MOSCOW — Evoking the dark age of Soviet repression, Russian politicians and journalists are increasingly driven into exile.
The steady stream of politically motivated emigration that accompanied President Vladimir V. Putin’s two-decade rule turned into a torrent this year. Opposition members, their aides, human rights activists and even independent journalists are increasingly faced with a simple choice: flee or go to prison.
A top ally of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny left Russia this month, state media said, adding her to a list of dozens of dissidents and journalists believed to have left this year. Taken together, experts say, it is the largest wave of political emigration in Russia’s post-Soviet history.
This year’s forced departure recalls a tactic the KGB had sharpened during the Soviet Union’s last decades, when the secret police would tell some dissidents they could go west or east – into exile or to a Siberian prison camp. Now, as then, the Kremlin seems to be betting that forcing high-profile critics out of the country is less tedious than imprisoning them, and that Russians abroad are easy to portray as traitors in cahoots. with the West.
“Their strategy is to squeeze them out first,” said Dmitri G. Gudkov, a popular opposition politician from Moscow who fled in June. “And if you can’t squeeze them out, throw them in jail.”
On Aug. 7, Lyubov Sobol, Navalny’s most prominent ally who had remained in Russia, flew to Turkey, pro-Kremlin television channels reported. Earlier this month, a court sentenced Ms Sobol to one and a half years of restrictions on movement, including a ban on leaving the Moscow region. But authorities released her a few weeks before the verdict came into effect – a clear signal to Ms Sobol that she had one last chance to get out.
“It is of course best to participate in Russian politics from Russia,” Ms Sobol said in a recent interview. “But for now, the risks of this are too great.”
Speaking to NewsMadura on Aug. 5, Ms. Sobol admitted that she was considering leaving because she was in prison on other pending criminal cases. She has remained active on social media and has commented on events in Russia, but has not disclosed her whereabouts; On Thursday, she posted that a surgeon in Armenia had performed a long-delayed surgery on her nose.
Andrei Soldatov, who co-authored a book on the history of Russians abroad with Irina Borogan, “The Compatriots,” described the practice of pushing out dissidents as a “very clever tactic” of the Kremlin. The two have been in exile in London since September after receiving signals that it would be dangerous to return, Soldatov said.
“If people can choose between radicalizing further or leaving, people still have a choice and they leave,” he said. “This reduces the pressure on the system.”
This year’s wave of departures – fueled by the crackdown on dissent that followed Mr Navalny’s return to Russia in January – has drawn more than a dozen national and regional figures into Mr Navalny’s movement, who is banned as extremist; other opposition activists from around the country; and journalists whose newscasts have been banned or branded as ‘foreign agents’.
An investigative journalist, Roman Badanin, was on a family vacation in Africa last month when his outlet, Proekt, was declared an “unwanted organization,” making any association with it a potential crime. He considered returning home to be persecuted. That could have made him a political star, but would have thwarted his ability to continue as a journalist, and time spent in prison “would have been my least productive years,” he said.
So Mr. Badanin flew from Morocco to New York, wearing little but his warm-weather holiday clothes. He has stayed with a friend in California and has also helped some of his associates leave Russia. Mr Badanin said that when the police raided his deputy’s home, the message could not have been clearer: the detective emphatically handed over the passport he had found.
The question for the new exiles is how to stay relevant at home. Mr Badanin plans to set up a news outlet outside of Russia that will be of interest to people in Russia – a challenge as Russian emigrants often break away from their homeland and “become interesting only to each other”.
Former oil tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, who spent 10 years in prison after coming into contact with Mr Putin and now lives in London, said he is immersed in communication with people in Russia for 12 hours a day. He is determined, Khodorkovsky said in a telephone interview, to ensure that he does not lose contact with a country he last saw as a free man in 2003.
Two news outlets and a legal rights group in Russia backed by Khodorkovsky closed their doors this month after organizations linked to him were declared “unwanted”. Andrei Pivorarov, a former head of Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia movement, was arrested after boarding a flight to Warsaw in May — a sign that not all dissidents are allowed to flee.
“I believed it was absolutely necessary to keep working in public and in public until the last moment, as long as that possibility existed,” Khodorkovsky said. But now, he said, “the risks of such work have become too great.”
As opposition leaders leave, the pro-Kremlin news media scornfully report their departure. A comment posted to a popular pro-Kremlin account on the social network Telegram, for example, said Ms. Sobol’s departure showed that “the Navalnyites can be associated with nothing but cowardly rats.”
Navalny’s staff are trying to maintain their influence through corruption investigations, live streaming on YouTube, and campaigning for a coordinated vote of protest in Russia’s parliamentary elections in September. But they do not emphasize that they are abroad.
Ivan Zhdanov, the executive director of Navalny’s team, left Russia in January and helped coordinate the protests that followed Mr Navalny’s return and arrest. He decided not to go back after Russian authorities accused him of recruiting minors to protest. In a telephone interview from a location in Europe he would not disclose, he argued that the battlefield of Russian politics had largely moved online.
“What is important is what we do, not whether a certain worker or a certain number of workers crossed the border of the Russian Federation,” Mr Zhdanov said.
In March, police in southern Russia arrested the 66-year-old father of Mr Zhdanov, a retired local civil servant, on suspicion of abuse of office. He is now imprisoned in the far north of Russia.
“These are terrorists who have taken a hostage,” said Mr. Zhdanov about the arrest of his father and promised that he would not change course.
For Mr Gudkov, the Moscow politician, it was the threat of imprisonment for a relative that forced him out of the country.
In June, people close to authorities called Mr Gudkov’s wife and father to relay the news that he and his 61-year-old aunt were in jail in a case for alleged unpaid rent. Despite being a suspect in a criminal investigation, Mr Gudkov was able to get into his car and drive to Ukraine – a move he says eased the pressure on his aunt.
mr. Gudkov, who served in The parliament said from 2011 to 2016 that Russian authorities were convinced that in the Soviet era, not enough dissidents were allowed to leave the country, leading to internal political pressure that caused the country’s demise.
But officials do not recognize the importance of the Internet, he said.
“Our generals in the security forces are preparing for the last war,” Gudkov said from his current refuge, in Bulgaria. “If you leave now, you will be listened to just as well, if not better.”
Some Putin critics would disagree.
Yulia Galyamina, who last year helped lead a campaign against a referendum that would allow Mr Putin to rule until 2036, said she refused to take the hint to leave while she was under criminal investigation. She was given a two-year suspended sentence, which prevented her from running for parliament in September. She is now working with another opposition candidate, but is staying away from street protests on the advice of her lawyer.
“I’m sorry, but how will things change here if everyone leaves?” she said. “When everything starts to collapse, power falls into the hands of those close.”
Oleg Matsneva reporting contributed.