Secretive Network Rescues Russia’s Antiwar Dissidents in Nick of Time

In Smolensk, early in the war, one of the two Zavyalov brothers, Vladimir, the owner of a small transportation company, discovered a Telegram channel that distributed miniature antiwar slogans that resembled price displays on grocery store shelves. The normal space for a description such as bananas or washing powder instead said things like, “The Russian army bombed a school in Mariupol.”

A young woman sent pictures of them to her grandmother, who alerted law enforcement. Officers reviewed the store’s surveillance tapes and arrested Vladimir.

His wife and brother, Oleg, were hauled in by law enforcement officers separately for questioning. Suddenly realizing that the infant he could hear crying in a nearby room was his nephew, Oleg said he felt stuck somewhere between an old Soviet spy film and the Gestapo.

In Transit’s founders say they have yet to lose any escapees, though they say some other groups have — mostly people who ignored orders to leave their cellphones behind or even posted on social media from the road.

Those who escaped described mixed emotions at crossing the border: relief mingling with the realization they would not be returning or seeing their families for the foreseeable future. As they rebuild their lives, they all grapple with anxiety, especially the fear they will somehow be hauled back.

The actor, Oleksandr, said that when he finally reached a hotel room outside Russia and closed the door, he lay in the dark for an hour, weeping. For the next month, scenes from the military enlistment office haunted his dreams.

But hearing of friends killed in the war, he has no regrets. “They were decent people before,” he said, “and now every day there are more and more people I know, people who could not escape, and just like that they waved goodbye to their lives.”

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