Olesya Krivtsova and Ilya Kanatush deserted Russia to settle in the West, one in Norway, the other in Finland. Father Boris, an Orthodox priest, lives on both sides of the border. Portraits.
Olesya Krivtsova had her name added to Russian authorities’ most-wanted list after cutting off the electronic bracelet from her ankle and fleeing Arkhangelsk, where she was under house arrest.
Denounced by other students, Olesya found herself in the crosshairs of the authorities for having shared on the Russian social network VKontakte (VK) a “ story Instagram” about the explosion on the Crimean bridge accompanied by criticism of the invasion of Ukraine.
She was initially accused of having “denigrated the Russian army” and of having “endorsed terrorism”. Then, for trying to flee Russia.
Convinced that she would not find justice, she eventually moved to the West: first to Vilnius, Lithuania, then to Kirkenes, Norway. The bosses of theIndependent Barents ObserverThomas Nilsen and Atle Staalesen, opened the doors of their independent media to him.
“It’s a new page in my life that I’m writing,” emphasizes Olesya in the newsroom of theIndependent Barents Observer, in the north of the Arctic Circle. ” It’s crazy ! » exclaims the 20-year-old fugitive, nevertheless “worried” for her family left behind.
The jump between activism and journalism was not made without “difficulties,” explains the young woman, showing the figure of Russian President Vladimir Putin, drawn on her ankle in the shape of a spider. “ Big Brother is watching you,” we can read. But Olesya is supported by experienced journalists, three of whom were forced to abandon Russia after the new tightening imposed on the press following the invasion of Ukraine.
The journalist feels excited at the idea of telling the story of a Russian prisoner with whom she spoke on VK. Guilty of femicide, he was released to fight in Ukraine, she tells Duty. “We talked about prison and war. He told me that he killed Ukrainians, that he is not a hero, that he wants to live,” she explains, before turning her head towards her husband, Ilia Melkov.
Ilia, for his part, had problems with the Russian authorities for taking part in an anti-war demonstration. After pinning him down, manhandling him and forcing him into a van, Vladimir Putin’s strong men “recorded a video” of him. “I had to apologize and support the army without reservation,” says the aspiring historian, leaning against a glass wall. “This is a widespread practice in Russia,” Olesya adds, holding up a similar video featuring a friend who found refuge in Georgia.
Olesya will blacken the pages of the websiteIndependent Barents Observer with texts on the war in Ukraine, on repression in Russia, on women’s rights as well as on environmental issues specific to the North. “I’m going to be a good journalist,” she said, while promising at the same time not to lose sight of the political prisoners languishing in Vladimir Putin’s penal colonies.
Ilya Kanatush decided to desert Russia — which he describes as “the most malicious country on the planet” — ten days after the Russian army began its invasion of Ukraine.
Using a compass, he crossed a snowy forest on foot, moved by images of Ukrainians hiding in the depths of kyiv to escape Russian missiles. “It allowed me not to be preoccupied with my own fate,” he says, sitting in a Helsinki park swept by laughter and opera arias.
The man, wearing fishing boots, was slowed by a fence topped with barbed wire, which eventually collapsed under his weight. “I found freedom as soon as I crossed the border,” said the young thirty-year-old a year and a half later.
Ilya broke into a Finnish village bordering the border. “It was scary for people: a Russian coming from the forest. I quickly reassured them by explaining my situation,” he relates with a hint of a smile. “When the police arrived, I felt surprisingly safe. When you are in Russia, you feel in danger when Russian police officers catch you. They can take your money, your phone and you can’t do anything,” he points out.
After applying for political asylum, Ilya settled in a refugee camp, then in accommodation in Helsinki, where he took his “first steps on the road to integration”. In particular, he set about learning Finnish.
For him, obtaining citizenship of Finland — “one of the most democratic states” on the globe — and his passport — “one of the strongest in the world” — “would be like winning the jackpot.”
Born in the dust of the USSR, Ilya no longer saw a future for himself in Russia after the outbreak of the “ridiculous and stupid imperial war” against Ukraine. “I understood that the small part of freedom and security that remained in this authoritarian state had disappeared. This is not just a war between Russia and Ukraine. It’s a war between criminals who believe in pure force and brutal power and people who believe in freedom and law. I wouldn’t have kept quiet. I would have ended up in prison sooner or later,” he maintains.
The exile has difficulty explaining why the average Russian does not “react in one way or another” to the transformation of his country into a “terrorist state”.
Ilya does not see a personality capable of confronting Russia with its demons and opening a new era of democracy and freedom on the horizon. The former Saint Petersburger supported for a time the activist and instigator of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Alexeï Navalny, before distancing himself from him, because “he pursued his own objectives rather than defending the values of freedom”.
“It’s not a matter of waiting for Putin to die or be killed. It’s a question of changing society. And I don’t see that happening,” he says, pessimistic for Russia’s future.
The country has sunk into Russian-style fascism, “Russism”, argues Ilya, pointing the finger at “the poor and uneducated population who live in the past and are proud of Stalin”. “It is a threat to all civilized humanity,” he warns.
Both Russian and Norwegian, Father Boris divides his life between Kirkenes, Norway, and Murmansk, Russia. He has dozens of Orthodox believers on each side of the border, with whom he talks about everything except politics.
” I do not wanna talk about it. As Orthodox priests, we do not want to go there, on the political ground,” indicates the thirty-year-old in the entrance to his pied-à-terre located on a hill in Kirkenes. “In the Russian Church, we priests are with people, we perform liturgies, we help each other. They, at the top [de l’Église orthodoxe russe], in Moscow or Murmansk, they do the things they want to do and must do. We are not together,” he continues.
Father Boris, his wife and their two children are preparing to take the E105 road towards Murmansk, located 225 kilometers to the east, not without first stopping to buy a few bars of chocolate, he explains. who donned a pair of jeans and a red sweater emblazoned with the brand’s logo with three stripes for the occasion.
“Five or six years ago, I saw a man wearing not only an Adidas sweater, but matching pants. And he smoked a Marlboro cigarette! He was a Finnish priest, he confides. In the Greek Church, priests smoke. »
And not in the Russian Church? “They say: if you smoke, it’s not very good. It’s better not to smoke. »
On the other hand, “a little bit of vodka is OK; French, Italian, Californian wine, it’s OK,” he mentions, before adding: “It’s better not to drink too much. »
“We are normal people, simple people. We can be good. We can sometimes not be good,” he says. Behind him, the first notes of the piece For Elise of Beethoven mix with the clinking of plates and glasses drawn from the sink.
Despite the tensions, Father Boris can easily pass from one side of the border to the other, brandishing his Russian and Norwegian “papers” to anyone who wants to see them. He describes this privilege as “perhaps a gift from God”.
In Kirkenes, he has under his wing some 250 believers, including 30 practitioners, who come from the four corners of the former Soviet Union: Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Moldova, Baltic States, Belarus, Poland, Georgia, Ukraine, he lists. he.
“I share my life between Murmansk and Kirkenes, between Russia and Norway. I like this ! […] I hope I don’t have any problems in the future,” says the Russian native, who acquired Norwegian citizenship following his mother’s marriage to his Norwegian stepfather more than 20 years ago. “When you’re around Russians and Norwegians, you’re taller. You know more about people, about the way they live. Maybe one day I can go to Canada,” he adds.
The doors of the Kirkenes Orthodox Church are open to everyone. “We are friendly,” says Father Boris, surrounded by his loved ones.
“Come on, let’s go to Murmansk!” »
This report was financed with the support of the Transat-Le Devoir International Journalism Fund.