not rely on a navigation, since we kept the phone off, wary of surveillance. In a panic attack, she called the Ministry of Emergencies. They told her to find a way out. We found a pipeline, probably a gas tube, and called them again, asking where it could lead us. We don’t know, they told us. Three or four hours later, we found a small motor road leading to the border. We asked someone where Petersburg was, and headed there, trying to stop a car. Having walked for half an hour, we didn’t get any ride. In the end, a police car caught up with us and transported to their border control booth. They questioned us for five hours or so, asking who we were, from where and why. We said we were lost environmentalists. The border guard had a computer behind him; he could check me up, or ask by a walkie-talkie. I was lucky he didn’t. He hitched a ride for us with his baton and asked them to bring us to Petersburg. Eventually, I received a message from Human Rights Watch that they can help us to escape to Lithuania through diplomatic channels.
Olga likes Lithuania; she says it’s clean, beautiful and well taken care of. She shares a feeling that no one works in Lithuania. The food is tasty, especially meat and dairy. She says she will bring some canned fish home, because she was asked to. I asked her whether vegetables are expensive in her region. – “Yes, they are more expensive than yours”, - she answers and asks back: - “How about your agriculture? A friend of mine, whose husband is from Lithuania, told me that the European Union demanded that Lithuania planted oaks instead of potatoes and carrots”.
Andrey: I reached Lithuania 1.5 months after leaving my hometown. It felt like half a year. I had no problems during crossing the border by Minsk – Vilnius train. I took a sigh of relief when I took off the train in Vilnius. I tried to understand my unusual feelings. People are different; there is no rush. I felt the air is better here. Krasnodar is full of open fire, dumps and industries. The words of mom-hired lawyer kept lingering in my mind: “you can’t escape the system”. Well, I can, thought I in triumph.
Olga says she would prefer her son going to prison and back home. “Whom would you get back?” – I ask her. “Maybe no one, or a cripple son”, - she thinks aloud.
Andrey: When I called my mom from other people’s phones, she would say, “Don’t be silly and come home. Why do you think anyone is going to imprison you?” She changed her mind later: “They might give you a suspended term, it’s not a problem. You will stay in homeland, at least”. She switched to another idea later: “Even if you stay in prison for two years, I will agree with them to feed you well. I will bribe them so that they stay clear of you, and will bring you some parcels”.
“My son is gay!? It’s not what I expected in life,” – says the mommy, watching her son disapprovingly. She cries. Olga says she never heard of LGBT in her youth; when she found out they existed, she could not understand it. When she faced it, she realised they are quite many; however, she is not ready to discuss it: “Let’s change the topic!”
Andrey: It was 2013-14, when FSB (Russian Federal Security Service, transl.) enhanced its pressure on LGBT community through gangs. They organised movements under different names, the most famous being Occupy Pedophilye (a mockery name, pronounced as Okkupay-Pedophiliay, with the second non-existent word used as a make-rime, transl.). They created fake profiles on dating websites and attacked the LGBT people coming to date someone: they would circle them, torture or beat them up, or pour urine over them, and record this on video. There are thousands of such movies on Youtube and Vkontakte. The police did not react to them. Well-known human rights defenders tried to resist it. We did it, too. Helping such victims mattered more to us than the street activism. We distributed instructions on the web on how to avoid traps and victimisation. We also instructed people on how to remove such videos from the internet. People called me from around Russia to my phone, including from Moscow. Teens called crying: what can I do? I don’t want to live! I received dozens of calls or emails per day. Sometime later, a project Children 404 emerged to help them. I have personally met people beaten up on streets; they would come to my home, bleeding. I helped them to wash up and called an ambulance. This was a terror against these social groups. They might have targeted people beyond LGBT community, but I did not deal with it. As I live here, in Lithuania, people keep asking me how they can escape.
Olga agrees that Andrey is safe in Lithuania, but still: “It would be better if he lived in MY country, not in THIS KIND of a country”. I ask about the “MY” part, first: “Because of patriotism?” “Yes” is her immediate answer. “What do you mean by “this kind” of country?” – I clarify. “Like on TV,” – she says, embarrassedly. Olga would tell us later about Nazi marches in Lithuania and about a senior woman who held a poster and sang a military song during the Victory Day (9 May, the Soviet celebration of victory over the Nazi, transl.) on a street, who was detained by police. “Why do you allow this? Didn’t you want to be liberated?” Abruptly, Olga almost clutches her head and says, “My God, what are they doing to us? I don’t know whom to trust anymore”.