When Karen Shainyan recently opened his Facebook page, he was flooded with messages saying “Happy Birthday!” as if it were his birthday. There were also expressions of sympathy.
It took Mr Shainyan, a Russian gay rights campaigner and journalist, some time to digest the mixed reports: the Kremlin had just labeled him a ‘foreign agent’ – a designation many opposition members see as confirmation of their work. , but one that makes their lives considerably more complicated.
The government uses the label to ostracize and downsize opposition figures and organizations – tantamount to branding them as enemies of the state. More than 400 people or organizations have been designated as foreign agents since the label first launched in late 2020, with new names now being announced virtually every Friday. There is no prior warning or explanation from the government.
Analysts and opposition figures say the appointment is a way to ramp up the repression that is fueling the wave of exiles.
Mr. Shainyan, in his own judgment, was in good company. Among the other seven people on the list of foreign agents that week were a prominent political scientist; a journalist with a wildly popular interview program; and a well-known cartoonist who consistently stabbed President Vladimir V. Putin.
Some of the designated individuals, such as Mr. Shainyan, had already left Russia, with the label apparently intended to force them to stay away. “They want to squeeze the active people – not to kill them or put them in jail – but to squeeze them out, across the border,” he said in a telephone interview from Berlin, where he had landed after he left Russia last month. had fled.
Those displaced joined an exodus of tens of thousands of Russians who have fled the country since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, a stream of talented, highly educated Russians who have decided they would rather be in exile than live in an authoritarian state. .
Among the exiles are many people who are not directly involved in politics – technology specialists, entrepreneurs, designers, actors and financiers – countless professionals who are either directly involved in the global economy or simply want to feel connected to the rest of the world.
Severe economic sanctions and a sweeping withdrawal of Western companies from Russia are gradually choking those opportunities.
“Russia is losing a lot of great people,” said Serob Khachatryan, 39, who had started a cryptocurrency company in Moscow just before the invasion and now works in Armenia to find ways to both help Ukrainians and undermine Mr. Putin. “It will eventually just be the military with nuclear weapons and the oil and gas. That’s what Putin wants. I think Russia needs more than that.”
Among those designated as foreign agent along with Mr. Shainyan was Ekaterina Schulmann, a political science professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, a rare private university and one with a reputation for being a liberal bastion. “Anyone can be on that list, so why not me?” she said. “This is very much like an attempt to scare people away.”
Ms. Schulmann said in an interview that she had expected to be on the list. Police detectives had recently asked for more information about her ties to the university. Six people associated with it have already been arrested, including three accused of embezzling public funds, in a case many believe is politically motivated.
In addition, Ms. Schulmann, the host of a YouTube political talk show with nearly a million subscribers, had described the invasion as watching a “catastrophe” unfold.
Leaflets with her face reading “She supports Ukrainian Nazis” were hung in one of her former residences. Ms. Schulmann had announced on her show just days before she was labeled a foreign agent that she was in Berlin for a year-long fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy.
“Soon it will be impossible to work in Russia as a professional in my field,” she said. She suggested that the length of the war will determine whether the political situation improves. “If not, you will probably see the public sphere in Russia largely cleansed, purged of its liberal, humanist elements.”
The Kremlin has long encouraged its critics to leave, and Mr Putin made his disdain for dissenters abundantly clear in March by saying in a nationally televised speech that he viewed those who identified with Western values as “scum and traitors”. He threatened to remove them from society, while his spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said the “cleansing” would happen spontaneously if unfaithful people moved abroad.
The Foreign Agents Act linked the designation to receiving funds from outside Russia, but the term has historically been associated with spies and infiltrators. The most recent additions to the list of foreign agents have focused heavily on journalists and gay rights activists. But the circle of people targeted in recent months has expanded to every stripe of critics.
Mrs. Schulmann was once a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council. Alexei Venediktov mingled at receptions with all sorts of Kremlin advisers for years when he was editor-in-chief of the radio station Echo of Moscow, a favorite of the liberal intelligentsia that shut down in February. An immensely popular rapper, known by his stage name Face, was the first musician to be nominated.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
The fear of an extended war is growing. With the Russian military still struggling, Western officials are looking forward to Russia’s May 9 holiday with more concern. †
Designated individuals must put the label prominently on all their work — stigmatize them — and submit frequent and onerous financial disclosure forms.
For over two years, Mr. Shainyan has been using his YouTube channel to focus on LGBTQ life, a fraught topic in Russia, where vaguely defined laws make it illegal to distribute “gay propaganda” to minors. He tried to encourage gay Russians to be less incarcerated and to promote greater acceptance among the Russian population.
Mr. Shainyan, 40, took his camera to provincial outposts such as Kazan, Irkutsk and Vladivostok. “I don’t want to hide, I want to live free,” said Ivan, a young entrepreneur among the dozens of gay or transgender people featured in Mr. Shainyan’s “Queerography” program from Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal.
Mr. Shainyan used to think that he would be labeled a “foreign agent” for that job, especially as he received financial support from abroad, so the fact that it was only happening now made him think that his more recent interviews with prominent critics of the war put him on the list, not his gay activism.
Russia seems to experience mass emigration with a certain painful regularity. After the Russian Revolution and the Civil War, an estimated one million Russians fled in the early 1920s. Among the most famous were painters such as Marc Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky, as well as the writers Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1991, the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union sparked a new wave of exiles, especially among scientists.
“It seems like in Russia one or two generations grow up and then the last revolution or war takes place and then part of that generation leaves,” said Grigory Sverdlin, 43, who had a charity called Nochlezhka, which had founded about a dozen. facilities for the homeless in St. Petersburg and Moscow. “Obviously, leaving active, educated people is bad for the country’s economy, it’s bad for the country’s culture, and by culture I also refer to political culture.”
But previous waves of emigration stretched over years, not months.
“It wasn’t abrupt, there was no such thing,” said Konstantin Sonin, a Russian economist at the University of Chicago and Kremlin critic who left in 2015 after being fired from his college job.
Aleksei Skripko, 47, who ran a small simultaneous translation business, left with his wife and four children. They had shunned politics, but the sense of tightening repression was inevitable. He said he was absolutely certain that the Soviet Union would not be able to rise again. “What I see now tells me I’m wrong,” he said, “and that I’ve been wrong all my life.”
Mr Sverdlin, now in Tbilisi, Georgia, decided to leave because he couldn’t keep quiet about the war and had been warned that his one-man protests, while legal, had caught the attention of law enforcement officers. Calling the decision the most difficult of his life, he quoted a line from an emigrated poet who left after the Civil War: “There was this whole world; that is not there now.”
Sophia Kishkovsky and Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.