I.rina Yakutenko is a molecular biologist and science journalist, her latest book “The Virus That Broke the World” made her a sought-after expert on Covid-19 in Russia. But the 37-year-old author does not live in Russia, but in Berlin-Friedrichshain. One could think that she is a typical member of the colorful Berlin expat community with her interesting jobs and cool projects. But there is a difference: She came to Germany three years ago to stay here because she saw no future for herself or her family in her home country. And that makes them part of a different group that is rapidly gaining visibility: politically motivated migrants from Russia.
Political migration is generally a difficult phenomenon to grasp, says sociologist Daria Skibo, 31, who has been in Germany for two years. There is no reliable data on how many people are involved, for what reasons they come, and which channels they use to stay in Germany. More and more Russians have a right to asylum: They were persecuted because they took part in protests, worked for critical media or NGOs, got involved in civil society or because their sexuality deviated from the state-prescribed norm. Some actually apply for asylum, but the number is comparatively small compared to the approximately 10,000 people who immigrate to Germany from the Russian Federation each year. In 2019, 3,145 Russian citizens applied for asylum, 472 were accepted, many after years of waiting, rejection and revision. Anyone who can afford it, says Skibo, would choose a different path: “Anyone who is better educated and networked, speaks good German or English, has money or has relatives in Germany, does not apply for asylum.”
“For me it started in 2011”
Probably a much larger group is formed by those who feel threatened but have not yet experienced concrete persecution. “You know,” says Skibo, “that Comrade Major already has you in his sights” – a metaphor for the repressive state that has been in use since the Soviet era. More and more people know someone who has already been interrogated, arrested, convicted or declared a foreign agent, who has been searched, or has lost his or her job or university place for political reasons. This affects the mood and speeds up churn plans.
“For me it started in 2011,” says Irina Yakutenko. “After the mass protests against fake elections.” She was a science editor for the then leading independent online medium Lenta.ru. The editorial team came up with the idea of using journalists from all departments as reporters, and so they sat day in and day out in courtrooms to report on trials against protesters. Whereby participants in such processes should not always be taken literally: An acquaintance of hers was accused even though he was not at the demo. He had gathered evidence of his innocence, but the judge did not even look at the documents and imposed a heavy fine. The acquaintance, who now also lives abroad, was shocked, Yakutenko wasn’t really: “Of course I already knew something like this would happen, but it makes a completely different impression when you see it with your own eyes.” In 2014, the editorial staff of Lenta.ru was broken up because of the non-line-compliant Ukraine reporting. The line was then as it is now: agitation. Some of the dismissed journalists founded a new medium, Meduza, with its editorial office in Latvia. In May 2021, Meduza was declared a “foreign agent” in Russia and thus cut off from all advertising income from Russia.