‘The Russian Language Is Everywhere Again’: Exiles Cause Unease in Lithuania

A pile of flowers blanketed a small memorial in the center of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius after the death of the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny last month. “Putin Is a Murderer,” read a placard in Russian.

The impromptu tribute at the memorial, an unassuming pyramid commemorating victims of Soviet repression, has highlighted Vilnius’s growing status as the center of Russian political opposition. Hundreds of dissidents who fled Russia after the invasion of Ukraine found a sympathetic ally in their struggle against President Vladimir V. Putin: the Lithuanian government, which has long viewed the Russian leader’s foreign interventions as an existential threat.

In Vilnius, exiled Russian journalists have set up studios to broadcast news to millions of compatriots back home on YouTube. Russian activists have rented offices to catalog the Kremlin’s human rights abuses, and exiled Russian musicians have recorded new albums for the audience back home.

The arrival of the Russian dissidents in Vilnius has added to a larger wave of Russian-speaking refugees and migrants from Belarus and Ukraine over the past four years. Fleeing war or repression, together these migrants have reshaped the economy and cultural makeup of this slow-paced medieval city of 600,000, bolstering Lithuania’s image as an unlikely bastion of democracy.

But the tribute to Mr. Navalny has also pointed to an uneasy relationship between Vilnius’s expanding Russian-speaking diaspora and their Lithuanian hosts. Some in Lithuania are worried that the economic and diplomatic benefits of this migration have come at the cost of creeping Russification in a small nation that had struggled to preserve its language and culture during the Soviet occupation.

The memorial where Mr. Navalny’s mourners laid the flowers, for example, was dedicated to Lithuanian victims of the Soviet secret police, a stand in of sorts for the opposition leader’s death at the order, they believe, of Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer.

To some Vilnius residents, however, this gesture usurped the memory of their compatriots’ suffering under the Soviet Union. Around 200,000 Lithuanians were deported to the gulags during that period, or executed for taking up arms against the occupiers.

“The Russian language is everywhere again,” said Darius Kuolys, a linguist at the University of Vilnius and a former Lithuanian culture minister. “To some Lithuanians, this has come as a cultural shock.”

Mr. Kuolys said the war in Ukraine has forced Lithuanian society to seek a balance between upholding its tradition of tolerance and preserving its culture. As a model, Mr. Kuolys referred to Lithuania’s earlier incarnation as a sovereign state under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a multicultural 15th century European power whose legacy is revered by most Lithuanians today.

That history and the relatively small size of its local Russian minority had traditionally softened its approach to its threatening neighbor. By contrast, the large ethnic Russian communities in its Baltic peers of Latvia and Estonia fed a nationalist backlash after they gained independence, leading them to enact hard-line immigration and diplomatic policies on Russia and its citizens.

Like the two other Baltic States, the Lithuanian government closed its borders to most Russians after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. But it has continued to issue humanitarian visas to Russians with democratic credentials. This selective policy has created in Vilnius a community of highly educated, politically engaged and often well-off Russian citizens who have had an outsized impact on the city.

An independent news outlet, 7×7, for example, has set up a recording studio in Vilnius to broadcast the news collected by their network of collaborators across the little-covered Russian provinces to compatriots on YouTube. Memorial, a human rights organization outlawed in Russia, has rented offices to update its list of Russian political prisoners.

Members of a Russian electoral rights group, Golos, meaning “voice,” have worked in Vilnius to apply artificial intelligence to video footage of Russian polling stations to try to document vote tampering in the country’s tightly controlled elections.

And an exiled Russian pop star, Liza Gyrdymova, known as Monetochka, has used Vilnius as a base to raise a family and record music in between tours catering to Russia’s global diaspora.

In the process, these exiles say they have created a miniature version of a democratic Russia around the baroque and gothic buildings of Vilnius’s old town.

“This is what Russia without Putin could look like,” said Anastasia Shevchenko, an opposition activist from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, who came to Vilnius after two years of house arrest.

Towering above the Russian exile community is the organization put together by Mr. Navalny, which relocated to Vilnius in 2021 after the Kremlin declared it an extremist organization.

Despite their prominent status, Mr. Navalny’s team have stood apart from the broader Russian political diaspora in the city, out of a combination of security concerns and the organization’s staunch belief in self-sufficiency.

These security concerns have been sharpened by the Kremlin’s growing determination to punish opponents in exile, after largely stamping out dissent at home.

In March, one of Mr. Navalny’s chief aides, Leonid Volkov, was hospitalized after being beaten by unidentified men with a hammer outside his home in a Vilnius suburb. A Russian ultranationalist group has claimed responsibility.

The Navalny team aside, most of the Russian exiles in Vilnius have banded together, helping them deal with the pain of exile and to exchange ideas.

“When you walk in the city you realize that you’re not alone, and this is very important,” said Aleksandr Plyushchev, who runs “Breakfast Show,” one of the most watched independent Russian news programs from exile in Vilnius.

A Russian environmental activist, Konstantin Fomin, has started a community space for the exiles called ReForum, which hosts cultural events and offers free therapy sessions.

Vilnius’s small size and concentration of prominent Russian exiles in the well-heeled central districts have led to situations that sometimes resemble scenes from Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

Frank, a Russian-born white terrier, for example, has become part of the exiled community’s folklore thanks to the long walks along Vilnius’s cobbled streets that he takes with his owner, Vladimir Milov, a former Russian deputy energy minister turned opposition figure.

And in a darkened Vilnius bar, a former Russian opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomarev, who is based in Kyiv, recently recounted how exiled opposition figures opposed to his views sometimes crossed the street to avoid acknowledging him, an awkward move given the narrowness of some of those streets.

Not all Russian activists have easily adapted to the exiled life. Many were forced to flee Russia at short notice, leaving behind possessions and a sense of purpose provided by their work. Most of the interviewed exiles say their biggest concerns are the relatives who remain behind, whom they fear could be targeted by the government in retaliation for their activities.

This anxiety has only risen following the death of Mr. Navalny, who for many exiled Russians represented the biggest — perhaps the only — hope for political change.

“I’m suffering, I’m in pain, I don’t know what to say when my daughter asks me, ‘Mom, what are we going to do now,’” said Violetta Grudina, a former provincial organizer for Mr. Navalny who came to Vilnius after the war started. Ukrainians are the biggest victims of the war, she said, “but we are also paying its cost.”

The Lithuanian authorities and citizens have observed the influx of prominent Russians with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. Some have referred to them as White Russians, a sarcastic reference to the failed movement led by Russia’s traditional elites against the Soviet government a century ago.

But they have been joined by larger waves of migrants from Belarus, after the 2020 uprising there, and from Ukraine, after the Russian invasion. Many of them use Russian as their main language, creating a complex cultural puzzle among Vilnius’s different ethnic communities, which are tied together by a common history but divided by mutual historical grievances.

Some Russian exiles, such as Monetochka, the pop artist, and Ms. Shevchenko, the political activist, said they are learning Lithuanian and trying to integrate into their adopted country.

But the Russian exiles’ focus on sustaining the political struggle inside Russia has left the majority of them with little time, or incentive, to deepen ties with their host country.

The Russian-speaking migration into the city has triggered especially heated local debates about education. Vilnius’s 14 Soviet-era Russian-language schools now educate about 11,500 pupils — a 20 percent increase over the last three years — a concerning trend, officials say, in a nation that has long centered its national identity on Lithuanian language.

Vilnius’s deputy mayor, Arunas Sileris, said he fears that this trend, born out of the migrants’ understandable desire for continuity, will create a new generation of Lithuanian residents who speak only Russian, segregating them from the broader society and making them more susceptible to the revisionist rhetoric of Mr. Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus.

“They are not perceiving Lithuania as their homeland,” said Mr. Sileris. “And that’s a threat.”

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