Last fall, Egor Redin was in hiding at a Baptist church in Tajikistan, two thousand miles from home. The pastor advised him not to leave the building because the secret police might be watching. Redin had hoped to apply for asylum in Tajikistan but was warned not to. If Tajik authorities found out he was Baptist, he would likely be deported back to Russia, where he would face criminal prosecution for protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Redin had fled to Tajikistan to avoid Putin’s “partial mobilization” of Russians to fight in Ukraine. In his words, “the original plan was to wait out this madness in Tajikistan.” As a father of two little girls aged two and four who was also a pacifist (historically Russian Baptists have refused to serve in military positions where they would be required to kill) he should never have had to worry about conscription – religious objectors and fathers of two or more had been exempt under Russian law. But that fall he began to hear of other Baptists being sent to prison for refusing the draft. So, on September 24, he packed a small bag with his laptop, a toothbrush and toothpaste, important documents, and a change of socks, and left his homeland, not knowing when he would return. “This” he recalled later, “is what running to save your life looks like.”

Antiwar graffiti from around Russia since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine; the text нет войне translates as “No to war.” Photographs posted to Telegram group весна (“Spring”) by Russian dissidents.

Shortly after the invasion began, in February 2022, Redin had reposted on Instagram an open letter issued by a nonprofit for which he served as vice president of legal affairs, calling for an end to “this senseless war.” A senior television producer in state media who had helped him advance in his career contacted him to warn that his future public and professional life would be greatly complicated by his open opposition to the war. Not long after that, the Russian government made it illegal to even call the war a war. Protesting could mean a prison sentence of up to fifteen years.

Redin hoped he had evaded detection, but after he had fled the country the authorities finally followed up on his antiwar Instagram posts. He felt powerless to protect his wife and children back home. “I made the only decision I could,” he told me later, “to flee with my family to the United States.”

Following advice from other Russian asylum seekers in Telegram chat groups, Redin determined a route – his family would reunite in Istanbul, Turkey, and fly from there to Cancún, Mexico; then they would travel north to the border and ask for asylum at a point of entry between Tijuana and San Diego.

Redin met his wife and children in Istanbul. While there he planned to peacefully picket the Russian Embassy with a sign saying “no to war,” but he was told he would be arrested and deported back to Russia if he did so. Russia and Turkey, he discovered, have had an extradition agreement since 2014. He didn’t leave the hotel again until it was time to go to the airport.

Arriving in Mexico, they found a group of Californian Christians who were willing to pay for them to stay at a hotel about a hundred miles south of Tijuana. Redin knew asylum seekers are routinely turned back, so he sought help from an organization called Most V USA (Russian for “Bridge to USA”) that promised to get Ukrainian and Russian asylum seekers on a special list with US border officials – for $2,000 per person. Not long after he made an appointment with Most V USA, workers from the organization were arrested in Tijuana while attempting to transport more than $500,000, which they had collected from asylum seekers, across the border. The organization canceled all future appointments, including the Redin family’s. Initially they were devastated, but in January their prayers were answered: US Customs and Border Protection began allowing asylum seekers to reserve an appointment directly (previously, only nongovernmental organizations or lawyers could request appointments). The Redins quickly claimed asylum and crossed the border uneventfully in early January.

Had Egor Redin not fled Russia, he would likely have become the second in his family to be imprisoned by the state. His grandfather, a Russian Baptist pastor, was sent to the gulag for five years in the 1980s for distributing illegal (Christian) literature.

Baptists have a long history of being persecuted in Russia, though many hoped that had come to an end with the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church also initially faced persecution under communism, but eventually Soviet authorities determined that getting Russians to abandon faith was futile. In 1943, Stalin chose to revive the Russian Orthodox Church to spiritually justify annexation of historically Orthodox countries, according to historian Kathryn David. The state and the state-sanctioned church have had a close relationship ever since. Patriarch Kirill, the current head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has called the invasion of Ukraine “a holy war” and declared any Russian soldier who dies in the fight a martyr.

Resistance can take many forms, and Russian dissidents have had quite a lot of practice.

The Russian Orthodox Church is not entirely united behind Kirill: over 150 priests signed a letter protesting the war in March 2022, calling for “reconciliation and an immediate ceasefire.” But at the highest level, the church is wedded to political power. One prominent Orthodox television channel owner went so far as to say that Putin was sent by God.

Some Protestant Christian groups, on the other hand, have been labeled anti-government extremists. After Russia’s annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Ukrainian Baptist Union was designated a terrorist group, the Baptist hymnal was banned from the region, and Donetsk Christian University, where several members of Redin’s church studied, was destroyed outright. In Russia, new “anti-extremism” legislation was passed in 2016. “Extremism” was vaguely defined, providing a context to imprison pastors and tear down houses used as unregistered churches.

Redin is no extremist; in fact, he had never directly criticized the Russian government before. As a lawyer and campaigner, he had faith in the legal system and worked to reform Russian law and promote the welfare of the orphans his church supported. He was known for taking on cases pro bono and commenting on issues through the media and public speaking. But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, in violation of international law, Redin sensed he soon wouldn’t be able to count on the protection of Russian law either. “The moment this attack happened, I realized that gradually the laws would stop working and we would become defenseless.” And so he began to publicly express his disagreement with the war.

Egor Redin with his wife and daughters just after crossing the border into San Diego, January 2023.
Photograph courtesy of Egor Redin.

Russian Protestant churches and leaders mostly remained silent in the beginning, or said they were praying about the “situation” in Ukraine – to call it anything else posed a risk not only to them but also to their churches. Then a prominent Ukrainian Baptist leader wrote a letter calling on them to condemn the war without mincing words, and in response, over four hundred Russian Protestant leaders called for an end to the war in an open letter, telling fellow Russians: “We need to repent for what we have done, first to God and then to the people of Ukraine. We need to reject lies and hatred. We call on the authorities of our country to stop this senseless bloodshed.” Days later, all speech against the war was made illegal.

It’s easy to sympathize with those who don’t speak out. According to Redin, his church is generally unified in opposition to the war, but most of them, like many Russians, have determined that public protest is futile. A Russian participant in a Carnegie Endowment study mused: “I went to a rally, and what happened? Did it change anything? Yes it did: I was fired!” It’s far from clear that public protest is always the right course of action. For one, imprisoned Russians can’t directly help vulnerable Russians or Ukrainians. If all the members of Redin’s church were imprisoned, the transition home they run for orphans would cease to exist. And Russian dissidents play a significant role in supporting the estimated 2.85 million Ukrainian refugees in Russia. Resistance can take many forms, and Russian dissidents have had quite a lot of practice.

Egor Redin has found a Russian Baptist community in the Seattle area, where he and his family have settled as they await their asylum hearings. He is surprised by the level of religious freedom in the United States. In Russia, pastors have to watch what they say in the pulpit; here, the idea that security services would eavesdrop on sermons seems unthinkable. Even nature seems less afraid here, he says: he’s seen more wild animals than he ever did in Russia. And he is deeply grateful for the “incredible amount of mutual assistance” in his church, and the support of state social services of Washington State. He thanks God for the opportunity to start a new life in a democratic country.

He also isn’t blind to the problems of his new home: he is troubled by the number of unhoused people he sees and wants to help. For now, though, he is focused on helping others who, like him, are seeking asylum from persecution abroad. Recently, he helped start a program through his church to match asylum seekers with guarantors. Guarantors agree to provide an address for important documents to go to and to help asylum seekers adjust to life in the United States. Having a guarantor can help asylum seekers avoid extended detention or immediate deportation, since immigration authorities want to be able to find them easily. Egor recently received his work permit and plans to begin practicing as a lawyer as soon as he can pass an American bar exam, so that he can help others seeking asylum. At present, he does what he can: he publishes information about seeking asylum via a Telegram channel of his own in the United States.