Putin critic who left Russia flees Kyiv as ‚double refugee‘

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To Olena, it feels like Vladimir Putin has been chasing her for years.

Fed up with Putin’s government, the Russian citizen left her native country six years ago and moved to Ukraine, where she helped raise funds for women and children whose homes had been destroyed in years of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region.

Then, this week, she was on the move again — fleeing her adopted home of Kyiv ahead of Putin’s invaders.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety reason) looks at herself in a mirror after arriving in Budapest, Hungary on Friday, March. 4, 2022.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety reason) looks at herself in a mirror after arriving in Budapest, Hungary on Friday, March. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety reason) looks at the Hungarian Parliament building and the River Danube in downtown Budapest on Friday, March 4, 2022.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety reason) looks at the Hungarian Parliament building and the River Danube in downtown Budapest on Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

„It looks like I’m a double refugee now because first I fled from Russia because I was against Putin,“ said Olena, who spoke on condition that she be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisals against her or her family. „I fled from Russia, and then Russia came to Ukraine.“

Olena and five colleagues left Kyiv after three nights in a bomb shelter, the thuds of explosions reverberating. They arrived in Hungary on Thursday after a harrowing, three-day flight.

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Seated on a train in the Hungarian border town of Zahony before departing for the capital of Budapest, Olena said she had participated in anti-Putin protests in Russia, but came to realize that „Putin will just rule for as long as he lives. So I chose to vote with my legs and leave.“

She moved to Ukraine, she said, because she was inspired by the Maidan revolution of 2014, when sustained protests forced the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych.

„As long as Putin is in power, I will never go back,“ she said.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety reason) stands near the River Danube in downtown Budapest on Friday, March 4, 2022. Olena who years ago left her home country in opposition to Vladimir Putin's government has been forced to flee again — this time from her adopted home of Kyiv — as Putin's armed forces assault Ukraine. 

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety reason) stands near the River Danube in downtown Budapest on Friday, March 4, 2022. Olena who years ago left her home country in opposition to Vladimir Putin’s government has been forced to flee again — this time from her adopted home of Kyiv — as Putin’s armed forces assault Ukraine.  (AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety resson) sits on a train while traveling from the Hungarian - Ukrainian border towards Budapest on Thursday, March. 3, 2022.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety resson) sits on a train while traveling from the Hungarian – Ukrainian border towards Budapest on Thursday, March. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

But now, Ukraine was no longer an option, either — for her or for the hundreds of other refugees who boarded the train for the five-hour journey from the border to Budapest. Dozens of volunteers greeted them, offering food, transportation and accommodation.

Olena was grateful to be in friendly territory, but the future looked uncertain. „I have no home, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I just have to hope,“ she said.

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She lost access to her money after Ukraine blocked the bank accounts of Russian citizens, fearing they would be used to finance Russia’s assault on the country.

„I understand their reasons, because they are afraid that Russians will use this money to fight. But I’m just a civilian. I just lost all my income, I lost all my source of money, and I lost my bank account, just because of this Russian passport,“ she said.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety reson) shows her Russian passport after arriving at the outskirt of Budapest, Hungary on Friday, March. 4, 2022.

Olena, a Russian citizen fleeing from Kyiv, Ukraine (no family name given for safety reson) shows her Russian passport after arriving at the outskirt of Budapest, Hungary on Friday, March. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Balazs Kaufmann)

That passport, she said, caused her problems on the journey from Kyiv. Some Ukrainians expressed hostility, associating her with the enemy.

But she stressed that many Russians, at home and abroad, oppose the war, and she hopes „people would separate the government from common people that don’t want to fight.“

„Ukrainians are like a brother people,“ she said. „We can’t fight amongst each other. Putin is the real enemy. When Putin came to power, I didn’t like him but I didn’t realize the whole scale of his insanity.“

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On Thursday, Olena and her colleagues were given a place to stay in a leafy suburb of Budapest. It is a welcome respite.

„We don’t hear explosions anymore. We don’t hear sirens every two hours, when we have to pack our things and rush to the bomb shelter,“ she said. „When we crossed the border it was such a relief that we are alive and we are safe.“

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März 5, 2022

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