Peace Magazine: Reading Russian Minds

Peace Magazine

Reading Russian Minds

• published May 18, 2024 • last edit May 30, 2024

In a world rife with geopolitical tensions, the clash of politics and identity in diaspora communities has created a kaleidoscope of influence, loyalty, and strife. This is clearly apparent in the ongoing showdown between Ukraine and Russia, which is touching the lives of the millions who’ve sought refuge abroad.

Enter two fascinating figures deeply entrenched in Ukrainian-Russian diaspora issues: Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a former Liberal MP for Etobicoke, and Andre Kamenshikov, an activist with a keen eye on Russian emigrant affairs. These two recently sat down for a chat with Metta Spencer.

The panel dug into the attitudes of Ukrainian-Canadians toward recent Russian émigrés who’ve fled their homeland either out of principle or opposition to the government. Wrzesnewskyj, drawing from his deep well of experience, painted a nuanced picture. While there’s a natural inclination to embrace those dodging conscription to fight in Ukraine, he urged caution, hinting at the possibility of pro-Russian infiltrators.

Why shouldn’t countries, Canada included, welcome current Russian emigrants with open arms? After all, many are fleeing to escape and protest the fighting in the war-torn regions. If they stayed behind, many would be sent to the front lines.

One argument goes that the more countries accept dissenters from the war, the fewer soldiers there are on the front lines, potentially weakening Russia’s military efforts. However, these brave souls aren’t without their own set of risks. By leaving, they put their loved ones back home in jeopardy and face the looming threat of reprisal from the Russian government.


The conversation then veered towards the uncertainty faced by those who dare to criticize Vladimir Putin. Late-night show hosts, such as Stephen Colbert, joke about Russians experiencing fatal accidents like falling off hotel balconies or being poisoned. However, these situations are no laughing matter.

Such possibilities weigh heavily on the emigrants, making them hesitant to speak out. The fear of reprisal is ever-present, especially considering such real-life cases as Vladimir Kara-Murza, a close friend of one of the speakers, who was poisoned twice in Russia but survived and is currently imprisoned for speaking out against Putin. Another prominent figure, Alexei Navalny, widely known for his opposition to Putin’s regime, has died in prison, presumably killed.

Kara-Murza’s courage in returning to Russia despite the dangers underscores the immense personal sacrifice made by those who stand up against oppression. His incarceration in one of Russia’s most notorious prisons serves as a stark reminder of the harsh realities faced by dissenters.

It’s crucial to acknowledge individuals like Navalny and Kara-Murza, who choose to confront injustice head-on. Their commitment to their principles, even in the face of grave danger, deserves recognition and support.

The panel then discussed the Russian diaspora communities in Canada, uncovering glaring gaps in organization, representation, and media visibility between the Ukrainian and Russian camps. Wrzesnewskyj lamented the decline of independent Russian-Canadian media outlets, pointing fingers at Moscow’s puppeteering. He also sounded alarms about propaganda peddled through channels like Russia Today, booted out of Canada since last September.

Canada has long been a safe haven for Ukrainians, with a rich history of Ukrainian immigration spanning decades and numbering more than a million today – compared to the Russian-Canadian community, which is significantly smaller. With the recent influx of refugees from Ukraine, the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada is more unified than ever, with a palpable sense of freedom to express their opinions and views without fear of reprisal.

In essence, the conversation highlighted the stark disparities between the Russian and Ukrainian diaspora experiences, underscoring the importance of providing support and solidarity to those fleeing conflict and oppression, while also remaining vigilant against potential threats posed by hostile actors within these communities.

Kamenshikov hammered home the need for people to differentiate between recent Russian émigrés who oppose the current war with Ukraine and those who previously left Russia for other reasons. He cautioned against oversimplifying their narratives and failing to capture the variety of opinions among Russian exiles.

The chat illustrated the power of conversation in building bridges across seemingly insurmountable divides. Wrzesnewskyj’s and Kamenshikov’s insights call upon policymakers, activists, and everyday folks alike to tackle the challenges of diaspora politics with heart, smarts, and commitment to justice and freedom.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.40, No.2 Apr-Jun 2024
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