“When I left Russia, I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing,” said 28-year-old Artyom Saprykin, an IT specialist from Ufa, the capital of Russia’s Bashkortostan region. “Now, I am sure.”
On March 15, Saprykin left President Vladimir Putin’s Russia for Armenia, one of tens of thousands of Russians who have left their homeland since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. For instance, Georgia’s government has said more than 30,000 Russians have arrived in that country since the war began; Turkey reported more than 14,000 Russians moved to that country in the first three weeks after the fighting began.
“The main reason,” he told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities, “was the realization that Russia has no future. I realized this a long time ago, but nonetheless kept putting off a decision. But with the beginning of the war, I understood that the situation in the country was much worse than I thought.”
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, many emigrating Russians have reported unpleasant experiences getting through passport control to leave the country. On a special Telegram channel called Passport Control From The Russian Federation 2022, dozens of travelers report that they underwent long interrogations. Many had to unlock their telephones and computers and watch as Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives read their personal messages.
“I knew from friends what was waiting form me when I left,” Saprykin said. “They already experienced a complete shakedown.”
Saprykin said he prepared in advance — buying a return ticket, encrypting some data, deleting as much as possible, moving things to the cloud.
“In short, I made sure they couldn’t question anything,” he said. “As a joke, I left the app for [Russian social-media platform] Odnoklassniki on the phone and filled it with instructions for making pickled cabbage and doing home repairs.”
As soon as the border guards learned that Saprykin was an IT specialist, he was pulled out of the line for interrogation.
‘You Do Love Putin, Right?’
After his phone was searched, he said, the agent asked him his opinions about the war in Ukraine. The agent’s last question, however, caught Saprykin off-guard.
“That ghoul stares into my eyes with a puppy-dog look and says: ‘But you do love Putin, right?’” Saprykin recalled. “The other questions I had prepared for but this one I did not expect. I said: ‘I don’t love anyone. Not even my mother or my grandmother…. I am a misanthrope. It is the way I was born and there is nothing I can do about it.’ And there were no more questions.”
Saprykin was then ordered to empty his bag on the table. The agent gathered everything up and left the room. For the next 40 minutes, the most frightening scenarios passed through his mind, he said. But in the end, they let him through.
Such interrogations and searches are illegal under Russian law, said human right lawyer Alyona Savelyova of the NGO Russia Behind Bars.
“Not having any authority to interrogate people or carry out personal searches — including of telephones — the agents call them ‘conversations,’” Savelyova explained. “It is as if no search happened, and you just voluntarily showed them your phone. They don’t write up any report. It is as if there was no interrogation. They just asked you about politics, about what you think of the conflict with our neighbors. Of course, all this is illegal.”
Lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who heads the NGO First Department, added that border agents also pressure travelers with “an informal means of blackmail.”
“They can keep you at passport control for so long that you simply miss your flight,” he said. “Russians these days have real problems with tickets and with money. If a person is in danger of losing a ticket that cost him 50,000 rubles [$500], of course he is going to show them whatever they ask to see.”
Forty-seven-year-old Yulia, who asked to be identified only by her first name, left Russia for Turkey from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on March 12 with her husband and school-aged daughter. Her husband became separated in the lines for passport control and failed to emerge on the other side, Yulia told RFE/RL.
Later, she learned that her husband was pulled from the line when he told the agent that he worked in a bank.
“He was hustled off into a separate room,” Yulia said. “There were two men in plain clothes there. The first thing they did was take his telephone and begin searching it.”
‘Like An Eternity’
Like Saprykin, Yulia and her husband had been warned about the searches and had deleted everything that could be considered suspicious – particularly chats with Yulia’s sister, who lives in the embattled Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.
“We said enough emotional things there that they could put us away for life,” Yulia said.
The first question Yulia’s husband was asked, she said, was why he had deleted all his chats: “‘What were you trying to hide?’” she quoted them as saying.
The agents interrogated him for about an hour.
“I think that the only thing that saved us was that we had bought return tickets,” Yulia said.
“When he emerged with his passport, his hands were shaking,” Yulia recalled. “His face was white as a sheet of paper. I was afraid that he’d have a stroke…. Only after he regained control of himself could he tell me what happened. That hour of interrogation seemed like an eternity to him.”
She added that when her family left Russia, they did not intend to emigrate for good, but merely to “change their circumstances before I went mad.”
“But that is how my motherland saw us off,” she said. “Thanks a lot…. We intended just to leave for a rest, but now, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even know if it is worth going back. They haven’t even declared martial law, and this is how they treat people. And what will happen if they do impose it? Are they going to put people up against the wall for the smallest suspicion?”
Ruslan, who asked that his surname be withheld, left Moscow for Turkey on March 5. He told RFE/RL that his wife is Ukrainian, and her relatives live in that country.
“So how could I feel about this war?” he said. “And I definitely have no intention of going there to die for ‘Putler.’”
When he was passing through passport control, the agent asked to see their return tickets. As soon as he admitted they didn’t have any, he and his wife were pulled from the line and taken to an interrogation room.
“There were two men in suits in the room,” he said. “They didn’t introduce themselves.”
After a few questions, they asked to see Ruslan’s phone.
“They went through it for about 10 minutes,” he said. “They read everything – SMS messages, browser histories, subscriptions, and even the history of my ‘likes.’ They were very thorough. I had an unread message from my mother, and they read that too.”
Agents asked him what organizations he belonged to, whether he had donated any money or transferred any funds to Ukraine. They asked about his attitude toward “ongoing political events” and how he distinguishes fake news from the truth.
“I tried to answer briefly and precisely without going into details,” he said. “I knew it was a provocation and they were trying to rattle me, get me to lose self-control.”
Ruslan’s wife was questioned extensively about her family in Ukraine and her contacts with them.
“The last question was funny,” Ruslan said. “‘Have your rights been violated in Russia because of your nationality?’ My wife answered: ‘The woman in line in front of me with a Russian passport was allowed through without a single question, but I have already been sitting here with you for half an hour. You tell me if my rights have been violated.’”
After another 20 minutes, the couple was allowed to pass to the waiting area.
“There were a lot of families there with dogs and cats in carriers,” Ruslan said. “It was immediately obvious that these people weren’t flying off on vacation for a week.”
“I think the guys who interrogated us understood this too,’ he added. “But they didn’t have to power to stop us. They haven’t gotten the order yet.”