Berlin as a Home of New Russian Political Exiles
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Berlin has emerged as a crucial center of activity for both Ukrainian refugees and Russian political exiles. It is here that many known and emerging leaders of the Russian opposition, political activists, human rights defenders, and independent journalists live, work, and gather to meet and discuss Russia’s future. Izabella Tabarovsky visited Berlin to meet with some of the people who are involved in Berlin’s emerging Russian political diaspora culture. In this episode of The Russia File, she talks to Alexey Yusupov of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Jennifer Gaspar of Araminta about Berlin as a city and a home for new Russian political exiles; what makes Germany in general and Berlin in particular such a welcome place for this group; and about organizations that have emerged to help them escape Putin’s regime and find safety abroad.
- “Secretive Network Rescues Russia’s Antiwar Dissidents in Nick of Time,” by Neil McFarquhar and Alina Lobzina, The New York Times, February 14, 2023
- “Leader of Pussy Riot Band Escapes Russia, With Help from Friends,” by Valerie Hopkins and Misha Friedman, The New York Times, May 10, 2022
- Declaration of Russian Democratic Forces, April 30, 2023, Berlin
- Russian Opposition Convenes in Berlin, Signs Joint Declaration of Political Goals. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation Abstains, Meduza, May 1, 2023.
01:51—Berlin as a city and a home for new war refugees and political exiles.
07:16—Ukrainian refugees in Berlin.
11:41—How many Russian political exiles are there in Berlin? What policies enable them to come and stay?
19:51—What assistance does Germany provide to Russian political exiles?
31:21—Why German authorities are more sympathetic toward Russian political exiles than those from other countries in Europe.
34:32—The perils of fleeing Russia.
38:19—The bubbles and infighting among Russian political exiles.
45:40—What can the Russian political opposition abroad learn from other political diasporas?
51:45—Do Russian political exiles and Ukrainian refugees interact?
55:16—Why care about Russian political exiles?
01:01:24—What could the EU learn from Germany’s approach to Russian political exiles?
Berlin as a Home of New Russian Political Exiles
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Izabella Tabarovsky: From the Kennan Institute, this is Izabella Tabarovsky, and you are listening to The Russia File.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Berlin has emerged as a crucial center of activity for both Ukrainian refugees and Russian political exiles. It is here that many known and emerging leaders of the Russian opposition, political activists, human rights defenders, and independent journalists live, work, and gather to meet and discuss Russia’s future. I visited Berlin recently to meet with some of the people who are directly involved in Berlin’s emerging Russian political exile culture.
Two people I met on that trip are my guests today.
The first is Alexey Yusupov, the head of the Russia Program of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. As an expert in transnational security and societal politics, Alexey has lived and worked in contexts of police states, fragile statehood, and failed transitions and has led the foundation’s offices in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and Myanmar.
My second guest is Jennifer Gaspar, the founder and managing director of Araminta, a Berlin-based human rights consulting organization. Before founding Araminta, Jennifer directed a portfolio of programs focused on human rights and security in Prague, including programs on the independence of defense attorneys and an emergency support and relocation program for activists and human rights defenders. She spent 20 years working in Eastern Europe, Russia, and other countries of the former Soviet Union.
In this episode, we talk about Berlin as a city and Berlin as a home for Russian political exiles. We talk about German policies toward this group and about what makes Berlin in particular such a welcome place for it. And we discuss the work of organizations that have emerged to help Russian political refugees escape Putin’s regime and find safety abroad.
We start the conversation with Alex. I want to start by talking to you a little bit about Berlin. Berlin is your home and a city that you know and love. How did you end up in Berlin? What drew you to Berlin? And what do you love about the city?
Alex Yusupov: Right. Living in Berlin, it's a mixed feeling. You have a lot of love and admiration, but it's also quite frustrating because it's a city in constant reconstruction. Not just physically speaking but also metaphorically, it has so much luggage from the past, from reunification, from the ‘90s when it was, on the one hand, very cheap, and on the other hand, very, well, uncomfortable; very exciting, but not too well developed in terms of infrastructure. So you can still see all of that shining through.
But actually, I moved to Germany—I was born in Moscow—I moved to Germany more than 20 years ago, and most of my time is spent outside of Berlin. So actually, my home in Germany is Heidelberg in the Southwest in Baden-Württemberg, and it's a completely different biotope. It's a small university city. And moving to Berlin is always exciting; there are a lot of old songs about young people going to Berlin to experience life.
It is the one cosmopolitan city Germany actually has to offer. I mean, Hamburg competes, fair enough. But Berlin is a city which is very much open to both the world, but also is very diverse, very, let's say, honest about how life is in Germany, because it's not as rich. It's actually the only European capital which is poorer than the average city in the same country. I don't think there is any other European capital which works like this. So normally, if you take out Berlin—well, imagine you take out London or Madrid out of the British or Spanish GDP, then the countries get poorer. If Berlin would evaporate, Germany would get richer instantly. So this makes life in Berlin very different from anywhere else in Germany. And this is why I love it. It's open, it's diverse. It's constantly becoming something else.
IT: How has the past year and a half of the war in Ukraine changed Berlin?
AY: I think we tend to forget that the Russian-Ukrainian war happened pretty much with COVID still going on, so it's not just one and a half years, it's now three and something years of this very weird city feeling. And the one and a half years after the Russian invasion into Ukraine have just added on this very existential feeling of fragility, I would say, which was there even before.
But then Berlin has shown itself from its best side. It's always a challenge for Berlin city authorities to react to crises, just because, as I mentioned before, Berlin is a relatively underfunded city. It has a lot of legacy problems to fight with. It has a housing crisis going on, for years. At the same time, rents are skyrocketing, and so on and so forth. Public administration is understaffed. And then suddenly you have trains and buses and cars starting to bring in Ukrainian war refugees.
As opposed to 2015, 2016—this is the last big refugee moment of Germany, when more than 1 million Syrians and Afghans and other people pretty much walked and traveled to Germany and got here by different means—as opposed to that moment, this one was less prepared, or even completely unprepared. And still, this combined effort by the city administration that commandeered halls and schools and gyms and, I don't know, all kind of accommodation thinkable, and cities’ civil society who just picked up people from the train stations, offered immediate assistance, took over shifts at the main train station—I think the Berlin main train station became a little bit of a symbol of how Germany reacted to the war before the whole conversation about weapons deliveries actually kicked off—that was impressive, even to me. I've seen it all firsthand, I also participated, but it was so good to see that this war and this crisis are being perceived as something which is not just happening somewhere out there in the world, but it's in Europe, it's here, it's next door.
And life has changed, obviously. Ukrainian kids are in Berlin kindergartens, in Berlin schools. You can hear a lot of Russian and Ukrainian on the streets. You have a new cultural scene which was pretty much created by new Ukrainians in the city. Berlin is a very post-socialist city in its own right, because of East Berlin, obviously, but also because more than 200,000 people, denizens of Berlin, count Russian as their primary language or mother tongue. And now suddenly, over the last one and a half years, Ukrainians have become probably the largest describable new group of migrants, of refugees. So this obviously changes things and we are still figuring out how this looks, how this works. What does it mean for other groups from the former Soviet Union? What does it mean for Berlin city society? What does it mean for public administration—again, in terms of language, in terms of services, in terms of outlook, economic integration? So it's not like it's over; it's still going on.
IT: Yeah. Talk to me about the new cultural scene that has been created by the arrival of Ukrainian refugees. First of all, do we know how many Ukrainian war refugees have come to Berlin since the start of this latest invasion?
AY: It's a bit hard to say. Officially it's over 100,000 people, legally speaking. The thing is that when people come to Germany and if they are in need of welfare or public assistance in terms of funding, which they have access to—so all Ukrainian refugees have immediate access to social services, health care, and so on—if they do need this, they are being distributed all over Germany, depending on the capacity of the respective municipalities who receive them.
This is an old system which also reminds us that Germany as a new country after the Second World War, actually, first thing, had to accommodate up to 12 million German refugees leaving historical areas where they lived before, that became Poland or Czechoslovakia, new countries after the end of the Second World War. And then some were expelled, some moved to Germany on their own, and then suddenly you have 12 million people. So there was a question: how do you do this? And this was an immense task for postwar Germany, and they've created this distribution system. So people are being distributed according to capacities of a specific municipality in terms of housing, in terms of funds they actually have, and population. It's the same for Ukrainians. It's this very same system; it hasn't changed.
So they’re being…if they register themselves with a first city in Germany, there is a process which sends them to different places. After that, and if they are able to procure their own food or maybe they don't look for work, maybe they have relatives, whatever—they are not confined to a place.
Why I'm telling you this, [is] this means that many people do not register in Berlin, but move to Berlin later on. So the Berlin community is most certainly larger than 100,000 Ukrainians, [I’m] absolutely sure about that. But it's impossible to calculate. It's the same for most of the groups. But Berlin is just the most attractive city for many migrant groups because, exactly for the reasons I mentioned before, it's cheaper than nearly everywhere else. It's easier to adapt to because it's diverse, because you can use English, sometimes you can use also Arabic or Turkish or Iranian, Russian, and so on. And relatively speaking, until recently, it was also easy to organize your life—to find a flat, to send a kid to a school, and so on. Now it's getting harder because of how many people are in Berlin.
So that's pretty much the answer. And coming to the cultural scene, well, obviously when people come and they are safe, they still have, of course, relatives and friends and neighbors in Ukraine and they organize their life in Germany. First comes safe haven, medicine, psychology, jobs. But culture follows immediately. So you have a whole series of new bars, clubs, comedy, stand-up places by Ukrainians for Ukrainians, which you can also go to if you are not Ukrainian, obviously, but that are decisively visible as new places. And people who I didn't know, many other Berliners didn't know, because they came from Ukraine, are now performing, doing music, exhibitions, and so on.
And some older places—and in Germany, civil society is structured by associations, so it's a legal entity originally, which is nonprofit and has taxation privileges, and all life in Germany is structured by these associations—and some of these associations have been active for Russian speakers of post-Soviet migrants for many years, for 20 years or so. And over the last one and a half years they actively decided to shift their identity to become clearly open and pro-Ukrainian and embrace these new target groups. So places you’d know, that in the past would be mostly famous for their work with the Jewish community, Soviet Jewish community, post-Soviet Jewish community, or with the so-called Russian Germans, which is a completely different group of people, they actively said: look, we are not a library just for all kinds of kids, we specifically have Sundays where there are Ukrainian authors reading from books, or there's a cooking class, but it was a safe space, and so on. So we have both: we have new actors and we have old civil society actors reacting to what's going on.
IT: And another group that Berlin is becoming known for hosting right now is Russian political exiles. And I am curious: what is drawing this group to Berlin? Because I think about a year ago, I remember being at a conference of independent journalists and there was a lot of conversation about, for example, Latvia emerging as a new big center certainly for that group, for independent Russian journalists, to be in. And I think about a year ago there was sort of a competition, if we can put it that way, for what city in Eastern Europe, in Central Europe, might become the center of new Russian political immigration. And today I think it's pretty clear that it's Berlin, even though, if we look at numbers, I don't think it matches, I don't know, Georgia or Armenia. Those places still have more Russian immigrants. But Berlin is the center of new Russian political exile activity, I would say. Do you agree with that? And what can you say about that?
AY: I share this assessment, although I probably need to qualify it, because indeed, just the numbers are not really telling us the story of Berlin becoming the new hub, and I guess this has to do with different reasons. First and foremost, there is also reminiscence, right? Berlin had been a hot spot for Russian exile politics before and after the October Revolution, and there is this very famous German TV series, Babylon Berlin, which plays with the topics and themes of the ‘20s, showing that different Russian political forces have chosen Berlin as the actual space of their operation. And there are a lot of people remembering that now, who are new to Berlin or who had been here but are now a little bit repoliticized or politicized in a new fashion.
I think it's important to see that it's hard to count exactly, because, as opposed to other countries like Latvia, or, say, Georgia, and so on, Germany doesn't track people who come from Russia, except for those who actively apply for the so-called humanitarian visa, which is a program built upon existing legal mechanisms, so it's not like it was specifically constructed for the Russian political émigrés and exiles, but it has been extended to them as a reaction to the Russian aggression and the growing repressions inside Russia. So if you are a Russian citizen, you can apply in Russia or outside of Russia at the German diplomatic mission to get a humanitarian visa. The number of those people is quite low, comparatively. And my explanation for that is that people tend to save this option as the [last one]. Many people have had a Schengen [Area] visa before, from the time when it was easier to get them, even for many years. Some people still have university visas, business visas, family visas, whatever else, so they don't immediately go to the political option of a humanitarian visa, because then it becomes…first and foremost, it's seen in your passport, which is I feel is a stupid bureaucratic regulation. But in the visa, it says that you are getting a humanitarian visa. And there is a second element—I think it's psychological.
IT: And the implication of that is that they can't go back to Russia?
AY: I mean, they can, but people want to be able to go and try to minimize risk. If you hand over your passport at the Russian border and then [the] border-control officer looks at it,…he will see the visa and scan it. It mentions the paragraph from the migration law, which grants you the humanitarian visa, so it's clear that you are a dissident of a sort. It's a very stupid mechanism. We actually are fighting also to resolve it in a way. But it's a bigger legal construction. It's not like it's about the Russians per se.
IT: And the humanitarian visa is given explicitly to dissidents, correct?
AY: Yes. The language in the migration law—it's the so-called paragraph 22—is that the federal government can extend visas to people who they deem eligible in terms of political pressure or if it's in the foreign policy interests of the Federal Republic of Germany. It's very important not to compare or not to think that this is asylum. This is not political asylum. [The] humanitarian visa is a very, you could say, comfortable legal status, because it's a visa. It's not that you are being granted political asylum, but also this means that you are in Germany forever. It's not the Geneva Convention. It's not the right to asylum. It's a visa.
So the upside of it is, it was easy to introduce this program and it's quite easy to start administering it. So again, as a Russian citizen, you could apply in Kyrgyzstan, in Argentina, in Israel, and it would be processed there or in Russia. The downside of it is, again, this mechanism. It's not supposed to think about those implications, that if people travel back and forth they might [have] problems. It's not about that. It's just about granting access to Germany and the European Union. So now, with the time passing, we actually see that it might be not the most ideal thing to grant people, because what we want and what the Russian émigrés want—they want to go back and forth. They don't want to go just once to Germany and stay there forever.
So this is still a shifting landscape and it's an old legal instrument. This is why there are those considerations. Is it the best? And this is my personal explanation [for] why the number of people who are actually in Berlin is not reflected in the statistics. Because, again, for that, you would need to apply formally for either asylum or the humanitarian visa.
Asylum is a completely different story. We see also that, and this may be a different topic, but there is this whole topic that both people deserting from the armed forces but also those who—you might need to help [me] on this one—уклонисты?
IT: People who avoid the draft.
AY: Exactly, people who avoid the draft. There have been statements by the federal government that obviously Germany wants to help them. But again, there is no new legal mechanism for that. So if you are a deserter, and the numbers for those are minuscule, then it's clear, you've been in the service, in the armed service, and then you deserted.
If you are fearing mobilization, then politically speaking, it sounds like a smart idea to give you either a visa or an asylum, but legally speaking, it's not enough just to be a male Russian citizen. You need at least to show that you are being drafted at the moment. And this is another open legal question that is being debated right now: whether these mechanisms are actually adequate to what's going on. Because on the one hand, you cannot say all male Russian citizens are eligible; on the other hand, it's also stupid to say, well, they need to knock on your door at night and then we actually see the risk. So we are somewhere in between at the moment and there is a lot going on.
But coming back to your question again, Berlin is a hot spot. I guess we're talking about thousands and maybe 10,000 people, but we don't see the numbers because of those statistical reasons.
I think there are different reasons [to explain] why Berlin. First, again, it's cheap, relatively speaking. It's not as cheap as Riga, or Tbilisi, of course, but for European capitals, it's cheaper. You have a large preexisting community infrastructure. There had been those 200,000-plus Russian speakers in Berlin. So you know people, they might help you. It's not a coherent diaspora, but it's a factor.
And there is this notion that Germany is sympathetic towards Russians who are fleeing for political reasons, as opposed to other countries. Maybe because they're faraway, like Portugal. Or because they are much more critical and skeptical, like Poland or the Baltics or Finland. So Germany now, after those one and half years, seems to be, for many, the country of choice to finally go to, because it's a combination of reasons. And I feel, I agree with you, that this is going to stay for a while, although if we go back those hundred years and look at how long the Russian Berlin of the 1920s was the hot spot, it was for a matter of three–four years, and then it all went away. People move further, to the United States, to Paris. They went back to the Soviet Union. So it's not like it's the end game, but for now it seems to be the major hub.
IT: One of the people working directly with Russian political exiles is Jennifer Gaspar. As the founder and managing director of Araminta, she works with Ukrainian war refugees as well as Russian opposition leaders, human rights defenders, independent journalists, political activists, attorneys—all those who find themselves the target of Vladimir Putin’s regime. Nearly a decade ago, Jennifer had the experience of being on the receiving end of persecution by the Russian authorities. She worked in senior positions for various human rights NGOs, closely tracking the closing of civic space, anti-torture work, and the like. She married the rising Russian human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who was focused on freedom of information and declassification of improperly classified government secrets and, as such, was FSB’s enemy number one. All of that put her on the authorities’ radar. In 2014 she received a letter from the Russian migration services revoking her residence permit on national security grounds. She was harassed, followed, and eventually deported from the country with her young, adopted daughter. She landed in Prague, where she continued her human rights work. That experience gave her particularly personal insights into what those fleeing their home on the spur of the moment need the most.
Jennifer Gaspar: We registered Araminta actually, very notably, on February 24th, 2021. And we had no idea at the time that the date would be so important. We didn't plan to be doing what we're doing now. But when the war started, we were called upon to do what we knew best, which was rapid response for human rights defenders, relocation, and networking services. We also now work with Ukrainian human rights defenders who fled the war and are now based in Berlin, and we provide them with co-working space and as a community hub.
I had been working for many years when I was in Prague on providing fellowships to human rights activists. And over time, that work became a relocation service. Our work really followed a trend of what was happening to activists inside of the country, unfortunately. So my own personal experience very much colored the understanding that I have of what the needs are of this community, so it's a very personal mission for me.
Every time I work with somebody who is in crisis, I know that even under the best of circumstances, relocation is really hard, because I do consider, even with deportation, that I had the best of circumstances. I had a welcoming organization, I had a place that gave me a job and a place to live and helped sponsor my status, and all of these stabilizing factors. Still, it was hard. So I used this understanding to inform the work that we're doing with activists now.
IT: Let's talk a little bit about, what are the needs of somebody who is relocating—and I think relocation can be almost a misleading term, because some people have, as we already said, have had to flee the country overnight. Some people have left Russia via walking…via forests in Belarus. It's just really been the kinds of stories that I think in the future we’ll be reading articles and books about. What are the needs of a person like that, who is having to flee the country for fear of persecution and suddenly finds themselves in another country completely overnight with nothing, with no money, without the family? Or some people have left with family, and maybe that's even more complicated. What are the needs of a person like that?
JG: Oh, well, there's a litany of needs. I think maybe the greatest and most elusive is a sense of calm and stability. But that can only come through having a safe and stable place to live. And sadly, there are very few right now who experience this. So many activists, after the start of the war, fled to places where they don't need visas—Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey. But these places come with their own instabilities, particularly those countries of the former Soviet states, where there's infiltration of security services, there is instability. Maybe if you're a higher-profile activist, you will still come under threat. So leaving Russia doesn't necessary mean that you're safe. And I think that constant state of alertness is something that is very draining.
So a safe and stable place to live is number one, I believe. Of course, there's money and all of those things, but you really cannot come into yourself if you don't have the calm around you. And then, of course, there are all of the other practical matters. If an activist or a person that's relocating is relocating with their family—on the one hand, it might be very good for the psychological support, that everybody is together and there's that sense of wellness in the family. But on the other hand, it means schools, it means health care, it means more of an integration into the society where you're living. And all of these, of course, bring out lots of other issues.
I would say if I were creating a checklist, I would say the things that are needed for somebody who is relocating are status and security of status and the place that they're going to stay for a while. That's number one.
Of course, with the banking and sanctions, it has become nearly impossible for people to open bank accounts, for Russian citizens. And of course, when you can't access your money at home, and you cannot open a bank account in another country, and perhaps you don't even have status in that country and you can't work, the needs snowball. I would say the things that are necessary—you know, how do you rent an apartment? How do you get a telephone number, depending on the country that you're in? These really basic, day-to-day living things become a challenge in a way that I think it really shocks a lot of people that leave right away.
IT: And to be clear, we're talking about—these are not just Russian citizens who want to leave the country. I mean, we're talking about independent journalists, or human rights defenders, lawyers, people who truly are under threat in Russia. They had to leave; they can't stay there, because they may find themselves with a criminal case or in jail. And we know what's happening with Russian human rights defenders and opposition politicians who are thrown into jail. So this is the category of people we're talking about.
JG: Exactly. And on top of all of the elementary needs of a bank account, a place to live, the ability to work, is the physical security of the person as well. And again, if activists are finding themselves in countries where there's less stability because of the closer relationship with Russia, then, you know, maybe there is surveillance. In the case of Georgia, there have been so many cases of people being deported or blocked from returning to the country.
And I would say one characteristic of this particular community of activists, lawyers, and journalists is that their mobility needs are very high, which means that in order for them to continue their professional work, they really do need to travel—certainly not back to Russia for many of them, but at least around the region—and continue to meet with their colleagues who maybe have left and are in other countries…. And what we're seeing now is this array of different exclusionary policies that are being carried out by various countries inside and outside of the EU that create even more problems for this community in terms of being able to move around.
And just a few examples I could bring out are the Czech Republic, for example, [which] now has a policy for Russian citizens that if you're traveling on a Schengen 90-day visa, you may not enter the Czech Republic as a Russian citizen, unless that visa was issued by the Czech Republic. So that means that all of these activists—maybe they received their Schengen visa from Germany or France or Poland or another country—they can't enter the Czech Republic for a meeting, for example, without being turned away at the border potentially or blocked from entering the EU again, because they've violated the terms of this one country. So these exclusionary practices have caused all sorts of problems for a community that needs to stay nimble and travel around in order to stay together as a community of professionals. And I see that this is a particular problem.
IT: Well, and I find it so ironic and almost incomprehensible, because this is actually a community that is on the side of the EU and the U.S. And I believe they can do a lot, in working with the Russian population, certainly in the case of journalists—they're trying to counter propaganda. It seems like they are really valuable allies. And yet the understanding of that is lacking, so instead of helping them, it seems like we're creating obstacles in their way.
JG: Yeah, I think that this is a process that time will work out, but unfortunately, there's not much time. And these blanket policies, these exclusionary policies aren't aimed necessarily at human rights activists, but these human rights activists are a victim of it because they are the most mobile population, I would say, of people who have left the country.
I wouldn’t say that it's targeted. And now I would also say that these countries that have created these, let's call them anti-Russian or exclusionary policies, are hopefully slowly turning back to understanding that there is a category of people that they do need to allow into their country or they do need to provide special facilitations for them. But it's a long process that requires a lot of advocacy to make sure that activists who are within Russia are being assisted properly and not excluded on the basis of their passport.
IT: Yeah. And in that regard, Germany seems to have kind of the most nuanced understanding of the situation, would you say so, based on the policies that they have adopted?
JG: Absolutely. I have said this over and again. Germany instituted a humanitarian visa that they have given to, I'm not sure of the statistics, but they've given many of these humanitarian visas to human rights activists, which I think is exactly what needs to happen. And in general, society here has, as you said, a much more nuanced understanding of the situation. And it's not an anti-Russian fervor that you might feel in places like the Baltic states or in Central Europe.
So that, coupled with the fact that Germany has a very strong sense of the rule of law and justice and fairness. And this really serves the community well. When the argument was made that activists need this particular support, the government understood and came up with this process. So I think that is a place where stability—perhaps there's a lot of bureaucracy—but there's a lot of stability and fairness and calm, which is precisely what this community needs right now.
IT: Now back to my conversation with Alex Yusupov. Why are German authorities more sympathetic, would you say, to Russian political immigrants than some other countries?
AY: Well, for one, there is a completely different story of German-Russian relations, which is now also heavily debated, because in Germany there is a debate over how much responsibility does modern Germany actually have for the run-up to the war, for strengthening Russian economy, but also for looking away, because Nord Stream 2, the infamous pipeline, was commissioned after Crimea was annexed, after 2014. So you could also say—and many Eastern and Central European countries say—look, German-Russian friendship had been blind to our critical concerns. And this is why Germany is also pressured regularly on weapons supply and so on and so forth. So this is the overall setup.
At the same time, there is a very vivid notion of a connection between Germany and Russia. For one, Germany as a society, as a political system, has a mixed identity: it had been both the perpetrator and the victim in itself. So, obviously, perpetrator—Third Reich, but also GDR; and the victim—I mentioned 12 million refugees, [its] own citizens, be they Jewish or Communist or whatever else, homosexuals persecuted by the other parts of their own society. Again, there’s the story of the Eastern German dictatorship, with surveillance state and so on. So there is a lot of, I guess, sensitivity, but also understanding that things are not as black and white as they might seem in a war situation. War is a great simplifier for good reasons—it's a fight for existence. But the…German understanding is that, well, it is a complicated social process, especially with what is going on between an oppressive regime and its society.
Also, we shouldn't forget that there is this concept of a German “happy end” of the long 20th century. The long 20th century was catastrophic for Germany. It started with the First World War and it ended with the reunification. The reunification which wouldn't be possible without the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev agreeing to it in a peaceful way. And for many, many older citizens who remember this very well, there is still this idea that peace on the continent is only possible if there is a peaceful or stable understanding between Russia and Germany. It is outdated in many ways, but the general atmosphere is still sympathetic, without excusing Vladimir Putin and his regime, I’d say.
And I guess many political émigrés from Russia just sense that it is important in what kind of an ecosystem you live now in exile, and we are witnessing this day by day: you cannot just teleport from Moscow or Saint Petersburg to a new place and [close] your windows and continue doing your work. You are becoming part of a new society, and the German society has a higher degree of tolerance and understanding [of] the nuances when it comes to Russia and its political history.
IT: But getting to Germany—or elsewhere in Europe for that matter—has been a daunting task for many Russian political refugees. A whole series of organizations has sprung to life to help them. Most don’t talk about their work, for good reason. Here’s Jennifer Gaspar.
JG: There are a number of initiatives that have popped up after the start of the war. There are many initiatives that have popped up which are specialized in providing assistance to activists who need to leave. And these organizations—some of them aren't even organizations but just unregistered groups— they get together and they network. And my organization actually does the meta work of connecting these organizations to ensure that people are talking to one another.
There are countless cases and some of them are very extreme, as you spoke about in the opening, of people walking through forests and lakes to cross borders.
If we go back to before the war, I can talk about one particular case that I worked on just to highlight the strange bureaucracy that people face when they're leaving the country. I worked on one particular case of an activist from Saint Petersburg who—and I think I can talk about his case because he's quite public about it—he was a sociologist working on researching LGBT issues in Saint Petersburg. He had moved to Saint Petersburg from Kazakhstan as a university student where he’d applied for Russian citizenship. His citizenship was granted and then revoked. When it was revoked, [it was] because they said they had made some administrative mistake and they gave him a temporary stateless passport and said he [could] reapply, and he was going through this process of reapplying when the FSB knocked on his door and asked him to comply with them and answer questions about the people that he knew and that he was working with. He became very rightfully afraid and threatened.
His case came to me and I can't even remember how it was referred to me, but I worked together with another organization based in Ireland to figure out a way to get a stateless person out of Russia, which was not easy, and it ended up being the Irish government, giving him a very unorthodox stamp in his stateless passport that no other country recognizes outside of the former Soviet republics. He wasn't allowed to fly to Germany or through Germany, which was the idea, that he would come and be in Berlin. He wasn't allowed into Germany because, of course, everyone was afraid of him seeking asylum. So we flew him on his ersatz passport through Moldova to Dublin. And it was just this crazy process of him getting to another country. And then, of course, he did have to apply for asylum in Ireland. And now he's, I'm very happy to say, very successful and has a refugee status and is on his way to receiving Irish citizenship.
These are the hidden problems that many people face. They're often administrative. But now, of course, activists who are fleeing the country face challenges at the border sometimes. I'm very worried right now that the borders are going to start closing and that there will be a process of passports being revoked and that we will see people having to cross illegally into other countries, putting them into a very vulnerable situation. And I know that the stresses, even the stresses of leaving, are so painful and difficult for these activists.
IT: I asked Alex for more details on what the Russian political exile scene in Berlin is like.
Let's talk a little bit about the Russian political exile scene in Berlin. What is it? Because I think, as you correctly noted, it's not really about the numbers, it's about the activity. It's about what kind of thinking is happening there. It's about what kind of interactions are happening there. I feel, from my recent visit to Berlin, that if there is any place where there is some real thinking going on about the future of Russia post-Putin, I think it's happening in Berlin or a big chunk of it is happening in Berlin. So what are you seeing?
AY: I'd say there are different bubbles which interact in an interesting and fruitful way. There are the bubbles of the activists who had been activists before they left Russia. There are some former elected municipal officials or members of local councils. It's a different bubble than the activists, I would say. There is a growing journalist bubble. There was a bubble of scholars, people from universities who also have, by the way, different means of transitioning to Germany because of academic programs and so on. There are scholarships for scholars at risk and so on and so forth. You have an IT bubble, with people who are not necessarily prima facie political émigrés, but obviously decide to move to Germany for different reasons and then become part of the new landscape. And you have this bubble of Russian-German organizations. They are not new; they had been there. And Jewish post-Soviet organizations. This is the infrastructure which had existed before. They have clubs and libraries and just places where they can meet or hold concerts or readings and so on.
Then, on top of it, now we have more and more of genuine political activity, both with, let's say, old-style opposition figures who had been in exile for a long time. We all know the names. But they come to Berlin without necessarily living in Berlin, although some of them seem to at least think about moving here, because they also seek the interaction. They seek the interaction because there is a deep necessity to produce new thinking. So many things had been tried before in exile, and you can’t just convene a meeting and write a new alternative constitution and call it a day.
So the interaction between the bubbles is happening, I feel, for two reasons. First, because old things that had been tried before do not work. And also, there is this idea that Berlin will be important for shaping the European-Russian relationships of the future, so people want to be at the place of alleged power and decision-making so that they can talk to each other and then go together to the German government or travel to Brussels, to say, look, we're here, we're visible, we have ideas, don't forget about us. We are preparing for whatever is next.
What do I [mean to] say when I say interactions? I feel that bubbles have existed for a long time. Nothing new about that. But they have been characterized by a different culture. So the younger bubbles, the activists, the journalists, some of the younger politicians, they are much more aware of the expectations that exist in Europe towards the Russian exile. They are also much more aware that you have to think about minority rights in a different way. That gender issues are not just an add-on, that language matters, that political correctness is not all ballocks, and so on. Whereas in the older scene of quite prominent liberal—99 percent of them are male—figures, sometimes I feel they still are more part of that liberal[ism] in a way…when I listen to them, I feel remembered. I feel reminded of Reagan and Thatcher. And, you know, they talk about liberal rights and democracy and institutions and processes, which is all true. But the culture and the language they speak are not appealing to the younger Russians, who have left and went first to Georgia, Armenia, maybe Kazakhstan, and are now sometimes slowly coming to Berlin.
So you have those generations, and in between them, I can see now an interaction, a recognition that they might need one another, and a constant struggle not to fragment too much. Because, if you look and zoom out, you can see a lot of infighting. Also, when we describe this to our German stakeholders who want to be advised on what's going on, they also see the infighting and say, well, it's all the same.
I feel that the infighting is productive because it's fighting about not necessarily just the moral standing. This happens also. But it is also fighting about the culture and the language, about how should the conversation about the future of Russia be led. Is it about just writing a new constitution, or should probably we also talk to minority groups, to activists, to journalists who still report from Russian provinces, to ethnic minority representatives, to LGBTI groups, to business representatives, and so on and so forth? Because again, they are younger, and they have a better synchronization with the discourses in the West and in Europe.
So in Berlin I can see an interaction happening. And the recent meetings, also the one statement or resolution which was published there—it was written in that collaborative process where they had to sit together and write it. And yes, as a German, as a European, as an American, also as a Ukrainian, you could say, come on, it's one and a half years, and you have accomplished a resolution—this is a farse. It's not untrue. But it's not just a text of a resolution. It's about [the fact] that those different parts of the super fragmented Russian exile society, which mimic in a way the fragmented Russian society in Russia, [are] starting to learn to talk to each other in a meaningful way. And I feel this is happening in Berlin.
IT: And what resolution are you talking about? Can you specify? [See the show notes for the resolution]
AY: This is the one which came out of the meeting which was hosted and convened by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and where different groups were present in Berlin. And again, the composition of the groups…the design of the meeting—I was skeptical when I looked at it, but at the end, knowing that they had invited younger activists, they had invited younger representatives of minority groups, and they went into a room, they closed the door, and, like in a university, a student council, they were fighting over words that are meaningful. Do you address Russians? Okay, in English it doesn't work—do you address Russkiye or Rossiyane? Do you say Russiyane and Rossiyanki?—so do you address both genders, and so on? It seems superficial, but actually this has never happened before.
AY: People just invested in their one-man shows, because the notion of the Russian political exile was symmetrical to the notion of Russian politics inside Russia: it's about a proper leader. And the whole conversation about, look, there is no alternate,…be it Boris Yeltsin, be it Vladimir Putin, be it whoever else—it’s continuing the same kind of political culture. And this kind of interaction forces you to step away a little bit and say, it's not about who is on the stage, it's about trust-building between the people who are co-writing such a resolution, for example.
Again, I totally understand the frustration, especially [from] Ukrainians, but I just want to point out: this has never happened before. Everyone had been cooking in their own soup and we are starting to see something different now in Berlin, and I’m very hopeful that this can continue.
IT: I want to ask you, because I think you've been working with different countries all over the world. And I wonder if there are any lessons that the Russian opposition abroad, Russian political exiles, should be learning from other diasporas. For example, I follow some Twitter accounts of the Iranian opposition. And they've been in exile for years and decades, and we can't really say that they've achieved much. What are some of the lessons, perhaps, from that diaspora or from other political diasporas that the new, the emerging Russian political diaspora should be aware of?
AY: Yeah, and Berlin is also a good place for that because you have in the Iranian diaspora, an African diaspora, an Egyptian [one], and so on. There is a…I don't want to call it a natural course of things, but there is kind of a system behind how exiles develop. And after the actual emigration and the setting up of structures and professionalization, there is a phase of disillusionment and people are just burning out. Some decide to [go] back; let's not forget that that's an option. That's also happening as we speak, with some of the Russians.
This is normal. The thing which is, I guess, different about the current situation is that when you went into exile in the ‘80s, in the ‘90s, and I don't know whatever else, this was for good. You actually didn't go back until a revolutionary change happened or until a new political dogma shift happened and there was a softening or whatever else.
With the Russian Federation, at least at the moment, their stance towards the exile is very complex. They haven't closed their borders. They allow people to leave and they allow them to come back. And we are also witnessing the first kind of such an outward migration movement for political reasons in a fully globalized society. Technically speaking, economically speaking—sure, you have sanctions, you have restrictions, and it's very expensive to move back and forth. But it's not the “philosopher's ship.” It's not that you leave and you never know if you [can] come back. You could hop on a plane and now you could go through Georgia or through Turkey or through Finland and take a bus and go back there. And most of the people I know in exile, except for the super visible ones (we have attached their names and what they do to fighting against the regime), they do go back and forth.
IT: You can go, presumably, if you don't have a case against you, right? Because so many people have cases, criminal cases, now against them. But if you don't, you can go back.
AY: Exactly. You can go back and most of the people in exile go back and forth. So they go to Russia and then they go back. So they've built a safe base somewhere. It can be Serbia, it can be Germany. I was talking to one Russian public official last year who I had been in touch with before, and I tried to see what the conversation is like with him. And he said, we've analyzed the experience of the Berlin Wall from the time of [the] partition of Germany very, very precisely. And the last thing we are going to do is to build any kind of a wall, be it digitally, be it immigration-wise, be it financial, and so on. It's smart. Especially if you are a weaker actor—it's smart because the message is, it's not us who are shedding off ties, and so on.
Again, it could change at any minute. So far, we don't see significant change. And this is different. This is what is different from the Iranian diaspora, from the Egyptian diaspora, and so many others. So the people, the Russians in exile, are, despite the psychological dynamics—and the moment you're out of the country, it gets more and more complicated to keep in touch—they're still quite able to be the [intermediary] and to be the body in between.
And why is this important? Again, coming back to your question, I feel that those exile groups have performed well who were, for a long period of time, able to identify the desires in the country. So if you start to distance yourself, if you proclaim yourself a better little government, so to speak, and [you] might even be accepted and recognized by other countries—let's see what happens after the elections in Russia next year, by the way, in terms of international recognition—you could do that. They could also secure some political and financial resources for you (look at the Belarusian case). But it doesn't guarantee that you are relevant for those, for many, many, many millions of those who are back in Russia.
So the question is, what is relevant? And so far, there are two things. The one is [the fact that] media freedom is gone. So if people are in need of not only alternative, but also free, reporting, they go to you, and you are in exile, and you provide them with that information. And even the estimates that we know that, you know, it might be 10, it might be 20 percent of the Russian population who are actively against the war, that's a huge number of people, even if it's just 10 to 20 percent. So this is one thing.
The other thing is the so-called—well, because of the closing spaces, which already are pretty much gone in Russia, in terms of talking about the future—I mean, the regime doesn't offer any future. It talks about the past only; there is no conversation about how [the] life of the kids of the current adults will be in Russia. And for a society like the Russian one, you will always need a reservoir of thought about “where to?” with the country, with the society, with the people.
And this is the second thing which can be, and will be, covered by the people in exile who, if they stay relevant and are smart, will be those free radicals who are able to just do sense-making about the place of the Russian Federation and Russia in the future. Because this is the most apparent thing about this aggression and about this war. There is nothing about the Russian future anymore which this political system can offer. So it might not be as relevant now, but it might be very relevant in three, five, ten years. And I guess those two tasks—fulfilling needs which still persist inside Russia—will be the ones that will be decisive for the question [of] whether the Russian exile will join many other exile societies in terms of relative irrelevance, or if they could be a catalyst to change-makers.
IT: …Are there any encounters in Berlin between the Ukrainian refugee community and the community of Russian political exiles, or do they live in entirely separate bubbles right now?
AY: It's hard to give you a short and easy answer. People interact with each other. So if you try to give them membership in one or the other groups, they still interact with each other in a non-organized fashion, because they're neighbors, because they again benefit from each other's knowledge of the local scene and so on and so forth, so this happens.
In terms of an organized interaction, I would say it's very, very, very hard, for obvious reasons, because either you are….Actually, if you are a well-meaning Russian organization in exile, the best thing you could do is not to compete with Ukrainians for public resources. It's a paradox. The best thing you could do is not to propose an agenda where you two interact.
There are instances where this happens in the journalists’ community. There are some German newspapers also trying to, on the professional level, collaborate with both sides. This happens. An interesting case is the celebration of the 8th and the 9th of May. In any case, [this is] a super-politicized date now for the German calendar. Again, Germany, being the country which was crushed and divided in the Second World War, honors the 8th of May as the day of Europe, but also the day of capitulation and the day of liberation of Europe from the Nazis. And the 9th of May is not anything official, but traditionally in many places where there had been Soviet war cemeteries and memorials, you've had, well, people coming and doing something. Some of them are very unpleasant political groups, but many private families just go to the Treptow Park or to the other memorials and spend the 9th of May there.
And now, with the Soviet heritage becoming part of the conflict, or for a long time already, it is now part of the conflict. You have Russian opposition groups, for example, who join Ukrainian groups in their fight against an instrumentalization of the Soviet heritage against Ukraine. So they go with the Ukrainians together, or alongside them, to a different memorial than the Treptow Park. Or on the 9th of May they join them there to call in, to counteract the pro-Putinist and loyalist activities. And they say, look, first of all, Ukraine had been a decisive part of the Soviet effort to win the war. And most of the crimes and a lot of the people who died lost their lives…in Ukraine. Ukraine suffered immensely, like Belarus in a way, much more than other parts of the Soviet Union. They declare themselves publicly as Russian opposition groups. So they seek to strengthen this fight against instrumentalization of the Soviet past. This you could actually see.
What is very complicated is when—and this happens, unfortunately, a lot—is when German organizations try to convene Ukrainian and Russian groups. And I feel it was bad last year, especially because many German organizations didn't understand that this is not their role anymore and not their place. They should offer resources, support in public spaces, but they should let the two communities or community worlds figure it out themselves. This normally ends in scandal, to be honest, but I haven't seen all too many efforts this year, because I guess people are learning that this is just not the role of any German host, to play a mediator. This is just not appropriate.
IT: You talked about the resources that are available to different communities and of course—and absolutely the world's primary attention and concern are understandably and entirely correctly directed at Ukrainian refugees. And Russian political exiles are sort of a bit invisible now, I would say outside their own inner circle, outside those who watch their communities, certainly outside of Berlin. Why should we care about them? Should we? And if so, why?
AY: Well, in the German discourse, I guess, [there are] three arguments, why it's important. First and foremost, it's the thinking that military supports, both in terms of weapons deliveries, but also training Ukrainian soldiers and also funding the Ukrainian military, the Ukrainian state, cannot be the only pillar of how to overcome this major civilizational crisis which Russia has ignited. So the idea is that there should be some strategy [for] how to prepare for day X when things will change in Russia—obviously. So the first argument is just an idealistic argument, that we should do something, and it is in our power to do something, and obviously, there is belief and there is faith that things will change one day. Because of this, this is already enough. This is why you should always support the Russian exile.
The second thing is instrumental, and it goes back to the conversation we had about visas and asylum and so on: the more you weaken the current Russian system, the closer probably is the breaking point, not necessarily [a] state or regime collapse, but just this notion that it's also about [the] hearts and minds of people living in Russia, and the best way to continue to interact and influence and offer alternatives is through the people who are still in touch, traveling back and forth, have relatives, [and] understand what's going on. And this is the new Russian exile, obviously. So this is the second very instrumental argument. Because it can have impact and it has impact and needs to be done.
And the third one is actually humanitarian. And this goes back to what I mentioned before. Well, just because [you’re] coming from a country with the experience of two totalitarian regimes, you can't do otherwise. It's clear that although it's incomparable, what the Russian current regime does to Ukrainians and to its own citizens, that it also commits continuous and protracted crimes and repression against its own population.
So coming from the German background of knowing what it means also for the decades after, even if [conflict] ends, it doesn't mean that everything is over. It will take generational efforts to heal societies. This is just about the German identity, [that] people understand that the current setup—the war, the aggression, the Russian foreign policy—could mean that, for a large chunk of the current century, we might be locked in a confrontation with a high risk of repeated conflict and war flaring up and going back. So it's clear now, there is no hope that things will go back at all.
At the same time, this doesn't mean that the German side, the German political system, gives up this idea that Europe will be sustainably peaceful, even if it takes 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years, whatever. This is part of the German DNA. This is why this whole idea of the German reunification, which became possible because first the East and West inside Germany, then Germany and Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia, Germany and the Soviet Union, had found a peaceful way of coexisting first and waiting for history to do its work.
I think this idea is very, very powerful. And it has nothing to do with the current support for Ukraine. It takes nothing away from the solidarity which Germany in Europe expresses to Ukraine. It doesn't solve the question of how to secure Ukraine's integrity, sovereignty, and safety. These are all very complicated questions which will keep us busy for many years.
But at the same time, they believe that okay, maybe it will take 50 years, 60 or 70, whatever—Europe can only be peaceful if there is some kind of coexistence on that level. So identity-wise, and maybe this is also part of the answer to your question [of] why Russian exiles come to Germany? Because they might sense this: Germany has a long-run ideal investment that hopefully there will be a world where there is sustainable peace on the continent, with a different Russia.
IT: I asked Jennifer whether she thought there was something that the EU could learn from Germany’s nuanced approach to the question of Russian political exiles.
JG: That is my hope. And in fact, one of the things that my organization is starting to do now, because we do curate this network of rapid response organizations, is that we are launching a very vocal advocacy campaign for the facilitation of visas and mobility—just mobility writ large for human rights activists.
And we're pointing to the situation specifically with Russian human rights activists as a learning moment, and looking at what's happening across Europe and the different problems that activists are encountering as a result of entering the EU, and some of the exclusionary practices. So we're taking this advocacy very seriously and we’ll be using the voices of some 25 initiatives that are working now on relocation for activists, and all of the cases and all of the data that we've all been gathering over the past year to demonstrate the problems the activists are having and also propose some solutions on how European countries—member states, but also the EU—can address the situation.
IT: We will continue following the story of new Russian political exiles, in Berlin and elsewhere. Please follow our blogs The Russia File and In Other Words, and stay tuned to our events and other publications.
From the Kennan Institute, this is Izabella Tabarovsky. Thank you for listening, and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of The Russia File.
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more