KARAKOL, Kyrgyzstan — A sense of deja vu swept over veteran Russian political activist Ilya Shafranov when he was arrested during an anti-war protest.
Unlike in the past, he was not arrested during an opposition protest in Moscow – he was arrested by police in a remote town in the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan.
“I left Russia for Kyrgyzstan because I am against war,” reads the sign Shafranov briefly held up earlier this month – much to the astonishment of some passers-by – in Karakol, nestled at the foot of the mountains. snow capped Tien Shan.
One of tens of thousands of Russians who fled abroad following the invasion of Ukraine, Shafranov chose to settle in a small settlement on the fringes of the former Russian Empire instead of the big cities like Tbilisi, Riga and Istanbul preferred by most new emigrants.
Like many post-Soviet countries, Russian is still widely spoken in Kyrgyzstan.
“The phrase ‘Russian world’ has been smeared by the actions of the Putinoids,” Shafranov, 56, told The Moscow Times, using a term insulting to staunch supporters of President Vladimir Putin.
“But it still has value and reflects reality,” he said. “Karakol remains on the border of the Russian world to this day.”
Currently retraining for a career in data science, Shafranov has spent days exploring the nearby mountains and scenic Lake Issyk-Kul.
For other Russians who have settled in Karakol since the invasion of Ukraine, the beauty of the landscape and its remoteness were the main selling points.
It took travel blogger Alexei Napalkov, 26, almost a week to reach the city by car from his hometown of Orenburg, near the Russian border with Kazakhstan.
“We are an introverted family, that’s why we didn’t want to live in a big city,” Napalkov said of the decision to move to Karakol, whose population is only a tenth of Orenburg.
“Karakol is a ‘safe haven’, comfortable, but not the most modern,” he told the Moscow Times. “It’s also easier to breathe here.”
A holiday destination for climbers, skiers and hikers from around the world, English and French can often be heard on the streets of the sleepy town.
Napalkov joined Shafranov’s protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine after hearing about it earlier in the day.
“It’s hard to describe my feelings about the feeling of freedom, but after Russia I feel like a freer person here,” he said.
In total, the demonstration in front of a Karakol stadium attracted only four participants, including Napalkov and Shafranov.
And some residents did not appreciate the activism of their new neighbors. A passerby suggested to the protesters to “go back to Russia”. A group called Russian Compatriots of Issyk-Kul later filed a lawsuit accusing Shafranov of “stirring up ethnic tensions”.
Despite the mixed reception, Kyrgyzstan has a long-standing reputation as an “island of democracy” surrounded by more authoritarian Central Asian nations.
“Kyrgyzstan was presented as a small democracy with freedom of speech,” said travel blogger Napalkov.
And the freedoms available in Kyrgyzstan seem even more austere compared to Russia, which has witnessed an unprecedented crackdown on activists and independent journalists since the invasion began.
Shafranov was an active member of Moscow’s liberal opposition before fleeing Russia. A supporter of a municipal deputy Yulia Galyaminahe has been detained several times, including during the 2019 opposition protests on the Moscow municipal elections.
“I will not go back to Russia until Putin is in power and democratic reforms are set in motion,” Shafranov told The Moscow Times during a visit to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, last month. “I hope it will happen in my lifetime.”
Central Asian states have walked a political tightrope since the start of the war, balancing deep economic ties to Russia with a reluctance to be associated with what appears to many to be Moscow’s imperial revanchism in Ukraine.
Speaking alongside Putin at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum last week, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said his country would not recognize the Russian-backed breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine.
While Shafranov and Napalkov planned to stay permanently in Karakol, which was established as a Russian military outpost under Tsar Alexander II, other recent Russian arrivals to the region were less committed.
Anna, who asked that her surname be withheld, said her family initially left Russia due to difficulties with her husband’s job caused by the war. She sought refuge in Cholpon-Ata, a resort town near Karakol of fewer than 15,000 people.
“We fell asleep to the sound of rain, woke up to the chirping of birds and breathed clean air under the cool sun,” she told the Moscow Times. “We all went to the indoor pool at a sanatorium twice a week.”
But when her husband, a computer scientist, solved the problems with his job, the family decided to return to their hometown near the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.
Returning to the anti-war demonstration in Karakol, Shafranov was taken away by plainclothes security guards and taken to the local police station.
After three hours of interrogation, he was finally released.
“Having left Russia where freedom of speech has been restricted, it would be foolish not to take advantage of that freedom of speech in a country where it still exists,” he said outside the police station.
“[But] I hope they won’t open a criminal case against me.