Opinion | In Praise of Russia’s Political Exiles


Some Putin opponents go further. Gathering outside Warsaw this past November, a group of exiled politicians called the Congress of People’s Deputies of Russia declared that in addition to ending the occupation of Crimea and other Ukrainian territories, Russia must pay reparations to Ukraine — and give up war criminals for trials. (The Congress was led by Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of Russia’s parliament to vote against the annexation of Crimea in 2014; he’s now living in exile in Ukraine.)

The stakes could not be higher. Another exile organization, the Anti-War Conference of the Free Russia Forum organized by the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former political prisoner, has stated that the conflict is not regional, that Putin’s war is not just with Ukraine but with the liberal Western world order. It is a war over the “basic values” of Western democratic civilization.

Considering their importance to a Russian defeat and a successful outcome of the war, Russia’s political émigrés deserve our support. So far, they have been adept at self-organization and, for the most part, at self-financing. The West’s assistance is needed mostly in lowering or removing bureaucratic barriers. For instance, the U.S. and the EU should be faster at processing temporary year-long visas for political exiles who have found quick but impermanent refuge in countries like Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Turkey. A recent study by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, also suggests that Western consulates should be more efficient in issuing work permits and refugee identification papers. Germany and the Czech Republic have already begun designating special categories of immigration for such cases to expedite processing.

Yet the West should avoid arbitrating or taking sides in the inevitable internecine spats within the émigré community. The goal is an opposition that would as closely as possible reflect the diverse segments of the Russian political configuration that are today being flattened under the regime’s deadly weight. Herzen, again, shows the way in seeking to be as inclusive as possible and welcoming all those who were “not dead to human feelings” into “a single vast protest against the evil regime,” as Herzen’s biographer Isaiah Berlin put it.

Nor should the West impose political tests; there should be only two criteria for acceptance and support of the political émigrés. One is an unconditional affirmation of Russia’s borders as of January 1, 1992. The other is a broad, deep, persistent and patient de-Stalinization and de-imperialization of Russia — cultural, educational, historiographic. Of course, it would be up to the Russians themselves to decide on how to accomplish these mammoth tasks. We can only hope that, resuming where the sincere but fitful glasnost assault on totalitarianism and the Soviet empire left off, a future Russia that’s at peace with its own people and the world would systematically expunge the foundation of the house that Putin built: Russia as a providential power, a “Third Rome” with a special God-given mission in the world; the equation of greatness with fear and terror; the primacy of state over individual; and the cult of violence.

As in every modern mass migration, the civic-minded among the Russian immigrants — the human rights activists, bloggers, environmentalists and members of the political opposition — are a tiny minority: an estimated 10,000 men and women out of as many as 1.4 million who have left their country since the beginning of Putin’s third presidency in 2012. Yet the scale of their effort to edify and inspire has already by far exceeded their size.

“We have saved the honor of the Russian name,” Herzen wrote to his fellow self-exile, 19th century writer Ivan Turgenev. That, ultimately, is why Russia’s political émigrés deserve the West’s admiration and its help.


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