On a bright Sunday afternoon last November, Anastasia Popova was picketing outside the Russian Embassy in Washington with a dozen other activists.
“Russia will be free! Russia will be free!” they chanted at the hulking white building on the other side of the street.
The forlorn group of protesters held up signs calling for the release of a jailed Russian activist, Ildar Dadin, and displayed photographs of other people they called political prisoners in their home country.
Under somewhat different circumstances, Popova, 29, might have been sitting inside the embassy looking out. She aspired to become a diplomat, but after getting involved in opposition politics in Russia, she had to make a choice.
“They told me: ‘You can’t work for the government in the daytime and prepare protests against that government in the evening,'” Popova said.
She chose politics – and joined the staff of Ilya Ponomaryov, one of the lone opposition voices in the Russian parliament.
A time of uncertainty
Five years ago, Russia was in upheaval. Vladimir Putin’s decision to run for an unprecedented third term as Russia’s president was fueling street protests in Moscow and other cities. Politicians like Ponomaryov saw a potential opening to begin liberalizing Russia’s tightly controlled political system.
Hopes for a thaw were soon dashed. Putin, who had been president from 2000 to 2008, and prime minister from 2008 to 2012, won the presidential election in March 2012.
Many protest leaders found themselves facing lawsuits and jail time. In 2014, Ponomaryov was the only member of parliament to vote against annexing Crimea, which Russia had just seized from Ukraine. Russian authorities then started building a criminal case against him.
“That was the end of October 2014. And that was my personal Halloween, you know, when I found myself in the U.S. with just a suitcase, and I had no idea where to go next,” she said.
A long tradition
Popova follows in a long history of Russian political exiles dating back to the 1800s.
In the past century, there have been spurts of immigration from Russia to the U.S.: Jews escaping persecution, Russian aristocrats fleeing revolutionaries, and dissidents getting the boot from the communist regime.
Russian applications for political asylum in the U.S. have increased for the fourth straight year, according to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Radio Free Europe. In the last fiscal year, 1,912 Russians applied for asylum, the highest level in more than two decades.
Exiles granted asylum may be safe from persecution abroad. But they’re also cut off from their homeland.
“Once they’re out, it’s actually quite difficult for them to have an influence back again,” said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “They run the risk of harming contacts, even family members, if they engage in overt political activity that in some way is involving organization of protest movements still in Russia itself.”
Hill said that the Internet affords little help to effect change at home.
“I think social media does add a different ingredient, but what it creates is a sort of a parallel alternative community,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily translate to action on the ground.”
Remaining in Russia
Someone who’s still trying to take action inside Russia is Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader refusing to leave. In late October he visited the U.S. to build bridges to members of Russia’s far-flung diaspora.
“Sure, I agree, the risks are high. And from a certain point of view it probably is crazy to oppose Putin inside Russia. But somebody has to do it,” Yashin said in an interview in an Alexandria, Va., coffee shop.
“The Putin regime is happy to get rid of its opponents and does everything it can so that we leave,” Yashin said. “That’s the reason I see my mission to do everything so that Putin’s critics stay in Russia. That’s why I haven’t left.”
Yashin said many political activists left Russia after his friend, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated outside the Kremlin in February 2015.
As for Popova, she said exile was her only option.
“I believe that being in the U.S. and telling the U.S. government the truth about the political situation in Russia is more useful than just being tortured in jail,” she said.
When it comes to dealing with Russia in the future, Popova had a message for President-elect Donald Trump: Negotiate hard, don’t make any concessions as a sign of good will, and keep expectations low.