In the end of the month Russian citizen Victor Oleynik will know the decision of the U.S. immigration official about the status of political asylum he requested on October, 11th. Oleynik who is frustrated and confused 21 year old left his motherland in July after being threatened by paramilitary groups, allied with the Russian government.
Victor’s story begun in May, 2018, when he witnessed people in military uniform mercilessly beating peaceful protesters in the center of Moscow. The protesters were mostly young students attending an anti-Putin rally organized by Alexey Navalny, one of the leaders of Russian opposition. Since the police did nothing to stop the attackers wearing the military uniform, called Cossacks in Russia, they felt very brave hitting their victims with whips. Whips, the kind horseback riders originally used on their mounts, were their chosen weapons because, while they cause injury and pain, legally they are not considered weapons in Russia and the attacker can hurt his victim without killing him.
After the Navalny rally hundreds of people were detained by the police. However, no surprisingly, none of them were Cossacks. That in spite of the fact that these uniformed sadists had been virtually captured on social media by the few remaining independent Russian media outlets who found their profiles online.
Human rights activists, including Victor Oleynik and Anton Gromov, developed the web project “Beware of them”. This is a database with photos and names of the Cossacks and thugs implicated in illegal actions against Russian opposition movement.
Anton Gromov is also the head of non-profit organization “European Russians” and a number of large media projects in Russian social networks (for example, “Politota” project with tens of thousands subscribers in Vk.com and Telegram messenger). He is also a member of the “Free Russia Forum”, which forms sanctions lists of people close to Putin.
As for “Beware of them” project, based on an open sources, young people whose the only resources consisted a computer and the internet uncovered information on almost all of the attackers revealing their faces, real names and affiliations to the public. Almost all of them turned up to be a members of paramilitary Cossacks organizations with close ties to the Russian government. The real Cossacks of historical name, by the way, denied any connection to these modern day thugs with Kremlin ties in interviews with imedia outlets.
Retaliation against the real activists, those exposing the thugs, followed immediately. Pro-Kremlin websites with a huge followings began “to expose” Victor Oleynik and Anton Gromov who they were claimed “a U.S. spies who flew on a private jets between Moscow and New York payed by the West to defame Cossacks”.
Using the photo taken at a reception of Oleynik standing next to former American ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, the pro-Kremlin groups stated that the two were “best friends”. The disinformation attack succeeded. Both Viktor Oleynik and Anton Gromov have been attacked on social media.
Both were forced to leave Russia. Gromov requested political asylum in Europe, Oleynik in the USA. Meanwhile, the “Beware of them” project is gaining popularity. Young young Russian democrats are continuing to work with their investigations.
In the beginning of October an investigation on the pro-Kremlin movement named SERB was aired. The movement became famous after throwing poop to an opposition activists. Its members also vandalized the Boris Nemtsov’s (Leader of Russian opposition, killed on February, 2015) memorial in the center of Moscow. This group recently attacked the Moscow office of the For Human Rights movement, led by Russian famous human rights activist Lev Ponomarev.
The “Beware of them” program also exposed the militants who had attacked the annual festival “Muse of the Recalcitrant” held at the Sakharov Center in Moscow. According to investigators, the attackers belonged to various Kremlin affiliated paramilitary groups. During the attack, some of them wore a special kind of military gloves.
Every pro-Kremlin media report results in more allegations against the Beware of Them project creators. A pro-Kremlin cable TV outlet called Tsargrad aired a program claiming that they were reptiles who were “getting money from former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky” who currently lives in London.
Although Khodorkovsky immediately denied having any connections to “Beware of Them”, that didn’t stop the pro-Kremlin journalists who sent a request to the Russian General Prosecutor’s office asking that it ban the group’s website. Alexander Sherin, a member of the Russian parliament claimed that the project, actually a human rights project, was “extremist and violating Russian laws”.
Not surprisingly, Konstantin Malofeyev, the founder of the Tsargrad cable network that first accused “Beware of Them” of extremist, illegal activities is a well known Russian businessman with connections to Vladimir Putin.
In 2014 the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine opened a criminal proceedings against Konstantin Malofeyev who was suspected of creating armed militant groups.
Former employees of Malofeyev, Alexander Boroday and Igor Strelkov, the latter a former Russian secret service officer, held the highest positions in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic which, at the instigation of the Kremlin, had separated from Ukraine in 2014. Later that year Malofeyev was included on the European Union’s sanction list.
In an interview with the Nezavisimaya Gazeta Victor Oleynik said that “Beware of Them” would continue its investigation despite the threats.Oleynik said, “We recently made an official complaint to a Russian investigative committee stating that Rosgvardia (special forces of the Russian police) exceeded its authority at the rallies held by the opposition movement on September 9th. Our group has zero tolerance for civilians who violate the law. Unfortunately, it is Vladimir Putin’s regime that not only encourages violence by stirring up pro-Kremlin thugs commonly called Cossacks while looking the other way as security officers harass peaceful demonstrators and fail to protect them from violent attacks.
Victor Oleynik became one of hundreds of Russian supporters of an open, democratic society to leave Russia in the past few years and request political asylum in the US. According to statistics provided by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the number of asylum applications from Russian citizens hit a 24-year high in 2017, jumping 40 % from 2017. It has continued to increase since 2012 when President Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin. According to USCIS, US authorities received 2,664 new asylum applications from Russian nationals in the fiscal year of 2017.
Victor Oleynik’s case is a clear example of why young people are running away from Russia. In 2017-2018 thousands of well educated Russian democrats emigrated to the West. About a hundred of these cases became public when the media reported them. Meanwhile, according to sociological research data, more than 30% of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 want to leave the country.
The main reason is not the stagnant economy but politics. While persecution and repression may concern a small number involved in the opposition movement, politics itself is not limited to rallies and civil activism. Politics shape the nation and directly impact the lives and futures of its citizens. People need to understand where a country is going and what its values are.
Russians today don’t see a prosperous future. Those with the courage to find a better way and the courage to leave their motherland and family are running away seeking freedom, democracy and new opportunities.
By ALEX GORBACHEV