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In Russia, a simple choice changes lives

Prosecution of Putin opponents sends some on run

MOSCOW — In the end, Suren Gazaryan had little time to make a life-changing decision: Stay home and end up in jail or flee the country.

‘‘The choice is very simple, between freedom and prison,’’ said Gazaryan, an environmentalist from southern Russia. ‘‘For me it was clear.’’ He escaped to Estonia in December, leaving behind his wife, two daughters, and a science career.

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The prosecution of more and more opponents of President Vladimir Putin means that a widening circle of Russians may confront similar decisions. The main leaders in Moscow have vowed to stay and fight despite the court cases stacking up against them, but less visible figures are agonizing over whether there is anything to gain behind bars.

‘‘It’s a very personal matter,’’ Gazaryan said during a conversation on Skype. ‘‘I decided freedom was better than prison, especially Russian prison. You are a hostage in prison, and your family will suffer a lot.’’

The authorities have been bearing down hard on the opposition since a May 6 demonstration, on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, when police clashed with protesters.

Investigators accused 18 protesters of mass rioting and assaulting police and have recently said 12 of those cases are ready for court. One man among the original 18 cooperated with police, saying he had grappled with an officer and regretted it. In November he got 4½ years in prison, an unmistakable signal that protest would be treated harshly.

In August, after three members of a feminist punk rock group were sentenced to two years in prison for performing an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s main cathedral, two other, unidentified members of the group reportedly left the country and went into hiding.

‘You are a hostage in prison, and your family will suffer a lot.’

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By some estimates, hundreds of activists have done the same, and the magazine New Times recently published a five-page guide for would-be asylum-seekers, offering information on the most receptive countries and advice on how to get there.

The numbers remain unclear, but Marina Popova, coordinator of the Sixth of May Committee, organized to protect protesters who are under threat, said she knows of about 10 who have made their departures public.

The political emigrants, as they call themselves, are finding refuge in Spain, Germany, and Ukraine — the latter a not entirely safe destination but one that does not require a visa. Last fall, activist Leonid Razvozzhayev said Russia agents kidnapped him from Kiev and spirited him into Russia, where he faces charges of organizing mass disturbances.

Estonia also has been a favorite destination. Maxim Efimov, a human rights activist from the northern region of Karelia, won political asylum there in October. A year ago, as the protest movement was awakening, he posted an article critical of the Orthodox Church, which he said operated like a branch of the ruling United Russia party.

His apartment was raided, he said, his computer and documents confiscated. Investigated for extremism, he was warned that he could face two years in jail for offending religious beliefs. He fled.

Two high-profile activists have repeatedly declared their intention to stay despite enormous risks. Three cases have been brought against Alexei Navalny, an anticorruption blogger.

Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front, a group from the socialist end of the political spectrum, has been charged with plotting mass disorder, on the basis of a documentary made by a television company sympathetic to the Kremlin.

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