Accessibility links

Breaking News

Escape From Orenburg: A Russian Defense Engineer's Flight To Europe

Dmitry Domovetskikh says he had been having misgivings about his work, helping to manufacture weapons, for more than year.

When Russian security agents knocked on his door three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, Dmitry Domovetskikh knew it was time to flee the country.

And so began a multiweek odyssey that sent the 38-year-old electrical engineer from his home in the southern Russian city of Orenburg, wading in predawn darkness through swamps and chest-high ditchwater across the Belarusian border, to safety in Lithuania.

"Never have the opinions of people in our country changed so drastically, it seems," Domovetskikh said in a June 6 interview with RFE/RL's Idel Realities.

In Orenburg, Domovetskikh had been employed as a design engineer for more than eight years at the Orion Design Bureau, an affiliate of a major defense contractor, VPK NPO Mashinostroyenia. Among other things, the plant manufactures cruise missiles for the Russian military.

Speaking via Zoom from a refugee camp outside of Vilnius, Domovetskikh said he had been having misgivings about his work, helping to manufacture weapons, for more than year. He was studying to be a psychologist, and actively considering changing jobs, when President Vladimir Putin announced Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

"I was already at work," he said. "I went out to get my phone out of the [security] box to look at the news, and it was already published there that there were rocket attacks on Kharkiv. I had no words. I went to my colleagues and told one of my comrades that a real war was going on there."

His colleagues, he said, reacted with a mix of impassivity and, in some cases, excitement. "This shocked me separately. Knowing that people have children, they talked about high-precision strikes," he said.

On March 3, he handed in a letter of resignation. He and his wife, Vlada, a clinical psychologist, considered remaining in Orenburg, or possibly moving to St. Petersburg.

Under long-standing national security rules, his work in a defense factory raised the prospect that he might not be allowed to leave Russia; he had previously been barred from traveling abroad due to some prior work with classified materials. At the time of his resignation, however, the rules did not apply to him, he said.

On March 18, about two weeks after his work formally ended, officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) -- Russia's main domestic intelligence agency -- arrived at his apartment with a search warrant. The probable cause on the warrant was "disclosure of state secrets."

During the search, which lasted between three and four hours, nothing was seized; his phones, computer, photographs were reviewed by the officers, he said. They asked him about his contacts abroad.

Three days later, on March 21, he received a call from his former employer, summoning him to review new restrictions that barred him from traveling abroad for another five years, he said.

He didn't go.

He and his wife decided to leave the country.

"My dad is 81 years old, but he understood everything even earlier," he said. "When I explained everything directly to him, everything was already clear to him. He and my mom accepted it, they only worried about us."

Escape To Minsk

Assuming that flying abroad from Moscow would be risky, Domovetskikh and his wife decided it would be easier to leave via Belarus, which Russian citizens can enter visa-free.

On the 21-hour taxi ride to Moscow, he found a minibus service that would take them from the Russian capital to Minsk, where they could then fly to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, home to a growing number of Russian expatriates who have fled their home country.

After the eight-hour drive to the Minsk airport, they had their passports stamped for exit by Belarusian border control and boarded a plane to Tbilisi -- but the flight was postponed for a day due to mechanical malfunction.

The following day, they passed through border control again; he was stopped, his wife was not. Domovetskikh said a senior border-guard officer told him they were seizing his passport because it had been canceled by the Russian authorities.

While his wife returned to Orenburg, Domovetskikh remained in Minsk. For three weeks, he researched how to get to the border with Lithuania.

"I had a small backpack with a random set of things from Orenburg," he said. "I was wearing a fairly warm winter jacket, jeans, winter shoes and two sweaters; this helped me because it was cold at night. I bought chocolate bars with me, took some water, my phone, and copies of documents."

"The phone was useful to me when I reached the swamp; to understand if I was moving in the right direction," he said. "But you could also guess from the sun."

He said he arrived in midafternoon in a Belarusian border village whose name he asked RFE/RL not to reveal, fearing that would make it difficult for others to make similar journeys.

In the forest outside the village, he lay down and hid until night. Then, after hearing the sound of a two-way radio, fearing being caught by border guards, he moved slowly through an open space, to bypass a large swamp.

"I walked extremely slowly, crouching, lying down," he said. "It took me an hour and a half to go only 600 meters."

Sometime around 3 a.m., he walked into back into the Belarusian village pretending to be a local resident. He said he then walked another 6 kilometers to reach the border with Lithuania. "There, instead of wire fencing, in swampy places, they had dug a rather deep and wide ditch, filled with water. It was a water barrier," he said. "A fence with barbed wire wasn't necessary."

He said he took his clothes and waded through the chest-high water and crossed into Lithuania.

'Television Clichés'

He said the nearest Lithuanian village, Senove, was about 10 minutes further. He found a villager who spoke Russian, and contacted local border-guard authorities. "I spent 16 hours in all crossing the border," he said.

After ending up for several days at a camp for refugees -- other residents included people from the Middle East and Afghanistan -- he was processed and interviewed, then allowed to leave, and seek work, while his asylum request was pending.

Domovetskikh said he now spends his days doing odd construction jobs, mainly demolition. His wife, meanwhile, left Russia for Georgia, and he plans on having her join him in Lithuania.

"My uncle, sitting in Russia, had told me how Russians are hated in the Baltic countries," Domovetskikh said. "I told him how they really treat Russians here: 'Now I am here and I can tell you more accurately.' It wasn't really an argument -- he smiled, and we continued talking about something else mundane. It's just a habit to relay television clichés as if they were part of reality, a real picture of the world."

The Russian government "has traumatized people for generations, and the current people my age have grown from those who were traumatized by the Soviet Union," he said. "Everyone has a desire to join the strong, that is, to be close to those who are stronger and who are more confident, more aggressive. Standing on the opposite side [of the issue] is somehow unpopular, you are an outcast if you argue with the authorities."

Russia, he said, "pretends to be strong. But it really shows how reckless it is, that it is generally ready for anything, ready to easily destroy, to completely, indiscriminately destroy people in another country, ready to destroy its own citizens, ready to brandish a nuclear club."

"Is there something now that could change it back?" he said. "I don't think so. I just can't fathom how it would be possible for people's minds to change so quickly, at the push of a button, so that еveryone sees the light."

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by RFE/RL's Idel.Realties