Shortly before he hurriedly left Russia for Georgia, Sergei Samborsky visited the office of presidential human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova.
A resident of Tomsk, Samborsky made headlines last month after he released shocking video of appalling conditions inside the "red zone" of the Siberian city’s largest COVID-19 hospital. In a telephone interview from self-imposed exile, he told RFE/RL that "reliable" sources in Moskalkova's office advised him to leave the country immediately.
"People there who are in the know told me not to stay in Russia," Samborsky said, adding that he was told it would be “very dangerous” to remain.
“I can't say that I experienced any signs of this. I wasn't followed and I didn't get any direct threats,” he said. “But, first of all, the source was reliable. And, secondly, events all around me were taking a dangerous turn."
Among those events, Samborsky said, were several indications from the prosecutor's office in Tomsk making clear that they objected to the fact that he had filed a legal complaint against the hospital directly to the Investigative Committee in Moscow -- in effect, going over their heads.
"I went to Moscow because I knew that local law enforcement had connections with medical officials and that they wouldn't punish anyone," Samborsky said. "They knew all about the [alleged] violations. So I headed to Moscow to tell them the truth."
In late October, Samborsky learned that his 84-year-old grandmother was on a ventilator in intensive care in Tomsk's infectious-diseases hospital No. 2. He was denied permission to see her and learned from a fellow patient that she was not being cared for properly.
He dressed up in personal protective gear and talked his way into the hospital's "red zone," saying he was a therapist from another department. He found his dying grandmother lying in a pool of urine and feces, covered in vomit, with an oxygen mask strapped uselessly to her forehead.
His video of the situation (above) caused a massive public outcry, and he filed a lawsuit against the hospital's director, Aleksandr Kholopov, a controversial former head of the Tomsk Oblast Health Department, for negligence and mismanagement that led directly to the death of Samborsky's grandmother.
Samborsky said the sources in Moskalkova's office said he would be arrested "directly upon arrival" if he went back to Tomsk.
"And the previous day," he added, "I got a letter from the Health Ministry. I would note that I never wrote to them myself, didn't send them any complaints. But for some reason, the bureaucrats decided to respond to me personally. The point of their letter was that orders had been given to resolve any issues, but that, generally speaking, they found no major violations.
"The conclusion? Nothing was going to change -- and they were going to come after me with all they had for violating the sanitary regime. So that others don't try the same."
The day before his scheduled return to Tomsk, Samborsky instead left Russia for Georgia.
Samborsky says he doesn't regret what he did.
"For three days, before I was exposed and kicked out, I managed to comfort my grandmother and make things at least a bit easier for her," he said. "I have no regrets about that. Of course, I didn’t think it would end in my forced emigration. But I don't regret it. I'd do the same thing again."
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His only regret, he said, was that he filed his complaints with the authorities.
"I can see that was useless," he said, adding that he was naive to think that Moscow would take a different view of the situation in Tomsk or that President Vladimir Putin didn't know what the circumstances in the far-off regions were like.
"The Investigative Committee just sent my complaints to the Tomsk investigators," he said. "That is the source of the danger to me."
Samborsky, a welder by profession, said there was nothing left for him in Tomsk after his grandmother died and his employer fired him because of the hospital scandal. In Georgia, he says he felt welcomed and was able to quickly find a job in a provincial town.
"But I don't feel safe yet," he added. "I can't say for sure that I won't have to move again."