Olesya Krivtsova thinks it’s because she was neither the first, nor the last, to criticize the war in Ukraine that she scared Russian authorities as much as she did.
Her social media posts were neither particularly strident nor unusual, she told CNN, reflecting those of so many other university students across the country. And that, she believes, is where her troubles started: when her fellow students denounced her to authorities in need of an example.
Now in Lithuania and on Moscow’s list of most wanted criminals, the softly spoken, slight 20-year-old from Russia’s northwestern Arkhangelsk region makes for an unlikely villain. But from the start, Russian authorities seemed to have singled her out for harsh punishment with particular zeal.
According to OVD-Info, a Russian human rights media group, most of the 447 Russians prosecuted for anti-war activity since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year have been charged with “disseminating false information.” But Krivtsova was placed under house arrest in January, and banned from using the internet on the far more serious charges of discrediting the Russian army and justifying terrorism. OVD-Info reports 49 people have been charged for discrediting the army and 30 for justifying terrorism.
Those charges relate to an Instagram story she posted about the Crimean bridge blast last October, which also criticized Russia for invading Ukraine, and for making an allegedly critical repost of the war in a student chat on the Russian social network VK.
Her voice should have remained a little one, she said, but for the repression she faced.
“I think they really regretted it. No one expected that the case would grow so much that the resonance would be so huge,” Krivtsova said of the Russian authorities. CNN reported in January on the charges she faced, and other international media outlets have also since covered her story.
Russia has significantly cracked down on free speech and opposition as its war in Ukraine has faltered. Days after Putin launched the full-scale invasion, his government adopted a law criminalizing the dissemination of what it called “deliberately false” information about the Russian armed forces, with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. Putin recently signed new laws that extended those rules to include volunteers and mercenaries participating in the war in Ukraine too.
Now, at least, Krivtsova is free to speak as loudly as she wants.
“The question is, am I happy to be here?” she asks from her cramped, dusty, Soviet-era apartment on the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital. “I don’t know, there are two sides to a coin. To some degree I feel I am lucky to be in Vilnius and no longer living where they wanted to put me in jail for the words I spoke.”
The turning point came in February, she said, when she celebrated her 20th birthday with her mother, husband, and little sister. She had been arrested for a second time, while she walked to meet her husband for coffee. This time the charges were both trumped up and impossible to escape, she said. Having been falsely accused of having tried to book bus tickets out of Russia, Krivtsova said, she knew she now faced a long stint, possibly years, in a penal colony and had little choice but to flee.
“It was the FSB who forged the court evidence,” Krivtsova alleged, referring to Russia’s security service.
“My lawyer, my mom and I were poring over documents after what happened, gathering evidence to show it wasn’t me who did it, but nobody cared,” she said. “I realized they would all cover each other’s backs because Russia is a police state, and I think this is what made me leave, because I was facing my main trial, but my evidence was not being considered there, either.”
She took off in the middle of the night, she said, traveling for days by car to a border she had never imagined she might cross. But Krivtsova acknowledged that things are hard despite her newfound freedom.
“I lost a lot and went through a lot,” she said, perched on one of the three rickety chairs that constitute the threadbare apartment furnishings. “Not least, my mother’s tears at the idea of my situation. I lost [left behind] my husband, grandfather, and grandmother. This is a huge price for anyone.”
On a more practical note, Krivtsova explained with her characteristic earnest but quiet seriousness, that she is in desperate need of a vacuum cleaner. And that’s just the start of it.
Having left with only a backpack, she now needs clothes, a phone and enrollment in a new university. She had to leave her old phone behind for fear of being traced.
Before crossing the border, Krivtsova also ditched the electronic bracelet she had to wear around her ankle after she was placed under house arrest. Luckily for her, “its GPS, like so much other Russian hardware, didn’t function properly,” she said, with a mischievous smile.
But as she crossed the border out of Russia, Krivtsova said she gained a lot too. Her demeanour lightened at the thought of her new, hard-won freedom of speech.
“Of course, I’m already using my voice,” she said, sitting up slightly taller.
“I have already created another Instagram channel, in which I continue to publish posts. I think it’s now my daily job to discredit the Russian army because the Russian army is committing crimes on the territory of Ukraine.”
And she has no doubt that, back in Moscow, they’ll be listening. After all, that’s why she’s here, she said, “and that’s why the authorities are afraid, because words are the most terrible weapon now.”