In a shabby apartment block near the center of Latvia’s capital, Riga, a group of Russians is carefully watching political events unfolding at home.
This is the newsroom of Meduza, an independent Russian-language website staffed entirely by Russian nationals. Having been pushed out of Russia’s media space, Meduza operates out of neighboring Latvia, whose sleepy capital has embraced them.
Barred, they say, from being able to publish independently of the Kremlin, the journalists at Meduza are now covering Russia’s presidential election on Sunday from afar.
“The population here speak Russian and they have very simple, strict and transparent rules of business. We have no problem at all with the authorities,” said Galina Timchenko, Meduza’s executive editor.
It is, Timchenko said, a stark contrast to her country, where she said she was fired from her job as the editor of the Lenta.ru news website. She believes her dismissal was on the orders of the Kremlin.
“After the annexation of Crimea there was the total cleaning of the media space in Russia,” she said. “The Kremlin smashed news agencies and influential editors-in-chief were replaced by pro-Kremlin editors.”
She said she was “fired in a second” after reporting on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
The majority of her staff resigned from Lenta.ru in protest and several followed her to Riga.
Nestled in a gulf of the Baltic Sea, Riga is a city with cobbled streets, church spires and a dark past.
For some 50 years – between 1940 and 1991 – Latvia was under the control of the Kremlin. Dissidents were imprisoned by the Soviets and tortured and murdered by the KGB.
In Riga’s center, the KGB’s former headquarters stands as a memorial to those who were persecuted. Nearby, Soviet buildings and statues puncture the skyline as a reminder of how this small nation was once ruled by its giant neighbor from Moscow.
But the Baltic state is today a different place. It has shaken off its past, joined the European Union and NATO, and become a haven for journalists and campaigners seeking escape from President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
But it is not only the journalists and politically active who have fled Russia for Riga.
Pavel Pereverzev owns the Babooshka Bakery in Riga’s old town, a little taste of Russia in the ex-Soviet nation. He moved to Latvia in 2011 with his wife and young daughter.
But he said he was not escaping persecution in Russia – merely looking for a better place to raise his family. “For me, it was never about politics. It was about economics,” he told CNN.
Pereverzev took advantage of a law in Latvia that saw foreigners granted residency – and the right to travel across Europe’s Schengen Area – if they invested more than $94,000 in property in the country.
Since 2010, thousands of Russians have benefited from the concept and made a home in Latvia, according to Latvia’s public broadcaster.
Latvia, with its large Russian speaking population, is close enough to their homeland to be comfortably familiar. It offers the freedoms and guarantees that they say Russia cannot yet provide.
When he arrived, Pereverzev started several small cafes and said he was surprised he did not have to bribe officials in order to get things done.
“The thing about life here is that it’s more predictable,” Pereverzev told CNN at his cafe. “The taxes (in Latvia) are higher, but at least you know what they are.”
He hasn’t decided whether to vote in Sunday’s election, but he said Putin has failed Russia on several fronts.
“I can’t say which one of his failures is the biggest, but definitely one thing is the lack of rule of law,” Pereverzev said.
After his re-election in 2012, in his state-of-the-nation speech, Putin promised to strengthen state controls, crack down on corruption and grow the middle class. In his annual address earlier this month, he spoke broadly about growing the economy and increasing Russia’s GDP per capita by half by the mid-2030s.
Pereverzev and Timchenko are part of a number of middle-class Russians who have decided to call time on their home country.
“The dynamics we see are negative,” Pereverzev said. “This is not getting better.”
Timchenko said she left reluctantly but felt she had no choice.
“For me, he is stealing my future,” she said of Putin.
“I remember the 1990s. I remember the smell of freedom. Then something changed,” she said.
“Now we have no future at all.”