For Lithuania, Unease Over a Growing Russian-Speaking Diaspora

For Lithuania, Unease Over a Growing Russian-Speaking Diaspora

A pile of flowers blanketed a small memorial within the middle of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius after the demise of the Russian opposition chief Aleksei A. Navalny final month. “Putin Is a Murderer,” learn a placard in Russian.

The impromptu tribute on the memorial, an unassuming pyramid commemorating victims of Soviet repression, has highlighted Vilnius’s rising standing as the middle of Russian political opposition. Hundreds of dissidents who fled Russia after the invasion of Ukraine discovered a sympathetic ally of their battle towards President Vladimir V. Putin: the Lithuanian authorities, which has lengthy seen the Russian chief’s international interventions as an existential risk.

In Vilnius, exiled Russian journalists have arrange studios to broadcast information to thousands and thousands of compatriots again dwelling on YouTube. Russian activists have rented places of work to catalog the Kremlin’s human rights abuses, and exiled Russian musicians have recorded new albums for the viewers again dwelling.

The arrival of the Russian dissidents in Vilnius has added to a bigger wave of Russian-speaking refugees and migrants from Belarus and Ukraine over the previous 4 years. Fleeing battle or repression, collectively these migrants have reshaped the economic system and cultural make-up of this slow-paced medieval metropolis of 600,000, bolstering Lithuania’s picture as an unlikely bastion of democracy.

But the tribute to Mr. Navalny has additionally pointed to an uneasy relationship between Vilnius’s increasing Russian-speaking diaspora and their Lithuanian hosts. Some in Lithuania are apprehensive that the financial and diplomatic advantages of this migration have come at the price of creeping Russification in a small nation that had struggled to protect its language and tradition throughout the Soviet occupation.

The memorial the place Mr. Navalny’s mourners laid the flowers, for instance, was devoted to Lithuanian victims of the Soviet secret police, a stand in of types for the opposition chief’s demise on the order, they imagine, of Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer.

To some Vilnius residents, nonetheless, this gesture usurped the reminiscence of their compatriots’ struggling underneath the Soviet Union. Around 200,000 Lithuanians had been deported to the gulags throughout that interval, or executed for taking on arms towards the occupiers.

“The Russian language is all over the place once more,” stated Darius Kuolys, a linguist on the University of Vilnius and a former Lithuanian tradition minister. “To some Lithuanians, this has come as a cultural shock.”

Mr. Kuolys stated the battle in Ukraine has compelled Lithuanian society to hunt a steadiness between upholding its custom of tolerance and preserving its tradition. As a mannequin, Mr. Kuolys referred to Lithuania’s earlier incarnation as a sovereign state underneath the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a multicultural fifteenth century European energy whose legacy is revered by most Lithuanians right this moment.

That historical past and the comparatively small measurement of its native Russian minority had historically softened its strategy to its threatening neighbor. By distinction, the massive ethnic Russian communities in its Baltic friends of Latvia and Estonia fed a nationalist backlash after they gained independence, main them to enact hard-line immigration and diplomatic insurance policies on Russia and its residents.

Like the 2 different Baltic States, the Lithuanian authorities closed its borders to most Russians after the outbreak of the battle in Ukraine. But it has continued to difficulty humanitarian visas to Russians with democratic credentials. This selective coverage has created in Vilnius a neighborhood of extremely educated, politically engaged and infrequently well-off Russian residents who’ve had an outsized impression on the town.

An unbiased information outlet, 7×7, for instance, has arrange a recording studio in Vilnius to broadcast the information collected by their community of collaborators throughout the little-covered Russian provinces to compatriots on YouTube. Memorial, a human rights group outlawed in Russia, has rented places of work to replace its record of Russian political prisoners.

Members of a Russian electoral rights group, Golos, which means “voice,” have labored in Vilnius to use synthetic intelligence to video footage of Russian polling stations to attempt to doc vote tampering within the nation’s tightly managed elections.

And an exiled Russian pop star, Liza Gyrdymova, referred to as Monetochka, has used Vilnius as a base to lift a household and file music in between excursions catering to Russia’s international diaspora.

In the method, these exiles say they’ve created a miniature model of a democratic Russia across the baroque and gothic buildings of Vilnius’s previous city.

“This is what Russia with out Putin may appear to be,” stated Anastasia Shevchenko, an opposition activist from the southern metropolis of Rostov-on-Don, who got here to Vilnius after two years of home arrest.

Towering above the Russian exile neighborhood is the group put collectively by Mr. Navalny, which relocated to Vilnius in 2021 after the Kremlin declared it an extremist group.

Despite their outstanding standing, Mr. Navalny’s group have stood other than the broader Russian political diaspora within the metropolis, out of a mixture of safety considerations and the group’s staunch perception in self-sufficiency.

These safety considerations have been sharpened by the Kremlin’s rising willpower to punish opponents in exile, after largely stamping out dissent at dwelling.

In March, certainly one of Mr. Navalny’s chief aides, Leonid Volkov, was hospitalized after being overwhelmed by unidentified males with a hammer exterior his dwelling in a Vilnius suburb. A Russian ultranationalist group has claimed duty.

The Navalny group apart, a lot of the Russian exiles in Vilnius have banded collectively, serving to them cope with the ache of exile and to alternate concepts.

“When you stroll within the metropolis you understand that you simply’re not alone, and this is essential,” stated Aleksandr Plyushchev, who runs “Breakfast Show,” one of the watched unbiased Russian information applications from exile in Vilnius.

A Russian environmental activist, Konstantin Fomin, has began a neighborhood house for the exiles referred to as ReForum, which hosts cultural occasions and presents free remedy periods.

Vilnius’s small measurement and focus of outstanding Russian exiles within the well-heeled central districts have led to conditions that generally resemble scenes from Anton Chekhov’s brief tales.

Frank, a Russian-born white terrier, for instance, has turn out to be a part of the exiled neighborhood’s folklore because of the lengthy walks alongside Vilnius’s cobbled streets that he takes together with his proprietor, Vladimir Milov, a former Russian deputy power minister turned opposition determine.

And in a darkened Vilnius bar, a former Russian opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomarev, who relies in Kyiv, lately recounted how exiled opposition figures against his views generally crossed the road to keep away from acknowledging him, an ungainly transfer given the narrowness of a few of these streets.

Not all Russian activists have simply tailored to the exiled life. Many had been compelled to flee Russia at brief discover, abandoning possessions and a way of objective supplied by their work. Most of the interviewed exiles say their largest considerations are the family who stay behind, whom they concern could possibly be focused by the federal government in retaliation for his or her actions.

This nervousness has solely risen following the demise of Mr. Navalny, who for a lot of exiled Russians represented the most important — maybe the one — hope for political change.

“I’m struggling, I’m in ache, I don’t know what to say when my daughter asks me, ‘Mom, what are we going to do now,’” stated Violetta Grudina, a former provincial organizer for Mr. Navalny who got here to Vilnius after the battle began. Ukrainians are the most important victims of the battle, she stated, “however we’re additionally paying its price.”

The Lithuanian authorities and residents have noticed the inflow of outstanding Russians with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. Some have referred to them as White Russians, a sarcastic reference to the failed motion led by Russia’s conventional elites towards the Soviet authorities a century in the past.

But they’ve been joined by bigger waves of migrants from Belarus, after the 2020 rebellion there, and from Ukraine, after the Russian invasion. Many of them use Russian as their major language, creating a fancy cultural puzzle amongst Vilnius’s totally different ethnic communities, that are tied collectively by a typical historical past however divided by mutual historic grievances.

Some Russian exiles, resembling Monetochka, the pop artist, and Ms. Shevchenko, the political activist, stated they’re studying Lithuanian and making an attempt to combine into their adopted nation.

But the Russian exiles’ concentrate on sustaining the political battle inside Russia has left the vast majority of them with little time, or incentive, to deepen ties with their host nation.

The Russian-speaking migration into the town has triggered particularly heated native debates about training. Vilnius’s 14 Soviet-era Russian-language colleges now educate about 11,500 pupils — a 20 % enhance during the last three years — a regarding pattern, officers say, in a nation that has lengthy centered its nationwide identification on Lithuanian language.

Vilnius’s deputy mayor, Arunas Sileris, stated he fears that this pattern, born out of the migrants’ comprehensible need for continuity, will create a brand new technology of Lithuanian residents who communicate solely Russian, segregating them from the broader society and making them extra vulnerable to the revisionist rhetoric of Mr. Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus.

“They usually are not perceiving Lithuania as their homeland,” stated Mr. Sileris. “And that’s a risk.”



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