Mikhail Maglov is a Siberian from Omsk. He had to flee Russia after participating in a protest at Bolotnaya square in Moscow on 6 May 2012. Having reached Kyiv in August, he ended up in Lithuania where he received a political asylum. Mikhail’s wife followed him to Vilnius. They had met each other in Saint Petersburg, married in Kyiv and had kids in Vilnius. Their boys are two and four; the elder one goes to a Lithuanian preschool. “I am settled in here, - admits Mikhail. – I was born elsewhere, and my parents live there. Certainly, I love that place, but I cannot say I am very nostalgic. I would be fine just visiting it for a couple of days or a week during vacations”.
Already being in Lithuania, Mikhail initiated a project for investigating corruption in Russia. It led him to further studies of corruption transit to European countries and monitoring infringements of sanctions in Crimea by Europeans. Arvydas Avulis, a major Lithuanian real estate developer, was identified amongst infringers, resulting in a pre-trial investigation against him by Lithuanian law enforcement bodies.
“Sanctions don’t function now, - says Maglov. – Precedents are non-existent. We only have some politicians waving a piece of paper: look, we have introduced sanctions! All countries have committed to abide with them; however, no one is obliged to monitor the implementation. Europe does not have an institution to enforce the sanctions. We have undertaken this role. Some people in Europe help money launderers from Russia, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. Therefore, our anti-corruption project has transformed from Russia-focused towards trans-border”.
Standard package of documents and clothes
“For two days, they followed me everywhere. It’s unpleasant. The same people moving behind you around the city, and the same cars moving after the trolleybus that you take. It’s easy to understand they watch you”
Maglov was in Moscow when he realised that investigators were collecting a standard package of documents for his arrest. As Omsk was his formal place of residence, prosecutors had to be cautious to avoid premature actions against him: “If they had arrested me in Moscow, it would have taken them more than 48 hours to collect all the necessary documents, so they would have let me go, - explains the activist. – For example, investigators needed a letter of reference to be submitted to the court in a criminal case. They had to check if I had a travel document, a military registration and a record of conviction”. Mikhail learnt about it from people whom investigators had asked about him. “With its 1.5 million population, Omsk is a large village. I am from a rural area outside Omsk, actually”.
Signs of an imminent arrest came a month after Mikhail’s interrogation at the Investigative Committee. “All protest leaders had their homes searched. I was detained or, actually, abducted and brought to the investigative committee, where they interrogated me all day long. As I was working for opposition leaders, they wanted to use me to put pressure on them. It was before the stories of Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev. They had got performers of riots rather than managers, and they wanted the managers”, - tells Mikhail.
They all get the same 20 thousand-rouble package of clothes: jeans or trousers, shoes, a jacket, a cap and a manbag carrying a hidden camera with an inventory number. They all have a cop face.
Maglov saw his belongings seized. He says the investigator still holds his computer, documents, sound recorder, and keys. After the release, he noticed being monitored: “For two days, they followed me everywhere. It’s unpleasant. The same people moving behind you around the city, and the same cars moving after the trolleybus that you take. It’s easy to understand they watch you”.
They all look the same, says Maglov: “Navalny’s volunteers have jokes about this typical style of people attending street actions. They all get the same 20 thousand-rouble package of clothes: jeans or trousers, shoes, a jacket, a cap and a manbag carrying a hidden camera with an inventory number. They all have a cop face. Field surveillance is easy to identify for a trained eye. Participants always take pictures of these people during street actions.”
It works the same way now, though with updated technologies. Instead of telephone girls, devices are in charge of wiretapping. Phones have replaced archaic cameras.
Mikhail says security services stick to old KGB methods. “When I had plenty of time, I studied open KGB archives in Lithuania. Undercover work materials were of particular interest for me. If, for example, an Italian journalist would come to Lithuania in 1978 or 1982, or, God forbid, a reporter of Radio Free Europe, KGB would have a full-fledged operation. Reports describe it in details. If he called a taxi, a special cabman would pick him to make long detours, so that KGB officers have time to enter his hotel, watch his documents and destroy his photos. It works the same way now, though with updated technologies. Instead of telephone girls, devices are in charge of wiretapping. Phones have replaced archaic cameras. Yet, recruiting, agent infiltration and provocation methods stay the same”, - shares the interviewee. Russia has reformed the structure of fighting the critical voices, says Mikhail: “KGB was in charge of everything. Now, the ‘E’ center deals with activists (the Anti-Extremism Board of the Interior Ministry – int.), while FSB focuses on ‘elite’ actors, such as Navalny”.
On his day off, a friend drove me there
It took 36 hours for Mikhail to leave Russia. Having no travel document, he could go only to Ukraine, a country that recognised a Russian internal passport. “After consulting good friends of mine, I decided to leave. Obviously, you cannot prove anything in our courts, leaving no hope for an acquittal, - shares Maglov. – I packed my travel backpack and called my friend with a car, asking to take a day off for me. We drove to Homiel, Belarus, where I took a train and reached Kyiv by next morning. I had no family by then, making a decision much easier”. Mikhail says his friends in Moscow gave him some money for the start. Knowing no one in Kyiv, he had to stay in a hostel.
Maglov could stay in Ukraine legally for three months. He kept watching the situation in Russia, hoping that it would calm down and he could go back. By the end of the legal 90 days period, he applied for a political asylum in Ukraine, a fact that allowed him to stay for six more months during the application processing. “Under the-then president Viktor Yanukovych, Russian nationals would never be granted a political asylum, - says Viktor. – It was long before the Maidan”. Ukraine rejected Mikhail’s application. However, the UN recognised him as a refugee. “We appealed against the decision together with a UN lawyer. We won a trial against Ukraine’s migration department, but they succeeded in overturning the ruling after appealing to a higher court”.
A thousand reasons
As Ukraine is considered an unsafe country, Mikhail was included in a list of third-countries refugees within a special UN programme. The programme does not cover Lithuania; therefore, Mikhail was offered emigration to the USA or Canada, something unacceptable for him:
I went to Lithuania and applied for asylum two days later. We found a way for me to travel legally from Ukraine to Lithuania
“For a thousand of reasons! First, the distance. My parents could visit me in Lithuania or any other country in Europe; visiting US is too challenging, though. Second, the language barrier. They would send me to midland of America, where I would have to spend three years learning English, because I don’t speak it. It would be fight for survival. By then, I had a family. To feel good in America, I had to become an American. I didn’t want to become an American. Third, 12 hours difference between the time zones. I would lose any connection with Russia. I would have to stay awake in the middle of the night and read news from Russia. It made no sense. Any European country would be worth considering; yet, they make their decisions in Geneva, and I don’t know their algorithm”.
In the same time, Mikhail negotiated with people in Lithuania, who helped them to come here. “I went to Lithuania and applied for asylum two days later. We found a way for me to travel legally from Ukraine to Lithuania, - says Maglov. – I had a visa and took a flight”.
Almost Hungarian language and cold climate
Coming to Baltics in autumn is not the best idea, admits the interlocutor. “Getting used to the climate is challenging. Humidity changes the perception of temperature. Siberian climate is better for me, because it is dry. In Siberia, I know how to dress to feel good when it is -30 degrees Celsius. Here, no matter what you wear, you feel cold even at -10 degrees, because moisture penetrates you. It is a nightmare; yet, it is even more so in Riga and Tallinn, because humidity is higher and winds are stronger”.
Mikhail says that people in Siberia do not care about saving energy for heating. “When I was a student, I rented a one-room flat with a district heating. At -30 degrees, I would have to open my window leaf because of unbearably hot heaters,” – remembers he.
When he came to a store in Vilnius for a first time, he felt like a migrant from Tajikistan in Moscow who cannot speak a local language: “I needed something and I thought I had found it, but when I came home I realised I had bought sun-dried tomatoes in oil, something I was not going to buy. I found myself in a completely different language environment. It feels like in Hungary. Hungarian is like no other language, so you cannot understand a word. Lithuanian leaves an impression of a very distant language, too”.
This said, Maglov thinks that Lithuania is quite similar to Russia: “We actually have much in common. Not so many differences. Yes, it is slightly different. Should Russia have not taken the path of dictatorship, it would be like Lithuania now; it would be richer, though, because of its economic resources”.
Mikhail notes that environment in Vilnius is very friendly, including attitude to Russian-speakers. “I have no opportunities to learn the language now. I feel very comfortable in practical terms, though. If I visit a doctor, we both speak Russian. In a police, I can file a complaint in Russian. If I need to register my car, I can use Russian. My wife tries to use Lithuanian, but only rare people support her in this. Others switch to Russian immediately, to make it easier for her,” – shares Mikhail.
Dividing by 20
When they hear news about raising salaries, school or preschool teachers in Russia, just like any public sector workers, understand that this is far from reality, too.
“My parents are typical Russians. When they watch news, they compare this information to their own reality and they always divide things by 20. For example, when newspaper Pravda publishes a government-ordered PR story about newly constructed roads and bridges, or about newly created jobs, people understand that the reality is not that perfect. When they hear news about raising salaries, school or preschool teachers in Russia, just like any public sector workers, understand that this is far from reality, too. However, when people in Baltic countries see it on Russian TV, they think it is true, because they do not know the reality”, - notes Mikhail as he compares impact of Russian propaganda in and outside Russia.
However, he admits that many Russians do not want change, a fear being among key reasons. “This is the enduring Soviet heritage. Majority lived in the Soviet Union and did not care a darn about anything. When it collapsed, no one fought for it. The current situation in Russia is similar, - compares Maglov. – People are indifferent. Yet, it will take a small share, a critical mass of active people, to change the course of history”.
Mikhail does not dare to predict the future of Russia. “We can discuss possible scenarios in oil prices in the nearest five years. It is more predictable than general developments in Russia. It can change for the better or for the worse. A revolution can occur, or a coup. Countries like e.g. Germany are more predictable: even with all those emerging populists, the situation is under control and politicians stay accountable to the public. In Russia, the public makes no difference. It can make a difference, though, once in a very long time”.