MOSCOW, — Last May 6, thousands of Russians protested the inauguration next day of Vladimir Putin as president. Coming as the culmination of six months of protest, Moscow's pre-inaugural demonstration turned violent.
Within weeks, 19 protesters were facing legal charges, and police were investigating half of a newly elected 45-member Opposition Coordination Council.
As the police net tightened, one protest leader, Leonid Razovzzhayev, did something new for this generation of Russian dissidents: he made a run for it. He applied for U.N. refugee status in neighboring Ukraine.
But the same day he applied for refugee status in Kyiv, he stepped out of a law office for coffee. Then he vanished.
A few days later, Razovzzhayev reappeared - in Moscow. As he was being transferred from a prison van to a courtroom, he managed to shout to reporters: "Tell people I was tortured. They promised to kill me. They tortured me for two days. I was kidnapped in Ukraine."
Maksym Butkevych, a Ukrainian human-rights activist, said in Kyiv: “We believe that until we receive at least some clear explanation of what happened to Leonid, we consider him to be abducted.”
“It sends a very clear signal to people who try to get asylum in Ukraine that Ukraine is not a safe country for asylum seekers and refugees. And it is not, I’m afraid,” said Butkevych, who is project coordinator for the No Borders Social Action Center.
Agreement came on Wednesday from Oldrich Andrysek, the regional representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He told reporters in Kyiv: “At this stage, Ukraine cannot be considered a safe country for all refugees.”
In Moscow, Yulia Razozzhayeva worries about her husband, who is now in jail in Irkutsk, in the middle of Siberia.
“I am worried for his life,” she said of her husband. “The harshest pretrial detention center is in Irkutsk, where they can apply physiological and physical torture. Thank God, there hasn’t yet been any physical abuse. But it’s a very harsh pretrial detention facility.”
Russia’s reach goes further than Ukraine.
Last month, Alexander Dolmatov, one of the Moscow protesters, committed suicide in a holding cell near Rotterdam airport. Dutch authorities had just denied his asylum request. His mother says that Russian intelligence agents told Dolmatov, a missile engineer, that he would face treason charges back home.
Another fugitive Russian protester, Anastasia Rybachenko, is more relaxed. She spoke from Estonia, where she is completing her university studies.
“I am not really worried about safety, in terms of a similar situation to the one of Razvozzvhaev,” she said. “Estonia is in the EU, and I don’t think Russia would be able to kidnap anyone from here.”
Suren Gazaryan, another member of Estonia’s growing Russian exile community, also feels safe in Estonia. But Gazaryan, an environmentalist, sees little change ahead for Russia.
"I think that until this system - Putin's system - ceases to exist, it's very doubtful I will be able to return,” said Gazaryan. “For Russia, however, it will take a long time to become a free country. It has all to do with Putin.”
A prison cell in Siberia?
Or exile in the West?
Russian dissidents faced this choice under the czars, and under the rulers of the Soviet Union.
Now this choice has returned to Russia under President Putin.