Secretive Network Rescues Russia’s Antiwar Dissidents in Nick of Time

The three young women, participants in an antiwar chat group, were falsely accused last fall by one of its members of plotting with him to firebomb a military enlistment office.

The trio quickly went underground, hiding in a friend’s house in their home city of Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, while seeking a way to escape the country and potentially lengthy prison sentences. That brought them to a group called In Transit, part of an extensive underground railroad that is rescuing hundreds of Russians who have been targeted for expressing opposition to the invasion of Ukraine or even sympathy for Ukrainian refugees.

Their flight to freedom would ultimately end in Kazakhstan, after a six-day odyssey in six different cars over more than 4,000 miles — the equivalent of driving from New York City to Alaska. They were not told the route they would take, the names of the drivers or the rendezvous points until they reached each new city.

“We were scared,” said one of the young women, all students, aged 16, 17 and 19 — so much so that they avoided talking to people in the streets when they switched cars for fear of informers and surveillance cameras.

In Transit, the group that arranged their escape, is one of at least five organizations that help dissenters to get out of Russia, usually just one step ahead of the law. Working from outside the country, they plan escape routes that can include cars, travel money, safe houses, border crossings and visas.

“In a situation where everyone is against you, including your own relatives, who think that you are a traitor and are ready to hang you from the nearest lamppost, I was extremely pleased to discover that there are people who don’t know you at all, who’ve never seen you, and they are ready to help,” said Oleg Zavyalov, 31. He had just had a tearful reunion with his older brother, Vladimir, months after the siblings fled to different countries from the city of Smolensk in western Russia.

A billboard for the Russian Army in Moscow.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

In Transit was the brainchild of three women from St. Petersburg, Russia, who realized that people caught up in the sweeping arrests of antiwar protesters after the invasion last February would need help getting out. For security reasons, they set up shop in Berlin. For the same reason, The New York Times is withholding the names of the founders and granting anonymity for those escapees who requested it, as well as details about the routes they took.

After the European Union largely stopped issuing visas for Russians last year, a few countries — mainly Germany, Poland and Lithuania — extended a humanitarian visa program, originally intended for Belarusian dissidents, to Russian opponents of the war.

The number of Russians facing the most common charge for criticizing the war — discrediting the Russian armed forces — peaked in early March of last year after the law was first passed, then spiked again after the mobilization was announced in late September, then plateaued, according to OVD-Info, a Russian human rights organization that tracks repression.

The State of the War

  • Free Russia Legion: Russian soldiers repelled by President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have taken arms against their home country — and they’re engaged in some of the war’s most heated fighting.
  • In the East: The Wagner private military company said its fighters had seized a village outside Bakhmut, as Moscow’s forces continue a brutal campaign that has nearly encircled the strategic city.
  • Wagner’s Founder: Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the once secretive tycoon who has Mr. Putin’s support, is confounding Moscow’s Kremlin-allied elite by starting to dabble in politics alongside waging war in Ukraine.
  • Russian Aerial Barrage: Ukrainian utility crews were working to repair new and significant damage to the country’s energy grid, officials said, after Russia unleashed a major wave of missiles and attack drones.

Since last spring, the three countries have issued more than 3,800 such visas, according to government officials. Facing criminal charges is not a mandatory criterion, but the individuals’ actions have to extend beyond attending a few antiwar protests.

Irina, a 60-year-old economist, received a German visa after trying to help 750 refugees from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol who had been dumped in abandoned factory housing near Penza, in central Russia.

She said that she raised more than $14,000 through crowd funding — buying food, medicine, children’s books and even lingerie for some destitute women. Increasingly hostile local officials demanded that she deliver the aid through them.

Vladimir Zavyalov and his brother fled to different countries from the city of Smolensk in western Russia. Credit…Andrej Vasilenko for The New York Times

Soon someone scrawled “Here lives an ally of the Ukrainian regime” on her apartment door. Agents from the F.S.B., the Federal Security Service previously known as the K.G.B., questioned her for an hour. Right after she was released, four burly men abducted her from the apartment’s parking lot and drove her into the woods.

“We will bury you here!” she remembered one shouted as they shoved her to the ground, ultimately giving her a concussion and severe bruising. “Who gives you money? Who are you working for?”

When they let her go five hours later, she decided she had to leave the country.

To avoid having to show their passports, escapees often shun public transportation and rely on long-haul taxis, but that comes with its own hazards.

The young women, for example, said that one of their drivers sped along at around 100 miles an hour, at one point eating shish kebab while on a video call with his wife. When he delivered them to a Siberian city six hours ahead of schedule, at 4 a.m., the escape organizers outside Russia scrambled to find housing lest the women be dumped on the street and draw police attention.

Nevertheless, for many escapees, the threat of disappearing into a penal colony far outweighs the risks involved in fleeing. “We had no choice,” said one of the young women, who were nervous about getting stopped at the border with Kazakhstan. “If we stayed we would be risking even more.”

Some of the escapees took flight to avoid the draft, after President Vladimir V. Putin announced plans in September to conscript 300,000 men.

Russian conscripts at a recruitment office in Moscow. Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Oleksandr, 32, a Ukrainian-Russian actor, had moved to Moscow from his native city of Donetsk after Russian-backed forces took up arms in eastern Ukraine in 2014. His employers in the city government sent him to the mobilization office, assuring him that the army would reject a Ukrainian citizen.

Instead, he was ordered to deploy immediately. “Great! You will go serve, you will go defend the Motherland,” the woman who reviewed his case barked in a chilling voice, he said. She ordered him onto a bus leaving within the hour.

Dazed young recruits were crying or getting drunk, Oleksandr recalled. Entering a bathroom thick with cigarette smoke, he spied a narrow window. He squeezed out and leaped down from the second floor to a portico and then to the street. He did not fear injury, he said, thinking only, “There was just one escape route.”

He had to walk past a waiting bus where some young men were being shoved aboard, while a few mothers stood around wailing. He rounded the nearest corner and ran for 30 minutes, convinced that he was being followed, then connected with In Transit through a friend of a friend.

Some initially try to hide within Russia.

In Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow, Ivan Bryzgalov, 22, checked himself into a psychiatric hospital — a common tactic — to try to shake off the law enforcement officers whom he said had arrested and beaten him for briefly marching in a holiday parade wearing a Ukrainian T-shirt. His ploy worked for a few months, but Mr. Bryzgalov, the designer for a YouTube gaming channel, said he soon felt he needed to flee.

People have also asked for help from some of the most obscure corners of Russia.

Pavel A. Verbitsky, 50, a truck driver from a town called Uray in Siberia, excoriated the invasion online as soon as it started, attacking Mr. Putin and others, some in verse.

One poem read in part:

Ivan Bryzgalov checked himself into a psychiatric hospital to try to hide from law enforcement officers. It worked for a few months, but he soon fled Russia.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

Mr. Verbitsky faced various criminal charges, and leaked video from his court hearings was broadcast locally. In a town where virtually everyone backed the war, he said, people started calling him “Nazi lover.”

One argument about the war with a former friend descended into a fistfight. His court-appointed lawyer urged him to admit to all charges. Instead, he fled with his wife and three children, ending up in Montenegro, where they are awaiting German visas.

In Smolensk, early in the war, one of the two Zavyalov brothers, Vladimir, the owner of a small transportation company, discovered a Telegram channel that distributed miniature antiwar slogans that resembled price displays on grocery store shelves. The normal space for a description such as bananas or washing powder instead said things like, “The Russian army bombed a school in Mariupol.”

A young woman sent pictures of them to her grandmother, who alerted law enforcement. Officers reviewed the store’s surveillance tapes and arrested Vladimir.

His wife and brother, Oleg, were hauled in by law enforcement officers separately for questioning. Suddenly realizing that the infant he could hear crying in a nearby room was his nephew, Oleg said he felt stuck somewhere between an old Soviet spy film and the Gestapo.

In Transit’s founders say they have yet to lose any escapees, though they say some other groups have — mostly people who ignored orders to leave their cellphones behind or even posted on social media from the road.

Those who escaped described mixed emotions at crossing the border: relief mingling with the realization they would not be returning or seeing their families for the foreseeable future. As they rebuild their lives, they all grapple with anxiety, especially the fear they will somehow be hauled back.

The actor, Oleksandr, said that when he finally reached a hotel room outside Russia and closed the door, he laid in the dark for an hour, weeping. For the next month, scenes from the military enlistment office haunted his dreams.

But hearing of friends killed in the war, he has no regrets. “They were decent people before,’’ he said, “and now every day there are more and more people I know, people who could not escape, and just like that they waved goodbye to their lives.”

Aid groups are utilizing cars, buses, and safe houses to get dissenters out of Russia.Credit…Andrej Vasilenko for The New York Times

Leave a Comment

] }