Russian dissidents find haven in Lithuania

Yevegeni Titov, a Russian seeking asylum in Lithuania, poses on July 16, 2018 in Vilnius. (AFP)
Updated 27 July 2018

Russian dissidents find haven in Lithuania

  • Titov, working for the anti-Kremlin Novaya Gazeta daily in Moscow, received further death threats after exposing corruption surrounding the bridge project
  • More than 30 other Russian dissidents have also received asylum in the Baltic state, along with special protective status for family members, since 2014

VILNIUS: Journalist Yevgeny Titov, reporting from Crimea after Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, understood the risk he was taking.
He is one of a growing number of Russians seeking asylum in Lithuania, a small staunchly pro-Western state that makes no secret of its wariness toward the Kremlin, its unwanted Soviet-era master.
“When I was reporting about the bridge being built (by Russia) to Crimea, my friends received an SMS saying that I had been murdered,” Titov, 41, told AFP, speaking in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Titov, working for the anti-Kremlin Novaya Gazeta daily in Moscow, received further death threats after exposing corruption surrounding the bridge project — prompting his move to Lithuania in 2016 on the advice of a friend.
Vilnius granted Titov political asylum in July.
More than 30 other Russian dissidents have also received asylum in the Baltic state, along with special protective status for family members, since 2014.
Dozens more have sought refuge here, as well as in nearby Estonia and Latvia — which like Lithuania are EU and NATO members.
All three are former Soviet-ruled republics that are now among Moscow’s most vocal critics.
Vsevolod Chernozub, 32, was among the first to arrive in December 2013.
One of the leaders of the anti-Kremlin Solidarnost party, Chernozub decided to leave Russia during a heavy-handed crackdown triggered by mass protests against Putin’s inauguration for a third Kremlin term in May 2012.
The demonstrations quickly descended into clashes with police.
Criminal charges were brought against around 30 demonstrators, many of whom were sentenced to prison terms of up to four-and-a-half years.

While he could have sought refuge elsewhere in the EU, Chernozub says he chose Vilnius for practical reasons, notably because of the ethnic Russian community that settled in Lithuania during nearly five decades of Soviet rule.
“Lithuania is a country where you can still speak Russian on a daily basis,” he told AFP. “My wife was pregnant at the time and she wanted a Russian-speaking doctor,” he noted.
The Baltic state has welcomed dissidents, while underscoring its support for opposition circles in Russia.
“One of the principles (of our relationship with Russia) is to support civil society there,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP.
“Lithuania is a place where they (Russians) can feel safe and we are proud of it,” he said.
The foreign ministry has held an annual forum for Russian opposition circles since 2013, and former Russian chess world champion Garry Kasparov, an outspoken Kremlin critic, hosts human rights events in Vilnius.
With the backing of the Lithuanian parliament, Russian dissidents spearheaded a move in May to rename a square outside the Russian embassy after Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition politician gunned down near the Kremlin in February 2015 by unknown assailants.
Their activism in Lithuania has not gone unnoticed by Moscow, according to Titov.
“The Russia 24 propaganda channel aired several reports about our initiatives. They called us all kinds of names. That just means that what we’re doing is important,” he told AFP.

Titov now works as a journalist for the Russian service of Delfi, a popular news website with branches in all three Baltic states.
Chernozub, meanwhile, has teamed up with several fellow Russians to create the “Russia Tomorrow” website, an ironic allusion to “RT” formerly known as “Russia Today,” Moscow’s state-funded international broadcaster.
The new dissidents make up a tiny part of Lithuania’s ethnic Russian minority, where pro-Kremlin views prevail.
The community accounts for about six percent of the Baltic state’s overall population of 2.9 million.
All three Baltic states were deeply rattled by its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, which prompted NATO to quickly ramp up its presence along its eastern flank.
Chernozub warned that the open atmosphere that reigned briefly in Russia during the football World Cup tournament could soon give way to fresh crackdowns on the opposition.
“During the World Cup the situation was frozen, with few protests and few arrests, but now I don’t know what will happen,” Chernozub told AFP.


A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

Updated 9 min 19 sec ago

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.