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“Leaving in order to stay”: Why writing off Russian political emigrants is unwise

Lately, the Russian authorities have been paying increasing attention to political emigrants. Sometimes, figures like Volodin threaten them with exile to Magadan, and new criminal cases are initiated and sent to court against them (for example, my case related to «fakes» was sent to the Basmanny Court in October). If you want to understand what truly matters to today's Russian powers-that-be and what genuinely bothers them, you need to closely monitor their rhetoric and actions; it will undoubtedly reveal who and what they consider the most significant threat.

The Kremlin views political emigration as a source of trouble. Political broadcasts via social media platforms reach audiences comparable to those of state-owned media. The collective audience of independent and opposition channels in Russia ranges from 10 to 30 million unique users per month. This constitutes a vast reach, far from a “marginal” demographic. Soviet dissidents and Western radio voices during the Cold War could only dream of such audience numbers. Today's Russian political emigration serves as a potent instrument for influencing public opinion within Russia and as a source of an alternative vision for the country's future. As accurately stated by Oleg Deripaska, it is this very vision of the future that Russia, under Putin, has been grappling with.

The Kremlin views political emigration as a source of trouble. Political broadcasts via social media platforms reach audiences comparable to those of state-owned media

Why, then, do voices claiming that those who have left Russia are “cut off,” that they have “lost all connection to the country,” and have “no political future” in Russia, seem to resonate so often lately? It's clear that such narratives benefit the Kremlin, as they serve to demoralize resistance. But why are many representatives of what would seem to be independent Russian society and democratic Western figures willingly propagating Kremlin's demoralizing narratives?

Furthermore, frequently, these notions are put forth as unquestionable axioms. During my recent appearance on BBC HARDtalk, the host, Stephen Sackur, posed a question with an intonation that implied he anticipated no counterarguments: “ How do you intend to continue your political activities when your departure appears to have severed all connections with Russia?”

His point was not only fundamentally flawed but also ran counter to real-world experiences. Given that such claims are frequently voiced, it sparked the idea for me to craft an article showcasing that, in reality, emigrating, even for an extended period, doesn't impede a return to the homeland and active political involvement following the overthrow of a dictatorship; on the contrary, it aligns with a wealth of global experiences. Let's delve into these examples more closely.

Emigrating, even for an extended period, doesn't impede a return to the homeland

Among countries of comparable size to Russia that have successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, there are several prominent cases. First and foremost is Brazil, where the successful reformer Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who served as the country's president from 1995 to 2003 (and was reelected for a second term, a first in Brazil's history), and essentially shaped modern Brazil as we know it, spent many years in exile in Chile, France, and the United States during the military dictatorship.

Another, more relevant example for us is South Korea. It attempted a transition to democracy in the late 1980s to early 1990s, roughly at the same time as Russia. Our countries had a similar-sized economy in terms of nominal GDP. However, unlike us, South Korea succeeded in becoming a developed democratic nation.

One of the politicians who led South Korea to success was the former dissident Kim Dae-jung. In 1980, he was sentenced to death by the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan but was later allowed to go into exile in the United States. Upon his return, Kim won the presidential elections in 1997 and, as the President of South Korea from 1998 to 2003, implemented crucial reforms, overcame the consequences of the devastating 1997 Asian financial crisis (from which our country also suffered in the form of the 1998 default), and laid the foundations for successful modern South Korean democracy.

Taiwan, located in Southeast Asia and ranked among the world's top 25 largest economies, stands as another bastion of democracy. In this context, political emigrants also played a pivotal role in the transition to democracy. In Taiwan's inaugural competitive presidential elections following the overthrow of dictatorial rule in 1996, the primary contender against the incumbent candidate was Peng Ming-min, who had spent 22 years in exile from 1970 to 1992. While he didn't secure victory, his opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (now in power in Taiwan), achieved it in the subsequent 2000 elections. From 2000 to 2008, Peng Ming-min served as an advisor to Taiwan's first democratically elected opposition president, Chen Shui-bian.

In Taiwan, political emigrants also played a pivotal role in the transition to democracy

Let's now shift our focus closer to Europe. Undoubtedly, the most prominent case of a transition from political emigration to power in recent European history is the example of Charles de Gaulle – not just a former president, but the founder of modern France, one of the world's largest and most influential countries. De Gaulle left France in 1940, once it became clear that it was under Nazi occupation. He didn't just spend the years of World War II in exile; he actively supported Britain and the United States in their efforts to liberate France through military means. In fact, he entered Paris in August 1944 alongside the American 28th Infantry Division. By today's classification in Putin's propaganda, he would be labeled a patent “traitor.” However, the French – quite rightly – consider De Gaulle a liberator.

One of the founding fathers of the modern European Union, the first President of the European Parliament, and post-war Prime Minister of Belgium, Paul-Henri Spaak, also spent the years of World War II in political emigration, serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Belgian government in exile in London.

One of the founding fathers of the modern European Union spent the years of World War II in political emigration

Konstantinos Karamanlis, one of the founders of modern democratic Greece, spent 11 years in political emigration during the rule of the Greek military junta. He returned to Greece in 1974 following the fall of the dictatorship, won the elections, restored democracy in the country, and went on to serve as Prime Minister for eight years and President for another 15 years, guiding Greece into the European Union.

Former President and Prime Minister of Portugal, Mario Soares, considered one of the fathers of Portuguese democracy and later an architect of Portugal's entry into the EU, spent several years in political emigration in the early 1970s during the rule of the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship, until its downfall in 1974.

In Central and Eastern European countries, many have played significant roles in governance and the transition to democracy after spending time in political emigration. Former President of Latvia, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, spent 54 years in emigration before leading her country and guiding it into the EU and NATO. Valdas Adamkus, former President of Lithuania, spent over 50 years in emigration, returning to his homeland only in the late 1990s. He also played a crucial role in Lithuania's accession to the EU and NATO. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, well-known to our readers on Twitter, was born outside Estonia, entered Estonian politics at the age of 40 in the early 1990s, and played an instrumental role in his country's accession to the EU and NATO as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Keeping our focus on the Baltic countries, Latvia had a rather fascinating scenario until recently. The country found itself in a situation where both its President and Prime Minister had spent substantial periods of time in political emigration during the Soviet occupation. These two figures were Egils Levits and Arturs Krisjanis Karins. It's worth noting that Levits had also been Karins’s teacher in the 1980s when Karins was a student at the Munster Latvian Gymnasium. Karins, who currently holds the position of Latvia's Foreign Minister, was born in Wilmington, Delaware, USA, and permanently moved to Latvia only in the late 1990s, when he was already over 30 years old. Levits spent 18 years in political emigration.

Until recently, two individuals who had spent substantial periods of time in political emigration during the Soviet occupation served as Latvia’s President and Prime Minister

The Baltic countries are not the sole examples of active involvement of former emigrants in leading their countries after the fall of authoritarianism. For instance, Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the former heir to the throne of Bulgaria in 1943-1946, returned to the country in the mid-1990s after 50 years of emigration. He was democratically elected as the Prime Minister of Bulgaria from 2001 to 2005. During his leadership, the country became a member of NATO and prepared for EU accession.

There are numerous other instances where politicians in exile later returned to their homeland to become presidents and prime ministers. Consider Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile (currently the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), who was forced to emigrate from Chile in the 1970s after being arrested and tortured by the Pinochet regime. She later served as the president of the country for two terms, from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2018.

Thabo Mbeki, the former President of South Africa and successor to Nelson Mandela, spent approximately 30 years in exile before returning to South Africa in the early 1990s after the dismantling of apartheid. Corazon Aquino, the President of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992, who came to power through a democratic revolution that ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, spent several years in the USA in the early 1980s with her husband, the prominent opposition politician Benigno Aquino (who was assassinated shortly after returning to the Philippines in 1983).

Therefore, cases where former political emigrants played crucial roles in their countries' history during the transition from dictatorship to democracy are not rare exceptions; in fact, they appear to be the norm. Sometimes, these leaders were individuals who were not even born in their home country or had never been there before the fall of the dictatorship, or they emigrated at a young age. The notion that “if you leave your country, you are forever cut off from it and can never re-enter its political life” is fundamentally incorrect and unfounded; real-life experiences refute it. This is pure propaganda aimed at demoralizing the current Russian political emigration.

The notion that “if you leave your country, you are forever cut off from it and can never re-enter its political life” is fundamentally incorrect

One significant example from our own history that is often cited in an attempt to intensify demoralization through this parallel is the White emigration, which established itself in the West a hundred years ago after the Bolsheviks came to power. On the surface, there appear to be some external similarities: anti-Bolshevik emigrants initially had high hopes for the imminent downfall of the communist regime, but over time, these hopes faded, the Soviet Union grew stronger, and it endured for many more decades, while emigrants often passed away, completely forgotten. Today, such historical parallels are drawn very frequently, further driving the despondency and apathy of many people belonging to the new wave of Russian political emigration.

However, there are at least two significant distinctions. Firstly, the swift international acknowledgment of the Soviet regime and the industrial modernization during the early years of the USSR were, frankly speaking, influenced by the stance adopted by the United States, its major corporations, and even Britain. They promptly placed their bets on recognizing the new regime, starting with the Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement of 1921. The active investments made by figures like Henry Ford and other American entrepreneurs in the USSR played a role in strengthening the communist rule. Yet, while there is room for extensive debate on the underlying factors, it is abundantly clear that the Western world is unlikely to lend support to the Putin regime today.

Second, comparisons between today's Russian opposition and the White emigration are fundamentally flawed because in this case we observe the opposite historical trajectory. The White emigration, generally speaking – although there were many nuances – represented a politically outdated class that was detested in Russia and, as a result, lost the Civil War. While it's a complex topic, in a broad sense, they were seen as proponents of reviving a bygone and unpopular political model. The White emigration can be more appropriately likened to those exiting the Putin system, people who will depart the country after the dictatorship’s fall, similar to how the White emigration left Russia following the Bolshevik victory.

The White emigration can be more appropriately likened to those exiting the Putin system, people who will depart the country after the dictatorship’s fall

The populace gave the revolutionaries an opportunity, particularly because the Bolsheviks actively lured people with populist slogans like “land for the peasants” and “factories for the workers,” among others. At that time, their true intentions were not fully comprehended, and there was little desire to reinstate the old regime. Socialist ideas were widespread in society, although often not in the Bolshevik interpretation. In the first-ever democratic elections in our country to the Constituent Assembly, the Socialist Revolutionaries (or “Esers”) achieved a convincing victory; many of their leaders, including Viktor Chernov, the inaugural chairman of the Constituent Assembly, and Nikolai Avksentiev, the head of the Temporary Council of the Russian Republic, had spent many years in emigration. This did not impede their success in the elections. Additionally, several Bolshevik leaders had experienced extended periods of emigration before their return. Therefore, the mere fact of political emigration, even if it's lengthy, does not inherently imply a ban on reentering domestic politics. This is an artificially constructed stereotype.

What the history of our country a century ago teaches us in this regard is that winning the competition for shaping the future and gaining recognition from leading world powers is of great importance. While other factors also matter, the mere fact of being in emigration is not the primary concern. After the downfall of dictatorships, there is always a chance for political emigrants.

Winning the competition for shaping the future and gaining recognition from leading world powers is of great importance

Comparing today's Russian political emigrants with the Soviet dissidents who left for the West is inaccurate. In the USSR, dissidents didn't possess real experience in large-scale political activities; often, they deliberately distanced themselves from the rest of society. As accurately pointed out by Fyodor Krasheninnikov, today's Russian opposition is not a mere handful of dissidents:

“Those who are currently in political emigration have undergone a significant political apprenticeship in Russia: they have actively participated in elections, even winning them, organized nationwide political campaigns, led mass protest rallies, and engaged in legal human rights, educational, and environmental work. Their experiences are incomparable to those of Soviet dissidents, who were from the outset destined to exist in deep underground and isolation from society, and in many cases consciously set themselves against the majority.”

I, for instance, am over 50, and in my life, I've traveled all over Russia — from Soviet factories in the 1980s and 1990s to pre-election rallies for Navalny in 2017–2018. I know our country very well, having been through various experiences over the years, from the federal government to military training to being held under arrest with criminals. The same can be said for many of my colleagues. Why is it claimed that we have “cut ties with Russia” just because we've spent some time living abroad? Sergei Lavrov, a permanent member of the Security Council, lived and worked abroad for a total of 21 years, and no such questions are raised about him. This framing seems especially peculiar in the information age of the 21st century when substantial communication with people in various regions of Russia is maintained in real-time, thanks to all those in Russia who report and inform us about the country's daily realities.

Let's please cease inventing the notion that temporary emigration under threat of persecution by a ruthless dictatorship equates to a supposed “cutting of all ties with the country.” There is nothing unusual about this — it's standard practice for opposition politicians worldwide during periods of severe repressive dictatorships. Later, they return and successfully guide their countries toward democracy. The “if you leave, you lose all ties with the country” mantra should no longer be uttered aloud; it completely contradicts reality and global experience. It's simply an artificially fabricated Kremlin propaganda cliché aimed at sowing discord within the political emigrant community and their democratic allies who remain in the country.

We must not let ourselves be divided. Today, accusations are often hurled at those who have left: “you're sitting in Parisian cafes” (which is untrue; we mostly work, and when we visit cafes, it's usually for a meal) and “you don't know what's happening in the country” (also untrue; we are very well acquainted with our country, and this knowledge isn't overshadowed by a few years in emigration). We don't take offense — in fact, when we hear from Western representatives, “your compatriots who have stayed in Russia are keeping quiet and not protesting,” we patiently explain that it's simply a matter of their safety, and we shouldn't criticize those who remain in Russia. It's important that they preserve themselves for future changes.

We shouldn't criticize those who remain in Russia. It's important that they preserve themselves for future changes

We must dispel the Kremlin's false narrative about the “disconnect between political emigrants and Russia” from the public discourse. What we need now is greater solidarity among ourselves, as each of us faces unique constraints. Political emigrants are unable to work in Russia, while those who remain cannot engage in full-fledged socio-political activities without the risk of imprisonment. It's essential to recognize that in this situation, none of us bears responsibility. The blame lies squarely with a brutal and inhumane dictatorship, which ranks among the 15-20 most repressive dictatorships globally. It has left none of us with the opportunity to conduct meaningful activities without facing such constraints. We should set the objective of being as helpful as we can, given the current circumstances. Political emigrants have ample opportunities for this, and we are committed to making the most of them.

We must refrain from demoralizing ourselves and those around us by perpetuating Kremlin propaganda views that lack a foundation in reality. If the Kremlin seeks to instill a particular idea, it is a clear indication that it is false and should be rejected. Can we all come together in a future Russia that is both beautiful and free? It's not guaranteed, and it will require a concerted effort. In this struggle, it is vital to maintain unwavering moral strength, retain faith in the future, and prevent the Kremlin and its willing accomplices from driving us into despair.

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