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Russian journalist who fled to Finland: "Poor and disadvantaged" will be sent to front lines

Journalist Sergey Shelin had been working at the Rosbalt news agency, which was declared a "foreign agent" by the Kremlin last year.

A journalist who fled to Finland in March assesses the situation of those now leaving Russia. Image: Jari Kärkkäinen / Yle

Russian journalist Sergey Shelin fled to Finland in March this year, shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He had been working at the Rosbalt news agency.

Rosbalt was declared a "foreign agent" by Moscow last year, according to Reuters. (siirryt toiseen palveluun)

Shelin and other Rosbalt journalists now find themselves on a list of people the Kremlin deems have worked for a foreign agent, meaning he could face imprisonment if he returns to his home country.

"In Russia, no one knows in advance whether they will be punished or not," he told Yle.

He now works as a journalist under a pseudonym from Finland.

"Majority obey the order to enlist"

Since Russian authorities ordered a partial mobilisation of reservists last week, an estimated 260,000 people have fled Russia.

"Even before Putin's speech, Russian official channels reported that 200,000 to 400,000 had left," Shelin clarified.

Many have gone to Israel, Spain, Portugal or Germany. Those who have come to Finland are mainly people who own a home here, he added.

Wealthy families have been taking their sons out of Russia since the early days of the war.

Shelin noted that those fleeing are only a small proportion.

"The majority obey the order to enlist. Russians are typical subjects of a totalitarian regime, whose opinions do not matter," he pointed out.

However, there are other ways to escape deployment, such as by paying bribes or arguing that one's civilian job cannot be abandoned.

"So the poor and the disadvantaged, who have no connections, will be taken to the front," Shelin told Yle.

Putin supporters "now leaving Russia too"

Shelin has been hosting two friends from St. Petersburg, and all three told Yle that they understand Finland's policies at the border with Russia.

"I respect the Finns' desire to close the border, because I know the history well. I understand that Finland is facing a great danger from our country," said art historian Valentina Belyayeva.

They added that they also understood the fear of newcomers.

"Most are good people, but not all, of course. There are Putin's men and women among them, but they are a clear minority," said Shelin.

The three Russians around Shelin's kitchen table agreed on the current situation of their country. Image: Jari Kärkkäinen / Yle

In reference to Putin supporters now leaving Russia, Shelin means those who have been loyal to the regime but are not prepared to sacrifice their lives.

Shelin added that if the Russian security services want to send their people, they can find a way to get into any country.

"They don't need tourist visas," he explained.

Uprising starts with losses, not mobilisation

Nevertheless, they said they also hope that the border will not be closed to those who need protection.

"I think it would be right to grant a humanitarian visa to Europe to those who are in danger in Russia," Shelin said.

Many in the West wish that people would not leave Russia, but stay to protest. This could set in motion a process to get Putin out of power.

"It's not yet time for that," Shelin emphasised, adding that, in his opinion, there is widespread discontent in the country but not yet widespread resistance. People are thinking about their own survival.

"People's behaviour might change if Russia suffers drastic losses in Ukraine and there are a significant number of casualties," Shelin said.

He compared the situation to Mussolini's fascist Italy.

"Italy was sanctioned in the 1930s, but most of the people supported their leader. Mussolini was only ousted after Italy had lost war after war," Shelin pointed out.

He also thinks Putin's fate will be decided in the same way.

"Losses and fallen Russians, as terrible as that is," Shelin concluded.

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