Russian Partner Seeks Political Asylum in U.S

Drawing unwanted attention from Putin's government, an activist for the plight of indigenous people in the Far East resettles in Yarmouth.
Megan Doyle
Date: April 16, 2017
Pavel Sulyandziga, his wife, Irina Shafrannick, and their children: Alina, 5; Alisa, 3; Andrey, 1; Alyosha, 7; and Anna, 10.

Once, as a young man in 1991, Pavel Sulyandziga hid in the trunk of a car to catch one minute on an airport landing strip with Boris Yeltsin, who would soon become the first freely elected leader of the Russian Federation.

Sulyandziga’s efforts earned an appointment with Yeltsin the next day in the Russian city of Vladivostok and a follow-up meeting with top officials in Moscow.

He asked them to block a South Korean logging operation near his home – Far East Russia, where his Udege people live among Siberian tigers and the largest forest in the Northern Hemisphere. Prominent environmentalists and international organizations such as Greenpeace also came to Russia to advocate for a halt to logging in this area.

Eventually, it worked.

Sulyandziga has spent his life advocating for indigenous people like the Udege and the lands where they live. Once a math teacher in his small village, he is now a leading international voice on these issues and a member of a United Nations working group on human rights and business.

He is no stranger to political pressure, but in recent years, he believed the lives of his family and friends were also threatened by officials with the Russian government under President Vladmir Putin. Other critics of the government, including journalists, have been killed, and Sulyandziga said several of his associates or family members reported being detained, questioned or, in the case of one of his sons, assigned by his military superiors to a more dangerous location.

So Sulyandziga brought his wife and five youngest children to Yarmouth, where he has longtime friends. Earlier this year, they filed for political asylum in the United States. Through a translator, Sulyandziga told the Maine Sunday Telegram about the experiences that brought him to Maine.

“The thing is that they are not threatening just me,” Sulyandziga, 55, said in Russian. “They are also endangering the lives of those that are close to me.”

Ten-year-old Anna Sulyandziga speaks English well and often serves as an interpreter for her parents. (Photo: Derek Davis)

‘You Are The Person Who Can Help’

Sulyandziga grew up in a remote mountain village called Krasny Yar.

About 600 people live in the village, where the local economy is rooted in hunting and fishing. Like Sulyandziga, many residents belong to an indigenous tribe called the Udege. Krasny Yar is located in one of the largest uncut forests on Earth, and the surrounding Bikin River basin is rich in wildlife and natural resources.

“They talk about the lungs of the planet, and they think about the Amazon and the rainforests because they capture a lot of carbon so they are very good for the air, for the environment,” Sulyandziga said. “In the same way, the boreal forests in the Northern Hemisphere also act as the lungs of the planet.”

Sulyandziga originally had no intention to enter politics. He was a respected young math teacher in his region, however, and local hunters asked him for help when their lands were being taken away by people with wealth from big cities. Sulyandziga challenged elected officials who said they could not help, and the KGB, the intelligence and security agency in what was then the Soviet Union, began to circulate false rumors about him.

He planned to move to another village, but a colleague changed his mind as he was preparing to leave.

“She said, ‘Pavel, you are the person who can help around here,’ ” Sulyandziga remembered.

He unpacked.

Sulyandziga was elected to lead the village council, and soon after the South Korean logging operation began to threaten native lands. In addition to lobbying Russian leaders, Sulyandziga helped marshal international opposition.

David Gordon traveled to the region in the early 1990s with a California-based organization called Pacific Environment, one of the groups that joined Sulyandziga’s cause. He recalled Sulyandziga’s friendly wave from across the river as he waited for a boat to Krasny Yar. Gordon spent time in the village with Sulyandziga, his brother and their father.

“I remember just spending time at their house with the three of them, listening to their stories, and especially listening to them talk about how they wanted to improve life in the village,” Gordon said.

Tom Bell, a former reporter with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, also visited Krasny Yar in 1992 and 1993 when he was a reporter in Russia for the Anchorage Daily News. There he met his future wife, Svetlana, who grew up in the village with Sulyandziga.

“He wants the forest to be wild not just for us,” Svetlana Bell said. “He wants people later – our children, our grandchildren – to know how to live here.”

‘Outcasts on Their Native Land’

Their efforts derailed the South Korean logging operation, but Sulyandziga continued to advocate for the Bikin River basin and the Udege people. He said government officials and wealthy executives often take advantage of the indigenous people, who have to fight for access to their traditional hunting and fishing grounds.

“They feel as though they are outcasts on their native land,” he said.

Sulyandziga served as an adviser to the regional governor. His work took him to larger Russian cities such as Vladivostok and Moscow. He traveled to American Indian reservations and attended international conferences. He became involved with the Arctic Council and the United Nations.

“One thing that Pavel realized pretty quickly was if he really wanted to advocate for his people, his Udege people, he had to do so based not just in his village, but he had to walk the corridors of power,” said Gordon, who now works for International Rivers, a non-governmental organization focused on river conservation and philanthropic consulting.

Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough, a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, first met Sulyandziga several years ago in New York when he contributed to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. International politics and a lack of resources have prohibited Russian indigenous people from coming to these gatherings in years past, she said, so she made a point to meet Sulyandziga.

Later, he came to Alaska to participate in a small gathering of native leaders. They discussed how to encourage indigenous people to be more involved in economic development, an issue of particular interest for Sulyandziga.

“He’s made a contribution in terms of really bridging the gap between indigenous peoples and corporate entities as well as governments,” Dorough said.

In 2015, the land Sulyandziga has long sought to protect became a national park. The Russian government has said the Udege people will have access to the land and a role in its management.

“He has demonstrated over 25 years or more a deep commitment to indigenous people’s rights,” Gordon said. “(At first), he was deeply committed to indigenous people’s rights in his village in his one watershed. What has changed is that now he understands these issues literally across the world.”

‘They Have Reasons to be Fearful’

As Sulyandziga’s profile increased, so did the pressure he felt from the Russian government.

“Over the years, the situation in Russia has changed,” Gordon said. “I think there’s become less openness to organizations, including both civil society organizations and indigenous people’s organizations, to expressing a point of view that is different from the Russian president’s point of view.”

Paul Josephson, a professor at Colby College in Waterville and an expert in Russian history, said the country’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, seems to be growing more powerful under Putin’s leadership. Putin himself was an agent in the KGB, and the FSB is the modern successor of that agency.

“They are resorting to the kinds of tactics that secret police have used in the past, which is relying on opaque laws and innuendo to track people down and surveil them and perhaps even bother them or frighten them into silence,” Josephson said.

Critics of the Russian government often fear they will be arrested – and in some cases, killed, he said.

“Over the past 15 years in Russia, a number of journalists have been murdered,” Josephson said. “A number of well-known political figures like Boris Nemtsov have been assassinated.”

While Josephson does not know Sulyandziga, he said the deaths of people like Nemtsov are sure to strike fear in Russians who would speak out against their government. A Russian opposition leader, Nemtsov was a vocal critic of Putin and the war in Ukraine at the time of his death in 2015. He was killed in Moscow near the Kremlin, and his friends and family believe his murder was ordered by the Russian government.

“They have reasons to be fearful looking around them at journalists and political figures who have been murdered,” he said.

Sulyandziga was the founder and chairman of the International Development Fund for Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation, also called the Batani Fund. The organization sponsored cultural events, promoted economic development in indigenous communities and lobbied for the protection of their lands. Then, in March 2016, the fund was added to a list of “foreign agents.”

Established by a 2012 law, the term technically designated organizations that receive international funds. But Human Rights Watch reports it has been used to silence non-governmental agencies that are critical of the Russian government. Since its designation as a foreign agent, the Batani Fund has become inactive.

“In Russia, the term ‘foreign agent’ is widely understood to mean traitor or spy,” said Rachel Denbar, the deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “The subtext is that you are somehow an enemy. We strongly believe this law undermines an open civil society.”

Targeting ‘People That You Care About’

By that point, however, Sulyandziga was already feeling threatened in his personal life.

The wife and child of a leader in another indigenous community narrowly escaped a fiery attack on their car. One of Sulyandziga’s older sons had earned praise in his military post near Moscow, but his supervising officer received an order from the FSB to transfer the young soldier to a more dangerous assignment in the Caucasus. Another son said the police searched his friend’s apartment after he visited. A first-time acquaintance who picked Sulyandziga up at an airport was detained and questioned for two days. Sulyandziga’s assistant was forced to flee the country after he refused to sign a statement declaring him an anti-government rebel. A friend with connections to law enforcement warned Sulyandziga not to talk politics at home with his wife, and then recounted the topics they thought they had discussed in private.

Sulyandziga filmed a video statement to be released if he was found dead.

“That’s how they intimidate people and make them feel as hostages, by sending a message that if you try and speak up or do something they dislike, then we can put pressure on people that you care about,” Sulyandziga said.

In 2015, he arranged for his family to travel to the United States on a tourist visa. They came to Maine because of their connections to the Bell family.

“My wife told me that they keep watching and they keep pressure on your older children,” Sulyandziga said. “Do you want our younger children to suffer, too?”

A Spike In Seekers Of Political Asylum

Earlier this year, Sulyandziga applied for political asylum in the United States. A national backlog means asylum seekers typically wait years for interviews with immigration officials. According to RadioFreeEurope, a broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Congress, the number of Russians seeking political asylum in America has reached its highest level in two decades. The report said 1,912 Russian citizens filed applications for asylum in 2016 – a 164 percent increase since 2012, when Putin was most recently elected president.

Sulyandziga has an easygoing nature and a quick smile, but he plainly worries about his family still in Russia, including two of his older sons and his brother Rodion.

A former English teacher in Krasny Yar, Rodion Sulyandziga is also an advocate for indigenous people, and has felt similar pressures from the government. In 2014, the FSB seized his passport at a Russian airport and barred him from attending a U.N. forum in New York. In 2016, his home was searched and he was questioned by police on the same day he was scheduled to attend a forum in Moscow.

Rodion Sulyandziga still lives in Moscow and continues his international work for indigenous people. But in a Skype interview from his home, he said he is trying to avoid making open political statements for his own safety.

“Many human rights defenders, they already left the country,” Rodion Sulyandziga, 50, said. “They already completely closed their activity. I should personally be also very careful.”

‘A Person With A Lot Of Courage’

As Sulyandziga opened the front door of his apartment in Yarmouth, his 1-year-old son teetered toward him with outstretched arms.

“Papa,” Andrey said happily.

In the kitchen, the smell of beef was thick and warm. His wife, Irina Shafrannick, was making a dish similar to meatballs. As she dished out rice and salad at the dinner table, she talked about a recent parent-teacher conference at the children’s school. A teacher promised to help her find a chess partner for her 7-year-old son, Alyosha.

Pavel Sulyandziga swings his youngest son, 1-year-old Andrey, in the living room of their apartment in Yarmouth. (Photo: Derek Davis)

“I like the school,” she said. “I saw my kids included very quickly.”

Tom and Svetlana Bell helped the family find an apartment and start their new life in America.

“He’s a person with a lot of courage,” Tom Bell said. “That’s my big impression. For him to be someone who would stand up and speak his mind where there’s consequences for doing that, I think he’s a very strong person.”

Sulyandziga laughed and played with his children in the living room. In one corner was a box of Russian and English storybooks. On the walls were school photos of the children and souvenirs from Sulyandziga’s professional travels – an honorary medal from the 2015 World Indigenous Games, a silver feather from his recent trip to the anti-pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. He plans to continue his travels and advocacy for Russia’s indigenous people from afar.

“For him to make this decision to move to a foreign country when he is so deeply committed to his landscape and his community and his country, that’s an incredibly hard decision for him,” Gordon said. “It’s one he did not make lightly. It’s because of how afraid he is now for his family and himself.”

A drawing by 10-year-old Anna hangs on the wall in the dining room – a boat flying the Russian flag. But many of the same trees and plants grow in Yarmouth and the Bikin River basin, and the natural environment of their new land reminds them of their old one.

When Shafrannick talks to her friends, she jokes that the weather in Maine makes her feel at home.

“It’s like Siberia,” she said.