In April, just months after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Sergei Filenko became the first person in Russia’s northern Karelia region to be punished for breaking a new law. aimed at those who claimed to “discredit” the Russian armed forces.
He was found guilty of the same offense in June, and when it came time to pay the fine, Filenko did not relent in his activism: he scribbled anti-war messages on the 5,000 ruble banknotes that he deposited to settle the debt.
“I forbid this money to be spent on war and Putin’s henchmen,” he wrote on one.
Filenko, a carpenter, writer and local activist in the regional capital, Petrozavodsk, has long opposed Putin’s government. In April 2021, he was arrested during a demonstration in support of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Video of the incident shows him reciting a poem by Rudyard Kipling as riot police carry him to a waiting van.
But until the end of last month he had resisted fleeing Russia as hundreds of thousands of his compatriots are believed to have done since Putin launched the war against Ukraine on February 24.
Even after Putin announced a mobilization to increase the number of Russian troops on September 21, Filenko was hesitant.
“I thought about it like this: I’m not going to the army, and they can’t take me by force. Well, even if they take me away in handcuffs, the bus will stop somewhere for a while. Pee break. Everyone’s probably already drunk. And I’ll leave. But you can’t hide from jail forever,” Filenko says North of RFE/RL. Realities.
But at the request of a friend, Filenko became one of the last waves of Russians to flee to Finland on tourist visas before authorities in the Nordic country. actually closed the door to Russian tourists last month.
Filenko has now joined nearly 1,000 Russians who have sought political asylum in Finland this year, a massive spike from previous years.
He now lives in a sparsely furnished apartment with four other Russian asylum seekers in the town of Imatra, about 10 kilometers from the Russian border, all of whom arrived after Putin announced the mobilization.
Filenko hopes to find work soon to support his family back in Russia.
“I’m constantly thinking about how to get them to come, where and when we can meet again. But the main thing is to find a use for my hands,” he said.
Tourist, carpenter, repeat offender
Finland has long been a popular entry point for Russian travelers in the EU Schengen area. But following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Finnish government put in place severe restrictions on Russian tourists.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in August that “it is not fair that while Russia is waging an aggressive and brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can lead a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists”.
On September 30, Finland’s tightened restrictions on Russian tourists came into effect, with Helsinki saying that Putin’s mobilization “and the rapid increase in the number of tourists arriving in Finland and transiting through Finland are endangering the international position and Finland’s international relations”.
This decision, along with similar measures taken by other European governments, has sparked a debate in the West about whether closing the borders with Russia is a justified and necessary response to Moscow’s aggression or whether such restrictions punish opponents of Putin who try to flee Russia and help feed the anti Kremlin. -Western propaganda.
Filenko’s long track record of opposition activism is likely to make a more compelling case for asylum than Russians who fled solely because of the Kremlin’s mobilization campaign.
He told North.Realities that while crossing from Russia to Finland on September 26, he was interrogated for several hours by Russian border guards about his political beliefs before being allowed to cross.
“They took my passport back and forth and asked questions, like I really believe Navalny was poisoned,” Filenko said, referring to the opposition leader’s 2020 poisoning with the weapon. Novichok chemical that Navalny and Western governments attribute to the Kremlin.
When it came time to apply for political asylum, Filenko again found himself explaining his political positions in a formal interview with a Finnish police officer. When he told the official through an interpreter that he was a carpenter and a repeat offender, the policeman straightened up and looked puzzled, Filenko recalled.
“I had to recount all my repeated administrative infractions, at which gatherings and for what I was detained: first I was indignant that Navalny had been poisoned, then of the occupation and the invasion [of Ukraine]. With each subsequent ‘recurrence’, the policeman became friendlier,” Filenko said.
“The Epicenter of Evil”
Filenko expects to receive permission to work in Finland within the next three months. In the meantime, he frequents the Imatra library, takes Finnish lessons twice a week and spends the rest of his time studying the language on his own, he says.
In early October, Finnish authorities announced that Ukrainians and Russians seeking refuge in Finland would be housed separatelyciting Ukrainians “recounting fears caused by Russian asylum seekers being housed in the same spaces” following Putin’s military mobilization.
Filenko describes how his own encounters with Ukrainian refugees in Finland triggered deep emotional reactions within him.
After arriving in Finland, he spent several days in and around the town of Joensuu, meeting friends and local acquaintances and trying to figure out how to put down roots in his new surroundings.
While there, he visited a community center where Ukrainian refugee families gathered to drink tea and coffee, eat pastries and let their children play.
“I was sitting at a table where Ukrainian women were talking and drinking tea, and I felt like a soldier who escaped from the Wehrmacht, somewhere in Switzerland with French refugees,” Filenko recalls. “My country has occupied France, I don’t understand how to behave.”
He says he got up and left the kitchen, “walking down the hall, holding back my emotions.”
“And then a boy ran up behind me, hugged me [by the legs]looks at me… I also look at him and almost cry,” Filenko recalled. “I feel like I’m at the epicenter of evil, and nothing can be done.”