British Columbia

Dissident fears immigration delay may force her back to Russia, where Putin regards people like her 'traitors'

After Putin's 'cleansing' and 'traitors' rhetoric, Ekaterina Smirnova fled to Serbia. Now she's stuck there, waiting for a ruling on her three-year immigration application to join her Canadian uncle.

IRCC said it's still reviewing Ekaterina Smirnova's applications to come to Canada

Ekaterina Smirnova, who fled to Serbia with the hope of eventually joining her uncle in B.C., is pictured in this photo altered by CBC, blurred to protect her identity as she fears for her family's safety in Russia — or hers, if she is forced to return. (Ekaterina Smirnova)

A critic of the Russian government is begging Canada to expedite her nearly three-year request to move to Coquitlam, B.C., to find refuge with her Canadian uncle.

In early March, Ekaterina Smirnova, 27, fled to Serbia, one of the last countries to allow Russian flights after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Last month, president Vladimir Putin called for "self-cleansing" the country of "traitors" who, like Smirnova, oppose Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. More than 15,000 Russians protesting the war have been arrested, according to independent monitoring group OVD-Info.

"I am, as they said, a 'traitor' of my nation," said Smirnova, speaking to CBC News in Russian, from Belgrade. 

"Even I ran away, and I couldn't do anything. I was scared."

With her Serbian visa expiring this week, and her credit and bank cards deactivated by sanctions, she says she fears for her safety if she's forced back to Russia.

'I felt a very real threat to my own life'

Smirnova participated in opposition campaigns, including using her state-issued email address in an anti-Putin strategic voting app.

But things got more frightening after opposition leader Alexei Navalny survived poisoning and returned to Russia last year to be jailed, she says.

One night, she says, anti-government activists urged Russians to leave their homes and shine flashlights to oppose government corruption.

Before leaving her apartment, Smirnova shut off her gas and water, and washed her hair, lest she not return.

"I felt a very real threat to my own life if I spoke out," she recalled. "It was important for me to make my position clear."

She wasn't arrested, but Smirnova says she was inspired to see a few neighbours participate. She posted selfies and anti-government messages on social media.

Ekaterina Smirnova, a 27-year-old Russian government critic and market researcher, appears in this photograph in Belgrade, Serbia, where she is awaiting Canada's ruling on her application to join her uncle in Coquitlam, B.C. (Ekaterina Smirnova)

Her uncle, a former Coquitlam, B.C. psychiatric nurse, says he is proud his niece spoke out against Putin.

"At the same time I was extremely scared that something would happen, I was scared she was going to end up in jail," said Andrey, her uncle. He asked to be identified only by his first name, fearing for their Russian family's safety.

The federal government confirmed in a 2019 letter that Andrey "met the federal requirements for eligibility as a sponsor" for Smirnova, as her only living blood relative.

Smirnova passed her required medical examination, but the process stalled during COVID-19, Andrey says.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it's still reviewing her applications — both her original 2019 family reunification request, and a March 12 visitor visa application.

IRCC said it has no "special" programs to help Russian dissidents, but that Canada's system is "fair and compassionate."

As CBC News reported last month, Canada has a backlog of 1.8 million immigration applications. Now, more than double that number of Ukrainians have been forced out by war, with Canada offering refuge to those escaping.

Smirnova and multiple Russian-Canadians interviewed by CBC News say they feel massive guilt about the Ukraine invasion, and worry about drawing any limelight away from Ukrainian refugees.

'I don't know when I'll be able to go back'

Smirnova is not the only dissident looking to get out of Russia.

Mikhail Elizarov is a co-founder of Canada for a Free Russia, and administers the Facebook group Solidarity & Support of Russian Opposition Movement.

"I have strong connections among people who oppose Putin's regime," the Calgary-based former Russian opposition party activist told CBC News. "The majority of people who I used to work with in Russian opposition are also outside of Russia these days. 

"There is only a few left in Russia — and some of them are in custody right now, or in jail."

He said since Russia invaded Ukraine, he's received "four to five" requests a day for information about fleeing to Canada.

"Today is already too late," he said. "The actual ability for people from Russia to come to Canada has decreased."

Another Russian-Canadian who left her country is Lena Smirnova, a White Rock, B.C. journalist. She says she still has an apartment filled with belongings in Russia, but believes returning is dangerous.

Her cousin in St. Petersburg spent 15 days in jail for protesting against the war.

Police detain demonstrators during an action against Russia's attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia, Tuesday, March. 1, 2022. Protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine resumed on Tuesday, with people taking to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg and other Russian towns despite mass arrests. (Dmitri Lovetsky/The Associated Press)

She says at least 12 friends in Russia have asked her about leaving or have already fled the country.

"Protesting has become so dangerous," she said. "The smallest offences will get you into jail and lose your job.

"They're just being targeted. They're looking at their options now … they try to get out."

She says for those trying to leave while speaking out — like Ekaterina — the risk of returning is even higher.

"Once you leave, it's a very clear signal of which side you stand on," the White Rock journalist said. "That's going to haunt you; I don't know when I'll be able to go back, if ever.

"There's such a shame for all of us who are in Russia and are against the war … Should we have done more?"

But as Ekaterina Smirnova awaits word from the government of Canada, she says she remains optimistic about some things.

"I am still hopeful … that the war will be over soon, that my family in Russia will be safe," she said.

"And that those people who started this will go to jail, and that their karma — that they will pay for what they did."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David P. Ball

Journalist

David P. Ball is a multimedia journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He has previously reported for the Toronto Star, Agence France-Presse, and The Tyee, and has won awards from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Jack Webster Foundation. You can send story tips or ideas to david.ball@cbc.ca, or contact him on Twitter.

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