- Rayhan Dimitri
- BBC South Caucasus Correspondent
When I got there, preparations were underway for a Russian wedding in the courtyard of an abandoned textile factory in the remote Armenian town of Tumanyan. Most of the guests were artists and musicians who fled Russia.
Groom Yura Bogoslavsky and bride Asya Kiselyova, both animators, moved here from Moscow to escape the Russian authorities’ repression of anti-war protesters in Ukraine.
“We were all arrested, Asia and our friends and even her parents,” the groom said. “Everyone has family and friends in Ukraine. It’s madness and it’s not us who should have arrested them.”
Opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine has become a criminal offense for anyone suspected of spreading “false news”.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an estimated 108,000 Russian citizens have arrived here.
With European destinations closed for Russian Airlines, there are only a few options left for the Russians.
Armenia does not need visas and there are regular flights from Moscow. The two countries have close relations that stretch for a long time. Armenia is Russia’s strategic ally in the South Caucasus region and houses a Russian military base and is also part of the Russian-led security alliance.
The Russians also moved to Georgia, Turkey and other destinations they still receive.
After his arrest, strange anti-government messages appeared on Yura’s phone as the couple prepared to board their flight to the capital, Yerevan.
Yura was well aware that FSB agents are telling people to open their phones to see their text messages and who they are calling.
He feared that the messages that appeared on his phone were an attempt to incriminate him. But luck was on him and he managed to get through the security barrier without anyone stopping him.
When guests brought tables and put up umbrellas, the mother of the bride, Valeria Kiselyova, revealed that her husband in Russia had stopped a car with the letter Z on its windshield, one of the propaganda symbols of an operation to to invade Ukraine.
“My husband took out a shovel and told them to remove the letter. I then knew we had to leave to avoid jail,” she said.
Trougas Polina Prokofieva talked about her prison experience, where she spent 12 days in a cell because she was gathering at an anti-war rally in St. Petersburg. Petersburg participated.
“The whole process was very humiliating,” she said, “They are trying to make you feel worthless and your voice means nothing.” After a three-minute trial, she said, she was convicted of participating in the resistance to what authorities call Russia’s special military operation.
Many Russian immigrants here are IT professionals and see Armenia as a suitable place to settle.
The Russians moved to all cities across Armenia, including rural areas such as Tumanyan
The arrival of tens of thousands of highly skilled Russians will have positive consequences for Armenia’s economy, according to Heikaz Vanyan of the Armenian Center for Economic and Social Studies.
“In March, the housing and food services sector in Armenia recorded a growth of 230% and 30% respectively compared to the same period last year. The Russians who moved to Armenia created 1,500 businesses, of which 300 were companies and the rest were entrepreneurs. ”
Among them was Dima, a 34-year-old from Moscow who recently opened a cafe serving Israeli and Korean meals. “At the beginning of March, the center of the capital, Yerevan, looked like the center of Moscow, there were a lot of Russians,” he said. “They looked lost and did not know what to do.”
Dima even before the war thought of leaving Russia.
“We started losing our freedom a while ago and now it’s dangerous for me to go back to Russia, because two years ago I posted some anti-government comments on Facebook. I would probably now in the I’m jailed for it if I lived in Russia. “
There was a young couple among the customers of the restaurant. “I served in the regular army for a year and now I have to serve again because there is a mobilization,” says video game developer Sergey. “I did not want to be imprisoned because I refused military service and I did not want to kill innocent people, so I decided to leave.”
He is ashamed that he once voted for Vladimir Putin while serving in the military in exchange for more food: “I sold my land for two gingerbread cookies.”
His partner, English-speaking teacher Anya, left her university in her third year when the head of the department declared that Ukrainians deserve what is done to them by Russia.
“I opened my eyes. I could not believe that those responsible for education can say such things, that it is right to kill someone and that it is not right to say anything against it.”
Russian state television not only spread propaganda and misinformation about the war in Ukraine, but also false reports of riots in Armenia that never took place.
Anya said she should reassure her mother that the recent protests against the government were largely peaceful: “I saw the reports she was talking about and found that Russian television used footage of riots in France.”
Opposition activists have set up a tent city and demanded that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan resign over the territories that Armenia lost during the 2020 war with Azerbaijan.
Here, too, the Kremlin’s disinformation found a ready audience, as most Armenians speak Russian.
One of the protesters said: “We are with Russia, and the Russians are our brothers.” Others gathered around her and expressed their support for her.
Fartan Mkhitaryan recorded the conversation and said: “We do not want this democracy that destroyed the mighty Armenian army, and Russia does not want it either. Why does the whole world look at Russia through the eyes of wolves? Russia has not Ukraine did not attack, it only defended itself. “
Such attitudes could be of concern to Russian newcomers who oppose war against Ukraine and Polina Prokofieva fears that Armenia may not be the safe haven that Russian dissidents need.
She notes that the police have asked some hotels to hand over the data of their Russian guests and said: “I just talked to the people in Yerevan, realizing that they do not know what is going on there and they are on my side. government that punished me and all my friends. ”
But Valeria, the bride’s mother, said she felt nothing but gratitude for the welcome she had received so far. “Since I left Russia, I have seen many beauties. If not for the war, I would have died of happiness.”