Local Russians in exile decry war in Ukraine, Putin 2 years after invasion

US

As the Kremlin’s missiles and armored tanks descended upon Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Max Fedoseev was horrified at the terror unleashed by his native Russia.

“It was just so horrible that my country could start a war with neighbors,” recalled the 28-year-old Chicago resident, who was born in Russia and lived there during the invasion. “It was a nightmare.”

At his peril, Fedoseev took to the streets of Russia to protest the war, and was arrested several times for peacefully demonstrating, he said. Fearing reprisal for opposing the authoritarian regime of President Vladimir Putin, he fled to seek asylum in the United States, resettling in Chicago in August 2022.

But the political dissident continues to speak out against the war and Putin’s regime, now in the safety and freedom of his adopted homeland.

As Moscow’s full-scale war against Ukraine stretches into its third year, Fedoseev is part of a fervent though largely scattered Russian opposition movement. Many of these crusaders have either been imprisoned in Russia or are living in exile abroad, including a stronghold of Russian expats like Fedoseev in the Chicago area.

Their work continues in the wake of the recent loss of prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose death in a remote Arctic Circle penal colony has sent shockwaves worldwide.

International leaders as well as Russian dissidents around the globe have decried the suspicious death of the charismatic activist, with many holding Putin responsible.

On the full-scale invasion’s two-year anniversary, members of the Russian diaspora plan to gather in support of Ukraine at a rally Saturday at the Wrigley Building in Chicago, organized by members of local groups Voice of Free Russia Chicago and Chicago for Democracy in Russia.

The event — scheduled in conjunction with similar rallies in dozens of cities internationally — is expected to culminate with a march to the Consulate General of Ukraine in Chicago.

Fedoseev called Feb. 24 a “tragic” date for both Ukraine and Russia.

“Right now, it is necessary to show our cooperation against this war,” he said. “And the main beneficiary of this — Vladimir Putin.”

The somber milestone comes a little over a week after the death of Navalny, who remained a steadfast critic of Putin even after surviving poisoning by a Soviet-era nerve agent several years ago as well as multiple prison sentences.

President Joe Biden has blamed Putin for Navalny’s death.

“But make no mistake — make no mistake, Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death. Putin is responsible,” Biden said on the day Navalny’s death was announced. “What has happened to Navalny is yet more proof of Putin’s brutality. No one should be fooled — not in Russia, not at home, not anywhere in the world. Putin does not only target (the) citizens of other countries, as we’ve seen what’s going on in Ukraine right now, he also inflicts terrible crimes on his own people.”

The Biden administration also said it will soon announce “major sanctions” against Russia over Navalny’s death.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has echoed Biden’s sentiments.

“It is obvious that (Navalny) was killed by Putin,” he said. “Putin doesn’t care who dies — only for him to hold his position. This is why he must hold onto nothing. Putin must lose everything and be held responsible for his deeds.”

It’s a particularly dangerous time for Russians who oppose their government or protest the ongoing war against Ukraine, a sovereign nation since gaining its independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union.

A California woman with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship was recently arrested by Russian authorities on charges of treason, allegedly over a roughly $51 donation she made to help Ukraine.

Putin signed a law earlier this month permitting Russian forces to confiscate the assets of individuals convicted of spreading “deliberately false information” about the nation’s armed forces, which was made a criminal offense as a broader crackdown on dissent after the February 2022 invasion. The measure comes just a few weeks before Putin’s run for reelection on March 17.

Hundreds of individuals have also been detained in dozens of cities across Russia while taking part in vigils in Navalny’s honor.

In Chicago, the night Navalny was reported dead, a crowd of roughly 150 mourners gathered on Michigan Avenue to light candles and lay flowers beside photographs of the fallen opposition leader.

Some carried signs declaring “You can kill Navalny but not the opposition — we are here” and “Shame on the Kremlin murderers.”

Elena Kaspirovich recites a chant with other mourners during a vigil for Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny at the Wrigley Building plaza in Chicago on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Event co-organizer Elena Kaspirovich held a poster of Navalny’s portrait with the caption “Not died — murdered.”

“I felt myself so empty, like my hope was killed,” said Kaspirovich, who lives in the north suburbs.

Then she remembered the opposition leader’s words recorded in the Oscar-winning documentary “Navalny.”

“I’ve got something very obvious to tell you,” he had said in Russian. “You’re not allowed to give up.”

Despite her sorrow, Kaspirovich said this missive motivates her to stay strong.

“I realized that now, when he is dead, (we) have the obligation to continue our fight,” she said.

Many demonstrators left messages in chalk along the sidewalk of Michigan Avenue near the make-shift memorial that night.

Kaspirovich scrawled three words: “Don’t give up.”

Aid to Ukraine

The first time Kaspirovich protested in Chicago, her anxiety spiked at the sight of uniformed police officers approaching on bicycles.

“It took time for me to accept that police who were at our protest were not there as an enemy but as a protector,” she said. “You have freedom of speech. You are able to gather and do what you want. It was a very unusual experience (for me).”

The 42-year-old married mother of two from Omsk in southwestern Siberia fled Russia with her family about seven years ago, after engaging in political activities and organizing rallies there.

“I felt fear to stay in Russia,” she said.

Her childhood was an era of freedom and excitement for the future of Russia, as she witnessed the crumbling of the Soviet Union; the nation seemed headed for democratization and more openness, she recalled.

Yet the past quarter-century under Putin’s rule has been marked by increased government crackdown on political protests and deteriorating press freedoms.

A woman with her dog collected wood pieces from a tree that was bombed, in Vuhledar, Ukraine on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. At the hot spots of the eastern front line, Ukrainian troops are outmanned, outgunned, and digging in. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
A woman with her dog collected wood pieces from a tree that was bombed, in Vuhledar, Ukraine, on Jan. 22, 2024. At the hot spots of the eastern front line, Ukrainian troops are outmanned, outgunned, and digging in. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Many international relations experts believe Putin hopes to revive the Soviet Union: In 2008, Russian forces attacked Georgia, gaining control of the Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia regions. Then in 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea, a precursor to the full-scale war of today.

“As an ex-Russian citizen, I think the dictatorship in Russia is a huge threat for international peace,” Kaspirovich said. “I want Americans to know there are a lot of Russians who are against Putin. And there are a lot of Russians who try to have their voices heard.”

When she learned Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Kaspirovich felt “so ashamed.”

“I feel a lot of sorrow for the Ukrainian people,” she said. “They were fighting for their freedom and they continue this fight. They need our help. … This war is unjust and unlawful.”

Kaspirovich and other supporters of Ukraine have called on the United States to continue sending the war-torn nation critical military aid.

While the Senate overwhelmingly passed a $95 billion foreign aid package — which includes $60 billion for Ukraine defense — the bill has been stalled by some House Republicans including Speaker Mike Johnson, who has refrained from putting the measure up for a vote.

“Putin has not achieved victory in Ukraine and never will if Ukraine receives sufficient support,” said Roman Lifanov, who left Novosibirsk, the third-largest city in Russia, a little over a year ago.

The 42-year-old moved to a U.S. city outside of Illinois, which he said he didn’t want to identify due to fears for his security. But he frequently comes to Chicago to participate in anti-war and anti-Putin protests.

Lifanov recalled that Putin began intensifying anti-Ukrainian propaganda roughly two decades ago.

“It wasn’t as strong as it is now, but it was noticeable to me,” he said. “Ukrainians were humiliated on state TV. In Russia, all more or less large TV channels belong to Putin and the state directly, or through Putin’s proxy people.”

Students from St. Nicholas Cathedral School commemorate the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Students from St. Nicholas Cathedral School commemorate the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Lifanov’s family has Ukrainian ancestry; he said Putin’s racist messages had the opposite effect, making him “a strong patriot of Ukraine over the years.”

When filling out the 2010 Russian census, Lifanov “deliberately and consciously entered my family as Ukrainians,” he said.

Lifanov urged American politicians to prioritize Ukraine for the sake of U.S. security as well as international order.

“Lack of will to stop Putin now, when Russia is already weary and divided, would be a grave historical mistake,” he said. “Future generations will not understand why those in power did not take action to stop Putin.”

Russian forces are investing heavily in disinformation campaigns, Lifanov added, with the aim of “dividing society in Western countries.”

“Protect your democracy from fringe demagogues,” he warned.

‘We stand with Ukraine’

At one protest last year in downtown Chicago, Lifanov donned a Putin mask and fellow demonstrators put him in a faux “jail” made of scrap materials; he traded places with another protester who portrayed opposition leader Navalny, who was symbolically released from the prison.

The moment was cathartic, Lifanov recalled, even if it was only a performance.

Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson earlier this month drew international headlines — and much rebuke — following a two-hour interview with Putin, which many critics claimed gave the despot a Western media platform.

Lifanov called the segment “propaganda.”

“The Kremlin propagates myths that Russia is a ‘normal, great country,’ that Putin is a reasonable individual, and that it’s possible to negotiate with him,” he said. “Carlson’s ‘interview’ with Putin was deeply disappointing. For two hours, the former KGB officer, who is a Machiavellian personality, filled the minds of unsuspecting Americans with falsehoods about the real Russia.”

Viewing clips from that interview became difficult for 28-year-old Vladislav Iudkin, who said he fled Russia in fall 2022 “after the police started taking interest in me and my wife.”

The couple came to the United States seeking asylum and now live in Chicago.

“It’s really hard for me to watch Putin … even in the video,” Iudkin said. “When I see him, I recall everything that he took from me.”

After receiving information that Russian police were going to pay them a visit, he and his wife left their home in Moscow, Iudkin recalled.

“I was scared, always,” Iudkin said.

They had only six hours to pack and make travel arrangements — leaving their dog and Iudkin’s business behind, he said.

“At that time, many opposition members were arrested,” he said. “We just knew that we were next. And we had to leave.”

An Amnesty International report released in July cited more than 20,000 activists who were subject to reprisal in Russia since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

“Repression in Russia runs deep where a complex and extensive range of tactics are increasingly being weaponized to silence anti-war dissent,” the international human rights organization’s Russian researcher said in the report. “The flawed criminal justice system, characterized by deeply unfair trials, has been deployed to dish out prison sentences and hefty fines to silence critics in response to slightest dissent.”

Iudkin likened the climate in Russia to life in North Korea, noting that both states suppress free expression and propagate human rights violations.

Russians often say “silence is gold,” Iudkin noted.

“If you are silent, you can be happy,” he said. “If you are speaking, you will get a problem.”

Yet Iudkin found he could never ascribe to that philosophy.

In the days leading up to the invasion’s two-year anniversary, he and his wife have been busy creating social media posts decrying the war.

They’ve also made banners they plan to wave at the Chicago rally in support of Ukraine. One says: “We stand with Ukraine.”

“People shouldn’t be silent,” he said. “People have to talk about Ukraine. People have to talk about Putin. It’s not time to be silent.”

The Associated Press contributed.

 

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