The Current

He fled Russia for opposing the war, but that hasn't stopped him from raising his voice

As the war in Ukraine approaches its eighth month, some Russians are going to extreme lengths to show there are compatriots who oppose the conflict.

Vladimir Volokhonsky was arrested for applying to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Vladimir Volokhonsky filed an application to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine on the day it began in February. (Julia Pagel/CBC)

Vladimir Volokhonsky's opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine has cost him his home, and he doubts he will ever see his mother again. But it's not stopping him from standing up for what he believes is right. 

"I'm trying not to think about Russia as a country now, because I don't know what to think," said Volokhonsky, from his new home in Belgrade, Serbia. 

"I don't know what to say about Russia now."

Yet as the conflict drags into its eighth month, Volokhonsky feels it's important to protest from abroad and fight for a different Russia. 

It's not known exactly how many Russians have fled the country since the war started on Feb. 24. Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist working as a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, estimates they could number 200,000, according to a report from the BBC in March

Those ranks could be increasing. A large number of Russians rushed to buy one-way tickets out of the country following a televised address on Wednesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he shared plans to mount an aggressive new offensive in the Ukraine, mobilizing 300,000 reservists.

Speaking to world leaders at the UN General Assembly this week, U.S. President Joe Biden called the conflict a "brutal, needless war chosen by one man."

Since the invasion began, a reported 16,000 Russian citizens have been detained, according to a Russian watchdog

After the invasion began, it didn't take long for Volokhonsky to make his position on the matter known. That first day, the 40-year-old did something he knew would likely either put him in prison or force him to leave the country. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to the media following the Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16, 2022. (Sergei Bobylyov/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

He went to a municipal office in St. Petersburg and joined a group filing an application to protest the war. 

"It was absolutely [a] symbolic action of us," Volokhonsky told CBC Radio producer Julia Pagel.

He didn't think the government would allow it, and he was right. A few days later, Volokhonsky received an official rejection letter. It was followed by a visit from the police a few weeks later.

"They came to my house with a full police search," said Volokhonsky. "Scared is not a good word — [I was] much more stressed than scared."

'My home was not secure for me'

The police searched his house, and took him to their investigation headquarters, where he spent the day. He was told he would be transferred to a nearby jail, but instead, the police officers took him back to his house with the warning "to not do bad things again."

Having assumed that speaking out against the war would be on that list of bad things, Volokhonsky assumed authorities would be back again.

An inscription reading 'No to war' is seen on an advertisement board as riot police officers stand guard nearby during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central St. Petersburg on March 2. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

"I decided that my home was not secure for me," said Volokhonsky, who lived by himself, and hurriedly packed a bag with a few personal belongings. "In maybe two hours, I just went out of my door and [have] never been there again."

That night, he slept on a friend's couch in St. Petersburg and looked online at plane tickets. Volokhonsky wasn't sure if he would be able to make it through airport security, but he had to try.

Because of the war, many flights out of Russia had been cancelled, but he was able to get a ticket to Uzbekistan. Before he left St. Petersburg, Volokhonsky visited some of his favourite spots and said his goodbyes.

"It was maybe [the] last time when I see my mother in person," he said.

After the emotional goodbye, Volokhonsky headed to the airport. He was able to make it through security, but that didn't soothe his nerves. One of his friends had been taken off a flight just before it departed, and is still in jail. Volokhonsky worried that might happen to him.

"I wasn't calm until the flight was started," he said. 

Volokhonsky safely made it to Uzbekistan, and from there travelled to Belgrade, where he lives now. 

Voices of dissent

Despite the risks, protesting and speaking out against Russia is nothing new for Volokhonsky or his family. His father and stepfather both spent time in prison for promoting a freer Russia. His mother has made copies of political fliers and protest posters.

Since leaving, Volokhonsky has remained in contact with his mother. He says she's doing alright, and that her goal is to outlive Putin. 

Volokhonsky himself has been advocating for change long before Russia invaded Ukraine this year. Since 2007, he has operated a YouTube channel to share information on politics and protests, and he started a hyper-local news site to help people participate in politics. 

He also ran for a local community council in 2019, and despite many reports of pro-Putin parties committing voter fraud, Volokhonsky won.

Vladimir Volokhonsky sees support for Russia in Serbia, including in the form of shirts featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Julia Pagel/CBC)

But Russian authorities have made life difficult for anyone who questions the Ukraine war. In July, the first sentence was passed under a new law making it illegal to speak out against the Russian military. Aleksei Gorinov, a city councillor for a district in Moscow, was sentenced to seven years in prison after he talked about how Ukrainian children were being affected by the war during a council meeting. 

While he may have left Russia, Volokhonsky is still fighting against the war — from abroad. 

This, too, is fraught, as there's a large contingent of people in Serbia who support the war, and show it by spray-painting images of Putin on walls and selling shirts with his face on it. There's a sign at a busy roundabout in Belgrade from a Russian gas company thanking Serbia for standing with Russia. 

Serbia is one of few countries not to impose sanctions on Russia. 

War support in Belgrade

Volokhonsky isn't the only Russian expat in Serbia protesting the war. Artists Gleb Pushev and Anya Gladysheva are also here, having fled Russia in March.

"I knew that I won't have an opportunity to say the truth, to express myself [back in Russia]," said Gladysheva.

She and Pushev organized an antiwar exhibit in Belgrade in August, showcasing their art and that of others.

In August, Russia expat artists Gleb Pushev, left, and Anya Gladysheva put on an antiwar art show in Belgrade, Serbia. (Julia Pagel/CBC)

The show was promoted by Peter Nikitin, a fellow Russian who has lived in Belgrade since 2016. He runs a Facebook group for people who oppose the war. The group meets at local bars and fundraises in support of Ukraine. 

Nikitin also uses the group to try to correct disinformation and false reports.

"You get very little of the truth here, because you have government-sponsored media that basically tows the Russian line," said Nikitin.

Volokhonsky has been attending rallies in Serbia against the war, saying he feels a responsibility to the Russians he left behind.

Despite living in Belgrade, he is still on that community council in St. Petersburg. He attends council meetings by video and uses that platform to continue to speak out against the war in Ukraine. While some of his fellow council members suggest he just resign his post, Volokhonsky is standing firm. But he admits the entire situation is discouraging.

"I spent 15 years in Russia [trying] to prevent something that happens now. Now I think that I was completely unsuccessful," he said. "I failed this purpose."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him on Twitter @phildrost or by email at philip.drost@cbc.ca.

With files from The Associated Press. Documentary produced by Julia Pagel.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now