This article was first published in Russian in the New Times
There has been much discussion lately, especially in the Baltic countries, over whether visa restrictions should be imposed to stop ordinary Russians traveling to Europe while their country is at war with Ukraine. The idea of imposing a cordon around the Baltic countries (often a transit route for Russian tourists) and possibly Finland and Poland too—and maybe even an EU blanket ban—is one of the many echoes of the idea of establishing the collective responsibility of nearly all Russians for the Putin regime.
It’s hardly surprising that some people are offended by the sight of Russian tourists roaming the Baltic states and using them as a transit area for getting to Western Europe while Russia is waging war on European territory. Some have even called for Russians who have residency permits in the Baltics to have them revoked.
Yet among those many Russians are people fleeing from President Vladimir Putin’s regime: activists, academics, and journalists who have fallen foul of the regime, and who are often the only source of alternative information and opinions about the war for people inside Russia. But the countries located uncomfortably close to the fighting don’t particularly want to get into the finer details: after all, nothing is changing and no end to the bloodshed is in sight, so that must mean that all Russians—including all those journalists and activists who have failed to topple Putin from his throne—deserve to be tarred with the same brush as their compatriots who support their autocrat and his “special military operation” in Ukraine.
In an interview with the independent Riga-based Russian news website Meduza, in response to the interviewer’s observation that Putin is also waging war on his own people, the Latvian theater director Alvis Hermanis snapped irritably: “That’s your problem.” This is understandable on an emotional level, but less so on a rational level. The repression of civil society and persecution of Russians by Putin is very much a European problem. Europe closing its borders to Russian opponents of Putin and his war will not change geography. Europe will still have to live alongside Russia in ten, fifteen, and thirty years’ time, and it is in Europe’s interest for Russia to be a friendly, democratic neighbor. Without the support of Russians who have fought for just such a Russia—and continue to do so—both at home and in emigration, Russia may remain in Putin’s grip for a long time to come.
People living in Russia are becoming victims of the Putin regime, just as they once fell victim to the Stalin regime. From the outbreak of war on February 24 to August 17, a total of 16,437 people were arrested purely for their anti-war stance, according to OVD-Info, an independent resource. A great many politicians, civil activists, journalists, and ordinary people have been subjected to various legal proceedings. All independent or opposition-leaning media outlets have been blocked or shut down, along with all even remotely independent NGOs. Those who don’t agree with Putin’s actions are branded “foreign agents,” an official term with very real consequences: something unheard of even in the late Soviet era.
Indeed, modern-day Russia has already begun to outdo the late USSR in terms of the harshness and scale of political persecution by Russia’s police state. Today’s model of governance in Russia is full-fledged authoritarianism, with elements even of totalitarianism, such as Putin’s call for a “self-cleansing of society” and the fight against “national traitors” and the “fifth column.” Ordinary Russians are increasingly required to demonstrate their loyalty, especially those working in state-run organizations, above all in education.
All of these circumstances should be taken into account when people claim that the Russian people are not putting up any resistance and should all therefore be isolated from the West. On the contrary, they are indeed putting up resistance, and are putting their own freedom on the line to do so. Opposition politicians have been arrested (most recently, Yevgeny Roizman) or jailed (Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza): are their names at least known in the West?
Most importantly, making emigre journalists who have been broadcasting to Russia via platforms such as YouTube (and highly effectively, too) return to their homeland wouldn’t just mean an end to their professional activity, it would also force their enormous audiences to rely exclusively on Putin’s official information sources. Without these journalists, analysts, and politicians, the West would have lost even more of its sympathizers among the Russian public long ago.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in a recent interview: “If even 5–10 percent of people in Russia spoke out against the war, that would already be millions of people. Do you want those millions to be inside Russia or outside of its borders? I still believe that change comes from within. And if we believe that in the future a democratic Russia awaits us, then its formation will happen from within.”
It’s true that changes happen within a country—and as a rule, as history has shown us, within the structures of power. But it’s important to realize that what journalists are doing by broadcasting to Russian audiences from abroad is having a crucial impact “within the country.” They are citizens of Russia who have lost the opportunity at home to provide accurate information to their fellow Russians who are lacking in such accurate information and indoctrinated by Putin’s propaganda. Independent journalists are able to keep providing that information precisely because Europe has taken them in.
In the case of political and civil activists persecuted by the Putin regime, it’s nothing short of a humanitarian situation: these people, citizens of Russia—which they would like to see as part of Europe—must be saved from the arrests, prosecution, and prison sentences awaiting them if they are sent home.
In any case, it’s not 5 or 10 percent of Russians who are against the war, but about 20 percent, according to sociological polling. That means that roughly speaking, of the entire adult population of Russia of about 118 million people, over 20 million are against the war. And that’s just those who are prepared to state their opposition publicly.
The journalists, activists, and academics who have left Russia are the human capital that will rebuild the country after Putin. For Europe to live in peace and security in the future, it needs that capital. It needs it in order to guarantee the free movement of ideas, people, and capital across Europe—including the magnificent European Russia of the rosy future. Without those people, it will not be possible to build that kind of Russia. Granting visas to those Russians, therefore, is Europe’s investment in its own future.
Finally, it’s young Russians who speak out against the war most frequently. If Europe becomes even more closed for young people, many of them will not have the chance to see anything other than life under Putin. He has already been in power for twenty-three years, if we measure his reign from his appointment as acting prime minister in August 1999. Barring Russians from going to Europe will be nothing short of a gift for Putin himself, who will be able to indoctrinate—and employ—far more young people than he can right now.
And once again that begs the question: who is Europe going to be dealing with in ten, fifteen, twenty years’ time? What will the quality be of this human capital that depends on the state, aspires to a career in the police or civil service, and hates the West with all their heart? Offering young Russians a European education is in Europe’s direct interests, if only it can look a decade or two ahead.
Putin isn’t just Russia’s problem; he’s a problem for the rest of the world, too. And the only way for the world to solve that problem is by joining forces with democratic-minded Russians, including those who have fled to Europe.
- Andrei Kolesnikov