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“We not only explain how to get a visa in Germany”

"You have to take your freedom in Russia," says Russian Sergei Ponomarev.

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“We not only explain how to get a visa in Germany”

"You have to take your freedom in Russia," says Russian Sergei Ponomarev. Even if that means you have to go. Ponomarev, 42 years old and a photographer who documents what is happening in crisis areas, suddenly finds himself in one. His work as a photojournalist in Moscow had recently become more and more dangerous. Since the war against Ukraine, the regime has suppressed opposition voices even more than before. Anyone who spreads alleged false news faces fines, jail time, or worse. Ponomarev tells about friends who were arrested.

Hundreds of thousands of people have left Russia since the war began - 400,000 alone in the past two months after Vladimir Putin announced partial mobilization. Some have fled oppression, others fear being drafted into the army. Many of them, including Ponomarev, organized their escape with the help of strangers on the Internet.

In March, the photojournalist joined a chat group on the online network Telegram called Relocation Guide. In the group, Russians discussed what options there were for leaving the country quickly. Ponomarev decided to move to Turkey first. As a Russian, he was able to travel there without a visa, there were still cheap direct flights from Moscow, and members of the Telegram group wrote that Istanbul was relatively cheap and it was easy to find an apartment.

Today the group is called "Guide to a free world" and it is no longer a chat. It's a community of hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, helping each other navigate this unexpected time in life. Russians who have little in common are coordinating an exodus on Telegram that could change their homeland forever.

Emigration is a form of legal protest. There is no other way to express one's opinion in Russia,” says group founder Irina Lobanovskaya, who happened to be in Istanbul in February and stayed there after Putin's invasion. Even before the war began, she sensed people's displeasure with politics and anticipated a wave of emigration. She calls herself a "chronic immigrant" and has lived in South America and the USA. She knows what it's like to start over. So, in mid-February, she opened a small chat group with some friends who lived abroad and shared their experiences.

When war broke out on February 24, the group began to grow uncontrollably. Just one day later, 2000 people were already chatting. On March 8th it was 100,000. Everyone wanted to know where they could travel to. "I got hundreds of questions a day. Two weeks after the war began, I had up to 3,000 unanswered messages a day,” says the 33-year-old. Parallel to her job as marketing manager of a startup, she created a website and opened Telegram chats for different countries where people could exchange information about entry and living conditions.

Today about 200,000 people are part of the community, there are groups for 56 countries. Not only obvious options like moving to Kazakhstan or Turkey are discussed; Russians who want to emigrate to India, Rwanda, Iceland or South Korea also write in the groups.

At the beginning of the war, it was mainly artists, journalists and computer scientists who left the country. Later, people from all professions and ages moved away, whole families emigrated. Lobanowskaya remembers that two months ago a caretaker from Nizhnevartovsk, 3140 kilometers east of Moscow, got in touch and asked the group for tips. He has never been abroad and does not speak any foreign languages. But he no longer wanted to live under the current rulers, he wrote.

When Putin announced partial mobilization on September 21, thousands of men fled abroad within a few days for fear of being drafted into the army. In the first few weeks, 200,000 Russians traveled to Kazakhstan alone. Many also temporarily go to Turkey, Georgia, Armenia or Kyrgyzstan, says Lobanovskaya.

However, the problem with emigration is not only that many Russians do not have a passport and do not speak any other languages, but also that other ways of life are foreign to them. "Putin's propaganda not only takes people's freedom, money and opportunities, but also values ​​and culture," says Lobanovskaya. And that is the real heart of their project: conveying liberal values. "For example, we not only explain how to get a visa in Germany," she says, "but also describe in our texts what German culture is, how diversity, feminism and multiculturalism work."

These values ​​also drew the photojournalist Ponomarew to Germany. "I'm liberal," he says, "and Germany has a society that I understand." He can't live in a country that restricts his rights. "However, if fighting means going to jail, I'd rather leave the country."

A few weeks ago, Ponomarev flew from Istanbul to Berlin, where he received a visa for freelancers in Germany. He has settled in a bit, has a bank account, a tax number, a press card. He is still looking for an apartment, at the moment he is staying with friends. He continues to work as a photographer for his former clients and travels to crisis areas. He feels at home in Berlin. He likes that the city is multicultural and that so many people speak English. Many, he says, share his worldview.

Not everyone is as lucky as Ponomarev. Obtaining a visa or asylum in Germany is difficult for Russians. Deserters who do not want to take part in Putin's war usually receive international protection. According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), however, the granting of asylum remains a case-by-case decision. In the current year, the BAMF received almost 2,000 applications from Russian citizens, 236 of which were approved.

According to the Federal Foreign Office, a total of around 53,300 visas were issued to Russian nationals between March and the end of October 2022. Since Russians with older Schengen visas can also enter the country, it is difficult to say how many people from Russia are currently in Germany.

There are almost 6,300 members in the Telegram group for Germany. Irina Lobanovskaya hopes that many of them will integrate well. "The state is always happy about clever people who contribute economically and culturally." The fear of being poorly received tends to come from the Russians themselves. Even in countries where a striking number of Russian refugees live, there are rarely problems. Only in extreme cases do people get no flat or are attacked because of their origin. Generally, people are friendly.

Lobanovskaya sees her work as a form of protest. "State your opinion openly, oppose the war - you can't live otherwise," she says. That's why she has no problem showing herself in public – although she is often threatened. She is not afraid of persecution. Ponomarev is also certain: "I'm a small figure in the big game."

Both can imagine returning to Russia one day. However, Ponomarev suspects that it will be difficult to get along with the people who have stayed behind. "They have a different concept of freedom," he says. “They are waiting for instructions, for permission from above. They endure whatever the government does to them. I will come back and be a freer person - while they will be even less free."

But it is precisely this development that Lobanovskaya sees as the key. The returnees, she hopes, will bring new, liberal values ​​into society on which a free world in Russia can be built. "It will take a long time to wash away from the dictator Putin," she says. "But it will work."

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