Greenpeace campaigner Dima Litvinov, first of imprisoned protesters to be freed, tells of relief at leaving Russia
The first environmental activist to leave Russia after more than two months of detention said that Russia owed him a medal rather than a pardon for his work to protect the environment.
Dima Litvinov, a Greenpeace campaigner, was the first member of the Arctic 30 to be allowed to leave. His fellow activists are expected to leave Russia in the coming days.
He told the Guardian of his relief at leaving Russia and arriving in Finland. "In Finland, it's completely relaxed and welcoming. My last memory of Russia is the border police woman who told me I should not be proud of myself. 'Why don't you do these things in the United States?' she asked. I said that I do and she said, 'Why don't you stay there?"
Litvinov was one of 30 people who were arrested in September after a protest at a Russian offshore oil rig and spent two months in jail before being granted bail in November.
Hooliganism charges were dropped after Russia's parliament passed an amnesty law that was seen as an attempt by the Kremlin to assuage criticism of the country's human rights record before the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.
Speaking from a train to Helsinski, Litvinov said the Arctic 30 had been warmly received by ordinary Russians, but treated as criminals intent on destroying Russia by government officials. "They saw us as criminals involved in a conspiracy against Russia. They say that we are trying to push Russia from its rightful place on the Arctic shelf," he said.
Litvinov is the fourth generation of his family to be imprisoned in Russia for political activity. His great-grandfather Maxim Litvinov opposed Tsar Nicholas II before being made Soviet foreign minister. His grandfather Lev Kopelev was imprisoned by Stalin for 10 years for opposing the regime and speaking out against Soviet atrocities against German civilians in the second world war. Lev was imprisoned with his friend Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and was the inspiration for the main character in Solzhenitsyn's novel First Circle. In 1968, Dima's father, Pavel Litvinov, was one of seven people who protested against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in Red Square, for which he was sentenced to internal exile in Siberia when Dima was six years old. The family left Russia when he was 11 and Litvnov now holds US and Swedish nationality.
He said that he was surprised to be released, especially as he was interrogated on Christmas Eve, but remained angry at his treatment. "They do not owe me an amnesty, they owe me an apology. They owe me a medal for trying to save the Russian environment," he said, "The amnesty is just a way for the authorities to save face but we are still described as violent criminals that the Duma, in its magnanimity, is willing to pardon, which is really irksome."
Litvinov was given his passport with an exit visa stamped in it on Thursday, along with a letter explaining that the authorities had decided not to prosecute him for illegally entering the country. "That was incredible. We were taken in international waters and forcibly taken to Russia. I collected my bag and said goodbye to my friends and got on the train to Helsinki," he said.
Litvinov was released on 22 November after six weeks in prison in Murmansk and two weeks in St Petersburg. Freedom was pleasant but limited, he said.
"It was freedom of sorts, but it was really just a much more comfortable prison cell. We had to attend regular interrogations. We could only stay in the hotel and we could not leave the city. There was the same psychological pressure as prison, the lack of knowledge, the sense of injustice," he said.
Litvinov expected to meet his wife in Helsinki and spend a night there before taking a ferry to Sweden for a holiday before returning to campaigning.
"I'm going to decompress and enjoy the rest of Christmas, but after that it's back to work. The Arctic has still not been saved and there's a lot to be done," he said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]