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Putin critic who left Russia flees Kiev as ‘double refugee’


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For Olena, it’s as if Vladimir Putin has been chasing her for years.

Fed up with Putin’s government, the Russian citizen left her native country six years ago and moved to Ukraine, where she helped raise funds for women and children whose homes had been destroyed during the years of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass. Region.

Then, this week, she was on the move again – fleeing her adopted Kiev home from Putin’s invaders.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing Kyiv, Ukraine (no surname has been given for security reasons) looks at herself in a mirror after arriving in Budapest, Hungary on Friday March. 4, 2022.
(AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing Kiev, Ukraine (no surname given for security reasons) looks at the Hungarian Parliament building and the Danube in downtown Budapest on Friday, March 4, 2022.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing Kiev, Ukraine (no surname given for security reasons) looks at the Hungarian Parliament building and the Danube in downtown Budapest on Friday, March 4, 2022.
(AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

“It looks like I’m a double refugee now because I fled Russia first because I was against Putin,” said Olena, who spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her name. first name for fear of reprisals against her or her family. “I fled Russia, then Russia came to Ukraine.”

Olena and five colleagues left Kiev after three nights in an air-raid shelter, the thuds of explosions echoing. They arrived in Hungary on Thursday after a harrowing three-day flight.

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Sitting on a train in the Hungarian border town of Zahony before departing for the capital Budapest, Olena said she had taken part in anti-Putin protests in Russia but realized that “Putin will reign as long as that he will live”. I chose to vote with my legs and leave.”

She moved to Ukraine, she said, because she was inspired by the 2014 Maidan revolution, when sustained protests forced the ousting of Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

“As long as Putin is in power, I will never come back,” she said.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing Kyiv, Ukraine (no last name given for security reasons) stands by the Danube River in downtown Budapest on Friday, March 4, 2022. Olena who years ago left her home country in opposition to Vladimir Putin's government was forced to flee again - this time from her adopted hometown of Kiev - as Putin's armed forces attacked Ukraine.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing Kyiv, Ukraine (no last name given for security reasons) stands by the Danube River in downtown Budapest on Friday, March 4, 2022. Olena who years ago left her home country in opposition to Vladimir Putin’s government was forced to flee again – this time from her adopted hometown of Kiev – as Putin’s armed forces attacked Ukraine.
(AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing Kiev, Ukraine (no last name given for security reasons) sits on a train as she travels from the Hungarian - Ukrainian border to Budapest on Thursday March.  3, 2022.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing Kiev, Ukraine (no last name given for security reasons) sits on a train as she travels from the Hungarian – Ukrainian border to Budapest on Thursday March. 3, 2022.
(AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

But now Ukraine was no longer an option, either – for her or for the hundreds of other refugees who boarded the train for the five-hour journey from the border to Budapest. Dozens of volunteers welcomed them, providing food, transport and accommodation.

Olena was grateful to be in friendly territory, but the future seemed uncertain. “I don’t have a home, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just have to hope,” she said.

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She lost access to her money after Ukraine blocked the bank accounts of Russian citizens, fearing they could be used to fund Russia’s assault on the country.

“I understand their reasons, because they are afraid that the Russians will use this money to fight. But I am only a civilian. I just lost all my income, I lost all my source of money and I lost my bank account, just because of this Russian passport,” she said.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing Kiev, Ukraine (no surname given for security reasons) shows her Russian passport after arriving on the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary on Friday March.  4, 2022.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing Kiev, Ukraine (no surname given for security reasons) shows her Russian passport after arriving on the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary on Friday March. 4, 2022.
(AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

This passport, she said, caused her problems on the trip from Kiev. Some Ukrainians expressed their hostility, associating it with the enemy.

But she stressed that many Russians at home and abroad oppose the war, and she hopes “people will separate the government from ordinary people who don’t want to fight.”

“Ukrainians are like a brother people,” she said. “We can’t fight each other. Putin is the real enemy. When Putin came to power, I didn’t like him but I didn’t realize the full extent of his madness.”

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On Thursday, Olena and her colleagues secured accommodation in a leafy suburb of Budapest. It’s a welcome respite.

“We no longer hear explosions. We no longer hear sirens every couple of hours when we have to pack our bags and rush to the air-raid shelter,” she said. “When we crossed the border, it was such a relief that we were alive and safe.”


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