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Escape To Finland: A Putin Opponent's Last-Minute Flight From Wartime Russia

Sergei Filenko, a carpenter from Karelia, has asked for asylum in Finland.
Sergei Filenko, a carpenter from Karelia, has asked for asylum in Finland.

In April, just months after Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Sergei Filenko became the first person in Russia's northern Karelia region to be punished for violating a new law targeting those who purportedly "discredit" the Russian armed forces.

He was found guilty of the same infraction in June, and when it came time to pay the fine, Filenko didn't relent on his activism: He scrawled anti-war messages on the 5,000-ruble bills he deposited to settle the debt.

"I forbid this money to be spent on war and Putin's minions," he wrote on one.

Filenko, a carpenter, writer, and local activist in the regional capital, Petrozavodsk, has a long record of opposing Putin's government. In April 2021, he was detained at a protest in support of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. A video of the incident shows him reciting a Rudyard Kipling poem as riot-police officers carried him to an awaiting van.

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But up until late last month, he had resisted fleeing Russia as hundreds of thousands of his compatriots are estimated to have done since Putin launched the war on Ukraine on February 24.

Even after Putin announced a mobilization to boost Russia's troop numbers on September 21, Filenko was hesitant.

"I thought of it like this: I won't go to the army, and they won't be able to take me away by force. Well, even if I'm taken away in handcuffs, the bus will stop somewhere for a pee break. Everyone is probably already drunk. And I would take off. But you can't hide from prison indefinitely," Filenko told RFE/RL's North.Realities.

But at the urging of a friend, Filenko became one of the last wave of Russians to flee to Finland on a tourist visa before authorities in the Nordic country effectively closed the door to Russian tourists last month.

Filenko has now joined the nearly 1,000 Russians who have applied for political asylum in Finland this year, a massive spike compared to previous years.

He now lives in a sparsely furnished apartment with four other Russian asylum seekers in the town of Imatra, about 10 kilometers from the Russian border, all of whom arrived after Putin announced the mobilization.

Filenko hopes to find work soon to support his family that remains in Russia.

"I am constantly thinking how to bring them over, where and when we can see each other again. But the main thing is to find some use for my hands," he said.

Tourist, Carpenter, Repeat Offender

Finland has long been a popular entry point for Russian travelers into the EU's Schengen area. But in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Finnish government has implemented severe restrictions on Russian tourists.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in August that "it is not right that while Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists."

On September 30, Finland's tightened restrictions on Russian tourists took effect, with Helsinki saying that Putin's mobilization "and the rapidly increasing volume of tourists arriving in Finland and transiting via Finland endanger Finland's international position and international relations."

The move, along with similar measures by other European governments, has triggered debate in the West about whether closing borders to Russia is a justified and necessary response to Moscow's aggression or whether such restrictions punish Putin opponents trying to flee Russia and help feed the Kremlin's anti-Western propaganda.

Filenko's long track record of opposition activism is likely to make a more compelling case for asylum than those Russians who fled solely due to the Kremlin's mobilization drive.

He told North.Realities that while crossing from Russia into Finland on September 26, he was questioned for several hours by Russian border guards about his political persuasions before he was allowed through.

"They took my passport back and forth and asked questions, like whether I really believe that Navalny was poisoned," Filenko said, referring to the 2020 poisoning of the opposition leader with the chemical weapon Novichok that Navalny and Western governments attribute to the Kremlin.

When it came time to apply for political asylum, Filenko again found himself explaining his political positions in a formal asylum interview with a Finnish police official. When he told the official through an interpreter that he was a carpenter and repeat offender, the police officer straightened up and appeared perplexed, Filenko recalled.

"I had to tell about all my repeat administrative offenses, at what rallies and for what I was detained: at first I was indignant that Navalny had been poisoned, then about the occupation and invasion [of Ukraine]. With each subsequent 'repeat offense,' the policeman became friendlier," Filenko said.

'Epicenter Of Evil'

Filenko expects to receive permission to work in Finland in the next three months. In the meantime, he frequents the library in Imatra, attends Finnish lessons twice a week, and spends the bulk of the rest of his time studying the language on his own, he says.

Filenko now spends much of his time studying Finnish.
Filenko now spends much of his time studying Finnish.

In early October, Finnish authorities announced that Ukrainian and Russians seeking shelter in Finland would be housed separately, citing Ukrainians "relating fears caused by Russian asylum seekers being housed in the same spaces" following Putin's military mobilization.

Filenko describes how his own encounters with Ukrainian refugees in Finland triggered deep emotional responses in him.

After arriving in Finland, he spent several days in and around the city of Joensuu , meeting local friends and acquaintances and trying to figure out how to put down roots in his new environs.

While there, he went to a community center where Ukrainian refugee families would gather to drink tea and coffee, eat pastries, and let their children play.

"I sat at a table where Ukrainian women were talking and drinking tea, and I felt like a soldier who escaped from the Wehrmacht, somewhere in Switzerland with French refugees," Filenko recalled. "My country has occupied France, I don't understand how to behave."

He says he stood up and left the kitchen, "walking down the corridor, holding back my emotions."

"And then a boy runs up behind me, hugs me [by the legs], looks at me.... I also look at him and almost cry," Filenko recalls. "I feel like I am in the epicenter of evil, and nothing can be done."

Adapted from the original Russian report by Carl Schreck