For years, getting his insulin refilled to treat his diabetes was about as routine as it gets for Aleksandr Mulyukin. But after the 49-year-old Samara resident staged a one-person picket in the central Russian city against the policies of President Vladimir Putin, life changed for him and his family.
Not only did the local polyclinic suddenly struggle to fill his insulin prescription, but his wife lost her job. Child-welfare agents also appeared at their apartment in Samara to check what their kids were learning, as other residents wondered what Mulyukin had done. A strange man lurked outside their apartment at all hours, Mulyukin contends, warning him one night to stay away from rallies by supporters of Aleksei Navalny, the Russian opposition politician and anticorruption crusader.
Fed up with what he described as "persecution," Mulyukin took his wife, Aizhan, and three children and fled Russia. They are now seeking asylum in the European Union.
"I understood that they use insulin as a tool. Behave yourself and we'll give you insulin. Behave badly, and we won't give it to you. It's a way of controlling you," Mulyukin said in a recent interview with the Volga Desk of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.
"We cannot go back to Russia, because I can be persecuted there, or even die because of my medical condition," Mulyukin said.
No Political Activist
For years, Mulyukin said, listening to and reading independent media was about the extent of his political activism. That all changed for him, however, when Putin introduced plans in 2018 to reform the country's ailing pension system by raising the retirement age. Russians across the country were incensed and staged nationwide protests against the pension reforms on September 2.
Mulyukin attended a rally in nearby Novokuybyshevsk, equipped with a poster stenciled with a Putin quote about his promise to never raise the pension age when president.
"At that demonstration, the police approached me, interested why I had written about Putin. You know, they get nervous when 'Putin' is written on a poster," he said.
Police left him alone after photographing his passport and poster. It was his first encounter with police, but not his last.
Picket That Changed His Life
Mulyukin staged a one-person picket outside the regional government administration in Samara on November 7, coinciding with the anniversary of the October Revolution, no longer celebrated as a national holiday.
(One person-pickets don't require approval as they are not classified as demonstrations, which include at least two people according to Russian law.)
His poster this time was more provocative, including a nod to the opposition politician and anticorruption campaigner Navalny. "Putin's policies lead to the impoverishment of the Russian people. Putin -- no, Navalny -- yes!" it read.
Police quickly appeared and again took a photo of his passport and poster. They were soon joined by what Mulyukin took to be a plainclothes officer.
"He started to ask me about my political views, wanted to know which politicians I liked," Mulyukin recounted. "We're talking and suddenly he said: 'Why do you have such pessimistic, even suicidal, views. You don't want to kill yourself by any chance?' I told him I was a Christian, a Lutheran, and that I want to live a long and happy life."
His wife, Aizhan, stood some 50 meters away, Mulyukin said, taping the whole thing, but couldn't get a shot of the mysterious man.
Life Changes Forever
After that protest, Mulyukin said, his life changed forever.
He started to get anonymous calls with a bizarre demand: "Silence the dog or we'll do it ourselves."
He took to VKontakte, the popular Russian social-media network, to prove his home was canine-free.
"I began to post on VKontakte specifically to show that I don't have a dog. I posted pictures of our cats and aquarium. But they still called, saying the same thing. It soon became clear that this had nothing to do with a dog that I never had," Mulyukin explained.
The pressure by local authorities continued, Mulyukin explained, when child-welfare officers visited their apartment on November 12. "My wife said there was some kind of planned check of large families in our region. They looked in our children's bedrooms, asking what the boys and our daughter were studying," he said.
The couple got more bad news the next day, when Aizhan lost her job as an advertising executive allegedly for abusing sick leave. "When I was alone with the deputy director, I asked why I was really fired. 'Thank your husband,' he answered. That was it," she explained.
That same day, Mulyukin headed to Municipal Polyclinic No. 3 to get his insulin refill. Strangely, he was refused. "They told me I'd have to give blood for another analysis. They set November 15 for that," he said.
When he arrived on the agreed date, he was told he had no ideal vein in his forearm to draw blood from. Instead, they took it from the vein in his hand. "It's a procedure that, putting it gently, is not pleasant. Anyone who's had it done to them would understand that," Mulyukin said.
Because of alleged problems with his blood or equipment at the clinic, Mulyukin went back three times. The last time, his wife accompanied him, filming it. This time, he was given a prescription not for NovoRapid, which he was used to, but for Humalog, which he had reacted to poorly in the past.
Mulyukin spoke to the head of the clinic, who promised to resolve the issue within 10 days. In the meantime, he paid out of pocket for the NovoRapid medication he needed.
Not easily cowed, Mulyukin turned to VKontakte to set up a chatroom for diabetics with problems securing insulin, attracting some 50 people.
It was at about this time that Mulyukin had a late-night encounter when he was filling the birdfeeder hanging from a window in the apartment-block stairwell. He suspects it was the same man he had seen lurking outside their door at all hours.
"I turned around, looked at him, and I saw that he wasn't aggressive. He asked, 'So, Aleksandr Anatolevich, you feed birds?' and generally no one uses my patrionymic; no one knows my patrionymic. Even neighbors. 'Yes,' I said. 'I feed them.'"
He then gave Mulyukin a bit of advice.
"He told me: 'Don't go to demonstrations. Navalny will have your head spinning. You might end up flying like a bird.' I stood there and turned cold. I asked, 'And who are you?' He answers: 'I'm your friend. Your friend.' He turned and left, and by foot from the 10th floor, and not by elevator. No one left from the building entrance, although I watched for a long time."
What he called "psychological pressure" from the local authorities in Samara, Mulyukin told RFE/RL, led him and his family to flee to an EU country, where they are now seeking asylum.