‘I Wanted To Help, And Primarily Like-Minded People’
September 25, 2023
  • Anastasia Burakova

    Founder of The Ark project

  • Maria Popova

    The Russia Program

Anastasia Burakova speaks about how lawyers and human rights activists are helping Russian refugees abroad, and whether there is hope for the unification of democratic forces in Russia.
Russian emigrants in the Czech Republic protesting against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Prague, March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
The Ark appeared in March 2022. How has your understanding of its goals and purpose changed over the course of a year and a half?

At the stage of the project’s launch, we had no long-term plans, no strategies, no KPIs. The war had begun, and as soon as I recovered a little from the shock, I saw a huge number of requests from people, confused and not understanding what to do, what they were risking by expressing their anti-war stance, how and where to go. The project launched in just three days – that’s how long it took for it to go from idea to implementation. I made arrangements with lawyers and human rights activists so they would advise people in a chatbot, while the Anti-War Committee (a coalition of Russian democratic groups), which had also just been set up at that time, helped with start-up money for renting shelters.

I wanted to help, and primarily like-minded people. Not only “dissidents” in the traditional sense – journalists, activists, human rights defenders – but also people who had not been politically active previously but then openly spoke out against the war in Ukraine. Those people usually have far fewer social connections that could provide them with some support.

Over the course of a year and a half, the project has seen a significant transformation. Now, we are very large and very multi-vector. Today, the mission of the project is to preserve human capital, [and] to show that politics is not something abstract, not the business of people in suits and high offices, that it is everyone’s business.
“After all, it is this apoliticality that the Putin regime has instilled over the past 23 years that has resulted in our country now killing people in Ukraine in our name.”
We also see the job of The Ark as helping people get on their feet, adapt to a new environment, so they are active and involved in grassroots initiatives and become volunteers themselves. Another goal is the desire to pass on to others experience and knowledge about politics supporting social connections – all this will be needed in Russia after the fall of the Putin regime, when those who left can return home. I believe that these people will be the “reserve” (sorry for this trendy word) of the future free Russia and future transformations in Russia.

What are you doing to defend the interests of Russians abroad?

Usually, we are dealing with restrictions that are the result of either sanctions or the deterioration in diplomatic relations, for example, amid the cancellation of agreements establishing a simplified visa regime with Russia.

Today, many organizations are working on these issues, including The Ark. We participate in a human rights coalition with more than 10 projects that helps those who consciously refused to be mobilized. In this area, The Ark advocates for the issuance of humanitarian visas, verifies information and helps to institutionalize this support. Note that before the invasion of Ukraine, a number of countries did not have such a procedure, and its emergence is the result of the work of Russian civil society, as well as supporting organizations and politicians.

We also work with Russians who do not have a political background, do not have grounds for obtaining a humanitarian visa or have not been persecuted. We are trying to conduct advocacy on this track, for migration visas.

The Ark provides assistance to those who require shelter or temporary protection. Most often these are deserters or people who consciously refused military service. For several months now, we, together with our colleagues at the Human Rights Coalition, have been closely working with EU structures: we advise and offer our assistance with verification of personal data.

In visa-free countries, where the largest migration flow is going, besides humanitarian aspects, we help with interacting with the local authorities. In particular, we explain why there have been criminal cases brought in Russia against these citizens when in fact the charges are politically motivated. We thus reduce the risk of these people being deported. In addition, we cooperate with local human rights organizations to quickly provide legal assistance if something happens. This is constant, albeit nearly invisible, work.

In the current situation, it is impossible to work under the same conditions as before: Russians can no longer easily obtain visas. So, we are focused on [providing] personal assistance to those who are at risk of persecution in Russia, on the most difficult cases.
Russians fleeing from mobilization, Verkhny Lars, Russia-Georgia border crossing. September 2022.
Source: VK
A year and a half has passed since the beginning of the war. How have the moods in the emigrant community changed during this time? How do relokanty (people who relocated) see their future today?

For many people who left Russia after the start of the war, this was their first experience of traveling abroad. They believed that the war would not last long, that it could not continue months or years, and planned on going back soon. Unfortunately, we see that this is a protracted war, that the Russian government wants to pursue attrition, and unfortunately it has the resources to do that – both financial [resources] by bypassing sanctions and human [resources].

In addition, we see quite alarming trends in terms of changes to legislation, which may indicate an upcoming new wave of mobilization. That’s why people now are more focused on the medium term: they are looking for job opportunities at foreign companies (many Russian emigrants still work for the Russian market), learning languages and trying to integrate into a new society.

The communities of Russian relokanty differ in different countries. In some places they are more politically active, in others less. In Georgia, anti-war voices are heard louder than, for example, in Kazakhstan. Why is there such a difference?

Different countries have different degrees of political freedoms, meaning in certain places civic activity is easier to carry on. For example, in Georgia the legislation is very friendly about holding public events: basically, no approval is required. Also, there are easy approval procedures in the EU, in Armenia, etc. That’s why we see these actions, including monthly events every 24th. They are quite widespread. For example, on the anniversary of the war there were more than 1,500 people in Tbilisi.

In countries where the degree of political freedoms is not high, even giving residence to politically active people who publicly speak out against the war or already might be risking persecution could be problematic.

Take Georgia, a politically active community began to take shape here back in 2021, when there was a major attack inside Russia on civil society entities – including those of Alexei Navalny – human rights organizations and independent media. Even then, they were massively squeezed out of the country and smeared, while those leaving often chose Georgia. So, when the war started, a very active community had already taken shape there, which then became a magnet for other activists.

Nowadays, there is more and more talk about the divide between those who left and those who stayed. Do you feel this divide? And what are the differences between them?

The Ark works not only for emigrants. We have a remote format for providing assistance, including to people with an anti-war stance who remain in Russia. We do not want to lose this link, and we do not want to say that there is a difference between those who left and those who stayed.
“Emigration is not a one-size-fits-all thing.”
People might have very different life circumstances – both family-wise and financially – so a huge number of people – including those who are conducting public anti-war activity despite the enormous risks – do remain in Russia. We really want to support people inside the country as much as possible.

As for the divide between those who left and those who stayed, in my opinion, it is artificial and rather exists in the information bubble of Twitter. At the same time, we observe that Russian propaganda is trying to promote this divide – which in essence does not exist – to hype it up, fuel it, and calls people who left Russia nothing less than traitors.

I would not want to be swayed by the propaganda. The fact is that some had the opportunity and strength to leave, while others did not. Those who left can speak freely today, they live with less risk of being detained and deported than those who remain in Russia. And they have the responsibility to speak up for those who are deprived of a voice since expressing their position in Russia risks decades in jail.

Are you considering reformatting the movement into a political organization or party in the future?

We have no plans to make The Ark a political party.

Two months ago, we launched the “By The First Flight” project – a community and also a platform where people from different countries can learn about the good and bad experiences of democratization and institution-building, communicate, gain knowledge and hone their skills. Here, for example, people with different ideas about what the right economic policy is can talk.

This is not an organization with a clear ideology, not a party – it is a platform that allows people to gain knowledge about politics, communicate with experts and think about their own reform roadmaps. And eventually, I hope, these people will be able to become a driver of change in post-Putin Russia, so that the country does not slide into authoritarianism again and after Putin there is not another Putin just with a different surname.

In your opinion, would democratic forces be able to unite into a political coalition to represent their interests in the event of a political transition in Russia?

The issue of unification is very complex and generates a lot of controversy. But I think that is due to different understandings what the term “unification” means.
“At The Ark, all our work is built on the principle of synergy; we do not duplicate the activities of other projects and organizations; rather, we help them and work with them.”
We are trying to strengthen existing initiatives rather than reinvent the wheel, as the more projects and initiatives of civil society structures, even small ones, the greater the hope for democratization, that people will be active, awakened, and for the democratic future of Russia. Such a unification to achieve common goals seems appropriate to me, and it already exists.

If we are talking about creating a single political structure with a single ideology, then that, of course, is impossible. Diversity in terms of having people from various strata represented is an important part of the democratic process, but it is very painful for me to see the constant scandals around unification. We are not competing at the ballot box in Russia right now.

Right now, the main task is to fight the enemy, which is the Putin regime, which is killing people in Ukraine, which is sending Russians to their deaths.

Only after this regime falls can we compete as different forces in free elections. Today, to achieve the common goal on certain issues, we must act together.

Are you scared to carry on your activities, especially now that cases of Russian journalists’ being poisoned have been uncovered?

I’m not scared. I have been involved in political activism for quite a long time. I have helped various democratic organizations and movements since 2011, and I think that many people my age just after the protests on Bolotnaya Square and the protests in the regions against election fraud became interested in politics. Since around 2016, I have been working full-time in human rights, helping people who were persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and their right to express their opinion.

I left Russia under the threat of criminal prosecution. This happened a little before the start of the war. I don’t think poisoning can be prevented, so if you can’t prevent it, there’s no point in worrying. I’m doing a good thing, I’m honest with myself, I’m honest with others. I do not betray my principles or ideals – and that is the main thing. That is freedom, that is the thing I value most.
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