KIEV—A dozen activists marched in wind as cold as the edge of a knife, demonstrating in support of Evgeniy Nishuk, the minister of culture known as “the voice of Maidan” who President Petro Poroshenko was planning to dismiss. The weather made it tough going. But among the demonstrators, keeping their spirits up on Friday was Olga Kurnosova, one of Russia’s greatest veterans of street protest. Over the last 15 years, the 53-year-old firebrand has grown famous for getting arrested by police during just about each and every un-sanctioned anti-Putin protest in Moscow.
Here in Kiev, where she finally escaped to exile, Kurnosova is now working to bring together the best minds of the Russian exile communities throughout the former Soviet empire. By the time Vladimir Putin’s rule comes to an end, an exiled government will be ready to help reform Russia.
Kurnosova badly wants the change to take place democratically. But she’s also a realist, and knows how difficult that will be. “I would say there is about a 5 percent chance for a blood-free change of regime in Russia,” she told The Daily Beast. “I will keep trying even when there is a 1 percent chance left.”
Kurnosova says many Russian political exiles feel they are more useful being free and acting abroad, coordinating their actions and strategy, “so that by the next Russian presidential election in 2018 or, if something unexpected happens, sooner, the opposition has civil support, a strategy, and, most importantly, has people ready to present an alternative to Putin’s system.”
Russian exiles in Kiev are building bridges to Russian exiles in the Baltic countries, Moldova, Georgia, as well as in Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, says Kurnosova. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch and prisoner now based in Switzerland, could lead the Russian movement of political exiles, she said.
“We are still trying to figure out what Khodorkovsky’s agenda and future plans are,” Kurnosova tells me. “I would join his team, but his words that, should he become a leader of Russia, he will not give Crimea back to Ukraine, made me concerned.”
Today Ukraine is home to more than 100 exiles from Russia who have sought formal political asylum, according to official data from its migration service. Some of them, including Kurnosova, escaped the country as they faced a possible jail term for their opposition activity. Some were already investigated, had become fugitives, and left the country illegally.
By last fall, the Memorial human-rights center was reporting 46 high-profile political prisoners in Russia, and many of them were Kurnosova’s friends. When somebody broke into her rented Moscow apartment in September, she decided it was time for her to get out of there. She moved to a friend’s place, leaving most of her belongings at home. Then, on her last night in Russia, several policemen called at the door of her friend’s apartment; that made it clear to Kurnosova that police were looking specifically for her.
She took two plastic bags with a pair of shoes and a few pieces of clothing and went to the bus station. On the phone, she told friends she was going by train to St. Petersburg. Instead, she took a mini-bus to Belarus. “On Oct. 7, I bought my ticket to Kiev 45 minutes before my flight.” She figured that would make it harder for Putin’s people to track her and stop her. “But I could breathe freely only when the plane took off,” she told me.
Before the Maidan revolution, Russian political refugees living in Kiev were worried about their safety. In October 2012, Russian security forces allegedly kidnapped an anti-Putin activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, in the center of the Ukrainian capital. Earlier this year, a Russian court sentenced Razvozzhayev to four and a half years in a penal camp for organizing a May 2012 protest that ended in fighting between police and demonstrators. Post-revolutionary Ukrainian authorities have taken Russian exiles under their wing, and Kurnosova believes that Kiev is now a safe place.
Kurnosova says she understands perfectly well that she “made the Kremlin sick” by organizing street protests and marches in support of Ukraine. In August, she led a March of Memory and Grief for the victims on the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17; she was also one of the founders of the Solidarity with Maidan group, and a Russian anti-war movement in Moscow. On Sept. 21, thousands of Moscovites walked through the center of the city with Ukrainian flags; Kurnosova, with a loudspeaker in her hands, was singing the Ukrainian national anthem.
A democrat “to her bones,” Kurnosova is a physician and mathematician who worked as an elected member of the St. Petersburg local parliament from 1990 to 1993. At that time, Putin, freshly retired from the KGB, held a position as head of external relations for St. Petersburg’s mayor.
Kurnosova would run into the man who is now Russia’s president in the corridors of Marriinskiy Palace, St. Petersburg’s city hall. “He was an absolutely gray and insignificant personality,” says Kurnosova. “Nobody ever was interested in him. We had much brighter characters around.” But then, says Kurnosova, “We lost our power because we failed to build up the system and protect it from those who wanted to take it from us. We thought it was enough to be honest and not to steal, but that is not enough.”
Today, the challenges faced by the exiles are not only in Moscow. Chechen war refugees also are active in Kiev, and on Thursday, several came out at Maidan Square to mark the 20th anniversary of the first day of the First Chechen War, a battle for independence that many Chechen activists still cherish.
Kurnosova does not welcome such separatist movements in Russia. That kind of threat is only likely to make people rally around Putin, and now would not be a good time for that to happen. Kurnosova, who has strong contacts in business circles and among midlevel bureaucrats, claims that many of them have realized today that Putin’s path to power has been a dead end for Russia.