What to do if you need to go to Russia: useful instructions so that everything goes smoothly
After February 24, 2022, a significant number of citizens left Russia. Many of them are faced with an active phase of mobilization and have already returned to their homeland, but some remain abroad and cannot completely refuse trips to Russia. The reasons for such visits can be different: paperwork, preparation for the sale or rental of real estate, obtaining medical services and, of course, meetings with loved ones who are unable to leave the country. However, returning to Russia in the context of a full-scale war against Ukraine and the constant tightening of repressive laws carries certain risks. Edition Meduza has prepared guidance to help you assess how significant these risks may be in your case, and advice on how to protect yourself. The same recommendations for traveling to Russia can also be applied when leaving it.
Section 1. Think: you definitely need to go to Russia
After the start of a full-scale war against Ukraine, the risks associated with returning (even temporarily) to Russia are constantly increasing. And these risks are not always associated with obvious factors, such as the threat of a new wave of mobilization.
The right to leave Russia may be limited, but this occurs only on the basis and in accordance with federal laws. Some of these restrictions are of a specific nature and apply, for example, to current and former FSB employees or to persons with access to state secrets (and only to information with the highest degree of secrecy or special importance). However, many of these restrictions also apply to ordinary citizens.
If you are in reserve, think twice before returning.
One of the key changes made this year as part of the military conscription reform is a ban on leaving the country for citizens who have been issued a summons by the military registration and enlistment office. This restriction can be lifted only after appearing at the military registration and enlistment office.
Previously, citizens could blithely ignore the mobilization summons and freely leave the country. They faced only administrative liability, but not criminal sanctions. Now, just sending a summons (even without delivering it) automatically disables the possibility of leaving Russia.
Try to assess whether you may face criminal charges or a travel ban due to debt
The court or law enforcement authorities have the right to prohibit you from leaving the country in four cases:
- if you are declared bankrupt (the ban will remain in effect until the bankruptcy procedure is completed);
- if you avoid fulfilling legal obligations;
- if you are convicted of a crime;
- if you become a suspect or accused of committing a crime.
The last option is the most dangerous because it is impossible to determine in advance whether you are accused of any crime. A criminal case is opened based on the fact of a crime, and the investigator can declare you a suspect or accused at any time, for example after your return.
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Your posts on social networks may give rise to criminal charges. Until February 24, the Russian Criminal Code had many articles according to which recordings on the Internet or public statements offline could be considered a “socially dangerous act.” And after the full-scale invasion of Russian troops in 2022, such articles became even more numerous.
It must be remembered that the Russian authorities prohibit:
- dissemination of “fake news” about the Russian army;
- “discrediting” it (criminal liability threatens those who have previously committed an administrative offense within a year);
- a call for sanctions against Russian citizens and companies;
- justification of crimes that the Russian authorities classify as terrorist attacks, as well as public calls for terrorism and its propaganda;
- calls for the return of Crimea and “new territories” (terms used by the Russian authorities for the Ukrainian regions annexed in 2022);
- insult to government officials.
It is recommended to delete your posts before traveling to Russia (how to do this correctly is described in the third chapter). However, it is worth remembering that printouts of these records can be used in a criminal case.
Your donations may also be declared a crime. If you previously supported independent or opposition organizations that are now declared “undesirable” (for example, Meduza, Dozhd, Important Stories, OCCRP, Free University), or even classified as “extremist” (for example, FBK and Navalny's headquarters), donations sent to these organizations after their legal status has changed may result in criminal prosecution. In addition, cooperation with such organizations even outside of Russia can become an independent crime, starting with administrative measures and then moving on to criminal prosecution.
Pay attention to two more articles of the Criminal Code:
- Article 275 – High treason
The language surrounding treason has become so vague that authorities may consider it a crime to even provide assistance to foreigners or international organizations if they decide that their actions are directed against the security of the country. Even donations to the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine can be considered treason from the point of view of the authorities.
- Article 275.1 – Cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign state, international or foreign organization
This article effectively criminalizes any non-public contacts with foreigners if the authorities believe that these contacts actually threaten the security of Russia. Because you lived abroad, you had more opportunities for such “dangerous” interactions, according to the authorities.
There is another risk - very theoretical for now.
Don't forget about one more innovation: soon your passport will be easier to invalidate
In December 2023, changes to the law on traveling abroad will come into force in Russia, which will give the border service the right in certain situations to confiscate the foreign passports of Russian citizens and leave them in the country. This is possible, for example, if inaccurate or false information is found in the document.
The criteria for determining whether information in a passport is inaccurate will be established by the Russian government. However, based on the draft resolution, the main focus is on the discrepancy between the data in the passport and the information in government databases. This “data” may include photograph, last name, first name, patronymic, date of birth, and so on. The difficulty is that it is difficult to identify errors in government information systems in advance.
It is especially worth noting the situation when the personal data in the passport does not correspond to the data on the air or train ticket. In other words, even minor clerical errors, such as a mistake in a name or birthday on a ticket, can give the border guard the formal right to invalidate a foreign passport (where all the data is correct) and not allow the citizen to travel abroad. This could create a convenient tool for law enforcement agencies to use at will, although at the moment the regulation has not yet been adopted.
If you need to get a new internal passport (and this is the only reason for returning) - it is better not to go
An expired internal passport does not pose any problems for you in the European Union, according to an anonymous migration consultant. In fact, in many EU countries, an internal passport is not considered a valid document. For example, in Latvia it has no legal force.
In addition, an internal passport is not included in the list of required documents for obtaining a temporary residence permit (residence permit) or a visa. The validity period of the internal passport cannot serve as a reason for refusing to issue these documents. The migration consultant gives the example of Latvia, where previously an internal passport was used to determine the consular station to which a citizen was assigned, but during the pandemic, the conditions for applying for a residence permit were changed, and the internal passport no longer plays a role.
It is also worth noting that previously Russian citizens were subject to additional verification when obtaining a visa or temporary residence permit in Latvia only in certain regions of Russia. Now Russia as a whole is included in this list, so there is no need to filter by region.
In many countries of the world, in order to obtain a residence permit or citizenship, you must provide a certificate of no criminal record, which can be obtained from a consulate or embassy. The consular department of the Russian Embassy in Latvia stated that you can apply for a certificate even with an expired passport, the main thing is to make sure that the data is written correctly. However, please note that this practice may vary across Europe, so it is advisable to contact your local consulate for accurate information.
Another important point to consider is that a valid internal passport will be required when obtaining a new foreign passport from the Russian Federation consulate if the old passport is out of date or lost. Therefore, it is recommended to take care of replacing your foreign passport in advance.
In Russia, you can get a fine of only five thousand rubles for an expired internal passport. Although, perhaps, this amount is not worth the risk.
Section 2. If you must travel, do a few important things
Try to find out if a criminal case has been opened against you
But remember that reassuring information does not guarantee your safety.
As mentioned earlier, it is impossible to absolutely say whether you are suspected of committing any crime or not. The decision to declare you a suspect can be made by the investigator at any time, for example after your return. In this case, you may be detained and one of the preventive measures applied.
However, it is always possible to try to check whether the Russian authorities have any claims against you.
Before traveling to Russia, try to deregister from the military register
This may reduce the likelihood of being drafted or mobilized, but it certainly does not guarantee that you will not be drafted.
If you returned to Russia with the intention of permanent residence, theoretically you should register within two weeks. However, the laws are not clear on how to determine whether you have returned permanently.
Lawyers interviewed by Meduza and relying on their experience argue that authorities should not bring claims against a person if he came to Russia for a few months or less and after that plans to leave again. However, this cannot be guaranteed. As a result of new changes, various organizations, including medical institutions, MFCs, government agencies and universities, are required to transfer data on conscripts to the military registration and enlistment office. If you have been deregistered from the military, but have temporarily returned to Russia, it is better to avoid appearing in these institutions unless absolutely necessary to avoid risks.
Report the residence permit or citizenship you have received - from October this can be done at the consulate
If you plan to stay in Russia for more than a month, then you should contact the department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs at your place of residence within 30 days and notify about the received residence permit or citizenship of another country. In the case of children or adolescents, this is the responsibility of the legal representative. Russians who do not fulfill this obligation may become involved in criminal or administrative cases.
There is Article 330.2 of the Criminal Code, which establishes liability for “failure to fulfill the obligation to submit a notification of the availability” of foreign documents. The maximum penalty under this article is 400 hours of compulsory labor, as well as a fine of up to 200 thousand rubles ($2). The Code of Administrative Offenses also has a similar article regarding “violation of the established procedure” for filing such a notification, but the maximum fine under it is only a thousand rubles ($076).
It should be remembered that Article 330.2 in Russia is also used to persecute opposition-minded individuals. For example, criminal cases were opened against the politician Leonid Gozman and the publisher of Mediazona Pyotr Verzilov under this article.
From October 26, 2023, new rules will apply. Russians returning to their homeland will be given 60 days to notify about foreign documents (instead of the current 30), and they will be able to do this in advance at diplomatic institutions abroad, so that when returning to Russia, an application to the Ministry of Internal Affairs will not be required.
Section 3. Prepare gadgets and social networks for the trip
This section applies to all persons crossing the Russian border, and does not exclude the possibility that law enforcement agencies may require inspection of gadgets of people with foreign citizenship.
In the process of preparing this instruction, Meduza interviewed eight independent lawyers and attorneys who provide assistance, including to opposition-minded Russians. All experts agree that anyone can request to see the contents of a phone or laptop at the border, regardless of their political views and activities.
This is confirmed by cases described in the media. For example, the publication “Kholod” talked about the story of a woman who returned from Turkey and was forced to spend about two hours under interrogation. Although such situations are rare, you should not exclude the possibility that this could happen to you. However, for Russians participating in political, human rights or journalistic activities, or expressing criticism of Russian authorities on social networks, the risks are much higher.
The question of whether it is worth unconditionally complying with the illegal demand of law enforcement agencies to hand over the gadget to them and unlock it is a separate topic, which we answer in the next section. It is important to prepare for such situations, since coping with pressure from FSB officers can be difficult, and in the most unfavorable cases they are capable of resorting to the use of force.
It is important to remember that if the Russian authorities have decided in advance to detain a particular person, the precautions described in these instructions will probably not help.
Dangerous applications, photos and correspondence will be grounds for persecution - deal with them in one of two ways
First, it is recommended to check your mobile applications. It is important to remove anything associated with organizations that have been declared "extremist" or "undesirable" by Russian authorities.
If you are in Russia, change the app icon for added security. Facebook and Instagram, which are blocked in Russia, can remain installed on your device, but do not forget to delete any content, conversations and subscriptions that “compromise” you. It's also important to turn off TouchID and Face ID on all your devices and make sure they have strong passwords.
In the case of instant messengers and social networks, it is not recommended to delete applications, since law enforcement agencies may require you to install them (or in the worst case, they will do it themselves by taking away your phone). This is especially true for such popular applications among Russians as WhatsApp and Telegram. When using two-factor authentication (which you should definitely set up for all your accounts before traveling), you can simply not take a SIM card with you, which receives an SMS with a code. However, such a scenario can cause additional suspicion among border guards.
Lawyers offer two preparation options:
There are two preparation options, the first of which is to delete all correspondence from social networks and instant messengers that border guards may consider suspicious. Eva Levenberg, coordinator of criminal cases at the OVD-Info organization, noted that nowadays even the most harmless correspondence can become potentially dangerous. Particular attention should be paid to the following aspects:
- photographs with Ukrainian symbols or symbols of organizations recognized in Russia as “undesirable” or “extremist”;
- correspondence with Ukrainian, “extremist”, “undesirable” and “foreign agent” organizations;
- any materials containing criticism of the Russian authorities or expressing anti-war views, including video recordings.
A lawyer from the First Department, Valeria Vetoshkina, confirms that currently border guards especially do not like everything connected with Ukraine, as well as any foreign information in general. Therefore, it is worth removing not only correspondence with Ukrainians, but also phone numbers from Ukraine from your address book (and, if you want to be especially careful, any foreign numbers). If you had correspondence with bots from the RDK (Russian Democratic Committee) or the Freedom of Russia Legion, it is also recommended to delete this.
However, Vetoshkina emphasizes that there is no clear list of what exactly needs to be removed from your device in order to ensure one hundred percent protection. For example, simply subscribing to the Telegram channel of a publication recognized by the authorities as a “foreign agent” is not in itself a violation of the law. But if you're concerned, you can unsubscribe from all political content.
If wiping your phone and all your accounts seems too time-consuming, there is a second method you can try: creating new accounts or taking a temporary device with you. Experts from human rights organizations, who wish to remain anonymous, see such tactics as a possible solution, and lawyer Valeria Vetoshkina calls it “a good distraction.” Eva Levenberg, among other things, is of the opinion that the temporary device is a “reasonably reliable option.”
When creating new accounts on Telegram and WhatsApp, it is important to fill them with meaningful content, for example by subscribing to several channels with memes and having some correspondence with friends. It is better to leave a SIM card registered for a real account outside of Russia.
If you're bringing a temporary device with you, fill it at least partially with apps and content. However, experts do not advise carrying a basic laptop or phone with sensitive information, even in luggage, since border guards may inspect them.
If you have sensitive files that you may need in Russia, move them to secure cloud services that use end-to-end encryption, such as Proton Drive, Keybase Filesystem or Tresorit. IT security experts recommend avoiding the use of Yandex.Disk, Google.Disk and other file exchangers or services included in the Roskomnadzor register of information organizers.
Section 4. Prepare to talk to the border guard
This section applies to anyone who decides to return to Russia, be it for a short time or permanently. According to lawyer from the First Department, Valeria Vetoshkina, at least one passenger on every flight to the Russian Federation faces a thorough check by border guards, and this may not even be a person at risk. Unfortunately, it is impossible to accurately assess the scale of such checks, since most people do not turn to lawyers and human rights activists for help.
Think through in detail what you will say, but without unnecessary details.
The coordinator of criminal cases at OVD-Info, Eva Levenberg, strongly recommends not to mislead border guards, especially if the truth does not lead to negative consequences: “They quickly recognize a lie, they are specially trained in this. It is recommended to provide short and specific answers to the questions asked, avoiding unnecessary explanations.”
In addition, it is important to consider that it is easy to get confused by your own false statements, and border guards may have additional information about you, especially if you are of interest to the Russian authorities or are in risk groups, such as journalists or activists. However, it is worth remembering that border guards usually do not have an extensive database of information about each person, and unless they have prepared in advance for your arrival, they know about you practically only what is indicated in your passport and information about debts.
The more carefully and restrainedly you answer questions, the less likely it is that a random word will attract unnecessary attention to you and your loved ones, emphasizes Eva Levenberg. For example, if you are asked why you haven’t been to Russia for a long time, you can give a short and implicit answer:
- worked under contract abroad. If you are asked about a specific company, you can say that you have signed a confidentiality agreement and have no right to disclose such information, but clarify that the company is located outside the country. They have no right to force you to disclose this information. It's important to note that working for foreign companies is still legal in Russia, so unless it's related to politics or activism, you can answer this question honestly;
- lived abroad because your loved ones live and work there. Identifying a specific company in this case is not necessary, and it is especially not worth doing this if it is an “undesirable” or “foreign agency” organization. A simple answer along the lines of “my sister is an accountant, the young man is a copywriter, but I don’t know the names of the companies” would be quite appropriate;
- studied abroad. If you did study there, consider adding some details such as where you studied and where you studied;
- if you have not been to Russia for many months, appearing only for a short time, then you can use any of the above answer options, supplementing it with the statement that you have relatives in the country, and you visit them from time to time.
Answer questions about political views as evasively as possible.
When dealing with border guards, you should consider your safety as a priority. Even if it is usually important for you to express your anti-war position, in this case it is better to make an exception.
In principle, you don’t have to answer questions about political views, since this is not the competence of border guards. You can refer to Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which guarantees citizens the right to freedom of opinion and expression. However, to avoid conflict situations, it is better to give a neutral answer, for example:
- I didn’t think about it because I was abroad for a long time.
- I am not interested in politics and have not followed the news, but I am horrified by what is happening, as it leads to the loss of lives.
- I am against any armed conflicts, as they bring suffering and destruction.
- I did not make such decisions and do not have complete information to judge what is happening.
- I hold neutral views.
It should be noted that a formal administrative case for “discrediting” the army can only be opened in the event of a public expression of opinion. In addition, the border service is not given the right to conduct cases under Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation. Therefore, even if you have expressed your opinion, do not give in to threats.
You also have the right not to answer any questions, although this is not always the best policy. There is no penalty for this. However, it is worth remembering that there are different types of questions. For example, if you spent a year in Georgia and flew from this country, it would be strange not to answer the question about whether you lived in Georgia. In light of increasing apprehensions at the border and tense relations with border officials, it is not always advisable to confront officers, especially if you have nothing to hide.
Remember that the border guard cannot demand to look at your phone or computer - this is completely illegal. But whether to give your gadget for inspection is up to you to decide.
When demanding to unlock the phone, the border guard violates several rules at once:
- personal correspondence is protected by Article 23 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which guarantees the right to privacy and personal family secrets;
- information in banking applications is subject to the federal bank secrecy act;
- various medical tests and correspondence with doctors that may be stored in the device are protected by medical confidentiality.
Even if you are determined not to give your employee gadgets, you should still follow the phone and computer cleaning recommendations presented in the previous chapter. Under pressure, you may find yourself in a difficult situation, because security forces can use professional methods of influencing people.
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If you have prepared your phone in advance and do not want to delay the process or argue with the border guards, and also do not feel ready to defend your rights, you can give them the device and let them view the memes you prepared in advance.
If you are very worried or are at risk, warn your loved ones and lawyer in advance
It is necessary to inform the lawyer about the exact time and place of your border crossing, advises Valeria Vetoshkina. The lawyer will immediately notice that something is wrong if you do not contact him within 15 minutes of crossing the border.
According to the law, you cannot be detained without drawing up a report for more than three hours. However, employees may use this time to apply various methods of moral and psychological pressure to obtain the necessary information, so even a slight delay in calling a lawyer can make the subsequent defense less effective. In addition, it is worth considering that lawyers are not always allowed access to controlled access areas, such as airports, unless there is a procedural need.
Even if a lawyer is not allowed into the airport, he can contact the head of the border service and find out what is happening, as well as record any violations, for example, if you are detained for more than three hours without drawing up documents. At the same time, Levenberg reminds that the key is not finding a lawyer, but your preparation for crossing the border, including deleting incriminating data from devices.
If you are detained, it is important to request that you notify the consulate if you are a foreign citizen and contact relatives and human rights organizations.
If you feel like you can't handle the pressure of a conversation, here are some tricks you can use:
Here are some recommendations from an anonymous lawyer from a human rights organization:
- you can request an ambulance or say that you have already called one, announcing that you are feeling unwell. Such a step will force the border guard to reduce pressure, since he certainly does not need the troubles and checks associated with your condition;
- Another tactic could be to simply stop answering questions and ignore the actions of the enforcer while you think about something else. This may work if the employee thinks they won't get any more information from you and lose interest in you.
According to the lawyer, situations with serious pressure on people have become less common recently due to a decrease in the number of people leaving the country. However, lawyer Valeria Vetoshkina does not agree with this opinion and argues that the pressure from the security forces has not weakened.
One psychologist, who wishes to remain anonymous, recalls that our physiological state greatly influences our ability to cope with stress. Therefore, it is important to get enough sleep before your trip, take food and medicine with you, and dress comfortably. By preparing in advance, you will feel more confident.
If you're feeling really nervous, try rehearsing a conversation with a border guard in front of a mirror or with a friend. While waiting in line or checking documents, you can perform simple breathing exercises, such as focusing on the exhalation, inhaling twice as long, or breathing in a square. In addition, try not to rush your answers, pausing before each response to avoid unnecessary words due to stress.
Section 5. The shortest. We are preparing to return and do not forget about the little things
All recommendations regarding entry into the country are also relevant for exiting it. Border guards may also demand your phone number or conduct an interrogation. The only difference is that you will have to declare the purpose of your trip. Given that many flights currently pass through Turkey, the standard answer that the purpose of your trip is tourism is quite appropriate. Other options may include visiting relatives, consulting with a foreign university about your child's admission, or simply shopping.
As with entry, it is recommended to use general phrases and avoid unnecessary conversations.
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