For Vladimir Putin's exiled foes, World Cup in Russia evokes complicated feelings

As Russia celebrates hosting soccer’s World Cup, political exiles gather far away in Germany, including young Egor Cherniuk. He was forced to flee across the border carrying only his backpack — a fate that has befallen many who oppose Vladimir Putin.

Political activist Egor Cherniuk watches from afar after fleeing Russia with backpack and few belongings

Russian political activist Egor Cherniuk is watching his country's World Cup thousands of kilometres away in Bonn, Germany. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

With Russians transfixed — and often bewildered — by the remarkable scenes of celebration brought on by thousands of World Cup tourists, this should be a great time to join the party.

Instead, young opposition activist EgorCherniuk is preoccupied with his safety and future as he watches the scenes in Moscow unfold from thousands of kilometres away.

"The whole atmosphere in Russia is something that I really miss," he told CBC News. "The football fans, the chanting, people all over the world have come to Russia. I really miss it and wish I could be there."

Our CBC news crew met Cherniuk on the banks of the Rhine River in Bonn, Germany, where a giant TV screen was showing World Cup games.

Youngest exiles

For Cherniuk, Bonn is the latest stop on an unnerving journey that began in April when he slipped across the Russian border, fleeing to Lithuania carrying a backpack with two T-shirts and little else.

At age 20, he's among Russia's youngest political exiles.

"I had to leave Russia because of criminal charges that the anti-extremism police concocted," he said.
The broken window in Egor Cherniuk's Kaliningrad apartment after a brick was thrown at it while he slept. (Human Rights Watch)

Cherniuk said his "crime" was organizing for Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny during Russia's recent Presidential election.

In March, the CBC's Moscow bureau spent several days with Cherniuk in his hometown of Kaliningrad, Russia's Baltic Sea enclave, and profiled his efforts to unseat Putin.

Cherniuk showed our crew evidence of intimidation and harassment — including where someone had thrown a brick through a window in his bedroom while he slept.

After the election, police tightened the screws. 

He said they told him to turn over everything he had on Navalny's opposition network or else face criminal prosecution for dodging mandatory military service.

"They looked at me as if I was an ISIS terrorist," said Cherniuk.

Breaking point

When Cherniuk pushed back, citing a medical condition, authorities threatened to send him to a psychiatric ward.

Cherniuk said that was his breaking point. Just hours before police were to pick him up, he fled.

For the moment, he's living with friends in Vilnius, Lithuania. If he sets foot in Russia anytime over the next seven years — the duration of the federal arrest warrant — he could be sent to prison.

Cherniuk's Bonn visit was organized by the Boris Nemtsov Foundation, a charity named after the late Russian opposition leader who was assassinated on a Moscow bridge next to the Kremlin three years ago.
Zhanna Nemtsova with her father, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. He was killed Feb. 27, 2015. (Zhanna Nemtsova)

Nemtsov's daughter Zhanna Nemtsova, 34, said Cherniuk is one of five finalists this year who are being recognized for their courage in standing up to the Putin regime.

"If you criticize the Russian government or political leadership, you must be courageous. And we think these people should be appreciated and supported," said Nemtsova.

"I think he took the right decision to flee the country," she added.

Nemstova herself left Russia after the murder of her father and says she hasn't felt safe going back.

Organizers said giving out the awards at the same time as the World Cup was coincidental, yet the event dominated discussion.

Russians beguiled

For Putin opponents, the tournament elicits a range of emotions — from outright condemnation to nuanced approval.

"We have political repression at the same time as we have this big global event," said Nemtsova. "What is sad for me is people are indifferent to the human rights abuses."
Pro-democracy advocate Vladimir Kara-Murza suggests it's beneficial for the world to see that Russia is about much more than its controversial president. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

A week and a half into the month-long event, the huge and generally well-behaved World Cup crowds have surprised and beguiled Russians.

Russian state TV runs a constant stream of positive stories about how impressed visitors are by Moscow and how relaxed Russians have been at having an unprecedented number of foreigners show up in their country.

Well-known Putin foe and pro-democracy advocate Vladimir Kara-Murza suggests it's beneficial for the world to see that Russia is about much more than its controversial president.

"People shouldn't equate a country of 140 million people with a small group of kleptocrats sitting in the Kremlin," he said.

"I think this is a small illustration of the warmth and hospitality that Russians show."

Authoritarian regime

However, while Kara-Murza says he supports the contact between Russians and Westerners, that contact shouldn't extend to western leaders.

"I think it's extremely immoral to help along a PR stunt for the leader of an authoritarian regime that keeps people in prison for their political beliefs. As of today, there are over 150 political prisoners in Russia."

Egor Cherniuk says he too believes you can enjoy the games and Russian hospitality without it being an endorsement for Vladimir Putin.

"As a Russian, I am cheering for my national team, but at the same time, the corruption that's happening is terrible."

The next stop for Cherniuk will be the United States, where he's been accepted on a full scholarship at Swarthmore College, a private liberal arts university in Swarthmore, Penn.

"If I really want to fight this regime, I need to be a better version of myself," he told the Bonn crowd in a speech.

Plans to return

Nominated for the courage award along with Cherniuk were Alexei Navalny himself and political prisoner and human rights activist Oyub Titiev.

Democracy activist Yury Dmitriev, who has researched victims of Stalin's repression, and democracy activist Nadezhda Mityushkina were also recognized.

Cherniuk said he plans to return to Russia eventually and continue to fight for democracy, though Zhanna  Nemtsova worries he will find life easier elsewhere.

"Now, he says he's going to come back upon completion of his studies abroad, but I'm not so sure. I'm very pessimistic," she said in an interview.

"People like Egor are so much more valued in Europe, the United States or Canada, and they have so many opportunities."

"The major problem is that we lose the best people."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.