In recent years, many Russian opposition activists have found refuge in Lithuania. Most of them represent the liberal political flank, but a few do not fit into this category. Mikhail Pulin, a former member of the banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP), is one of them.
Mikhail comes from a remote village in the Kostroma region. He managed to enter Lithuania during the coronavirus pandemic, despite the closed border.
Mikhail became interested in politics in 2004, at the age of 15, he told the LRT PLIUS show Russian Street. From an early age, Mikhail has observed poverty and political disorder in his native country that made him acutely aware of injustice.
“The Kostroma region is one of the poorest parts of the Russian Federation,” he said. “I saw how people lived there, how everything was falling apart, what poverty looked like in the country. I saw the lawlessness of the security forces that pressured businesses and beat people.”
“Naturally, I did not like such an order in the country. This prompted me to engage in political activism.”
A teenage boy with a strong sense of justice searched for a group of like-minded people unafraid to stand up to government officials. Eventually, he joined the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) founded by the writer Eduard Limonov. The membership mostly consisted of youths with often radical views.
According to Mikhail, a subcultural component played an important role in luring youth to join the NBP. At the time, Russian teenagers were listening to Yegor Letov and other musicians who were related to NBP. They all represented a culture that the government of President Vladimir Putin tried to suppress.
“But politics for me was not just an informal counterculture. I hoped for a real change in the country,” Mikhail added.
At first, Mikhail’s activities in the ranks of the party were limited to drawing graffiti on building walls and handing out leaflets. But the NBP was notorious in Russia for its bold direct action that sent many participants to prison.
In 2006, Mikhail moved to Moscow to study at a university. In the capital, he participated in his first direct action where NBP members seized the Russian Railway building.
“A strike began at Moscow Railway because workers had not been paid for a long time. They formed an independent trade union. The security forces and railway management began pressuring and threatening the union members. So we decided to seize the main building of Moscow Railway,” Mikhail explained.
NBP members successfully occupied one of the offices in the building and hung banners in support of the railway workers. But the riot police quickly moved to suppress the demonstration.
“After the action, we all spent 15 days in prison,” Mikhail said.
At that time, he managed to avoid a criminal record. But in 2009, he was sentenced to three years and four months in prison “all because of a banal provocation”, according to Mikhail.
In 2008, opposition marches periodically errupted all around Russia. During one of these marches, Mikhail said, “hooligans” attacked NBP and other activists.
“We fought them, and this was a reason for the criminal case,” the man explained.
The prison did not break Mikhail’s spirit. But while serving time, he started seeing a difference between Limonov’s ideologies and his own beliefs.
“Probably from the year 2009 onwards, I no longer liked that the party was turning into a caricature of itself, similar to the Communist Party, with Limonov and his opinions at the core of everything,” Mikhail said.
“But the culminating point was the events in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean and the war began in Donbass. I have always been against wars with Eastern European countries and fraternal peoples. […] I considered this a betrayal of the ideas for which I came to fight a long time ago,” he added.
The party has been operating under the name the Other Russia since the NBP was banned in 2010. Members of the Other Russia formed armed troops brigades and participated in pro-Russian unrest in Donbass. The organisation expelled Mikhail and several other people who did not agree with the party’s line on Ukraine.
Along with his political activism, Mikhail also engaged in a small construction business. In May 2020, a criminal case was opened against the firm with him as a witness. There is only one step from a witness to a suspect in Russia, Mikhail said, so he decided to leave the country.
As the Russian-Lithuanian border closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mikhail had to find ways to get to the country. He travelled across the forests in Belarus and reached the Lithuanian border at night using a compass and a map.
“Of course, it was scary,” the man said. “The border guards stood 200 metres from me. I knew that if they arrested me, I would end up in a Belarusian prison for illegally crossing the border and they would extradite me to Russia.”
But the guards did not capture Mikhail. He asked for asylum in Lithuania and is now awaiting a decision from the Migration Department. Meanwhile, he lives in a refugee centre in Pabradė, eastern Lithuania.
Mikhail is now studying Lithuanian. If he is granted the refugee status, he plans to bring his spouse and their small child to Lithuania. However, he is aware that his past in the NBP could be an obstacle in the case.
“I am not Limonov. If a person is a member of an organisation, this does not mean that he fully supports everything that the leader says. I think competent people will look at what actions I participated in, what I did, what I wrote online […] and will make their decision,” he said.
“Still, I am a guest in the country, and no one here owes me anything. It is nice that at least for now, they have sheltered me,” Mikhail added.
Read more: Russian ‘nationalist’ activist fails to secure asylum in Lithuania