Denis Uvarov and his wife Natalia Larina were just starting a family in 2016 in St. Petersburg—a port city on the Baltic Sea and the second largest after Moscow in northwestern Russia—when matters took a turn for the complicated—and frightening—when Uvarov became involved in a group that opposes President Vladimir Putin.
Fearing for their lives, he and his wife left St. Petersburg and randomly chose to go to the CNMI since Russian nationals enjoy parole authority and are allowed to stay in the Commonwealth for 45 days. They arrived on Saipan on Nov. 29, 2017.
That mean they are now both overstaying tourists. They sought the help of a local immigration lawyer in a bid to obtain asylum for political reasons. However, they were dismayed to discover that people in the CNMI are not eligible to apply for asylum.
“This includes people brought to the CNMI after being intercepted in international or U.S. waters… In most cases, [granting of status] individuals in the U.S. without a nonimmigrant status need to leave the country in order to obtain nonimmigrant classification,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
The bar on the eligibility to apply for asylum will be lifted on Jan. 1, 2020, while granting of legal status in the CNMI can also have exceptions for individuals in the Commonwealth that hold parole authorization. Their case is now with the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is under the U.S. Department of Justice that’s responsible for all immigration cases.
“We don’t have any visa for any country. We found out that we don’t need any visa to go to the CNMI. They can’t just send us back to Russia. …From what I understand, the only way they can send us back is if I steal or attack somebody. Maybe, they could send us to another safe country,” said Uverov.
“We already talked to an immigration leawyer and he helped us bring our situation to [USCIS]. We went to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and gave our documents. We gave them statements and our papers were sent to California, then they will decide what to do with our situation. We’re waiting for the court’s decision and they say the process could take years.”
Uvarov has a degree in geography from St. Petersburg State University and worked as a fitness coach. What got him in trouble with Putin, he said, was his work as a journalist and political activism, with stories critical of Putin’s rise to power and 19-year reign.
He claims that those who criticize Putin’s administration experience persecution.
“Russia has problems about press freedom and human rights,” Uvarov told Saipan Tribune. “[Putin] persecutes his opponents …He invaded Ukraine and captured the Crimean peninsula. Now, there’s war between Ukraine and Russia. He has also been aggressively supporting the Ukraine separatists. I’m a Russian citizen but I don’t support Russia invading another country.”
Larina, who was working in St. Petersburg as an accountant after earning a degree at the Moscow State University School of Economics, said: “Our president is the big problem. A lot of people from Russia oppose him but are afraid for their lives.”
Uverov said that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has already claimed the lives of 10,000 people since 2014. “Before, corruption was the biggest problem. Right now, Putin thinks Russia is his own property. If he wants, he can just take anything. Russia is now dangerous for those who oppose Putin.”
“You will have little problem if you, let’s say, protest about [Joseph] Stalin. But if you organize protest actions you will have a lot of problems. If you protest the war on Ukraine, that would also be a problem for you,” said Uverov, who met his wife Larina in a fitness center in St. Petersburg.
Uverov said that Putin keeps an iron grip on Russia. “We continue to communicate with opposition people in and outside of Russia. Things are also not that simple in Russia. There’s a fake opposition that is also controlled by the government. They appear as opposition on television or the newspapers but they are fake.”
“Sometimes, there are international journalists but it’s very rare. A famous media [outfit] like CNN usually do reports on famous opposition leaders, for example [Russian lawyer and political activist] Alexei Navalny. Russia doesn’t have an independent media, even those who seem to criticize the President, are also [government] controlled.”
He has also learned of several arrests made by the Putin administration. “I read about one guy who fled Ukraine but he went to Russia to visit his mother and was thrown into prison. One member of our group, about two or three weeks ago, also got arrested.”
He said they’ve met some of their fellow Russian nationals on the island. “We met one Russian who is in a similar situation like us. He is also critical of Putin. But, sometimes it is hard to talk to other Russians here since they could be supporters of Putin. So, our first question if we met a fellow Russian should be ‘what do you think of the President?’ It is hard to trust them.”
Right now, their situation has taken a turn for the worse. The small apartment where they have been living in was blown away by Super Typhoon Yutu last October. Since then, they have been living in various shelters such as San Vicente Elementary School and Tanapag Elementary School. Right now, they are at the former Juvenile Detention Center in Kagman.
“We have come to the shelter, which was open after the typhoon because we have no other place to stay. We were told that the shelter will be closed soon since people have rebuilt their homes or have been living in tents. We have nothing to restore and we don’t have an area for a tent,” said Uverov.
“We have a small savings and have been living modestly for almost a year but we’re facing a big problem. There were a lot of kind people who’ve been helping us and one of them gave us bicycles that we use to go around the island. We do not have any jobs that would help us pay for rent since we don’t have any work permit. We suffered in Russia and now we’re also suffering here.”
Larina said they were living comfortably in Russia but they needed to leave their country to keep themselves safe. “We’re not poor people in Russia and we earned university degrees. But we have to leave because of our safety. We just packed our things and left behind our lives there, and entered [the CNMI] as tourists. What would the future bring us?”
“We’re living in a shelter and use bikes to go around. [Non-governmental groups] give us food at the shelter and we also got food stamps on the disaster program. We cannot do anything; we cannot drive a car or work because they cannot give us permit to work since we’re already here illegally. We want to have opportunities in life, like work and have a family. How can we do it?”